The Reluctant East Ender

So here I was one cold February evening in 1994 watching the wrong Athletic at the wrong Park in the wrong Cup. Instead of cheering on Charlton Athletic at Ewood Park in the FA Cup (fourth round replay), I was at East End Park, watching Dunfermline Athletic take on Airdrieonians in the Scottish Cup (third round replay).

And all because of my love for an Irishman called Robert – a sort-of Spurs fan. I say sort-of because he was not fanatical: I think he’d adopted them at a young age in Belfast out of hero-worship for his big brother. I had found it surprisingly easy to get him along to watch Charlton regularly instead. Our first date had been the FA Cup fourth round match in January 89 at Selhurst Park, when I clung on to him in panic during the nail-biting last ten minutes versus non-league Kettering (until then a name I associated more with Wicksteed and the wrought iron steps of the slide in the local playground).

I tested his romantic resolve further that evening by making him watch my video of “Charlton winning something” – the Masters Soccer Sixes, with Leaburn imperious. Even that didn’t put him off.

We were a perfect match in so many ways: Robert seemed to find my football addiction, or should that be affliction, quite endearing. He agreed without a flinch to my chosen wedding colours of burgundy (red) and ivory (white). He led the discussion with the organist about turning the Wedding March into the Match of the Day theme tune as we walked down the aisle. He arranged our honeymoon in Tuscany so we could take in a few World Cup matches at Italia 90.

But there was one big problem. He hated London.

So in the spirit of give and take, I gave in and he took me away from my home city, the only home I thought I would ever know, and the home, of course, of my home town team. (Well, technically that should have been Erith and Belvedere, seeing as I was born and bred in the latter, but forgive me a few miles of glory-hunting to my nearest league team.)

Scotland was our compromise – I have Scottish blood, Robert went to Edinburgh University. I was over the moon when Charlton quickly followed me – even if it was only on a pre-season tour to Falkirk, East Fife and Saint Mirren, at the aptly named Love Street.

On this Tuesday night, Robert was working. He was Mr Tennents – as in the lager made by Tennent Caledonian Breweries, title sponsor of the Tennent’s Scottish Cup. No way was he going to Blackburn, as he had to choose and present the Man of the Match award. I chose to be dutiful wife, availing of the hospitality of the kind directors of Dunfermline Athletic. Arriving straight from the office, I was appropriately clad in a smart skirt suit, by no means my normal football attire. Our hosts were very welcoming, all smiles and expectation, the gathering of a large crowd recalling their European heyday nights of the 60s and 70s. We had the best seats in the house, nice padded ones in the Directors’ Box, high above the halfway line.

The match got going, but Dunfermline did not. Airdrie took an early lead. I surreptitiously pulled my black transistor radio out of my handbag. It was about the size of a paperback book, so not that surreptitious really. I pressed it to my ear to follow the news from Ewood, kicking off fifteen minutes later.

In front of me, Airdrie scored again. A hush fell over the stadium, as though the swirling grey mist was gripping everyone’s throat. “Yes!!” cried a lone female voice in the posh seats. Instinctively, I had jumped to my feet in my high heels, punching the air in delight at the news of Darren Pitcher’s unexpected strike.

Robert tugged me back down, shushing his embarrassment of a wife.

Half-time came and went, as did Dunfermline’s chance of progressing in the competition. The final whistle cemented a 3-1 victory for Airdrie. Down in the North of England, our match still had a long way to go – understandable when I heard that Kim Grant had been booked for time-wasting on 53 minutes. Charlton were clinging on to 0-1. Robert was preparing to present the Man of the Match award to the Airdrie striker, a fair but somewhat unpopular decision. I was being offered gin and tonic or lager or a nice hot cup of tea, cakes, scones…our hosts remained gracious in defeat.

I felt ungracious that my thoughts were firmly elsewhere, so retreated to a cubicle in the ladies toilets, where I had peace and quiet to listen. The match went on and on and on. Other ladies came and went, my cubicle remained firmly locked, the formica door inadequately muffling strangely sibilant hissing noises. I re-emerged many minutes later, beaming at our unexpected Cup progression. “Where have you been? I had to say you weren’t feeling well,” Robert muttered at me. “We won – we beat Blackburn!” I said rather loudly, then remembering where I was, quickly looked downcast in sympathy with the nice people of Dunfermline.

Now it was payback time. Mr Tennents would be delegating his Scottish Cup role and reverting to dutiful husband. We were off on an FA Cup tour to Ashton Gate for the fifth round, then the Valley for the replay, then finally to discover that things don’t always get better at the Old Trafford Quarter Final. That day, Charlton would be on the receiving end of a 3-1 defeat.

Some nice people in Dunfermline might smile at that.

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