Just up from the old Coundon Road ground was a crossroads and a row of general retailers, one of which was a sweet shop. About 45 minutes before a match on a Saturday, my dad would walk me up there to ‘choose’ from the plethora of brightly coloured jars that adorned the walls in neat rows. I was allowed 4 oz of confectionery and it came in a little paper bag that I would clutch in my pocket, never sampling the contents until we were safely ensconced in our regular seats within the ground (or bench as it was in those days – benches which over the years became so worn and smooth it seemed as if they’d been polished).
I wasn’t much more than 4 or 5, if that, and life couldn’t really get much better. Saturday afternoons always followed this pattern. It wasn’t until much later that I saw the sweets as the bribe they clearly initially were. But the inducement worked and at a very early age I was hooked. I’m not sure why, but I usually ended up with a bag of Nuttall’s Mintoes, something I developed a penchant for, before they became much harder to get hold of (…apologies there for the use of the word ‘penchant’, given that it now seems to be more applicable to the unsavoury interests of MPs and members of the House of Lords).
I also have vague memories of the Tote, run by the club. As you went through the main entrance to the ground there was a man in a hut who, for a pound, would let you choose five possible scores (I think it was five) and the closest to the final outcome of the game would receive half the takings; it was another ritual. I don’t think we ever won, but I remember hoping on occasions Cov would concede a few points towards the end of the game so we would be in the final reckoning.
On the way home, we’d always had the radio on to check the footie scores (I supported West Brom, as I still do – I think it was merely because they played in blue and white too). We’d race from the ground to get to the car as quickly as possible as we would usually end up parked in one of the side streets. If we were unfashionably early, we’d park next to the ground on the main road and at 90 degrees to the pavement which always excited me for some reason, perhaps because it was so different to anywhere else.
Routines were important. I always felt really cheated if we had to miss out on the sweets or the Tote, the day wasn’t as complete somehow. 50 years on and I’m still the same. The sweet shop has obviously long gone, but it has been replaced by Istanbul, a fine establishment offering a mainly Turkish cuisine. However, it sells the most fantastic burgers (double burgers with cheese, if I’m honest) and chips to die for. Given that it’s close to the ground and on the way from the station, it’s a no brainer. However, given my bulging waistline and increasing hypertension, this season may have to see me change my pre-match diet somewhat; fortunately there is a healthier option next door to Istanbul’s, so provided I am resolute, all should be well. The food remains unopened until I’m inside the ground – to eat on the hoof would be heresy and jinx the whole afternoon.
I always arrive just after 1.00 pm – I know, I know but it’s a me thing. There’s something about arriving at an empty BPA and watching it slowly fill. With some of the larger crowds, the atmosphere becomes almost palpable just before kick off. The fairly recent tendency to cheer Cov as they leave the pitch at the end of the warm-up heightens this and I’m sure the players must get a buzz from it as the jog past the main stand. Routines are just as significant as they were when I was a kid; I must put in at least 5 circuits of the pitch prior to kick off (mainly as a result of the guilt attached to the eating of the aforementioned burger) and most importantly of all, these circuits have to be completed in a clock-wise direction. Failure to do so would, I have no doubt, be catastrophic for the outcome of the match. It is a huge obligation on my part, but one I have thus far carried out manfully. If only the players knew the responsibility I carried with me, I’m sure they’d buy me a drink or two in the bar after game.
I should point out that I am fortunate to be accompanied on my travels around the ground before kick off by my son, who will, on reading this, no doubt recall the bribes I used to get him to Coundon Road almost 30 years ago…funnily enough often involving a bag of sweets but with the added incentive of a fizzy drink to boot.