Better In The Good Old Days?
I was born in Barrow-in-Furness (then in Lancashire, but now in Cumbria) in 1959, and we didn't move to Thornton-Cleveleys until 1963. My mother had been born and raised in Fleetwood and had told me stories of going to watch Stanley Matthews with her dad. She said her dad used to be a Durham miner and was one of ten children and that he was normally a quietly-spoken and polite man, except when he took her to watch Blackpool when his character changed and he used to swear and shout with the best of them. Nothing new here, as this seems to be a common trait of many football supporters today - providing the stewards don't stop you!
Despite this early story-telling, watching the Pool did not really occur to me until my great aunt knitted me a Pool scarf for Xmas in 1964 - a proper wool scarf in true tangerine colours which I have still got and use to this day. Now this is the first difference I have noticed. In the sixties and seventies most supporters had their club scarf tied around their necks and some wore their tangerine and white bobble hats. There was none of this mass merchandising of the last 20 years or so, with second and third strips, duvet covers etc. Whilst this has brought clubs additional commercial income I actually liked it better in the old days when everyone felt more equal and there were stronger, tribal loyalties. Mass marketing has also worked against clubs like Blackpool as the 'big clubs' have spread their influence virtually everywhere and 'pinched' some of our traditional supporters.
I can't remember who my first Pool match was against but do remember it was in 1965 and I was watching from the 'scratching sheds'. There was always a 'healthy' aroma of pipe smoke in the sheds and I seem to remember no matter how full the stand was you always seemed to be able to hear all the wisecracks and jokes - there seemed to be more of a community atmosphere in there than there is in grounds nowadays - is this just nostalgia on my part or is it a reflection of how society has changed generally over the years?
As a relatively small child unless you were sat on the front wall or in the south or west seats you often found it difficult to see all the action - the roof supports also used to provide annoying obstructions. I progressed to the non-segregated, mass terracing of the Kop when I was a little older in about 1970. I have to say this was the best atmosphere for me in my time as a Pool supporter - mass tribal chanting, scarves held above heads - with adrenalin in full flow. It could also be frightening on occasions with fights between supporters breaking out, various objects getting thrown and sometimes a danger of getting injured as the crowd surged forward when something exciting happened. I was also there on the sad occasion when a Pool supporter was stabbed when we played Bolton. I for one am glad the truly mass violence days of the 1970's have long gone. I would however still like to see some limited re-introduction of terracing to improve the atmosphere - perhaps a new east stand for this?
What about the ground facilities more generally? The fact that we have had two and a half stands for many years is frustrating and has shown a lack of true ambition by the owners, but providing the south stand goes up soon at least we are moving in the right direction! I do chuckle a little when I hear fans moaning about the rusting metalwork and the fading plastic seats - frankly the spectator and other facilities in the 'newer' stands are far better than in the old days, when expectations and requirements seemed to be far less. Even in those days the ground was rusting (I can remember the Kop roof being demolished for lack of maintenance / health and safety reasons - or was it to save money on business rates?) and the toilets and catering were pretty crap. The old west stand had been in a terrible state as far back as the 1960's. I remember taking my son in there in the early 1990s and one of our seats falling to pieces!
Travel to matches has changed also. In those days I usually went to Bloomfield Rd on one of the special football buses that went from Fleetwood via Thornton and onto the car park near the Locarno building (that has gone through various incarnations over the years including ballrooms, snooker halls and ten-pin bowling depending on the trends at the time). These days most travel to matches is by car and this in itself means a loss of the mass supporter atmosphere gained by travelling on buses, coaches and trains. When was the last time we had a football special to away matches? I used to enjoy going on those (particularly to Lancashire derbies) but it could be a bit tense walking from the station to the ground and back - still we did have some safety in numbers and sometimes a police escort. I can also recall that some Pool supporters in the 1970s used to go to some matches in the back of a large furniture van. It was an interesting sight to see the 'drawbridge' lowered at the back of the van to allow hordes of our fans out. I believe that the police stopped it eventually on safety grounds.
Whilst I have been to see the Pool on all our visits to Wembley and the Millennium stadiums my favourite away matches have always been the Lancashire derbies. My all time favourite away match was my first - the 3-0 win at Preston to get us promoted back up to the top division. Unfortunately, last season as a mere Band C season ticket holder I was unable to get a ticket for Preston. In this respect I prefer the old days when terracing generally meant capacity wasn't an issue and you could travel and pay on the gate in cash.
What about the players over the years? The current squad is the strongest I have seen for a long time and the quality of the football is improving after those long, and often painful, years in the wilderness of the third and fourth divisions. Even in those years we had our moments of success and in general terms we have been lucky to have had so many visits to play-off and other finals - many other clubs supporters have never had those experiences. I was privileged to see the likes of Ball, Armfield, Hutchinson and Green play for the Pool and for me the period of the sixties and early seventies was the best in terms of players and excitement (I was also younger!). We certainly haven't had a real quality strike force since the Hatton / Walsh era. Younger supporters may refer to the Brett Ormerod / John Murphy partnership but frankly they weren't in the same league - both in terms of quality or division.
And what about the management of the club? In terms of team management my favourites are Allan Brown, Billy Ayre and our current manager Simon Grayson. All of our mangers have had fewer resources to work with than most of our competitors and Larry's achievement of getting us back to the second tier after so long in the wilderness must rank amongst the best. Even when we were in the top tier we were still generally a selling club and never paid big transfer fees and that is unlikely to change.
How do the current chairman and the owners compare? Frankly, without the Oystons the club would have gone under years ago. Whilst many of their actions over the years can be criticised and have caused us great frustrations, we are now on the up again and long may that continue in conjunction with Mr Belekon. I just wish Karl would balance prudence with sensible growth and learn to communicate better. And by the way even Karl compares well to some of the useless, small scale local businessmen we have had in control of the club in the past - Bill Cartmel who was largely responsible for our relegation from the second tier in the 1970's and our subsequent decline tops my list in that respect.
I'll now turn back to the title question. Well for me over the decades society has changed, Blackpool as a town has changed (and not for the better) and our lives and expectations have changed. The football club has changed also - some things are not as good as they were but many things have changed for the better. We are currently on the up so let's all support and encourage that and on occasion show some patience!
I have worked and lived away from Blackpool since 1980 but one thing that hasn't changed is my passion as a supporter of the Pool. This passion has transferred to two of my sons. The eldest one (the forum user Abel to many of you) is also a season ticket holder, and over the last couple of years the regular journey from Lincoln via Keele University to Bloomfield Rd, as well as to away matches has put many miles on my car!