Living in South Africa meant following English Football, and later the Premier League took a slightly different form than being able to go watch a game live.
Eager purchases of the newspaper always meant reading it back to front, Sports section first, find the league tables, spot your teams (Liverpool and Forest for my brother and me).
Not sure what it was that got me in to following Nottingham Forest. They were in a few cup finals in the late 80s, the Littlewoods Cup back then, and the FA Cup in 1991, Stuart Pearce was a hero, Brian Clough a legend, and the history books said great things about them, some kind of a nostalgic fan… Or maybe it was that my brother and I fought over who to support and he wanted to follow Liverpool so I had to choose someone else! (Our neighbour was a Man United fan so couldn’t be them.)
Articles in South African newspapers on football would then be few and far between, usually just the results and league tables. Still these would be cut out and pasted into our scrapbooks. A real prize would be getting a photo you liked in the paper (Forest playing Spurs in the snow with a yellow ball sticks in my mind!)
The football mania really started with Italia ‘90. Maradona and Gazza. And Roger Milla! The Puma Cameroon football boots, with red, yellow and green were a must that season.
If we didn’t get enough from the newspaper, listening to BBC World Service sports round up with the football scores would lead to an evening’s elation or despair. And with winter in the Southern Hemisphere when its summer in the UK, meant you were either playing or following football all year round!
Collecting and trading Panini cards was part of the playground every day, we managed to complete the entire Panini 92 collection, (and still collect stickers and cards at World Cups!)
When the Premier League took off, exploded really, we’d wake early to catch brief snippets of football footage, gossip and scores on Sky news shown on a local channel. M-NET (the South African version of Sky) had a free-to-all hour which they extended to two hours “open time”. On a Saturday that meant football (or soccer to us back home)!
With the time difference, 5pm on a Saturday evening was for football, listening to Martin Tyler commentate the game. (I lacked the skill to play well, so I always imagined I’d do his job when I grow up!) Usually it was whomever Manchester United were playing, but with luck we’d get to see Liverpool or Forest too. We’d sit down with our scrapbooks, neatly writing out full squad lists, managers, referee, stadium capacity and substitutes and add these to our files. (With this level of football mania and attention to detail and data it’s little wonder I later worked for Opta in London, and our friend went on to work for FIFA.)
And later that evening or weekend we would go and re-enact the games one-on-one in the garden, two on one if our neighbour came by or on the Subbuteo table, where many tournaments, knockouts and round robins would play out.
Sure enough Shoot! And Match magazines were part of following the football, sometimes reading them a few weeks later than printed in the UK, seeing the players pictures, reading the jokes and stories, adding more posters to the walls and collecting the stickers, which covered everything, books, walls, pencil cases. (Andy Cole and Justin Edinburgh are still on one I kept since then!).
I’d also spend time on the weekly updating of the league tables with the cardboard team tabs, in club colours, only three letters for each team, (MAN, LIV, ARS etc) detailing when the teams started, stadia and position last season. (The most memorable came with pictures of Tony Adams lifting the trophy, Alan Smith top scorer and a then lesser known Teddy Sheringham playing for Millwall before he moved to Forest! There was also one that worked with static keeping the names in place.) It kept us updated on the lower leagues too - Aldershot, Halifax - places we didn’t know where to find on the map. In fact following football has helped my knowledge of where places are in the UK!.
Anything to do with English football, or football in general was gold for us. Even the rubber coke liners from bottle caps that might lead to a free mini soccer ball were prized. And in 1990 and 1994 we would go so far as to check dustbins to find the missing cans for our Coca Cola collections of the World Cup ’90 (Finalists Shirts) and the Host flags of ’94.
1994 was a special year for us (South Africa had its first free elections and Mandela came to power). As football fans we also got to see Liverpool play live! Against Aston Villa at Ellis Park, and we met the squad at training; John Barnes, Neil Ruddock, David James, Jamie Redknapp, eagerly getting autographs. Their trip also meant extra trips to the Oriental Plaza (a shopping mall) to buy football kits and caps for the game.
That year also saw a classmate of my brother’s chosen to hold a flag at World Cup USA ’94; we excitedly sat round the TV screen to see him enter the stadium in America for his 15 minutes of fame. (Another classmate won a trip to World Cup ’98 in France!). A German friend came to stay with us, giving us chocolate in football design.
I’d cut out every article on the World Cup 94 and Euro 96, admire the kit colours and designs in the newspaper, (like John Devlin!), keep every picture of Stuart Pearce exorcising his Italia ’90 ghost with a successful penalty in Euro ’96, and even keeping the recording of it on VHS!
It was so near and yet still so far. In touching distance, but still following from afar.