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Welcome (back)

My blog has been going since July 2010, with a mix of pieces about music, following a lower-division football team (Mansfield Town), travelling on London Underground, and one (so far) customer service nightmare. A few years ago I moved to Turin and the blog went a bit quiet. I’ve now reactivated it, as I’ve got some new things to write about, including following a Serie A football team (Torino) and travelling on the Turin Underground.

If you’ve been reading, thank you, especially if you’ve commented either on or off the blog. And if you’ve been waiting for some new pieces, sorry about the slight delay.

So that’s the plan, and it will keep going for as long as I’m enjoying it!


So, Why Torino?

Torino logoGood question. Long story. Short answer.

Having signed up for what I thought would be just a year in the ‘real’ Italian capital, I had a checklist of must-do activities and must-visit places. It turns out that I underestimated my stay sevenfold (so far), and many of these tasks are still staring accusingly at me from the list.

They included taking in an Italian football match, apparently perversely since I’d always found continental football indescribably boring. Can’t see the attraction of Barcelona, to be honest – all that short passing and fussy movement, usually going nowhere. In fact the very term ‘European football’ fills me with a sense of existential weariness, born of dreary UEFA television nights in the 70s and 80s where some Belgian gang takes on a bunch of Austrian no-hopers, invariably in the murky light of a half-empty stadium, backed by an unrelenting accompaniment of claxons and fireworks, and both sides gain a valuable point by virtue of failing to score. The audience is hemmed in by high fencing.

But going to a Serie A (or even Serie B) game would be more a cultural than a sporting experience. I would be an honorary footballing anthropologist, observing some of the different ‘behaviours’ of Italian crowds compared with English.

A bit of background here. Ten years of supporting Mansfield Town home and away before giving up on them had left me with a rather peevish sense that I’d paid my debt to society, and now deserved some solid success. Making the play-offs of League Two (otherwise known as the fourth division) didn’t count as solid or any other type of success. So for English purposes I switched my affections to Manchester United and, while not getting as emotionally involved as with the Stags, generally wanted them to win and was annoyed when they didn’t.

Here in Turin the options are clearer – it’s Juventus or Torino. OK, some people support the odd Milan team or Napoli, but these are eccentrics in a city divided into two. It should have been an obvious choice, but after my decade as a Stagsman I was instinctively inclined to the underdog. There were practical reasons too. Torino’s Stadio Olimpico is just a few minutes from the city centre, it’s easier to get to, no problem buying a ticket, and cheaper too, especially since they were in Serie B when I arrived.

There was a history, too. I hadn’t done any research at the time, but later learned that the ‘Grande Torino’ team of the late 1940s – reputedly the best in the world – won Serie A five times in a row, provided ten elevenths of the Italian national team and was tragically wiped out in an air crash just outside the city, a disaster that still resonates with the population of Turin today.

Getting a ticket was a bit different from turning up at Field Mill on a Saturday afternoon with ten minutes to spare, waving £8 at the turnstile-keeper and taking your pick of seats. Italian bureaucracy (more of this another time) involves providing just about every personal detail you possess, passport, address, the lot. And then displaying it all again on the day if you took the precaution of buying your ticket in advance. As it happened, I needn’t have bothered with the advance purchase bit. When I arrived about half an hour before kick-off, the stadium was more or less attractively empty.

The ground is a step up from Field Mill, definitely, but is blighted by that oval seating arrangement which, like the old Stamford Bridge of the 60s, places the most dedicated fans at opposite ends farthest away from the action, separated from the pitch by a decommissioned race-track. Something to do with the Olympics, I think.

When I made the decision to go to this game, I didn’t even know Torino’s position in the league. I found a Serie A table, but they weren’t there. Must be some mistake. But no, a visit to the club’s website clearly showed them sitting comfortably at the top of Serie B. In a way, this was a relief, as I was more likely to see a victory and, this being April, something was probably at stake.

I knew none of the players but enjoyed the announcement of the squad at ten to three. The away team (on this occasion the not-very-mighty Gubbio) are given a surly, rapid, surname-only introduction. By contrast, when it’s time to announce Il Toro, the announcer suddenly brightens up (actually, make that ‘goes crazy’) announcing players’ first names only for the crowd to yell the rest. The biggest cheers came for our number six Angelo Ogbonna (a rare Serie B Italian international) and local hero, number nine Rolando Bianchi. The accompanying pictures were helpful, with ancient coach Giampiero Ventura looking like a cross between my old Mansfield gaffer Andy King and a bloodhound. (Try to ignore the genealogical implications of that union.) I was intrigued to see what Juan Ignacio Surraco and Cristian Pasquato could do, and felt that the name Francesco Benussi carried a bit more of a ring to it than his erstwhile Mansfield counterpart between the posts Kevin Pilkington. Anyway, let the action begin.

Ogbonna was immediately impressive as centre-back, reminding me, with his effortless style, poise on the ball and plentiful time, of Bobby Moore – the way he always looked up and around, instead of down, and the stylish ease with which he dispatched the ball. Bianchi had been short of goals recently and missed a sitter right in front of me but, willed on by the crowd, bagged a brace (football cliché alert – that’s two goals). Surraco and Pasquato answered my question by both scoring, the remaining two goals in a 6-0 drubbing (clicheville again) coming from Mirko Antenucci.

I congratulated myself on my wise investment of 15 euros, and decided to go again. Slight problem. Without yet realising it, I was hooked. ‘Again’ was Reggina. 1-0 to us. You see, now it’s ‘us’. And again. 2-1 against Crotone. And again. 3-1 versus Padova. Yet again. We trounced (ouch!) Sassuolo 3-0. Which brings us to the final game of the season. And for the first time I couldn’t buy that easy-to-get, dead-cheap, oh-so-convenient ticket. The game was sold out, and I had to watch in a pub. 2-0 against Modena and we’re up. I didn’t even know about the parade through the city so didn’t turn up. Determined never to miss out again I decided to invest in a season ticket for our return to Serie A. Should be simple. In Italy? Well, that’s another story.

So that’s why. Actually it was quite a long answer, wasn’t it?

Loved And Lost: Gilbert O’Sullivan

Sometimes I try to recapture a feeling I had years ago. My mood, my attitude, my outlook – what it was like to be me back then. It’s difficult to do, and impossible to describe in words. But often, if I can reconnect to a song or piece of music I associate with that time, then the music acts as a bridge and takes me back to a particular place or situation, and I get a glimpse, for a fleeting moment, of that feeling. In the absence of my own tardis, music is the best form of time travel I know.

In 1980 I was a postgraduate music student at SOAS, London University. In order to pay the course fees, without the luxury of a grant, I was working as a kitchen porter in my college for four hours a day and as a barman at the University Of London Union most evenings. In theory this was fine, but it left me very little time to be a postgraduate music student at SOAS, which was, after all, the object of the exercise.

By spring 1981 I had risen to the dizzy heights of Senior Evening Barman, largely by virtue of being able to serve five people at once, form a notional queue from the heaving mass of bodies in front of me (“It’s you, then you, then you, then you, then you.”) and sprint down to the cellar and change a barrel only fractionally more slowly than the speed of light. I could also deflect some of the aggro of disaffected drinkers away from my colleagues, in part because, as a skinhead, I looked like a thug. I still treasure this frankly negative appraisal of my character from a frustrated customer: “I think you are a very rude man”. Spot on.

ULU back then was host to an amazing programme of top indie rock and pop groups. On Friday and Saturday nights the bar would be crammed wall to wall from early evening until late closing, and you’d finish the evening soaking wet, exhausted but still feeling hyperactive, then get home around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. For all-nighters, double the wet, exhaustion and hyperactivity, and change the hour to breakfast time.

The prized shift was Sunday afternoons, when trade would be quiet, the atmosphere relaxed, and you’d have a chance to wind down and chat to colleagues, many of whom were also friends, without a mass of punters hurling insults at you.

On one such Sunday in early spring 1981 the warm afternoon sun was streaming through the windows of the bar and I happened to catch the strains of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s What’s In A Kiss? ringing out of the PA from the jukebox in the next room. And now I can remember the exquisite feeling of that day, and of those days. One of endless possibility, curiosity about where life would take me, a hint of insecurity about soon having to get a real job and stop pretending to be a postgraduate student, and a sense that almost everything was ahead, and very little behind. The sound of that song stood out from everything I was hearing, out of time and place for 1981 – not funky, not post-punky, not jazzy, it was clear, bright, almost translucent, a delicious mix of melancholy and optimism. It matched both my own mood and the light flooding into the room, and I went straight over to the jukebox to play it again. And again.

By 1981 Gilbert O’Sullivan had been out of the picture for a few years, embroiled in the inevitable legal wrangles that followed musical success back in those days. So my first reaction was: “I know that voice. Ah yes, him. Whatever happened to him?” At that time, everyone seemed to be coming back. As well as O’Sullivan, John Lennon’s glorious song Woman had recently been in the charts and was still on that same jukebox, and my favourite band Strawbs were touring again after a long break.

Factcheck for any popkids who were born too late: Gilbert O’Sullivan back in the early 1970s was massive in the UK, in America and in many other places around the world – a pop superstar. A string of number one and Top Ten hits had made him the biggest solo artist of his day.

Like Elton John he had started the decade as a serious, ‘alternative’, credible singer-songwriter, in the same niche as, say, John Sebastian, James Taylor, Nick Drake and Jonathan Kelly – this was the indie scene of those days. In an era when the regulation clobber of rock musicians was a woolly sweater, an Afghan coat, shaggy hair and a beard, O’Sullivan had adopted a unique and striking look – that of a 19th century street urchin, with pudding-bowl haircut, cap, baggy trousers, braces and hobnail boots, a rascal straight out of Oliver. Some have described that image as limiting his appeal and distracting attention from the music, but for me it’s a brilliant creation, anticipating the individuality of punk: be different, be yourself, use whatever comes to hand – rags, pins, second-hand clothes, anything. It’s the classic attitude of an ex-art student – you yourself are the work of art as much as your music.

Chart hits and a change of image soon altered my perception, and I remember being mildly irritated by O’Sullivan for having kept my own favourite ‘serious’ bands off the top chart positions for weeks on end. Top Of The Pops back then was like Division 1 in football, and we all passionately followed bands and supported football teams – in my case, sadly, my home town team Chester (Division 4). My friends and I had now rather snobbishly decided that Gilbert O’Sullivan had become a middle-of-the-road balladeer, making songs for teeny-boppers and their mums and dads. (My own father suffered a similar fate. A lover of Abba’s music, he was affectionately ridiculed by at least one of his children for his bland taste, only proving himself posthumously to be an arbiter of the cool and classic when the Swedish popsters came back into fashion in the late 1990s.)

To quote What’s In A Kiss?, it was ‘really rather stupid of me’ to deny how much I actually loved and admired Gilbert O’Sullivan’s songs, since I could still sing along with them nearly forty years later. Alone Again (Naturally), Nothing Rhymed, Clair and Get Down were locked into my memory as all-time pop classics, and I could predict every twist and turn of the lyrics and music.

So thirty-seven years later, just a few weeks ago, I decided to revisit What’s In A Kiss? – go back to that Sunday afternoon in the ULU bar and try to work out why this song had remained lodged in my brain and in my heart, off and on, for so long. At the start O’Sullivan sets up a basic three-chord sequence that runs through most of the song. It’s a simple and beautiful concept clothed in the most gorgeous of melodies. Three verses, a couple of middle eights and an instrumental, and you’re out in less than three minutes.

His voice is unmistakeable. It has the purity of a choirboy, but with a slightly hard and plaintive edge. There are echoes of both Lennon and McCartney, of Morrissey (years in advance), and a nasal quality reminiscent of Bob Dylan. He’s always totally in tune, thankfully almost completely vibrato-less, and has a way of phrasing that pulls the words this way and that across the beat, so that you feel he’s talking as much as singing.

Intrigued by what I’ve missed since 1981, and further back to those prehistoric early 70s, I’ve watched numerous documentaries, interviews and concerts. What have I learned? First, what an astonishing performer. Seeing him bound on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall and burst into the upbeat, latinesque Matrimony, jumping on top of the piano and witnessing the joy and love of the audience, you just wish you were there, every time.

Watching him play live, as I happily had the chance to do recently, he’s always completely ‘in’ the song – never going through the motions or putting on a show. What you get is the complete sincerity of the person who wrote it and still believes in it. And this goes back a long, long way. On the 1978 BBC2 programme Sight And Sound you’ll find O’Sullivan delivering a blistering set which mixes the big hits with some less commercial offerings from his new album Southpaw, backed by a ready-made, fully-functioning working band called Wilder which he’d chosen in place of the standard session-men support fodder.

He writes and sings in an unusually conversational, colloquial way. In a song like We Will, he’ll stretch the lyrics across the beat, cram in crowds of words between the beats, pause and then catch up as the words cascade down – it’s not so very different from rapping, albeit from a very different musical perspective.

Then there are those enormously long verses. In Alone Again (Naturally) they seem endless, allowing the writer to construct a narrative and pack in a whole stack of information. Many of his best songs don’t have conventional, blockbuster choruses either, but just use a short and simple phrase as the recurring hook, often the title of the song itself, like Alone Again. It’s always enough.

The voice, incredibly, is unchanged after all these years. O’Sullivan is modest about his vocal ability, but he’s fully able to turn on the rock in a song like Stick In The Mud, or croon a beautiful ballad, while in the outro to The Niceness Of It All and in Bear With Me he’s a wonderfully authentic soul singer. George Benson wanted to cover the latter song, and you can’t imagine George doing it any better. The RTE programme Out On His Own shows O’Sullivan wowing audiences in Tel Aviv and London, talking about the headstart his mother’s sacrifices gave him in his musical career, and in particular about his focus on the present and the future rather than the past. Many people don’t realise that he’s continued writing for the last forty years, working eight hours a day to craft an incredible repertoire of work, including songs which easily match those 70s classics – songs like Miss My Love Today, For What It’s Worth, Where Peaceful Waters Flow, At The Very Mention Of Your Name, All They Wanted To Say, No Way, The Whole World Over and many, many more.

Viewing this wealth of material I’ve found him a thoroughly likeable character; bitter and cynical, yes, about his level of recognition today, justifiably arrogant about his work and his worth, but decent, honest, articulate and humorous in a quirky way. Someone you’d rather have on your side than against you.

I bought my first record in 1962. This means that I’ve been a music fan for over 55 years, and I would unhesitatingly describe Gilbert O’Sullivan as the greatest singer-songwriter in English popular music. If that sounds like an extravagant claim, let’s examine Exhibit A in the evidence for the defence – the song We Will. Paul Gambaccini has described Nothing Rhymed as one of the greatest songs of all time. I would put We Will up there in the same bracket. It’s an astonishing piece of work, all the more so for a writer in his early 20s – the bitterest-sweetest tale of achieving consolation through the mundanity of family life and old friendships. Referencing bedtime rituals, cereal for breakfast, visits to grateful aunts and uncles and playing football with old mates, I read the song as a kaleidoscopic journey from childhood to old age, three crystal-clear snapshots in just three verses. It features those sinuous, long and endlessly weaving lines which enable the singer to build an argument, add little interpolations and hesitations and throw in casual asides, the “then again”s and “on the other hand”s of everyday conversation, as they climb and climb to a climax and then fall away in quiet resignation. The two-word chorus, the song’s title, is delivered by a children’s choir and quietly echoed by the singer. It’s sublime.

The journalist and musician Bob Stanley, writing in The Guardian, describes finding the song by chance and being ‘knocked sideways’ by it, listening to it every night before bed to survive a bad time – which is easy to imagine, as it’s simply a song about being human and trying to get through life intact. There couldn’t be any greater compliment.

Exhibits B to Z are on YouTube, Facebook, and all those other places ‘out there’. It’s admittedly not the most scientific research base, but in the hundreds, thousands of comments about Gilbert O’Sullivan’s videos and concerts the most frequently recurring word is ‘genius’. You’ll find countless heartfelt testaments to how much his music means to people, and I hope Ed Heider won’t mind me lifting his post from YouTube: “Gilbert, you changed my life to a better feeling about all of its aspects, your songs, sound and music made me start every morning as a new person born again”. If, as a songwriter, you can look back at your career and tell your grandchildren that you changed people’s lives, that’s pretty much ‘job done’, I think. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

When my band’s profile was higher, I often used to be interviewed by fanzines, bloggers, indie magazines and even, once, by one of the ‘real’ music papers. A frequent question was whether there was any song I wish I’d written. I always replied that I was very happy with most of the songs I’d created myself, and refused to be drawn into this strange form of compositional envy, harmless though the question was. It didn’t matter to me whether I’d written a great song or if any other person had done the job – only that someone had written it. So no. With What’s In A Kiss?, We Will and so many others, anyone would be proud to have their name on those timeless, universal songs. They’re not mine, and I don’t care. I’m just happy and grateful that they exist, and that the writer was Raymond O’Sullivan.

Blog Image 2

We Will

What’s In A Kiss?

Gilbert O’Sullivan website

I Think It’s All Over

I’ve often wondered what it means to follow a football club. Of course, I know what it means to me – a bit more of a commitment than some frippery like a career, or marriage, say. No, it’s the actual qualification as a fan that puzzles me – are you one because you say you’re one, or is there some litmus-like test which identifies you as such: dip me in the solution, I turn yellow so I’m a Stag.

I once worked with someone who everyone knew was a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday supporter (his life at that point amounting to slightly short of forty years). We were aware of this because he’d discuss the game on a Monday morning, talk knowledgeably about the players, say things like “What we really need right now is a right-sided midfielder”…but not actually go to any matches. Pressure of work, often at weekends, other priorities. I, however, who’d started supporting Mansfield Town on moving to Nottinghamshire, and was an ever-present, home and away, for several seasons, was somehow not quite the real thing, but a Johnny-come-lately fairweather friend. He was a true supporter, blue and white through and through, whereas I was some kind of mercenary rent-a-fan who at any moment might transfer his affections to Barnet, or Manchester United.

Then there were all those Labour men who wore their adherence to their team like some kind of badge of ordinary blokedom. Everyone had to support someone as proof of normality. Thus we needed to know that Alistair Campbell was a passionate Burnley fan, as if it somehow made him any less of a bastard. Gordon Brown was big on Raith Rovers, scoring points on local allegiance whilst marginally addressing the utter weirdness factor. I’d really rather they’d all hated the game than each having some adoptive football club grafted onto their dysfunctional personalities.

Andy King once said a wise thing at a meet-the-manager-and-ask-him-awkward-questions evening at Mansfield. Addressing some prickly poser about the long-term direction of the club he said: “You lot, you’re the club. Me, the chairman, the players, we’re just passing through.” It’s true, but even players build up an affinity for a club if they’re there for more than a couple of seasons. And when they finally move on they “always look for x’s result first” where x is the club they’ve recently quit for a better deal. It’s a cliché that fickle fans have adopted too.

In a way I envied my friend with his no-commitment, free-as-the-wind approach. He never had to worry about everything going sour. His supporterdom was all in his head (he would say genes), a virtual equivalent of his birth certificate, rather than being measured in hours, (hundreds of) pounds, freezing temperatures and (thousand of) miles.

The last time I saw Mansfield Town play was at Brentford in August 2008, our final season in the Football League. On relegation to the Conference, the better players were sold off, and by the end of our first non-league season I only recognised the name of one player, Nathan Arnold (‘Nay-Nay’ as I’d learned his nickname was). I’d read about some of the others – players who’d dropped down from the ‘real’ league to play for a club who tried to match their lack of ambition, old hands desperately reviving their careers and giving it one last shot, and promising youngsters on their way up. By the time Dave Holdsworth departed as manager, he had seen some 60 new players into and out of the club, like the keeper of some wildly-spinning revolving door of transfers and loan deals. I’d look at the team list in the Sunday papers and think “And who the hell are you?”

Like the sentimental (or dishonest) ex-player, I still look for their result first – well, after looking at the Premiership scores which I already know from the previous night’s Match Of The Day. But when someone asks me who we’re playing on Saturday, I usually couldn’t say. Some Cambridgeshire village in the Blue Square something-or-other league. Hufton? Hickston? Never been there, anyway.

Am I still a fan? I don’t really know. I don’t think I support anyone else, anyway. And if anyone asked who my team was I’d still say proudly ‘Mansfield Town’. But does that make me any better than Alistair bloody Campbell? Probably not.

Obscene And Heard

One of the things about supporting a small club in a lower division (OK, the bottom division) is that you spend a lot of time standing on terraces in small grounds. And one of the advantages of this is that you can actually hear a lot of the specialised language spoken by the practitioners of the beautiful game. Or, at this level, the OK-looking in a good light and after a few drinks game.

Before the new ground was (nearly) built at Field Mill I’d perch against a barrier near the halfway line for maximum exposure to the advice, instructions and expletives of manager Andy King. This was always entertaining as King enjoyed good rapport and plenty of banter with the home fans, and not only concerning his rapidly disappearing thatch.

Old Trafford may be awesome, but with Alex Ferguson about five miles away from most seats you can barely see his back, let alone hear what he is grunting through his chewing gun. 2,500 people, on the other hand, can’t make a lot of noise, and often, especially during moments of the greatest ennui, they can actually go very quiet.

So when Cardiff were trying to find a way past slow-moving, granite-hewn, one-man wall of defence Brian Kilcline, you’d expect them to vent their frustration in verbal form. You might hope for something as cultured as a piece of Match Of The Day-style analysis from someone called Alan – maybe ‘right, lads, pull him out of position and we’ll exploit the space between Kilcline and the other centre back, and flood forward into the yawning gap that opens up’. (Cue on-screen graphic of a shaded square shape.) Instead, at one of those moments when the whole ground simultaneously decided to go silent, we heard the echoing yell ring out “Get fucking Kilcline”. A much simpler methodology, drawing an ironic cheer from the crowd, who knew that Cardiff had got the wind up. I don’t think they ever did manage to ‘get’ the aptly nicknamed Killer.

Adrian (‘Ady’) Boothroyd was an intelligent right back and a soon-to-be bright, embryonic manager, and it was fascinating back in those mid-90s days to see him still trying to perfect his craft. One Saturday afternoon warm-up before a meaningless end-of-season game I saw Kingy out on the pitch in his tracksuit drilling Boothroyd in a new way of imparting spin to the ball, kicking over it to increase the pace but reduce the flight. Boothroyd practised it over and over again, and I was amazed not only at King’s skill (and coaching ability) but also at the player’s willingness to learn something from the older man. King’s regular instruction to Ady during matches as he fired in crosses on his characteristic overlaps was “whip it”. So regular, in fact, that the crowd often told him before King got a chance. So here was Boothroyd, in his late twenties, learning another way to whip it.

I’ve always wished that TV football programmes would supply a lip-reader to let us viewers know what the players are saying to each other and to the referee. I know there’s a lot of ‘get tight’ and ‘second ball’, and I’m sure this means something important. Sometimes it’s easy to guess the words, but for those that don’t begin with ‘f’, it usually isn’t. At Field Mill, however, you got the full aural effect – no audio-description needed. I know that conversation with the referee often centres on his eyesight, ancestry, body mass index, hair coverage, moral standing or colour. But amazingly, I discovered at Field Mill that players don’t always curse the official. I once heard the erudite Boothroyd deliver the most considered, polite and quasi-legal challenge to a referee’s decision: “Surely not!”

Boothroyd, as a right back, would spend half the match as the closest recipient of his manager’s usually unintelligible instructions. I know that players often pretend not to hear what’s being screamed (or see what’s being mimed) by ex-playing managers frustrated by their latter-day impotence on the touchline. Often these are third-party directives to give team-mates some vital piece of news or information. Boothroyd’s default response was “I’ve told him” before running off. There’s no answer to that, as Kingy discovered.

Whilst verbal communication between team-mates is to be encouraged, it has the disadvantage that its audience includes the opposition. The number of substitutes a team can name has risen in line with inflation from one to two, to three including a goalkeeper, to any old three, to three out of five, and now three out of pretty much anyone who lives in the EU. In the days of ‘any old three’, you’d think most teams would either include a substitute goalie, or at least have in mind someone who would go between the sticks (or what Alan Hansen calls ‘the goals’) in an emergency. Not Mansfield Town, not Kingy. When Stags’ keeper was carried off in some no-hope Auto Windscreeen Shield tie, we expected a fairly swift donning of the green jersey by one of the subs or even onfield players. But no. Cue lengthy debate about who it should be, and careful appraisal of the merits of several candidates for the position before they were for various reasons discarded from the selection process.

By some mystical rite akin to puffs of smoke rising from the Vatican, the gloves were destined for the frozen hands of midfield linchpin John Doolan, the one player you wouldn’t have wanted stuck in the wrong 18 yard box. But Scouser Doolan had already blown any suitability for the task facing him by loudly broadcasting, in tones of rising panic: “But I’ve never been in goal in me life”. Oh. A bit like the “I can’t swim” confession in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The West Terrace was instantly filled with dread, and the opposition bench, sited just in front of them, with a fresh sense of endless possibilities and a hatful of goals.

Tactical instructions, like words of encouragement or abuse, can often be overheard and thus, as David Coleman used to say, ‘telegraphed’ to the opposition. Phil Stant had been a cult hero at Mansfield, largely for his 26 goals in the 1991/1992 promotion season, but also for giving every semblance of madness, and not just through his various entertaining hairstyles. His exploits and personality had earned him the nickname, probably unwelcome to most people, of Psycho. Returning to Field Mill as a Bury player, he inevitably destroyed his former club in a 5-1 win and annoyingly received a standing ovation from the home crowd as he left the pitch early. (I don’t mind sportsmanship, but that’s taking it too far.)

But at the pause for a throw-in, while an injured player was being attended to, you could hear him plot the next goal from a position near the halfway line. Then, as if watching an educational video, you could follow him and his team-mates execute those precise instructions and admire one of Stant’s four goals that afternoon. “Give it Jonno”, Stant enjoined several times (believed to be a reference to Bury player Lenny Johnrose), before outlining what Jonno should do with the ball when it had been thrown to him. (This mainly involved passing it to Stant himself and being on hand if he needed to dispose of it). Whatever the details, it worked a treat, and Psycho, displaying latent coaching potential here, himself went on to manage, albeit at Lincoln.

But my favourite piece of Stags verbiage occurred not on the pitch, but in the dressing room. No, I never got in there. Never really fancied a communal bath in muddy water myself. Characters would arrive at Field Mill and, like O’Neill Donaldson, stay briefly but remain in the memory for much longer. Cyrille L’Helgoualch was a Frenchman, and God knows how he landed at Mansfield Town. But he briefly illuminated the club with some stunning performances and one great long-distance goal against Rochdale. Before the ground was rebuilt, you’d pass the frosted windows of the home dressing room in the West Stand on your way out of the ground, and even see players’ suits hung up on pegs through the glass. Cyrille’s English wasn’t great, and probably neither was his knowledge of dodgy early 70s novelty singles. So one spring afternoon it was somehow touching, and perhaps a little bemusing to him, to hear the strains of Nice One Cyril coming loud and clear through the open dressing room windows. Yes, it had been a nice one. Just one request, if it’s not too late: let’s have another one.

Under The Ground 16: Bag Lady

OK, I feel bad about this. There’s a woman travels on the Victoria Line, probably other lines too. The evidence of my eyes and nose is that she has ‘accommodation issues’ and ‘personal hygiene issues’, probably related. She spends time sleeping on the tube. Today there are severe delays, and the platform is heaving. I get down to the end where the front of the train will stop and hope for the best. I’ll be lucky to get a standing space, let alone a seat. The train arrives. God be praised! The carriage that lines up in front of me is virtually empty. I get on and sit down, spread out my paper and relax. Not for long. The stench is overpowering, and it’s clear why this carriage has been virtually evacuated. Oblivious, and draped across two seats, the lady sleeps on, occupying far more space than she strictly needs. Next stop I get out and squeeze into the next carriage, pressed up against the aftershave and rancorous perfume of the working population of Finsbury Park. The artificial smell is foul, but at least purchased.

Songbook: Jonathan Kelly – Making It Lonely

I became aware of Jonathan Kelly’s latter pair of albums relatively late. Waiting On you, made with his band Jonathan Kelly’s Outside, and the valedictory Two Days In Winter, came out in 1974 and 1975 respectively, when Kelly’s career in the music business was on the slide. The main factors in his decline seem to have been a lethal mix of drugs, disillusionment, bad management, diminishing commercial success and, ultimately, the lack of a record company that would release any more of his music.

A friend who, like me, appreciates Jonathan Kelly’s music, knew the two records and told me cheerfully that they “weren’t very good”. Intrigued, I bought them in their new format as a double-pack of CDs, played them and disagreed. I’ve listened many times since and now love them as much as the two ‘solo’ Kelly albums ‘Twice Around The Houses’ and ‘Wait Till They Change The Backdrop’. Waiting On You, in particular, with its light funk and beautiful, soulful singing is, despite its imperfections, a great record, with memorable, heartfelt songs I’ve grown to know very well.

One of the delights of a Jonathan Kelly record comes even before you hear a sound. Scanning the track listing you see some great, tantalising titles. Who is Rabbit Face? What were Yesterday’s Promises? Where, if anywhere, is Sensation Street? And how does one make it lonely?

After Waiting On You’s undistinguished opening track, Making It Lonely emerges quietly from Kelly’s plain voice/piano introduction. It’s a stunning first verse, with a gorgeous, unpredictable, descending chain of chords and a bold, arresting opening line: “I’ve grown so dependent on you”. You’re hooked in immediately by this naked expression of the insecurity of being in love, and by Kelly’s warm, vulnerable voice – that gentle vibrato on “I spend all day waiting at the window” is pure McCartney.

The chorus explains the title, as the singer accepts, even revels in, the loneliness his love has caused –­ “Making it lonely for myself, no I don’t need nobody else”. The song’s finest moment, though, is wordless. It’s the chilling middle eight, where a glorious key change is accompanied by a truly sublime, simple guitar solo.

Lyrically very evocative of its time (1974, when women in pop were ‘baby’ or ‘girl’), the whole song brings to mind Carole King’s Tapestry, in its predominance of the piano, the subject matter, and the sheer quality of songwriting. Yes, that good. There might be a few bits of performance that wouldn’t have got past the quality control department of, say, Steely Dan (Messrs Fagen and Becker wouldn’t have accepted the bass guitar and piano left hand being so far out of synch, for instance), but even these faults have a certain period charm.

The first time I heard Making It Lonely I played it continuously for several hours, and only moved on because I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the album. Its wonderful Sunday afternoon melancholy was addictive, and now I often play it late at night, either on the CD player or on my guitar. But singing along I can never match Kelly’s individual phrasing, however well I think I know the song.

The mystery of Jonathan Kelly’s Outside is how he could attract musicians of such quality (Chaz Jankel, a future  Blockhead and Snowy White, later of Thin Lizzy, were in his band) and fail to achieve commercial success. Maybe, knowing the strange practices of the music business and fickleness of the record-buying public, not such a mystery after all. And in many ways Jonathan Kelly didn’t give himself the best chance. You can absolutely sympathise with his career choice, though. Longing to play in a band, and deliver the kind of dancy, jazzy-funky soul music of his musical heroes, people like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Herbie Hancock, the more he strove to achieve his artistic aims the further he left behind the folk audience who wanted to hear the old songs, acoustically delivered.

I’m left wondering how Warner Brothers, according to an interview on Jonathan Kelly’s website, reckoned his voice wasn’t up to it when they were considering him for their label. If he ever gives lessons in not singing very well, I’ll be first in the queue.

Top photograph by Richard Derwent

Jonathan Kelly website

Under The Ground 15: Feeling Groovy

Waking up in some outpost of north London with the sun streaming through your window on a burning July day, getting up quickly, radio on, out of the house, the short walk to the station, rippling trees, warm air, people smiling, the feeling that today something’s really going to happen. Down the stairs into the cool basement of the earth, and onto a train that’s not yet sweating with the crowd. Fifteen minutes later, I’m being carried back up to the ground, blinking into the sunlight as part of the mass, looking around at the vivid summer wonder of the streets and parks of central London with the privileged eyes of a tourist. It’s going to be a beautiful day.