I have a small selection of old photographs on the wall adjacent to where I am sat now. Below them are old magazine articles pinned onto a corkboard; stuff I have cobbled together whilst chasing a quasi-secondary career as a freelance journalist. Underneath them are trophies, mainly from the 90s and early 2000s. The whole lot of them are worth less than the loose change shoehorned behind your average sofa. But they retain an inextricable link to those photographs, their memories perfectly entwined.
They serve as Visual reminders of old matches that no one has heard of and barely anyone in their right mind would ever care about. But get a few of those lads, stood uncomfortably with their arms folded in those ancient team pictures, together with a few beers and suddenly the hidden details all come flooding back. An endless river of nostalgic fragmented memories; those “boring stories of glory days” as Bruce Springsteen once sang. Remembered moments interesting only to those that had once lived them.
Despite the preponderance of booze and bad living, there was something innocent about those days. Final reminders of a world before responsibility and mortgages replaced playing cricket every Saturday and Sunday. A lost time when the game was simply the most important thing in the world.
On the top of the board, there is a picture of a windswept recreation ground, everyone’s hair blowing wildly like Freddie Boswell, from the 80s sitcom Bread. You can feel the grey skies and cold amidst the brutalist grey council changing rooms. I would have been barely 20 then, my hair may have looked permanent but it wasn’t to be. Some of the other lads were even younger, still hovering at school or college age and fitfully fending off the advances of the real world. Others were then the age that I am now. Men in their 40s with families; impossibly old, and who’d sip a shandy after the game when the younger lads would be dashing out to hit the Saturday night pubs and clubs. It is sobering now to see the world from their view. More sobering of all is the realisation that in the intervening 20 years that three of those old team-mates are no longer with us.
We called him Big John, not because he was especially big but to differentiate him from ‘Little John’ who was indeed very little. A barely 5” tall wicket-keeper who I recall once jumping on a stranger’s back and clinging on like an eager Koala bear following a drunk taking aim at me in a Bournemouth bar. You don’t forget those moments. Another memory of him staggering around a Torquay nightclub searching for a pint of bitter, his shirt completely open and exposing his spherical beer-gut, whilst he complained about the unforgiving heat and the lack of a pint of best to quench his Ice Cold in Alex thirst. A diagnosis of diabetes slowed down his drinking and all those extra pieces of cake at tea. I have no idea where he is now. I saw him almost every summer weekend for about five years until one day I didn’t.
‘Big’ John keeled over at a bus stop. Massive heart attack. Dead before he hit the potholed pavement. He was 62 or as he would have said “six and two.” Not very good at maths was John or English for that matter. On the rare occasions, he spoke he would proclaim that his “mum dropped him on his head as a baby.” She didn’t. It was meningitis that got him instead. The grizzled old man with the big belly was the biggest, oldest little boy you had ever seen. He was mad about trains, AFC Bournemouth, and the endless cans of coke we would supply him with on match days.
He never played cricket but he was always there – our only supporter. You would see his rolling gait make its way from the bus stop and across the field on any given weekend. Often clad in a vest and braces he looked like he was going for a pre-war paddle on Margate beach. Silently he would sit by the scoreboard -waiting to fill his boots at teatime – just smiling and listening. It took him years to give me the ‘touch’. The little dab to the chest or arm that would tell you he thought you were okay.
When he went, a well-stacked church saw his coffin draped in an AFC Bournemouth flag. It could be considered tacky, but in the case of ‘Big’ John, it was entirely apt. His boyish devotion for his team never left him, it couldn’t, even if he had wanted it to…
Roger loved trains as well. He volunteered on the steam railway between Swanage and Corfe Castle. On a bad day, he could corner you and tell you all about it, through his Super Mario moustache and his ever-present Hampshire cap. But for all that, on countless occasions he would come out on winter evenings equipped with his jump leads to spark up my car battery, after I had left the lights on all day for the umpteenth time. He was a decent bloke, whose biggest failing was that he desperately wanted to be a good cricketer. A quest in which he was largely unsuccessful and not helped by his preference to always bat in the top four.
I remember him erupting one night in the bar at Kings Park, adjacent to the football ground, and sending an empty table pirouetting across the lounge. I forget what the argument was about, but it was a routine part of the soap opera that was The Willows C.C.
We lost Simon early this year. A couple of years from retirement he’d worked on the railway for decades. Whenever I was coming back home via Waterloo I would look out for him in the ticket office at Bournemouth Station; it will be strange not ever seeing him there again. Life’s finalities are hard to swallow, even more so when it concerns such a fundamentally decent man. The chairman of our club for as long as I can remember, he was often the only sane person in the changing room, and thus needed Henry Kissinger levels of diplomacy to quell the frequent arguments and complaints. Worst of all he was the only person I had ever encountered with a worse throwing arm than mine.
There are others in that picture that I haven’t seen for nearly 20 years, their whereabouts completely unknown to me. Graham with his droopy 70s era Goochie moustache belying a complete and utter lack of any sporting prowess. His physique was more suited to lazy days and nights at his favourite pub across the road from Wareham station, than it ever was for the accumulation of runs and wickets on the cricket field.
But despite being well into his 40s he had such an endearing almost boyish enthusiasm that it was impossible not to like him. Perennially number eleven in the order – even that was probably one place too high for him- he would always pad up at the start of the innings; desperately eager to get involved despite the inevitable fruitless outcome.
Always stationed on the fine-leg boundary his fielding was a frequent crowd-pleaser. His odd run, which was little more than a high-kneed mincing walk, as though he were stamping out a small fire or imagined himself to be Homer Simpson in the episode where he cavorts in an imaginary land made of chocolate. Once or twice I saw him take a catch and afterwards he would hang on to the ball as though he were Bobby Moore clinging on to the Jules Rimet Trophy.
In many ways, it wasn’t a club for ‘normal’ people and that is what made it special. In the early days, we struggled to get a team out and would take literally anyone. As the years went by we acquired some better players, moved up a division or two, and met with the usual two divergent methodologies: hunting pots or having a laugh with your mates. For the most part “having a laugh” came out on top, but not without its pitfalls and arguments along the way.
The list of characters was endless. A guy called Les who was a softly spoken almost teetotal churchgoer. Married to a vicar’s daughter, he arrived in Bournemouth via Brixton and Jamaica, with a backstory that was subject to much speculation, but very little real facts. Short and square-shaped he would occasionally tease us with the odd tale of him sparring Nigel Benn in a South London gym. We were later able to deduce that Les had indeed fought 33 times as a professional boxer, even appearing at the fabled Cesars Palace… albeit in Southend.
I once saw him take a catch so otherworldly that had it happened on television it would be repeated endlessly. Crouching at short leg as a raw-boned South African unwound corkscrew-like and larruped one straight off the middle directly at his head. Mortals would have ducked, flinched, put their affairs in order; but Les just stood there motionless, except for his hands wrapped nonchalantly around the missile.
I guess when you are used to the ‘Dark Destroyer’ taking aim at you, a cricket ball can hold few fears. But that champagne moment aside, his bowling was slow and erratic; his batting rarely yielding many runs either.
And then there was Steve. A left- armer with a beautiful action he was known throughout local cricket as ‘Psycho’. He had been the scourge of youth cricket, representing the county but the pace he possessed as a 14-year-old never increased. He was a dead-ringer for the archetypal ‘angry fast bowler’ and that was undoubtedly his image of himself, yet now in his mid-30s, he was little more than medium pace.
Against weaker teams, he would dominate and take hatfuls of wickets. His strategy was to continually pitch the ball on the same sixpence, but good batsman would spend a couple of overs patiently working him out, and then would lean onto the front-foot and drive the spirit out of him. This would usually be met with DEFCON levels of swearing and on a couple of occasions with him swinging his boot at the non-striker’s stumps and sending them flying to all parts.
Physically he looked like a clone of the deranged Liverpool football supporter played by Robert Carlyle in the Cracker TV series, starring Robbie Coltrane. His all-time low was climbing out of the car, dropping his trousers, and mooning a long, stationary queue of bank holiday traffic just outside of Corfe Castle. Directly behind his behind was an occasional player called Neil and his traumatised wife.
Neil only played a handful of games over a few years. With a bald head and round glasses, he was mild-mannered and well-adjusted, thus completely unsuited to being a civilian in an army of misfits. Not surprisingly I think this was the last time we saw him.
These tangled reminiscences could in all likelihood go on forever. The beauty of those distant days and club cricket, in general, is how it can bring so many disparate personalities and age groups together. People you would never know or meet, let alone socialise with, suddenly thrown together in a willow-lined petri-dish. It is the game after all that unites them.
Ray Liotta summed it up best in Goodfellas when he looked back on his old life and lamented “What a time it was” – it does seem that way now. And like Liotta’s character Henry Hill at the end of the same movie we are now left to live the rest of our lives “like an average snook.”
Weekends spent trundling around garden centres rather than chasing the peerless glory of the Dorset County Division Six Championship.
At least we have our memories…