EVERY Thursday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I accompanied my mother to Dunnes Stores in Bishopstown where she bought the week’s groceries.
My reward for assisting her, long after my older siblings had grown out of the routine, was to be given the 18p or later 22p to buy SHOOT! magazine at the Read and Write newsagents a few doors down from the supermarket.
On occasion, it was not delivered on time so I’d ask at the counter for it and some shop assistant might try to fob me off with last week’s copy. The nerve. The ignorance.
To think a devout anorak of a football fan could be so fooled.
Some people grow up in the thrall of great literature.
Reared in houses lined with weighty bookshelves, they start thumbing through the classics from an early age and by the time they reach college, they can measure out their lives in the different literary phases.
The Austen Years. The Hemingway Period. The Steinbeck Interlude. Aside from my oldest sister Denise’s well-thumbed copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess d’Ubervilles, we didn’t have much of a library like that so I grew up reading SHOOT! religiously, from cover to cover.
At least twice most weeks. It was a different type of education yet one that expanded my language, my horizons and, of course, my understanding of the beautiful game.
SHOOT! was where I learned words like perceptive, used to describe Liam Brady in a piece examining why Ireland constantly failed to qualify for major tournaments; fatigue, regularly trotted out to explain England’s failure to perform even respectably at major tournaments; and consistent, which popped up in every bloody sentence mentioning the all-conquering Liverpool.
Once I discovered a new and impressive word like this, I tried to work them into the essays we were asked to write in school so my teachers would think I was well-read and precocious.
I was neither. I was just devoted to SHOOT! to such an unhealthy degree that most of my knowledge of the wider world between 1978 and 1987 was gained through this very odd prism.
This was where I first started to read about racism. When Bobby Robson announced an England squad that included six black players in October, 1982, it was a seismic event in the history of the sport in Britain.
I realised that much. But I would probably have benefitted from a deeper perspective than the rather bizarre one I picked up in Phil Thompson’s weekly column.
“They’ll bring a new look to England, give us a touch of the old Brazilians’ style,” wrote the Liverpool captain under the headline “Boo Boys Boost Blacks”.
“If we can add a South American flavour to traditional English football then we can beat the world again….” I’m not sure exactly how Ricky Hill (born in Paddington), Mark Chamberlain (Stoke on Trent), and Viv Anderson (Nottingham), were meant to infuse flair from a distant continent in another hemisphere that they’d never been to.
But that was the least of the difficulties with Thompson’s logic.
The headline captured the very strangest part of his take on the whole business; he reckoned the racists had somehow helped these put-upon players make it to the top.
“Now that blacks are making the breakthrough into the international ranks I hope the racist fans will accept them and give them cheers instead of jeers,” he wrote.
“Although I haven’t suffered as much as Ricky Hill and the rest, I know what it’s like to be a target for the boo boys, to get an ear-lashing every time I’ve gone for the ball. Instead of putting me off my game, it’s given me a boost.
“And that’s been the case with these lads. The mockery has forced them into trying even harder — and their reward is a place in the England set-up. And I’ve a feeling they are here to stay. They won’t let England down!”
The absurdity of Thompson’s argument, comparing opposing fans taunting him because he embodied Liverpudlian dominance to the way black players were abused for the colour of their skin, went right over my childlish head.
“It couldn’t have done otherwise. This was a rather ignorant time where Minder was appointment television every Thursday night. In that show, it was considered fine for lovable rogue Arthur Daley to refer to a black character as a Lucozade, the derogatory Cockney rhyming slang for spade, or to call a gay man a poofter.
The past was a different country. And not always a better one.
SHOOT! didn’t stint from covering the major issues affecting society as a whole. It taught me the meaning of the word Thatcherism, something that hugely impressed my father. In a special report on falling attendances, the former Liverpool stalwart Emlyn Hughes lambasted Margaret Thatcher, blaming the dwindling gates in football on the fact too many supporters were now unemployed and unable to buy tickets for matches.
From the other side of the political perspective, Manchester United’s Gordon McQueen caused a brief flurry in the letters page after he called for professional footballers to pay less taxes because of the relative brevity of their careers.
This was also the golden age of hooliganism in the English game. Scarcely a week went by without an article or a letter to SHOOT! examining the causes, pondering the severity of the problem or offering solutions to the regular spectacle of yobs milling into each other inside and outside grounds.
I recall England’s goalkeeper Ray Clemence writing a piece with the headline “The Day I Cried For My Country” about him feeling the full effects of the tear gas that Italian police sprayed at English fans during a game at the 1980 European Championships.
It was also in these pages that I first came across the infamous photograph of a football fan with a dart in his eye on a terrace. The type of terrifying image that made me suddenly start to figure out that, no matter how entertaining and exciting I found the images of grown men fighting, this was really serious stuff. And not a combat spectacle to savour.
There were other even more disturbing images. Andy Gray, during his stint as a regular contributor, once wrote a piece about his summer holidays, replete with photographs.
They included him in his Speedos lounging around a beautiful swimming pool in a Los Angeles mansion owned by a member of Black Sabbath. I can’t remember whether it was Geezer Butler’s, Ossie Osbourne’s or Tony Iommi’s house, but those images stayed with me for years afterwards.
During my own subsequent, long-haired mullet flirtation with heavy metal in my mid-teens, I could never hear the opening riff of Sabbath’s “Paranoid” without picturing a nearly naked, gurning Gray.
SHOOT! aspired to lift the veil on the professional game, humanising our heroes by showing us them in real life situations.
An “At Home with Gordon Hill” spread included a shot of then Derby County winger, his wife Jackie and daughter Kerry all working hard ironing wrinkles from one of his England shirts. Probably something they did all the time.
Leeds United striker Frank Worthington was also captured in various domestic poses, his shirt opened to reveal luxuriant chest hair and medallion, with his new fiancée Carol Dwyer, declaring, “It’s the real thing this time!”
It was an interesting montage showing the happy couple feeding a horse. As you do when you’re in love.
Over the headline “Brainy Bailey”, Manchester United’s Gary Bailey was pictured sitting at a computer console next to a mainframe that looked like it belonged on the set of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
The perfect way to illustrate that he spent his spare time studying computer engineering at the city’s Institute of Science and Technology.
There was no question then of players retiring to live off the money they earned. Wages were not what they are now.
This much we knew because every edition carried a Q and A called Focus On. This was football’s version of the Proust Questionnaire wherein the subjects revealed their innermost thoughts, or, at least, a succession of mundane details that offered clues about their lifestyles.
One query concerned the car they drove. The answers were shockingly ordinary; Hillman Hunters, Volkswagen Jettas, Passats, Toyota Celicas and Corollas, Talbot Solaras, Ford Fiesta Supersports. Vauxhall Cavaliers. Most were just slightly-souped up versions of the vehicles driven by regular folk.
Most stunningly of all, Mark Chamberlain, then an England international and father of the current Arsenal star Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, admitted to not owning a car at all. Nobody thought this the slightest bit odd.
In an era before diet and nutrition, the favourite meal question usually brought responses that included steak and chips, Dover Sole and Chicken Tikka Massala. The query about the person they would most like to meet always seemed to be either Pele or Muhammad Ali.
George Benson and Luther Vandross featured regularly in the 'Favourite musician' slot although now and again somebody like QPR’s Simon Stainrod might buck the trend by citing The B-52s and The Jam.
As eclectic as that might have seemed in the context of the professional game in that era, it was topped by Coventry City’s Gerry Daly.
The Republic of Ireland international answered that his favourite singers were Michael Jackson and Joe Dolan. Not sure how many of the fans in the English midlands understood the second half of that reference.
Although he listed Pope John Paul as the man he most wanted to meet, Daly also named the decidedly irreligious Benny Hill as his favourite actor.
Just in case the quiz hadn’t been thorough enough, there was a section called “Miscellaneous Likes and Dislikes”. The answers were never that thrilling “Likes/situation comedies; Dislikes/injuries”.
But, again, this expanded my lexicon. I can remember tormenting my father for a proper explanation and definition of the word “miscellaneous” and, after growing increasingly exasperated, he declared, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll never need to use that word!” He was right.
The real fun of the Focus On interview was imagining your own version of it. I regularly filled in my own answers to some of the questions.
Favourite Car: Morris Minor; Favourite Meal: Sausages, Beans and Chips; Favourite Singer: Adam and the Ants (assisted in this answer by sister Anne); Favourite Country visited: Ireland (that was easy, I’d never been anywhere else); Favourite TV Show: Minder (casual racism and all); Favourite Holiday Resort: Garretstown; Toughest Opponent: My older brother; Biggest Disappointment: Not being taller; Biggest Influence on Career: My Dad; Person you would most like to meet: Pele (well that’s what everyone else put).
I was the type of impressionable young kid who had his head too easily turned by SHOOT! I once read a Trevor Brooking interview in which he mentioned how dribbling a tennis ball to school helped him to improve his skills as a child. That was all I needed to know. I ferreted a balding Dunlop from the black hole that was our back garden shed and off I went the following morning.
It was the least fun I’ve ever had kicking a ball and I almost got knocked down by cars twice.
By the time Mrs Applebee, the lollipop lady who patrolled the crossing at the bottom of the School Hill in Glasheen, hove into view, I abandoned my efforts altogether. Disillusioned, I sat at my desk and concluded only that the streets of London, or wherever Brooking grew up, must have been flatter than ours and not pockmarked by entrances to driveways.
Either that or my first touch and control were woefully inadequate. I resolved to find other ways of improving myself and was soon devouring the “Tricks of the Trade” column, a weekly feature designed to teach readers how to learn from the pros.
The art of dribbling was explained by then Ipswich Town and sometime Ireland winger Kevin O’Callaghan.
His hardly ground-breaking advice involved putting six cones in a row and dribbling in and out of them at speed. Impressively conscious of the limited equipment available to children absorbing these instructions, O’Callaghan said jumpers could always be swapped for cones in emergencies.
“To dribble well, you must be able to keep the ball under control with both feet,” he wrote, sagely. “Continue to do this until it comes almost natural to you.”
I did just as he said for weeks. It remained stubbornly unnatural to me. Obviously I just wasn’t doing it right.
After splitting my sides at the “Football Funnies”, diligently answering the quizzes and filling in the crossword at speed, another staple of my reading diet was “You are the Ref!” in which Clive Thomas, the greatest English official of the age, explained various conundrums that might occur during a match. They ranged from the straightforward….
Question: A player sent off in the first half comes to you during half-time and apologises. Should you accept this and allow him to play in the second half?
Answer: No! A player ordered from the field for misconduct cannot return.
…to the downright ridiculous.
Question: Can you take any action against a player who lights up a cigarette during a game?
Answer: Yes, the player should be cautioned for ungentlemanly conduct.
…to the obviously well-informed.
Question: Are goal-nets an essential requirement of the laws of the game?
Answer: No. Goal-nets are optional except in professional matches where they are a must. There are many times in junior matches where I have not been really sure whether a goal has been scored because there are no nets. I pity referees in these minor leagues.
In a time before Google existed, SHOOT! also offered “Ask the Expert”. Readers were invited to write in with queries about football-related matters. An inquiry about whether, like Denis Law, any other famous players have represented Manchester United and Manchester City yielded an answer about Brian Kidd (who I’d heard of) and Billy Meredith (who I hadn’t).
This was where and how I learned the history of the game, about these icons from the past like Meredith, Alfredo di Stefano (played international football for Argentina, Colombia, and Spain), and Nat Lofthouse (earned the nickname of ‘Lion of Vienna’ following magnificent display against Austria in 1952).
When I had read and re-read every word of each issue, I then worked my way through the advertisements for soccer-related memorabilia and paraphernalia that cropped up on nearly every page.
There were ads for absolutely everything in there, ads that I used to torment my mother about, beseeching her to purchase the latest must-have accessory or to send me to “One Touch Soccer Camp – the cure for the boring summer holiday”.
“Can I get this digital watch with Aston Villa on it?”
“How about these Villa pyjamas? They are just £5 plus postage and packaging.”
“Can I just show you this exclusive bomber jacket with Villa across the back shoulders?”
“You have to see this. It’s a Villa bedspread with the club crest and everything.”
“Gary Shaw shin pads, just £2.20?
Towards the end of the 1970s, replica kits were starting to come on stream in a big way although it’s difficult to conceive of a factory outlet today admitting to readers, like Cash & Carry Sports of Surrey did, that it was selling England jerseys that were “slight seconds”.
At a time when most of the magazine was still black and white cheap paper, Admiral took out full-page ads in glossy colour showing Trevor Francis, Ray Wilkins, and Glenn Hoddle modeling their distinctive kit with the red and blue blocks on the shoulders.
It was a time when footballers lent their name to strange products. Here’s Kevin Keegan promoting a special commemorative medallion produced for Euro ’80.
There’s Steve Coppell endorsing a series of publications by the Careers and Occupational Information Centre with racy titles like Carpenter and Joiner, Driving Jobs- Road Transport, and Professional Engineering and its Branches.
“If your goal is a good job these books will help you score!” advised Coppell.
Arguably most bizarre of all were the ads for Bullworker. A German invention designed to improve strength, it was right up there with the fantastical fitness items I craved every time I opened the pages of The Ring. Except with one crucial difference.
Peter Shilton endorsed Bullworker in SHOOT! Obviously, he was the best English goalkeeper of the time and one of the finest in the world, but the topless photo of him accompanying the advertorial showed a man definitely and curiously bereft of the pneumatic pecs and jaw-dropping six-pack usually associated with flogging devices guaranteeing to help you bulk up.
It is a testament to my mother’s shrewd budgeting, obstinacy and thrifty household management that she was resolute in refusing to listen to my eternal pleadings for the wide range of soccer products available.
She never gave in. Never. Not once. She had more sense than money.
I tried my father a few times too and he took a different tack in the way he shot me down.
“They sell 8mm films of the greatest games ever played and they are just £4.95!”
“The problem is we’d have to buy a projector first.”
“That’s okay. They sell them too. Just £23.50.”
“Those are the cheap ones. They have a reputation for always breaking down. We’d be wasting our money.”
It was No. Just a different kind of No.
Sometimes, he’d try an even smarter tack.
“Why don’t you save up every week and see how far you get?”
He knew that wasn’t likely to happen. I had commitment issues.
After all, every August, SHOOT! came with sheaves of cardboard that were meant to allow you to cut out tabs and to keep your own league table every week.
Your task was to place each club in their slot as per their position after the conclusion of the fixture list.
This was supposed to be tremendous fun. The best part came before a ball was kicked. That’s when I would put my Aston Villa on top just to see what it looked like.
And that was where they stayed because I never ever touched it for the rest of the season.