A few days ago, I read an excellent piece of nostalgia on these pages. It tapped that rich vein of childhood memories that all lovers of sport surely share: in my case, traipsing down Sheepfoot Lane to the Boundary Park ground with Dad, trying hard to be a big enough lad not to grab his hand as we passed the ”bottom block” of the hospital where Oldham’s loonies lived.
Then into the ground, standing behind the goals, supping deep draughts of soon-to-be-dashed hopes, hearing the cheers and the curses, catching a glimpse of the game, marvelling at the magic of being in the company of all these big men. My Dad was in fine form - cracking jokes and giving his pennyworth, happy to have me as an excuse to get out of doing the Saturday shopping at the Tommyfield market.
My most vivid memory from those days is not a piercing pass - this was before the Scottish wizard Bobby Johnstone played for the Latics - a great goal or a match-winning save, but two Oldham fans who suddenly started clouting one another right in front of me. They were quickly pulled apart, but that was drama!
But it wasn’t all watching. There was playing, too. I always got picked last at football, but was hoofing a ball around alone one wet Sunday on the Back Meadow - our local footy field that we shared with Farmer Fitton’s cows. A bunch of Big Lads arrived - I was eleven, they were around fifteen. I’d never seen them before, so I was a bit scared. They stripped off and started a game of touch rugby and I stood and watched. I’d never seen this before.
A week later I was there again, waiting. This time, I had my playing gear on - brown boots and shorts - and they said I could join in.
I soon became their mascot, quickly learning the game. Before long I was selling dummies, side-stepping and grubber-kicking with the best of them. I played my first game in the under-seventeen’s league at the age of twelve - our lot were a couple of players short, and our trainer thought that I was big enough and daft enough. We got a thrashing, and I got the biggest thrashing of all.
That thrashing didn’t put me off. I spread the gospel to my gang, and soon we were playing touch rugby on our street every night when homework was done, dancing in the dark.
In those days, Oldham had a great Rugby League side. Being a centre, I worshipped Alan Davies. Sometimes I walked three miles to the ground, sometimes I had the bus fare. The bus trips were a treat! I always sat near the two experts - a retired farmer, Harry Hilton, and an Ulsterman from Bush Mills called John MacCallum - and tried to absorb their wisdom so that I could retail it to my mates.
At the age of fourteen I found myself a girlfriend. Her father, manager of the village Co-op shop, worked late - which allowed me to slink in through the back door of their house one or two evenings a week. And she came to Watersheddings to watch the rugby with me on Saturdays, too. On the way home after the match, somewhere in those endless lanes and fields, we would fall prey to the temptations of the flesh. Less than half an hour after sinning, she would park me outside the gates of our village Catholic church while she went in to confess. Not being a Catholic - not even a lapsed one! - I was left to worm and squirm.
After the next home game, we sinned again. Oh, those memories of childhood sport!