A while ago now a friend of mine came back from a holiday on the south coast in a highly agitated state. ‘I went in the newsagents, first day, and guess who was stood behind the counter?’ he asked.
In this situation it’s hard to know what to say. Do you go for something vaguely sensible (‘Was it Neville Wanless who used to do the continuity announcements on Tyne Tees?’) or something completely stupid (‘I bet it was the stuffed and mounted body of Pickles the dog that found the World Cup’). In the end I decided to opt for the truth, ‘John O’Rourke,’ I said.
‘How the bloody hell did you guess that?’ My friend asked. Apparently he was under the impression he was the first Boro fan ever to have a holiday in Bournemouth.
‘Well, any road I give him a good laugh,’ my friend said.
‘I hope,’ I said, ‘That you didn’t ask if he sold Sellotape and, when he told you he did, chanted ‘Give us a roll, give us a roll, John O’Rourke, John O’Rourke.’
Whatever he’d got up to I could understand why my friend was excited. I’d have been excited too. There’s always something thrilling about seeing a footballer in a non-football context. When I was eight my mother and I were coming home from a shopping trip to Middlesbrough, stopped at some traffic lights in Marton and when I looked across at the Cortina that drew up next to us, sitting behind the wheel was Boro's Northern Irish midfielder Johnny Crossan. Imagine. By the time I got home I was so excited I was fit to burst. I ran straight round to my best friend Martin Dean's house and when he answered the door, jabbered: "Deano, Deano! I just saw Johnny Crossan. And he was in a car." It remains a high point in my life.
And John O’Rourke was a far bigger hero than Johnny Crossan. He was the first Boro player I saw score a hat-trick. That was at the first game I ever attended, at home to Carlisle United.
I went with my Uncle Les. We were supposed to meet my Grandad in the Bob End but by the time we arrived the Bob End was full.
‘Why is it called the Bob End’ I asked my Uncle Les.
My Uncle Les was a student and of a satirical bent, ‘Because you can only go in there if you are called Robert,’ he said.
‘But Grandad’s called Harry,’ I said, ‘How does he get in?’
‘He lies to the gateman,’ Uncle Les said.
All the seats in the ground were taken – or all the ones my uncle could afford, anyway, so we ended up in the Holgate End, in the corner where it met the Chicken Run.
I was six. The longest I’d ever stood in one place was at Park Lane Infants carol concert. It was too busy for me to sit on a barrier, and I was too heavy to sit on my uncle’s shoulders for long. Luckily on one of the occasions I clambered up there I saw O’Rourke score with a shot from inside the penalty area. The rest of the half I spent staring at the coats of the men in front of me and whining. I had a Wagonwheel at half-time, and after an hour we went home.