You can’t go home again

by | Nov 9, 2021

‘You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.’

You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe (1940)

My life can roughly be divided into three homes. Fifteen years in London, fifteen years on the south coast, and nineteen years in Hertfordshire, just to the north of London, and elsewhere. Regular readers of this site will be fully aware of my football life here on the south coast, where no team has quite fitted and the internet has made keeping up to date with the teams of my younger years possible in a way that I wouldn’t have imagined possible when I was younger, and I’ve wittered about my formative years in North London on these pages before, too. But what about that other part of my life?

There are barely twenty miles between St Albans and London, but the first impression that anybody gets of the city upon arriving there is that you’re conspicuously not in London any more. This is a city in its own right, once the second biggest in England, and the locals are fiercely proud of the fact.

I went to my first match at St Albans City at the start of the 1982/83 season, a home match in the Isthmian League First Division against Walton & Hersham. It was a hot summer afternoon, and most of the crowd sat on the terraces rather than standing. I’d never even considered that a possibility before. Walton & Hersham won 2-0, and somebody – it might even have been the visitors – had two players sent off. One of them might even have been the goalkeeper. Half of this may be false memory syndrome, but I know for sure that City ended up getting relegated, that season.

The seasons that defined me in terms of St Albans City were between 1987 and 1990. Enfield, the team I’d watched as a child, had continued to be available to me because my parents still made the journey back there most weekends to see my grandparents throughout the first years after we moved, but as they started dying off in the 1980s it became less important to go there every weekend. A combination of that, a lack of direct public transport and my own growing teenage autonomy made those few miles between St Albans and Enfield feel like a yawning chasm.

But the atmosphere was different, between these two clubs. St Albans played a division below Enfield but didn’t seem likely to be playing in the same division at any point in the future (it turned out that they were in the same division by the 1990/91 season), but the more pedestrian air there suited me. Enfield won trophies, and knocked bigger clubs out of the FA Cup. St Albans won a couple of promotions, but seldom made headlines. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, and it never really seemed to matter that much. They always seemed to finish between 14th and 17th place in the league. If they started a season badly, the usually recovered. If they started it well, they’d find a way of falling to pieces, somehow or other. They always seemed to revert to their own mean.

And somehow or other, I started going home and away. I didn’t go as part of group, just a solitary, sullen teenager sitting on my own, usually reading When Saturday Comes or a newspaper. I’ve always been something of a split between an introvert and an extrovert, and I was able to indulge the former every Saturday. All it took was a phone call to the supporters club secretary to book a place on the coach a couple of days before the match.

We travelled all over the south east of England, to towns and cities that I’d never have got to see otherwise, mostly for some degree of good reason. To Basingstoke and Wokingham, Aylesbury, Dagenham and Carshalton, amongst many, many others. The football was usually pretty abysmal, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was solitude, sweet solitude, with a football match in the background. I stopped going every week when I got a Saturday job in 1990, and it was another four years before I got back into the habit again. By this time there were other people going, usually on the train, and always drinking booze from 10 in the morning. It had become a social event.

I moved away from St Albans in 2002 and stopped working there in 2006, and I couldn’t move back there again now if I wanted to. St Albans was always moneyed, but the trappings of that affluence are everywhere now. The houses around the railway station, which were once mostly either derelict, squats or bedsits, are now fancy flats and houses. The market, which was once a typical provincial town market packed with hollering fruit & veg vendors and various things that no-one in their right mind would want to buy, now resembles a farmers’ market. The college at which I did my A-levels is housing. Burger King, McDonalds and KFC have all gone from St Peters Street, the main shopping drag, to be replaced by a Five Guys and a couple of sushi places.

Podcast co-host Edward Carter and I get into St Albans at 1.30 for a 5.15 kick-off, which may seem a little like overkill, but I have plans. The city centre reeks of a different kind of wealth, now. I briefly wonder what would have happened had I never moved out of St Albans. How I would ever have afforded to live there? At some point, I ponder to myself, I’d have had to move to Hatfield. We wander around, briefly stop off at a Wetherspoons which had no food whatsoever, eat pizza in a pub with an old friend, and make our way to the ground.

I’ve returned to Clarence Park a handful of times since we moved away to Sussex in 2006, but not for a few years now, and I’m eager to get back there. Ironically, an FA Cup tie which is live on the BBC and at a slightly inconvenient time is the perfect time to catch up with a couple of old friends and to pay another visit to the one football ground that I’ve been to more than any other.

Like St Albans itself, Clarence Park has not changed at all and changed completely since 1982. The tree in the middle of the terrace which denied the club promotion in 1993 (it didn’t, but there’s a whole other story to be told, there) has been gone since 1998. There are segregation fences and crush barriers now, the goals are those box goals that you get everywhere nowadays, and they no longer play a Louis Armstrong ragtime version of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ or a segue of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Cee Cee Rider by Elvis Presley as the teams take to the pitch. But that’s just me, being old.

And the demands of live television have had an influence on the look of the ground for this match, at least. There are enough lorries parked outside to make it look as if the fair’s come to town, and inside the ground extra lights have been put up all over the place. Apparently the floodlights required for National League South football aren’t as strong as those required for high definition night football.

Large, scaffolding covers have been put up behind each goal, ending a decades-long tradition of the whole crowd trying to fit under the standing cover along the side of the ground when it rained. But in other respects, the old ground still looks as handsome as ever. The wooden main stand, first built in 1922, still runs the length of one side of the ground, and the covered terrace opposite still carries a large faintly pop-art Coca-Cola logo. There’s still plenty of space, and low hanging trees fall over the top of the fence that encloses it. Strip away the scaffolding and some of the fencing, and it’s still not changed all that much in decades.

To say that there’s not much cup giant-killing pedigree around these parts would be understating things, too. When I first started going regularly in the mid-1980s, people would talk in hushed tones about reaching a second round replay against Walsall in 1968 and Torquay United in 1980, but on neither occasion had they beaten a League club to get that far, and on both occasions they lost. (For the record, they’d have played Spurs in the Third Round in 1968/69 and Barnsley in 1980/81 had they won.)

St Albans City hadn’t beaten a Football League club since winning a Fifth Qualifying Round match against Brentford in October 1924. There may have been a few people still going when I was a teenager who’d have been able to remember that game. There certainly aren’t any more.

Playing Forest Green Rovers might provoke cries of ‘you’ve got no history’ from some quarters, but in this case there is a bit of history. In 1999, City reached the semi-finals of the FA Trophy and drew Forest Green. I was working on Saturdays at the time and missed the first leg, which ended in a 1-1 draw, but the second leg was on a Sunday, meaning that I could go, for once.

City took an early 2-0 lead and seemed destined for a first ever trip to Wembley, but Forest Green pulled one back and in the second half, a disallowed goal at 2-1 which would have put the tie beyond much doubt proved to be a turning point. The home side overturned the deficit to win 4-3 on aggregate. Wembley would have to wait. More than two decades on, City have still never played there.

The club might have changed, and the city itself might have changed, but a lot of the people have not. If anything, I’m surprised by how many people I do recognise, though I don’t even really get a chance to speak to most of them. I’m somewhat less surprised by how much older we all look now, because we are so much older. Even the teenage lads who used to come along to matches with us in the late 1990s are middle-aged now.

But some of these guys never moved away, or found themselves swapping unkempt non-league football grounds for garden centres on a Saturday afternoon, and are still schlepping across the south of England every other Saturday to watch football of dubious virtue, and at home matches manning the programme and raffle ticket sales, selling spaces on the golden goal card, or working behind the bar, because ultimately somebody has to.

The teams take the pitch to Enter Shikari, the St Albans formed rock band who’ve sponsored City’s shirts since the start of last season. I’m old enough to not have heard of them prior to this arrangement, but it seems to suit all concerned. They’re at the ground for this match, interviewed by the BBC’s Jason Mohammad on the pitch at half-time.

For twenty minutes, it looks as though there might be a repeat of the previous shellackings that City have received against League opposition. Forest Green look bigger, fitter and stronger. Their passing is a few degrees more accurate, and their movement just a little quicker. It’s no great surprise when they take the lead from close range, after eighteen minutes. We draw in our breath at the prospect of what looks likely to be a long evening.

But somehow, this doesn’t quite happen. With the players regrouped, City start to shake off their early nerves. The passing becomes more reliable, the tackling more incisive. Perhaps they’re going to make a game of it after all. And then, in the space of five magical minutes, they turn everything on its head, a glanced header from Mitchell Weiss that skids across the six yard area and in, and then a run and shot from Zane Banton for a second, four minutes later, while everyone is still recovering from the excitement of the first goal. They continue to hold their own until stoppage-time at the end of the first half, when Forest Green level again. 2-2 at half-time, but there’s more than a hint of nervousness in the air during the interval.

It isn’t really spoken out loud, but I’m expecting the worst from the second half. But again, it never quite comes. There are chances at both ends, but these look increasingly like two well-matched sides scrapping it out. But then, with twelve minutes to play, a slip by a Forest Green defender lets Weiss in on the left. He could have panicked and tried a shot from an improbable angle, but instead he pulls the ball back for top scorer Shaun Jeffers to lob the ball in from close range.

About ten minutes into the second half, I notice something all the more personal. In terms of football grounds these days, I tend to be a bit of a wanderer, but back in the day when I actually used to watch matches, my place was behind the goal, just to the left of it, a couple of steps up on the terracing, and I’d gravitated there for this match as if by default. During the quieter passages of play, my mind turns to the hundreds of games I’ve seen here before. It’s a strange feeling, being back at home, but in a home that isn’t really yours any more.

I spend most of the second half standing next to Wolfman. So named because he does look a little bit like a strategically-shaved werewolf, I’d guess that Wolfman has been going to City for a little over thirty years or so though plausibly longer. He’s one of those that make those epic journeys to other market towns across the south of England, and every non-league football club has at least one.

He berates the referee and loudly complains at the fact that he’ll have to take time off work if there’s a replay, which leads to shouts of, ‘FUCK’S SAKE WOLFMAN, SHUT UP! YOU’LL JINX IT!’ from behind us. Wolfman doesn’t care. With about eight or nine minutes to play, he’s imploring the City players to, ‘Just get rid of it! Doesn’t matter where! There’s only a minute or two left!’. There is not only a minute or two left, and it might even be a good job that the players can’t hear him.

But the din is notable. There’s singing coming from both ends of the ground, and at our end among the repertoire is ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Yes, that one. It dates back to some time around the end of the 1990s, and it’s introduction almost certainly had little to do with actual football. Furthermore, it almost works as a football song, building up slowly to, ‘WELL, TONIGHT THANK GOD IT’S THEM INSTEAD OF YOU’, at which point it continues for another couple of minutes. It’s at its funniest usage in the middle of August or April, of course, but this evening, even though I’m not usually a singer at football matches, it’s the only song that I join in with. How could you not?

There’s drama in injury-time, with a magnificent saving tackle and a wonderful save, each of which might have ended in a goal and a replay. But when the final whistle blows, there’s a huge outpouring of joy. Supporters flood onto the pitch, despite the best efforts of the twelve or so stewards behind the goal to stop them, and the players are greeted by disbelieving friends and family. It’s been described as a ‘good old fashioned cup tie’, and there’s little to argue with, there. Forest Green Rovers made changes form their previous league match, and they were a little off their game.

Complacency? Possibly, but the end result was the same regardless of the motivation behind it. On the day, the non-league team played above themselves and the EFL team were sloppy when it mattered. And that’s all it can take. What, if anything, was ‘old fashioned’ about this match was the way in which it played out. Football is calcified in its structures these days, and the most common way for a cup surprise to occur is the smaller team defending like lions for 89 minutes and scoring on the break with their one chance. But this game wasn’t like that. It ebbed and flowed from end to end, and both teams had chances that they might have taken on another day.

We don’t get the chance to take part in the post-match festivities, though I understand that there were sore heads the next morning. There’s only one train back to Brighton that we can get which allows us to get home before the following morning, and that’s leaving 35 minutes after the final whistle blows. Around the ground and on the short walk up to the station, there are people with bemused grins on their faces all over the place.

And small wonder. They’ve caused the surprise of the round, and although the draw for the Second Round is less than favourable – an away match against local rivals Boreham Wood is unpleasant for about nine different reasons, not least of which is the likelihood that they’ll lose, which is likely, considering that Boreham Wood are currently top of the division above them – they’re still in it, and regardless of what happens on the first weekend of December, these moments are the ones that football supporters carry through their lives with them. This particular evening will live a long time in a lot of memories.

I’m happy for them. I’m happy for Wolfman, for my old mates, Colin, Lee, Dave, Pete and Alan. I’m happy for Ian Rogers, who helps run the supporters trust. I’m happy for Dave Tavener, who didn’t miss game in 28 years as a local journalist (and when he finally did, it was only because his car broke down on the way to a game; enough of a story in itself to make the local paper) and who still now presents a weekly podcast on the club, and for Ian Ridley, the journalist who ended up as chairman for a while. I’m happy for Peter Knock, the programme seller who would spend half of every away trip persuading people to take up a square on the Golden Goal card. For all of this strange disparate assortment of people (almost entirely men) who have in some war been in my life.

And there are many others, whose names I’ve forgotten, or whose names I never knew, or who started going in the decade and a half since I was last a regular there. They’ve put in the hard work. They damn well deserved this evening in the spotlight, as well plenty of others whose names still feel so familiar to me, even though they’ve all passed on. Steve and Mike Melnyk, along with their mum, Peter Taylor, Bill Nicholson, Peter Lewis, Clive Churchhouse and many others. There are too many to mention and even more whose names will have escaped me, but I hope that someone had cause to think of them on Sunday evening, and maybe raised a glass to them.

All’s quiet, when I get back to my house in West Sussex. The kids are already asleep, and everything’s peaceful. I’ve led a pretty rootless life, really, but Worthing is home at the moment. It’s a place to live, and it’s fine, though my wanderlust levels have risen slightly, now that I have a new job with no office, meaning that I could live, theoretically, anywhere in the country, should I wish to. Will I ever return to Hertfordshire to live? It doesn’t seem likely. Quite aside from anything else, property prices have been barmy around there for years, and that isn’t showing any signs of slowing. But will I be back? Probably, yes. I missed the old place, it turned out, and trains from Brighton which go directly to St Albans make it a plausible journey for a Saturday afternoon. You may not be able to go back home again, but there’s nothing to stop regular away days.

Readers may be interested to know in a little private experiment that I carried out for this article. Normally, everything on this website is meticulously researched and fact-checked, but on this occasion I made a conscious decision to write the whole thing using my memory only. So there may be mistakes above, but I wanted to write what I felt, so I went from memory before anything else.

You may also be interested to know that this week’s 200% podcast is given over to this trip. It’ll be out on Thursday morning, the 11th November.