Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Friday, April 17, 2020

John Robb part 1 - 'Wow, have we got a team?' Blackpool FC and the 70s

John Robb, at the Hilsborough Justice Campaign 2011 (Phil King)

Running a quite obscure football blog is a non stop media whirlwind. Appearing for 20 seconds several times on Lee Charles TV and having 2 people at work say 'I saw you on youtube' was exciting enough, but now I've got a chance to have a natter about football with a genuine Sandgrown legend... (Who decides who's a legend? I do, cos it's my blog...) 

The Membranes are a cult group, renowned the world over for their angular and original noise. A teenage John Robb ran the nascent band from a phone box on Anchorsholme Lane (so probably had his hair and louche demeanor boggled at by my very own grandparents on their way to Mrs Galvin's bakery in the mid 1970s.) He spent large portions of his youth watching the Seasiders, whilst honing the sound that would see his band propelled to the status of post punk greats

John is also a prolific and acclaimed writer and has interviewed some of the biggest names in alternative music and authored excellent books on (amongst other things) the history of punk and the Manchester music scene

You can read John's own writing at 
Louder than War (which if you've never read it before, is a great insight into new music and classic stuff alike.) You should also explore The Membranes: You can read my thoughts on their latest record here. The reformed band are a shining exception to the general (if slightly cynical) rule that bands that reform are always crap or just in it for the money!

I've met Mr Robb a couple of times and he's been charming, provocative and very interesting company. This (socially distanced) experience was no exception and I'm really grateful to him for being so generous with his time, memories and thoughts.

What follows is an account of me pretending to be an interviewer and John being an absolute dream to interview. I never intended the article to be so long, but there was so much good stuff... 

Part 1: Punk vs Perms...

MCLF: Where did it begin for you? For me, Maidstone, 91/92, it was cold, the game was crap, don't really know why I wanted to go back, but I was hooked! How about you? 

JR: It's funny how everyone's memories of going to watch Blackpool includes the words 'It was really cold! - it must be one of the coldest grounds in the country, in the middle of winter, with the wind coming off the sea. I remember my hands, being white, with cold, you'd put them down your trousers, under your armpits (laughs) - that's a real 70's thing!

First match was Blackpool playing West Ham, could have been 69 or 70, Clyde Best was playing for West Ham, which would date it. Went with my next door neighbour's daughter's boyfriend and he took me and my brother down there. It was amazing, the biggest crowd I'd ever been in. It seemed incredibly... just an incredibly atmospheric thing cos I think there was probably about 20,000 people there then. It was still sort of a big club in those days. I don't think that was a Division One game, I think it was maybe Division Two, I'd have to look it up, I really can't remember - I was about 8 then!

Then, I remember we went to Man United, with my Uncle, a couple of months later - again against West Ham, and there was about 65,000 there and that was a completely different experience again, I remember how deafeningly loud it was compared to going Blackpool.

So then I started going to Blackpool matches late 71/72 and then we used to go every week, first team games one Saturday and the reserves games the next, or the Wednesday nights maybe. The Central league was quite amazing because, obviously, Blackpool's reserve team wasn't that star-studded but you'd be able to go and watch Liverpool and Man Utd's reserves and they had really famous players playing for them.

I actually saw George Best playing against Blackpool when he played for Fulham, that was a little bit later. 75 I think?

MCLF: Did you see the club put the highlights of that game out recently on social media? 

JR: Did they? I'll have a look at that - I haven't seen it since I was actually there. I was at all those classic games, y'know, the Micky Walsh goal of the season, when Bob Hatton was ruling, scoring hat-tricks every week all the way up to Christmas when we were second and we went down the same year (laughs)  I think the Micky Walsh goal was 74 - I was on the pitch - when all the kids ran on the pitch at the end - that was my first TV appearance!

First time I ever heard of Blackpool was probably just before that first match I went to. I was watching Grandstand and I didn't even know Blackpool had a team, I mean before the internet, when you were about 8 years old in the 60s, you wouldn't know outside of Division 1 that there were other divisions... Anyway, they said "and here's Blackpool's team" and I was 'wow! have we got a team?' and they were playing in all white - the kit from the Anglo Italian Cup, based on Real Madrid and we'd beat someone, I think it was Como*, we beat them about 11-0 (*I'd guess it was Blackpool 10-0 Lanerossi Vicenza), so it was like 'wow! Blackpool has got this amazing, European Champions style team in the town!' and that was how and why I started supporting them as a little kid - I had no idea what division they were in or anything, but once you knew we had a team, it was like a connection to the real world.

MCLF: Yeah, it's funny you put it like that, because I didn't really have any idea football existed till I read about it my Grandad's papers - we never got a paper in our house, but he got the Gazette AND a Sunday paper and it was like 'what's all this!?' - Like you say, a window on the world, a connection to the real world, all these exotic places with teams, it was like an introduction to geography... 

JR: ..yeah, I've always thought of it like that, All the towns I knew in England are the ones who had football teams in the 1970s - they always seemed like bigger towns than they were, so Scunthorpe seemed like it must have been a massive city somewhere when you were a kid. And then you find these other towns, that didn't have teams, or just non-league teams, like, say Telford - and to me, that's always seemed like it must be a village and obviously, it's actually a fairly large place. It gives you a kind of upside down geography - I used to have a map of England, with all the teams kits on it, from the 70s - I remember getting that in a sports shop in Cleveleys as a kid - that was my geography of the UK for year until I got really into music and then it became the touring circuit map of the punk venues.

Anyway, yeah, when I was going to Blackpool every week, it was Div 2, we were always 4th or 5th every season, something always went wrong, we didn't quite get the promotion...

MCLF: Who were your favourite players? Blackpool players or otherwise?

JR: I think George Best would still be the greatest player in my lifetime - he was amazing, I think he was unfortunate he came from a smaller country - that's no slight on Northern Ireland, but he never got the platform of a World Cup and I think, if he had, the whole world would have seen he was the greatest of all time - he was better than Pele and all of those players. Even when he came to Blackpool that time and he'd obviously been out on the piss the night before - him and Rodney Marsh were a bit drunk on the pitch, he was still the best player you'd ever seen... He also revolutionised football, he was 'el beatle' - the first modern footballer.

The greatest player I never saw was Stanley Matthews who was... the clips you see of him playing, he was probably better than George Best, an incredible player! - Isn't it amazing that Blackpool has had all of these players? In the 50s, Matthews was European player of the year and he was playing for Blackpool!

MCLF: One of just 4 players from the whole of the UK to ever win it as well...

JR:'s incredible innit?... and he lived in Blackpool for 25 or 30 years as well, however long it was... That team from then was amazing - it's before my time but I was going to games with people who'd grown up watching people like Matthews, so when I first started going, it was only 8 or 9 years since he'd played for us, which seemed like a hundred years when you were a kid but now, thinking about it, it's a blink of an eye. I remember people shouting at the players 'yer no where near as good as Matthews!' and all that kind of stuff which seemed funny then but it was actually true!

MCLF: There's maybe a bit of that now in miniature, people grumbling because the team aren't anywhere near as good as the Premier League side, y'know? 'Yer not fit to lace Charlie Adam's boots' - that kind of thing... You'd have just missed Jimmy Armfield I'd guess?

JR: Yeah, but he was still at games. Everyone loved him didn't they? I know he went on to manage other teams, but he was Blackpool through and through. That's another thing - he was still in the 1966 World Cup winning squad - we had 2 players in that squad, that was only 5 years before I went. Even though we were a Division 2 club, we were seen as a team who should really be in Division 1 and it was still a big club. What they always say, is when we sold Alan Ball, that was the end really, because we became more of a feeder club, we couldn't hold onto the players anymore. Emlyn Hughes went on to Liverpool, only Jimmy Armfield stayed.

MCLF: It's probably a knock on from the maximum wage going in the early 60s as well? 

JR: Oh, yeah, it's all economics, it's nothing to do with the club, the town was too small, and it wasn't what it was in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s... When I was first going out in Blackpool or going to Blackpool games, it always felt like a place where something had just happened, but wasn't happening any more... You'd see these posters, like the Beatles had played in Blackpool 14 times and for them, it was a dream to play in Blackpool - it was the showbiz capital of Europe, but by the time you got the 70s it wasn't any more. It was still a popular tourist place, but it wasn't the place to sustain a big football club any more. It was never a big enough town, it's the thirtieth biggest town in Britain or something like that, but the money wasn't there and it was getting poorer and poorer, the money just wasn't in the town to sustain the wages. The big city clubs were getting bigger. When I was growing up, obviously there were big clubs in the cities but Blackpool was still seen as glamorous. In the 1950s, for a player like Matthews, to go and live in Blackpool was a dream come true, to live by the seaside in a glamorous place, not like Manchester which was this broken, post industrial city.

That's all changed now, Manchester has nicked all the showbiz from Blackpool, all the money, that's why we all live here, cos you can do stuff here, that is harder to do in Blackpool and Blackpool suffers from that.

I don't think it's fair on the club now to expect them to be a Premier League club. To be a Championship club would be a hell of an achievement, a mid table Championship side is what a town like Blackpool should be aiming to sustain, pushes up to the Premier League from time to time, some good cup runs. I don't think we should be in League 1, we're bigger than that, we're better than that. I think we'll get there in the end. It'll take a couple of years to undo the damage of the Oystons, but I think Sadler looks good, he's a fan, he's got the money, he's committed to the club. It's not going to be easy, he can't just change everything, there's no magic dust is there? He got to build an infrastructure, he's got to build a training ground for a start!

MCLF: I'm quite reassured by how he doesn't seem to want to showboat with it, he's not making grand pronouncements every 30 seconds to promote himself, he's told us his plans and seems to be quite happy to stay in the background and get on with the unglamourous stuff. The one worry I had was if we got rid of Oyston we'd get someone who came in, spent a few million on his own ego and then buggered off and left us high and dry... 

JR: I was due to meet with Sadler actually, but the virus has got in the way. I know the guy who runs the Tangerine Knights, the anti-Oyston group and I'm writing a book on Forest Green, I'm friends with Dale Vince - the guy who runs Forest Green, he's a really cool guy - I was saying to the Tangerine Knights - we should have a little vegan stall at Blackpool, it seems like the last place you'd expect to have something like that, but that's exactly why you should do it - be the first place to have something like that outside Forest Green. So I was going to link the two of them up, Simon and Dale and get it sorted. It's great that Blackpool's a really traditional English football club, the tradition is great, but you've got to move forward at the same time.

I went to the club about 10 years ago, I had to go and do a talk at some business thing and I remember, the first thing they said was 'Don't say anything about the Oystons' (laughs) and of course, you've got to say something! There were a few awkward moments. The staff took me round the ground, they were really slagging the Oystons off. They (some of the staff) had set up a football team for the local kids, to get them playing, doing something healthy, to try and stop them drifting into drugs and dealing and all that - it's one of the poorest wards in Lancashire, the area the club is in - a team to give them a bit of hope - and I've always thought football clubs should be a central pillar of the community, a facility that people can use to do sport, y'know, why should kids have crap diets and no exercise and all that? Anyway, you've got this massive resource in the middle of an area that needs it and these people had gone to Oyston and asked if they could have some spare kits and he said no! He said they had to buy them out of their own pockets!

MCLF: That ties in with so many stories, one being from a woman I know well who coached one of the girls junior teams who said he refused to pay for any spare footballs so she had to JJB every other week and buy the footballs herself! 

How much is a football? £20? Even if you only have two kids who go on to be lifelong fans, you get that money back so many times over. It's a two way process, it was just so stupid - The club is there for the town, the town is there for the club.

MCLF: Yeah, totally - I started taking my lad and it's him who drives me to go - I'd obviously lapsed with Oyston stuff but even before that got serious I'd waned a bit, but now it's my lad who has driven me to spend whatever it is, £600, £700 over the last year so it was just so short sighted... 

... the money comes back doesn't it? And that's one of the reasons why it should be there, part of the community - The football club is a huge space and they should be using it for loads of people. It's not just there for one person to make a fortune, it should be there for the whole town. Really, ideally, they should be run by the town, but that's probably a bit too complicated - The way even clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid have that thing where they're sort of owned by the fans - it should be sort of like that. Sadler seems to be aiming a bit for that, obviously, he owns the cub, but he is having dialogue, talking to the fans, he seems to be doing that all the time and to be trying to get it to be a bit more of a people's club.

MCLF: Where did you sit or stand in the old ground? 

When I was super-young I went in the West Paddock, then I used to go on the Kop in the early days but we settled on the Scratching Sheds. The hooligans used to go on the Kop and we weren't hooligans, some of my mates were, but they weren't even hard! That's what made me laugh! - obviously the proper hooligans were super hard, but some of my mates were just chancers, who'd run with them and get in the fights just behind the hooligans and it'd always make me laugh - I'd think 'what you doing that for, you're not even a fighter!' - I'd guess it was just an adrenaline buzz.

The Scratching Sheds was where all the people would go who were they to have a really good laugh, so we'd make up really stupid chants, everyone did, it was really good fun down there. It was all about baiting the way teams goalie as well and some of them got really pissed off and some of them found it really funny and would play along with you a bit. It was a good spot.

MCLF: You're obviously going back further than me, but that's something I think is an odd dichotomy, when I started going in the early 90s, there was more humour in the crowds but even then, still a bit of trouble at the grounds - it seemed as if football crowds have become more angry about the game itself, more expectant and some of that humour has gone - yet you rarely if ever see trouble in ground itself...

JR: That's true of all of culture or society though, people are angrier at the moment, certainly pre virus, I don't know what the vibe is now, haven't seen anyone for ages! - I think the internet stirs it up, you only have to look at Brexit - you never get a reasonable conversation between two different views, you just get a massive argument within three seconds, everyone's polarised. I think the 70s were angrier, there was much more fighting - the fighting would be thousands of people, just scrapping, all the way round Blackpool.

The trouble Blackpool always had, even though it wasn't the 1950s Blackpool any more, it was still a weekend out, so you'd be playing, say, Huddersfield who might take say, 2000 to an away game, but they'd come to Blackpool and bring 8000 cos of the night out - sometimes you'd be outnumbered at your home games! One side of the Kop would absolutely packed and our side half empty.

MCLF: Yeah, even when I started you'd get teams like West Brom bringing say 4500 and us having about 4000...

JR: Back then, you'd get London clubs in Division 2, like Chelsea and Spurs and they'd bring more than they could get in. The town would be swamped by away fans and even when you went to get your bus home, you couldn't find any Blackpool fans - that was in the days when we might have 8 or 10,000 homes fans which is measure of how many away fans there were.

When I first went, the Kop was one of the biggest kops in Britain, even though it got smaller and smaller, do you remember it?

MCLF: Oh, yeah - the Kop used to fascinate me, it was like a ghost of the past - I wrote something recently about how the other stands used to seem about right for Div 4 or Div 3 but the Kop was this incongruous enormous stand, with grass and weeds over half of it, the roof pillars still there without the roof and cut in half by the rusting barriers all covered in barbed wire... I used to just stare at it from the other end and imagine 'what was it like?' 

Yeah... Ghosts! Ghostly memories! I remember what it was like as the Blackpool end and it would be busy, it would be almost full. When I first went, it didn't have a partition down the middle, it would be home and away fans on the Kop - so you could imagine what that was like sometimes! (laughs) I can't even imagine how that could go on. I'm sure when we played Chelsea, it was a shared Kop - I could be wrong, my memory is a bit fuzzy around then, but you can imagine, thousands of skinheads had come up - it was pretty terrifying when you were 11!

Football fighting in the 70s wasn't fair - it wasn't like 'oh, you're only 11, your not involved' - you'd get a kicking as well. We did get battered a few times, in fact, we stopped going as much when my brother got put in hospital by Man City fans in about 77/78 - the cops just stood and watched the City fans chain-whipping him on the floor and his back was all cut open and after that it didn't seem as much fun as it used to.

I kept going a bit, but it just seemed to get darker and also, by then we were all into punk, so you'd be going to watch matches, full of blokes with perms and you'd think, y'know, how punk was so punk and you're watching all these people who aren't punks and I couldn't make the two things fit in my head at all! So you sort of became a fan, but at a distance and in the late 70s, early 80s, it seems weird to say now, but football and music culture just didn't really mix but there was a time when football seemed a bit rubbish, seemed a bit old fashioned - it was something your uncle, with a big perm and flares would like and if you were really hip and into punk, football seemed a bit naff - so it took quite a bit of time to get back into really...

Part 2 - the relationship between music and football, insights into the minds of Joe Strummer and Eric Cantona, what footballers could be seen on the Manchester gig scene and what what musicians were any good at football, Manic Street Preachers and why they don't care what you think of them and why picking on footballer's wages is missing the point and loads more!


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