The exile

Monday 9 September 2002

On Saturday, business took me to the town of Melrose in the Scottish Borders. As well as being a very attractive place, Melrose is where you find the Greenyards, the home of Melrose Rugby Club and the birthplace of Rugby Sevens. Melrose are one of the top clubs in Scotland and are in the Scottish Premiership.

With a little time to spare in the afternoon, I walked over to the ground. Melrose were playing Glasgow Hawks. Although Borderers are passionate about their rugby, the whole atmosphere was delightful. I was able to wander in, watch the second half of the game among happily mixed home and away supporters, and move round the ground changing my viewing position as I liked.

It was all extremely enjoyable, and reminded me of an age of innocence in football that we seem to have lost. I can remember as a boy going to Craven Cottage and providing it wasn't a full house, we always tried to change ends at half-time so that we remained behind the goal Fulham were attacking. And in those days there was no segregation of rival fans (nor do I remember there ever being any trouble).

We cannot turn the clock back 50 years, and of course there was a downside - safety regulations were almost non-existent and the facilities were appalling (none at all for ladies). But I see no reason why we can't make an effort to recapture some of the spirit of those times, and which I found again in Melrose.

I found it again to some extent in Bologna. Maybe we were lucky in the people we met there, but it was also something to do with the ground being open on three sides. We are so hemmed in at modern stadia, corralled, controlled and directed into a small area we can't move out of. The riverside promenade has been great at Fulham in recent years, and I devoutly hope we shall get it back some day soon.

But European football, between clubs from different countries, does give us an opportunity to operate on a more friendly basis. This was very evident in Glasgow last May, when the atmosphere in the city before the Champions League Final was superb. Madrid and Leverkusen fans mixed happily together and the Glaswegians, always eager for a party, joined in with both sides.

Our own Euro-adventures have given us a taste for this, which will continue in our two matches with Hajduk Split. There are unlikely to be many visiting fans at either game, but I am sure those who are present will be treated as friends, not enemies. I plan to come down for the home leg and look forward to what should be a great occasion.

Before then of course there is vital league business to attend to. The coaching staff will be anxiously awaiting the return of our nomadic internationals as they fly in from Russia, Finland, Cyprus etc. Boa had an easy run back from Birmingham after looking good in the second half of Portugal's draw with England.

Up here in Scotland, there is deep gloom following the embarrassment of the result in the Faroe Islands, and already there are calls for Berti Vogts' head. If the manager does not improve the results soon his coat will, as we say, be hanging on a shoogly nail. He seemed at a loss to explain the team's performance. Simple enough, Berti - Scotland were awful. It must be sad for John Collins to see the country whose shirt he graced so often descending to such depths.

Our chairman has called for clubs to be financially compensated when players appear in international games. This could become much more of an issue with the transfer window having now closed. I've already decided I don't like this system. It takes a lot of the fun out of football.

No transfer speculation for 3 months - what are the journalists going to write about, or the fans going to argue about? More importantly, no chance of signing anyone as cover should there be a crop of injuries. It's illogical and should be abandoned.

There was an article in Sunday's Observer calling for promotion and relegation to be scrapped so that clubs could become more settled financially. I can't imagine a single fan (or a single Nationwide League club) supporting this. How can you deny the supporters their dreams? Imagine the frustration of finishing, as we did two seasons ago, 10 points clear at the top of Division One only to be told you can't go up to play with the big boys. This is a ludicrous idea and I'm surprised the paper gave it space.

Fans with dreams now include supporters of Portsmouth, and good luck to them. Harry Redknapp is a wily old bird and has craftily assembled a squad that looks good enough to win a fairly mediocre Div One. Premiership survival would however be another matter entirely. If I were a Pompey fan I'd enjoy this season to the full.

I shall be listening very anxiously on Wednesday evening for some good news from Loftus Road. It's time we turned Spurs over, but we will need to play a lot better than we did against West Brom. I'm still very worried about our strikers, and would gladly eat humble pie if they prove me wrong and start banging in the goals regularly.

Next Saturday I shall be at Sunderland, one of a number of grounds where we came away frustrated last season, having had much the better of the game but still only getting a point.
It's an important week, and I am hoping for a minimum of 4 points. But whatever the result, I shall try to see things in the right light, and if we do lose at the Stadium of Light, I hope I'll be big enough to say 'well done' to any Sunderland supporters I meet.

It is often said that football and politics don't mix, but what last week was the first move at entente between the bitterest of enemies, North and South Korea? A football match, which perhaps diplomatically ended in a draw. Given the state of the wider world at the moment, the more friendship we can have in football, the better.