To Dunston today, meanwhile here's a thing about kids at football. The children in the seats above the paddock at Carlisle count down the last ten seconds on the clock at every game with rising excitement until finally blurting out 'ZERO!' at the tops of their tiny lungs. One day someone will tell them about stoppage time.
At Brunton Park a few Saturdays back they had given out a block of tickets to a large group of schoolchildren who were sitting right behind me. The kids kept up an enthusiastic chanting throughout the game, the pitch and volume of which posed a clear danger to crystal goblets for miles around. In fact, if there's a wine glass left intact in the Eden Valley, I'll be very surprised.
It all took my mind back to an occasion at the Manor Ground, Oxford, a couple of decades ago. Things had already started badly for the travelling Boro fans, when it emerged that the spotty Herbert in the away end tea hutch had failed fully to master the microwave and was serving meat pies that were frozen on the outside and boiling hot in the middle. They were like a savoury baked Alaska, in reverse. Though not much like it, admittedly.
When the game kicked off things slid downhill like Barry Fry on a luge. As the home side took the lead, noise levels from the Oxford junior enclosure rose ever higher. "We love you Oxford, we do!" the children shrilled. It was like listening to a thousand people scraping their thumbnails down a blackboard.
"You're back to school on Monday," the Middlesbrough support chanted in a futile bid to quell the infernal squeaking. "United! United!" the juniors chirruped. "Fuck off, munchkins. Fuck off, munchkins" the visitors hit back. It did no good. Luckily people soon discovered that the frozen pie pastry made handy earplugs and the rest of the game passed in a muffled silence.
"We want to bring back the families" is a cry you frequently hear from those who run the national game, though it seems to me that for decades now the authorities have done everything they could to drive children away. Clubs these days charge more money for mascots than Rolls-Royce.
It was not always like this. At one time children were enlisted to provide half-time entertainment. The penalty prize was a staple of most match days, still is in some places. It's a simple and elegant competition, one that affords the crowd an opportunity rarely granted to adults in our sensitive age – a chance to loudly and roundly taunt a group of little kids. Traditionally there's a class element to the abuse – the children from schools in working class districts are cheered and applauded, those from establishments in the affluent suburbs tormented as the offspring of wife-swappers and woodwork teachers.
At the Manor Ground they used to keep fans amused during the interval with a relay race around the outside of the pitch featuring two teams of boys from a local primary school, one dressed in the yellow of the home side, the other in the colours of the visitors. As they wheezed and panted round the touchline the PA announcer would try to whip the crowd into a frenzy of excitement with his breathless commentary, though in truth he was barely audible above the noise of the away section chanting: "We've got all the fat lads, we've got all the fat lads."
Luckily at non-league grounds the child still occupies a central position in the scheme of things. He or she is entrusted with many important duties, including scaling the goal-netting as if it were the rigging of Captain Jack Sparrow's pirate ship, standing in the back of the tea bar, intoning "Can I have some chips, mam? Can I, mam? Mam? Maaaaam?" As well as the venerable task of carrying around the blackboard with the winning raffle ticket number chalked on it. This is a character-forming exercise since it inevitably involves the child being subjected to disgruntled punters bellowing, "If there's only 76 people in the crowd, how come I'm 679, you little bugger?".
Non-league football in fact is the last stamping ground of the sporting urchin, once a traditional feature of all British stadiums. Here they are still free to pursue their ancient lifeways: riding around the terraces on bicycles, running up and down the steps of a semi-deserted grandstand breaking into a chorus of "We Are The Champions" for no apparent reason, or standing behind the goal and calling out "We saw your bum cheeks, mister" at the opposition goalie every time he dives for the ball.
The latter is not quite the cakewalk it might appear. Once at Shildon, the goalkeeper became so incensed he booted the ball down the field and chased the urchins. They jumped over a fence and into a neighbouring garden. The game continued until, a few minutes later, a large man came storming through the main entrance, pushing up his shirtsleeves, with a look of grim violence on his face. Behind were the two boys, each of them eagerly pointing at the goalie and yelling, "That's him, Dad. That's the one who said he would kill us." Players from both sides had to intervene to prevent a fracas.
It's easy to get sentimental about the days when the crowd used to pass the nippers over their heads to the front of the stand, but when you consider incidents like that one, and the damage to your eardrums caused by the shrieking, maybe it is better that they've priced the little rascals out of it.