I only actually remember one game. I know I could go back and look up the scores, but in a sense that would be to miss the point. It would have been, I suppose, 1993. I was meant to be going away somewhere with my parents, but I insisted on going first to Hillheads, where I’d been working the turnstiles for a few weeks. For Whitley Bay, who only three years earlier had beaten Preston, a Cup tie against Spennymoor, a division below, shouldn’t have been a problem.
They lost 6-0.
My parents came to pick me up and were waiting just outside in the car.
What was the score? my mam asked cheerily, years of being a primary-school teacher giving up the power to summon faux-interest in any subject.
6-0, I said. They lost.
Ah well, she said. At least you saw plenty of goals.
My dad breathed out a low moan, a marriage-worth of despair at the incompatibility of my mam and football summed up in one exhalation.
Eventually, realising his sigh was what had occasioned the awkward silence, he went on. At least it wasnt Sunderland, he said. And he was right. Whitley Bay was only ever a dalliance. I wanted them to win, of course, but if they lost I didnt feel the hurt I did when Sunderland lost. Which was probably why I was prepared to work the turnstiles, something that meant that for the first 20 minutes of every game I could only see the 40 or so yards of pitch visible from my little booth.
I’m not even sure how it came about. I’d been to a few games with a mate who lived a short walk away from Hillheads, and I remember going to some sort of crisis meeting at which the desperate state of the club’s finances were revealed. Did we volunteer then? I really don’t know.
I do remember the phone ringing one morning and my mam shouting upstairs. “It’s for you. Bobby Graham?” Bobby Graham was Whitley Bay’s manager, his name brilliantly suggesting he was some sort of cross between Bobby Robson and Billy Graham, an evangelist for football. He wanted me to work the turnstiles at the next game which, frankly, was almost as exciting as if hed asked me to play right-back, and far less likely to cause spectacular embarrassment.
There were, I think, two booths, and my mate and I would squabble over who got which. The one to the right was clearly better as you could see more of the pitch, and the big lever you clanked down with your foot to release the lock and let the style slide round a quarter-turn was more reliable. The other one had a habit of missing the catch, so there’d suddenly be no purchase and your foot would go crashing into the concrete and the punter would walk into an unyielding barrier, for which we usually got the blame.
My strongest memory is not the football or the turnstile, but the meat-packet. Some local butcher did his bit for the cause by offering a polystyrene tray on which a few links of sausage, some burgers, a couple of pork chops, a slab of lamb and half a tomato for garnish were mummified under industrial cling-film. We raffled it off at half-time, sometimes making as much as £16 or £17. And if you think you have a new innuendo about meat-packets, trust me, the fans of Rhyl or Stalybridge Celtic got there first.
I think I was only there for a season. Maybe a little more, but after A-levels I went off to India to teach Tibetan monks and find myself. I lost a stone and a half and still don’t know who the fuck I am, but Whitley Bay go from strength to strength. In my day, Ian Chandler was a centre-forward; now he’s the manager, presumably putting everything he learned from Bobby Graham into practice. These days they seem to win the Vase every season – the proceeds of those meat-packet raffles seem to have been very well invested.
From Whitley Bay turnstile operator to one of the very best football writers around, Jonathan Wilson writes for, among others, The Guardian and Sports Illustrated and edits The Blizzard, the fantastic new quarterly football publication. Author of Inverting the Pyramid, the Anatomy of England and Behind the Curtain, Jonathan is currently writing the definitive biography of Brian Clough . You can also follow him on twitter.