John Russell remembers what a proper matchday was like.
For the better part of eleven of my first sixteen years Saturday morning was the most wonderful time of the week. That’s because for forty weeks of the year it meant I did not have to go to school. I could go just across the road into the local park and play football or cricket with as many of my contemporaries who were similarly inclined.
Football between the half-dozen or so of us meant a game of attack and defence with the inevitable coats as goalposts. We only had one sub-standard caseball between us and this invariably meant getting the owner out of bed because he insisted it was his and he had to be there to take charge of it. We had to take care not to kick the ball into the nearby stream hence the importance of the ‘defence’. But we had managed to wear a fairly smooth area amongst the tufts of grass and this dirt strip became our cricket pitch when the seasons changed. Somehow I had managed to acquire a proper cricket ball and I remember spending my pocket money at Harry Parkes’ sports shop in Erdington to buy a bat and set of stumps. As well as Saturday mornings we would play in the evenings until invariably it was my mother who came to the park gates and brought an end to the proceeding.
My pocket money for the equipment actually came from my paper round – a rite of passage for anyone reaching their thirteenth birthday, the age at which youngsters were legally able to go out and earn their keep. This meant there was no lie-in on a Saturday or Sunday morning as I would be outside the paper shop by six thirty when the delivery van arrived. Strictly speaking we were not allowed to start our rounds before 7.15 but I was always anxious to get the job done.
If I was not playing in the park with the local kids I was allowed to go up town on the bus on Saturday mornings and wander the city centre taking in Smiths, the Midland Educational in Corporation Street and the roof garden at the top of Lewis’s. Having been obliged to travel five miles alone across town to get to school I was bus savvy so a trip to town alone was no problem. I would often pay my shilling to take in the sixty minutes-plus cinema show at the News Theatre or the Tatler. Great for the cartoons but I was never an enthusiast for the serial. The news part was the only time I would ever get to see brief excerpts of the Derby, the Grand National or the FA Cup final. Plus Winston Churchill. Always Winston Churchill, or so it seemed.
All this Saturday morning activity was a prelude to that wonderful moment when it came to go to Villa Park. If I ever travelled to Villa Park by bus I do not remember it. It was only a twenty minute walk from home and I always set off precisely one hour ahead of the kick-off time, which varied as winter set in. It was generally a solitary stroll on reserve team days but on first team days it was always additional sense of excitement on being overtaken by full outer circle buses or that posse of green buses which used to come from the environs of Cannock Chase. Or even the thrill of seeing a mallard on the oil-polluted, free-flowing River Tame which had not yet been confined to concrete banks and sometimes overflowed around Deykin Avenue.
At reserve games I would always go in at the Witton End as the whole of the terraces were accessible. For the first team I entered via the Aston End and initially sought sanctuary against the wall at the back so as not to be overwhelmed by adults. As for the game, well this article is about Saturday morning so enough digression.
Eventually the great day game when I no longer had to go to school. I must have done something right because my GCE results got me a job in the Civil Service. After a few months I was sufficiently knowledgeable as to be allowed to meet the public. This meant attending on a Saturday morning on one week in four. Ostensibly this was later to create problems with away matches but swopping duties was never a problem, and more importantly having to work on a Saturday morning meant being allowed valuable a half-day off in lieu.
No problem getting home for lunch in good time to return to Villa Park. Getting paid the princely sum of £3/10/- per week (10p an hour!!!) for my 40 hours of effort I invested in a bicycle to save on bus fares. Fares came to 5/- per week but having been bought on hire purchase the bike cost 10/6 per week, so only began to pay its way after twelve months.
But it paid its way in other ways because I am surprised how many times my diary shows I went for a cycle ride on Saturday mornings ahead of Villa Park in the afternoon. Rugeley and Castle Ring on Cannock Chase plus the environs of Tamworth feature frequently whereas in the cricket season I ventured south of the city ahead of Edgbaston, where I was one of a handful having a bicycle season ticket. I always use to record my punctures but I find none blighting my trips to B6.
Eventually I started to go to away matches. This meant leaving for New Street Station precisely one hour ahead of the train departure; never a problem except one Boxing Day when no bus appeared and I had to run the whole four miles and only just made it.
A move from Erdington to Sutton Coldfield meant that the bicycle came more its own. Unlike St Andrews, the Hawthorns, Walsall and Molineux, when I was dependant for parking on the local householders, I was spared having to pay my sixpence at a house on Witton Lane because I was able to park my bike at the shop where I had bought it on the corner of Jardine Road. The penalty for this was that after the game I had to give Mr Atkins a minute by minute account of what had taken place.
Suddenly I found myself working in Banbury, albeit for only six months (My last day in Banbury happened to be the day on which President Kennedy was shot so I have more reason than most for remembering exactly where I was when I heard that – on Snow Hill Station). Initially I travelled to and fro daily although on two occasions I cycled the fifty miles from Banbury on a Saturday morning to see the Villa.
Next I transferred my allegiance from the Civil Service to a big bank. Banks were still fully open as normal on a Saturday morning at the time and this meant a little juggling to ensure my 100% attendance record. And, it was just possible to get from my desk to Old Trafford in time for the kick-off.
Finally my employer decided that I would be more useful plying my labours in Shrewsbury. I was in no position to argue. Getting to Villa Park became something of a chore – or worse, getting home. But trains were dependable back then and had become something of a hobby. Getting to Villa Park meant leaving home at about eight on a Saturday morning and buying a Midlands Day Ranger ticket, thus a convoluted journey involving as many trains and stations as I could squeeze in. I nearly got caught out at Long Buckby once, but only nearly.
These days Saturday morning is a complete non-event, no different from any other morning except Monday when I go to Morrison’s.