Big Interview: Neil Cameron meets football author Daniel Gray and agrees that football used to be a lot better

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THE life of a proper football supporter is one dominated by hopeless nostalgia and a dislike and distrust of the present.

Everything was better when you (we) first started going to games. We know the young people of today have been let down by the game’s relentless pursuit of a shiny new future, led by businessmen who probably call it soccer, when in the eyes of the ordinary fans things were, for the most part, just fine and dandy.

I am a full paid-up member of this club. It’s a elite club. When it comes to football we are right and everyone else is wrong. We are the real fans and, tragically, have to live with the fact our beautiful game has changed not for the better but for the better off.

This is the world we live in.Retro shirts are best. Saint and Greavsie has never been topped. The Milk Cup was once a thing and a good thing at that. So were the Soccer Sixes with Roy Aitken charging about in gutties. Only the weak wore shin pads.

Researchers in the USA call this the ‘Reminiscence bump’ a psychological condition which leads adults of all ages to “remember with great clarity and fondness the years of their own youth”.

And these boffins, I wager, have never heard of Arthur Monford. Sobs.

This takes me to Edinburgh and an old school no-nonsense public house, where all such chat should really take place, and sitting across the table just so happens to be my football soul mate.

Disappointingly, this other part of my soul does not look even a tiny bit like Debbie Harry circa 1983 – I would have settled for Lily Allan – but rather it’s a 30-something bloke from Middlesbrough with messy hair.

Ah well, beggars can’t be choosers.

Daniel Gray is not just a very fine writer on football, and other topics, with many excellent books already to his name, his latest tome the reason he agreed to meet, but his firm beliefs on how football was and now is are scarily exactly like mine and I am sure many other proper fans.

His book ‘Black Boots and Football Pinks: 50 Lost Wonders of the Beautiful Game’ is a sentimental but not overly so look back on a far off place called the 1980s, and discusses passionately how and why the people, grounds, characters and even the way football is watched have disappeared over the years.

Daniel’s writing is funny, warm and, sheesh, this lad can turn a phrase in the way Juninho would Samba his way past a defender for his beloved Boro.

As Daniel himself puts it: “It’s goalkeepers in trousers, ramshackle dugouts, proper division names, multiple cup replays, turf patterns, the smell of tobacco, pixelated scoreboards and, of course, Saturday evening pink newspapers. They were the gritty stardust which made football sparkle.”

Come on, that’s good. But if you don’t know what he’s on about then you don’t get it and never will. I feel sorry for you.

He is one of us now. Daniel has lived in the capital for 15 years. “Some mates and I had come up for Hearts game to pay tribute to the great Phil Stamp (a Boro icon) and in a nightclub at two the morning I met this girl and that was it.” This is the most romantic story I’ve ever heard.

Romance, naturally, plays a large part in the book which looks at 50 ‘lost wonders’ and it could have been more.

Until we got talking, it hadn’t occurred to me I missed so many gems which had been part of the match-day experience.

“Whatever happened to bald players?” Daniel asks if it’s the most important question of all time. “I mean, properly bald. You get bald players today but it’s shaved and trendy. That’s not bald.” I tend to agree.

“And there was always the local hero who would open a fete or his picture was in the local paper smashing a big bottle of pennies. These days, certainly at the top, players and fans never interact. You can’t tell me that’s a good thing.” He’s right, I can’t.

Other things which don’t exist anymore but should include, but are far from limited to, grounds with proper names (more on that in a bit), sharing the scores from another match via something called a transistor radio, three pm Saturday kick-offs, shirt sponsors being a local garage, paper tickets and knowing where a referee lived and his occupation.

“George Courtney was a teacher who came from Spennymoore,” recalls Daniel like Rainman.

“Look, I’m not saying football today is rubbish,” he says and I sort of believe him. “That patently would be untrue. But my first game was in 1988 and the changes which have gone on are…well, you couldn’t have imagined most of them 30 years ago.

“Money is of course the biggest factor. and not always for the worse. Middlesbrough, my club, are the perfect example in that we almost went bust and within a fairly short time won the League Cup, reached a European final – and meeting my dad to go to the game are treasured memories – we are signing big names and play at the Riverside Stadium.”

So, not Ayresome Park. Well, it is a different ground but in 1988 we knew the name of all the grounds.

“A mate was going to Bradford for a game this season at ‘Northern Commercials Stadium’. It’s Valley Parade to me.”

Scottish football hasn’t avoided the negatives which come from rampant commercialism but unlike England it would be wrong to say things have changed nearly so much – with some obvious exceptions

“You need to market the game up here far better, as a way to watch football as it used to be,” said Grey. “When my mates come to visit from down south, they love going to places such as Dunfermline.

“Although I did find myself at East End Park not so long ago. If I’m not at a game on a Saturday I do get fidgety so jumped on the train to Dunfermline. The game wasn’t the best and I did wonder what I was doing.

“My favourite ground is Cappielow. That’s proper old school. I like the cranes in the background. Somerset Park down at Ayr is brilliant as well. There is something really satisfying about an open terrace which runs the length of the pitch.”

At the risk of sounding like an old git, football was better in many ways when it took place at the same time on a Saturday afternoon, and you could stand, it didn’t cost so much, the players seemed more like real people and rubbish warm-ups when the physio would put the goalie through his paces.

And everyone wore black boots, as the author so eloquently puts it.

“Boots should not be candy-floss pink nor the sickly turquoise of toothpaste. They should not be a warning-sign red nor the silver of a miserly sky or the yellow of chips and curry sauce. There is nothing classy about these shades.

“The feet within them should be allowed to sing without the aid of such deafening microphones.”

Black Boots and Football Pinks: 50 Lost Wonders of the Beautiful Game is published by Bloomsbury and is available now.

Also, Daniel Grey and Neil Cameron will be taking their two-man five hour show to next year’s Fringe entitled: The world would be miles better if goal nets still had personality. Probably.