My best mate and Rovers-going companion since day one of secondary school turns 60 this week, a fate which will befall me a month later, leading to almost five decades of envy that Graham, and not I, qualified to claim The Mott the Hoople stomper, “Born Late ’58” as his anthem.
It was Rovers which first bound us together since that Tuesday night in early September 1970 when just 7,783 souls watched us go down 0-2 to a Rodney Marsh-inspired QPR containing, painfully for both of us, Mike Ferguson, a gifted wide player sold by us to Villa a couple of years earlier.
To put it into context, as we sat in our first lessons and escaped the strangeness of it all for the comfort of Ewood on a late summer evening, Alan Shearer had been born a fortnight earlier, Smokey and The Miracles were number one with “Tears of A Clown” Jimi Hendrix died later that month (the first Glastonbury Festival also took place) and the Saturday after the QPR game a spindly-legged centre forward from non-league named Tony Parkes made his first-team debut on the day Lancashire beat Sussex at Lords to claim the Gillette Cup for the first time.
Ten days later we drew one apiece at Middlesbrough, Freddie Goodwin the scorer. Circle of life, eh?
I’d spotted Graham on the thinly-populated Blackburn End that evening, stood, like me, with his dad and after a nervous first day at St Mary’s in Blackburn I knew I’d found a potential soulmate.
In the bewildering world of stern priests, eccentric Oxbridge don masters and 700 boys, most of them seemingly hairy giants in long pants which as first-years you were forbidden to wear, I was relieved that I could at last probably instigate a conversation with someone in my form the following morning (my fellow columnist of this parish, Mark “Riversider 23” was also among the Rovers circle in One Eymard).
I still have a drink with Graham pre-match and sit with Mark at the game. A lot’s happened since and priorities are sometimes very different to getting home, scribbling the homework out of the way and getting to Ewood but all three of us remain season-ticket holders. And maybe priorities aren’t that different on occasion.
We were relegated at the end of that 1970-71 season, the first of many footballing triumphs and disasters we’ve shared over 48 years but by the time we left school we’d found many common interests.
“We liked the same music, we liked the same bands, we liked the same clothes,” as The Boss sang in a paean to his bandmate and first lieutenant Little Steven in a song so full of platonic adoration he eventually disguised it with a seeming girl’s name as the title (“Bobby Jean”).
You could have added “the same girls” into the mix for me and Graham as the only real time we fell out for a fortnight or so was when we were both keen on the same one.
That was swiftly resolved and became a historical side-issue as Jim Smith built a side which briefly but gloriously challenged for promotion. No teenage queen, however pretty, can break the ties that bind. Not when Waggy and John Bailey are tormenting sides.
When a lot of our mates were away from East Lancashire at Uni towards the end of that decade and as the New Romantic eighties dawned (I lasted a single year in Lancaster, chosen as the nearest place I could get in and realistically hitch-hike to home games as well as a few aways) the bond between a few of us left behind grew stronger and in those late teen/early twenties years before family commitments take over (I actually managed to extend my own adolescence into my forties) supporting Rovers fiercely almost became a badge of civic pride, an assertion of our identity when we could have felt isolated and left behind.
The years have been kind to us. We both have wives and families we adore and all of our kids are happy, healthy and firmly of a Blue and White persuasion. Graham’s a granddad. We’ve had our ups and downs but can still get up out of bed every day and try to get the most out of it.
In the Autumn of our years we share the same passion for the game and the club as ever. The 1-1 at Middlesbrough last week will soon be as consigned to the memory bank as a statistical piece of history as the one when we were gauche little 11-year-olds mystified by Latin Grammar, however extensive the debate has been this week about whether it was two points lost, a result you’d have happily settled for at 2.45pm, a solid display or an opportunity missed.
I was reasonably happy with it even after the sending off to be fair. I had a feeling they’d get one and we’d need another. It was a shock that penalty-area predator Assamblonga momentarily turned into Sergio Aguero and the big fella could have won it for them, just as Dack or Evans could have for us.
It would have been embarrassing to lose to a ten-man side for 70 minutes but more astute tactical observers than me reckon Boro are almost as hard to play against with ten as 11. I’ll take your word for it.
One slight complaint – let’s play in blue and white every opportunity we can eh? Our kit is famed the world over and I’ve very rarely if ever known us to change against a side wearing a red shirt. A pox upon silly arguments about refs and liners being unable to identify which arm is who’s, and marketing the yellow, which looks like something Singer Cobble would have turned up in as a change kit for the Orphanage Cup final. (Note to whoever is responsible – order some blue shorts to match the top).
One result is often put into context by the next one and if Rovers beat Birmingham City this weekend, a point in the middle of two home wins can probably be marked down as a positive in retrospect.
Birmingham won’t be any pushover. They’ve lost three of the last six (aways at promotion hopefuls Villa and Derby plus last week’s mild shock at home to Bristol City) but Garry Monk has done well with a club who reputedly began the season in some sort of embargo through the window.
The table is roughly panning out how I expected. Birmingham and Sheffield United are possibly the two wildcards but the rest of the top 10 I’d have expected to be above us.
The bonus is I’d have maybe expected a couple more who are now below us to have been too, but 30 points from 21 is a creditable haul. No room for complacency – a few slips and we won’t necessarily double that over the last 25. But that (probably over-estimated) safety target of low fifties looks a sight nearer from 30 than it does from 29 so the Boro point was as valuable as any other.
I’m afraid I’ll miss the game on Saturday (and Graham’s birthday do – drat! Their family parties are always the best) as we booked before the fixtures were out and the celebrations were announced to see Deacon Blue in Glasgow.
As I say, we’re in the September of our years and while I hate to miss a home game, the chance to be in a hometown crowd as Ricky holds the mike over the pit to let the audience sing that verse about the guy who’s been a worker for the council 20 years with his butties in a Sunblest bag is one I can’t resist.
The thing about entering your 7th decade is a lot of heroes and friends from all walks of life are no longer here to spend time seeing. Each day is a gift, a blessing.
So I’ll close, apropos of very little, to tell my favourite story about my lifelong pal Graham who’s quips have had me in stitches for almost half a century.
Coming out of the Enclosure one godforsaken night in November 1987 after a miserable Simod Cup defeat to Swindon, two old blokes, ostensibly old buddies, walking in front of us, combined age about 165, start arguing about the performance of erstwhile human greyhound winger Ian “Windy” Miller that night.
“He’s a bloody bad un’,” says one of the octogenarians. “No he isn’t, he tries his best and you never have a good word for him,” the other retorts. “Bollocks, he’s hopleless,” “Don’t talk crap, you give him no credit.”
This goes on for a few more seconds to our childish amusement until matters take a dark and unforeseen turn and Windy’s staunch defender, enfeebled by advancing years but able to take no more, shoves his pal off the pavement. A few meek blows are exchanged and the two, mortally enjoined now in combat, have to separated.
Walking past without stopping, Graham says: “These football hooligans, I blame their parents.”
Happy birthday, my Blue amigo!