We were so much older then, we’re younger than that now

IT seems that time, life and death waits for no one.

Last Thursday I discovered that my former brother-in-law Dougie had died suddenly aged just 54. It was a total shock. I had not seen or spoken to Dougie for many years, since my former partner and I split, but he was a lovely man and the world is an emptier place now he is gone.

But nothing prepared me for a second similar shock today.

By sheer chance I found out that one of my oldest and dearest friends Gill Gilson had died last summer after a long battle with lung cancer. Gill was just 56.

We met at university (Bretton Hall College) and became the closest of friends. We were never romantically attached… we were just good mates and stayed in touch for many years after graduating. She sometimes came to stay and we would sit and laugh as we shared many student memories. If my mum reads this, I am sure she will remember Gill.

I also remember Gill giving me a lift home from Yorkshire to Sussex in her old Morris 1000 Traveller and eating cold bacon sandwiches which she had secreted wrapped in foil in her glove compartment. Memories are made of this.

We sadly lost contact about 15 years ago, due to my many house moves. I only found out today that she had stayed put at her dad’s old house in Holbrook in Suffolk. If only I had known I could have got back in touch before her untimely death.

Gill was a musician and a fabulous piano teacher. Her only weakness – and her charm – was she loved beer and I still remember the mornings I had to knock on her door to tell her to get to lectures because she had imbibed in a few too many jars the night before. “I should have been a man!” she once said, “Because I love drinking with you guys…. I have no time for all this airy fairy girl stuff!”

Gill just oozed fun, gentleness and companionship in everything she did.

Gill died on 22 July last year. Her death notice said she was “A much loved partner, daughter, sister, auntie, godmother, friend to so many and talented music teacher at Copleston High School” – not far from the same village where she grew up.

The head teacher at the school said this in a letter to parents: “She was an excellent accompanist, playing the piano for numerous Drama productions, Dance shows, Harvest Festivals, Carol Services and, of course, the Soirées.

“She accompanied pupils for their instrumental exams, spending hours with them patiently rehearsing, driving them to the exam centre, seeing them through the nervous wait before meeting the examiner, playing for the exam itself and bringing them back to school, via the bakers and a dough-nut!

“However, most pupils will remember Miss Gilson in the classroom. She was an excellent teacher – with the ability to get the point across with a mixture of strong discipline and fun. She knew her subjects well, drawing on a lifetime’s experience and education. She was also an excellent form tutor, having that knack of knowing exactly where to draw the line between firm discipline, and being the pupils’ friend.

“She showed considerable pride in her groups and, despite being absent from school through ill health for a considerable amount of time, they re-paid her with tremendous loyalty and affection.

“Teachers and pupils alike will remember her sense of fun, her no nonsense approach to life, her attention to detail, her ability to listen and her marvellous sense of humour. Gill taught literally thousands of pupils at Copleston and many have good reason to be grateful to her.

“Gill coped with her final illness with typical dignity and courage. She had decided that, given the choice, she would prefer to spend her last days in the hospice. She even planned her own funeral, and I have no doubt that she would have been pleased with how it went; a wonderful turnout for a wonderful person, who will be truly missed by so many.”

All I can add to that is: Cheers Gill, it was wonderful knowing you. I will raise a pint to you tonight.

Another town, another club, another battle

TOMORROW my wife Gill and I will rise at the crack of dawn to undertake a 110 mile drive up the M6 to the northern seaside resort of Blackpool.

We are hoping the weather will be fine.

But we are not going to take in the sea air, marvel at Blackpool’s fine tower, gorge ourselves on candy floss and fish and chips, or even take a donkey ride on the sands… we are going to take part in a protest.

The protest is not anything which might stir the national conscience. It is not about the atrocities in Gaza, it is not about a campaign to end Trident nuclear missiles, it is not even about fox hunting – all issues dear to my heart – it is about helping to save a football club.

And it is not even a club I support.

But it is a campaign which should concern anyone concerned about communities, justice and individual greed.

It’s a funny old game football, I still can’t work out what it is about 22 men chasing a ball around a patch of grass which digs so deep at our inner psyche.

At its worst football is responsible for mob violence, inane racist monkey chants and even senseless murder.

At its best it creates days of joy for millions and a bond which lasts a lifetime.

For me it is a never-ending passion.

I was raised on the south coast of England and from an early age began supporting my home town football club, Brighton and Hove Albion.

The first game I attended at the club’s Goldstone Ground was in 1967. I was just 11 years-old and left awestruck as I watched these men in blue and white shirts beat Bury 1-0.

I was hooked and remained a Brighton fan for life.

I still revere my hero of those days, a forward named Kit Napier (now aged 71) who showed more skill with a football than I have ever achieved with a pen or typewriter.

And over the ensuing years I have witnessed many highs and lows of following my beloved football club.

And, like most football clubs Brighton and Hove Albion has had its share of heroes and villains.

Kit Napier was the first of many heroes – too many to name. But the true villains in our club number just three: former club owners Bill Archer and Greg Stanley along with chief executive David Bellotti.

In the mid 1990s it became slowly clear to us fans that this trio planned to sell off our beloved Goldstone Ground to property developers – who wanted to place a retail park on the site – and move the club to a shiny new stadium.

We initially welcomed the idea as we were assured nothing would be done until a suitable new home was found.

But in 1995, The Argus (the local daily newspaper) revealed that Bellotti, Archer and Stanley had agreed a deal with developers Chartwell Land, without any provisions for the future.

The true motives behind the deal became evident when it was then revealed that Archer had altered the club’s constitution to allow directors to profit from the sale of the ground.

Fans were now faced with the harsh reality that trio’s interest in the Albion’s future went little further than topping up their own bank balances, and that they had washed their hands with the club’s future.

The 1996/97 season became one of football’s great displays of non-violent direct action, as we staged a desperate rebellion against the club’s management.

Fans organised protests in the town centre, pitch invasions and walk-outs at the Goldstone Ground and even lobbied outside Archer’s business headquarters in Crewe – some 230 miles away.

Bellotti – who still attended matches – was overwhelmed with abuse and forced to flee the stadium on several occasions.

That season also included the first Fans United Day, when on 8th February 1997, supporters of clubs across the UK and Europe – many wearing their own club colours – shared the Goldstone terraces in solidarity with the Albion fans.

Throughout the season visiting fans had often shown support of the Albion’s plight with banners and placards, but not to this extent. There are few things in football more beautiful than fans putting aside rivalries and uniting for the good of the sport.

And it was the kick-start us Brighton fans needed, for from that day onwards we all knew we were not alone.

The Albion fans fought hard and eventually succeeded in wrestling the club away from Archer, Stanley and Bellotti. Sadly the victory had all come too late to save the Goldstone Ground and a new battle commenced to find a new home.

But that is another tale for another day.

Over the ensuing years the story of asset stripping football club owners was replicated far too many times for comfort.

By the time I again became involved in a similar battle, seven years had passed.

I was living on Tyneside in North East England and by a quirk of fate was thrust the mantle of Fans United organiser for Wrexham FC. “We can use your experience,” appealed one Wrexham friend.

The supporters were battling their club owner Alex Hamilton, who had threatened to bulldoze their ground for a housing development. But they were facing an uphill battle for anyone outside North Wales to recognize their plight.

I guess with 20 years of PR and newspaper experience I had found my niche.

So after weeks of phone calls, radio and TV interviews and bombarding other football clubs’ message boards (this was before the days of Facebook and Twitter), another Fans United Day arrived.

Saturday 20th November 2004, was a football day I will never forget.

More than 1,000 supporters of other football clubs descended on Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground that afternoon for a routine third tier match against Bristol City.

The weather was wintry and cold, but that did not dampen the spirit of those who witnessed that day.

As part of a small group of Brighton fans I entered the ground and made my way to some seats half way up the left side of the main home stand and discussed how we could best display our own Fans United banner.

Wrexham’s average home gate had been 4,500 and even at 2.50pm it was clear that there were many more than the average.

Everywhere we looked fans were filling the seats – even the famed terraces at Wrexham’s Kop seemed full. And colours abounded.

Our small group was now augmented by more friends – we stood 16 strong, and knew other Brighton supporters were elsewhere in the ground. But that was unimportant because we met fans from Sunderland, Cardiff City and Swansea, Stoke City, Stockport County, Everton, Wolves, Telford, Bury, Donny Rovers and even Chester City (Wrexham’s bitter rivals from 10 miles up the road)

Back in our seats we began to blow up our blue balloons when a chorus of “We love you Brighton” echoed from our left. A group of a couple of hundred Wrexham fans were looking in our direction, singing and smiling broadly.

A chill ran down my spine, I looked around as thousands of people rose to their feet and applauded. More choruses of “We love you Brighton” echoed from all sides of the ground.

This really was Fans United.

More razzmatazz followed and we all breathed a sigh of relief when the game eventually began.

I glanced at my good friend Ian. “Glad you’re here?” I asked. “Too right, I wouldn’t have missed this for anything” he replied.

All around us the ground was full.

The half passed in a dash of singing and back-slapping. And a few minutes before half-time a senior steward told us: “You can carry your banner around the pitch at half-time.”

Dazed by the offer, a handful of us began to follow the steward down the steps, and as we followed people stood and began applauding. The hairs on our necks stood on end … this was truly unreal.

Around the pitch side we continued. The game was still in progress, but as we walked, each section of the ground rose and cheered and clapped – it was as if what was happening on the pitch was inconsequential.

Our collective hands were freezing but the adrenalin was rushing as we began a procession along the touchline – banner held aloft to the crowd. As we walked thousands cheered and applauded. Spontaneous “We love you Brighton” echoed in our ears. Fans leant over the hoardings to shake our hands.

As we reached the Kop end, there was gathered on the pitch about 100 Wrexham fans holding their own vast Save the Racecourse banner. As we walked past them we spontaneously shook hands, adults embraced and we shared smiles that will last many lifetimes.

I walked over to Ian and said: “For fans this surpasses anything I have ever been to in football… only the last game at the Goldstone comes close”.

Ian smiled broadly and agreed. “It is simply amazing” he replied.

We made our way back to our seats, shaking hands along the way. But as we approached the entrance at the end of the main stand a hefty “bovver boy” looking man in Wrexham red stood in our way. He looked menacing. But as I looked at him there were tears in his eyes.

“I just want to say thank you,” he said.

He thrust his giant hand into mine and shook firmly … and proceeded to ensure he shook all our hands.

On the way back to the seats we stopped to ask stewards at the crowd numbers. They all said “at least 10,000”. It was amazing!

Wrexham had lost the game 3-1, but that did not seem to matter to anyone. Sometimes the bigger picture is more important.

The day was awesome and I just wish the tens of thousands who pay their £1,500 plus a year for their comfy seats at Man United, Chelsea or Arsenal could all have been at the Racecourse that day and feel for themselves the real heart of football.

Like us, Wrexham eventually won their battle against their asset striping owner, but not before the club was placed into administration and eventually relegated from the football league.

Ten years later Wrexham FC are still languishing in non-league football, but the club is now officially owned by the fans as a community venture – the fans are the shareholders and never again will they be victim to a rogue or greedy asset stripping owner.

And so at last we come to the importance of our journey to Blackpool, for yet another Fans United Day.

Blackpool, a football club that has boasted healthy annual profits since its relegation from the Premier League in 2011, is now being relegated again to the third tier of English football after escalating battles on and off the pitch.

Lee Clark’s side still need another point from their last game tomorrow against Huddersfield Town to reach 26, the lowest tally in second-tier history when there have been 24 teams competing. Given they have not won since January, it is not out of the question they will set a record.

Supporters’ anger, however, is not directed at Clark. Protests instead have been targeted at Karl Oyston, the Blackpool chairman, and his father Owen, the club’s majority owner. It is they who have presided over a remarkable decline, one with no end in sight.

For the time being, there is little to console Blackpool fans who have this season seen more than 50 players wear the tangerine shirt. They started the season with only eight contracted players and no goalkeepers.

But Blackpool’s most recent accounts show the club made an operating profit of £9.4million for the year 2013-14, up from £5.9million the previous financial year. The total loans to the club’s parent company, Segesta Limited, of which both Oystons are directors, increased from £23.7 million to £27.7 million.

Yet, Blackpool’s healthy financial position is at odds with their performance on the pitch – a pitch that has not been relaid since the summer of 2013 and would shame even the poorest of non-league grounds.

But nothing has caused a stir quite like the revelation three years ago that Blackpool paid a salary of £11 million to a company owned by Owen Oyston.

In an interview in 2012, Karl Oyston insisted his father would not use the money for personal use, saying: “The money has been paid to my father’s company, and if the club needs it for the next stage of development, which is to build a new training ground, I am sure my father will lend it to the club interest-free, as he always has over 25 years of ownership.”

Blackpool have needed a new training ground for some time but are still based at Squires Gate, a location once described as a “hell-hole” by former manager Ian Holloway and one that remains in a poor state.

There have been other off-field incidents that have marred this season and things must be bad when the payday lender Wonga decides not to renew a sponsorship deal.

Karl Oyston was charged by the Football Association with misconduct in March following a text message exchange with a supporter during which he called the fan a “massive retard”. Among the colourful correspondence – in which Oyston also received abuse – was a message to Stephen Smith that read: “enjoy the rest of your special needs day out”.

The Oystons are also in the process of suing the Blackpool web forum Back Henry Street for libel, seeking £150,000-worth of damages for six allegedly defamatory comments made on the site in 2014.

Now two groups of Blackpool fans have come together to stage their own Fans United protest against the Oystons and the club’s impending relegation.

Tomorrow Blackpool Supporters Trust and Tangerine Knights are hoping that fans from clubs all around the country will show support and solidarity.

“This is an opportunity not just for all Blackpool fans but football fans from all over the UK to come together and deliver our collective verdict on the Oystons’ custodianship of our football club,” they say in a joint statement.

“When fans expressed concern at the beginning of the season, Karl Oyston famously said, “Judge me at the end of the season.”

“Now it is Judgement Day and it is time to let the Oystons and the nation know that we have reached a unanimous verdict. We invite you to join us as Fans United.”

And join them we will… another town, another battle, but Fans United will never be defeated.