Ooh-aah Cumbriaah, as we say in London
One of my favourite football mags is Hit the Bar, which I've been reading for 25 years. It comes out every six weeks and is usually eight pages long. Three things about it would immediately strike any football fan reading it for the first time.
First, nowhere in its pages will you find a mention of Man Utd. Or Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Rangers, Celtic or any big flash club. Second, the lack of bad language. I don't understand this, as it did used to have the odd "fuck", lots of "crap", quite a bit of "bugger this", "bloody that", the sort of stuff you expect in footer fanzines. Now you could let your maiden aunt or Ann Widdecombe read it.
Third, it's all devoted to one club - Carlisle United. Hit the Bar is the magazine of the London branch of the Carlisle United Supporters' Club. There are around 60 such supporters' clubs in London, still loyally following the fortunes of their home-town clubs. When I become depressed about the state of soccer (oh, I sometimes do, often for minutes on end) as I see the likes of Man Utd turning over £100 million a year or Chelsea's international glamour stars, each taking their pulling power for granted, I think of all the little clubs with no players anyone has ever heard of, which still manage to have devoted followers trekking the length and breadth of Britain to watch them play, get stuffed, then trail all the way home again.
Are they sad gits, losers or what? You can understand why each week coach-loads of Man Utd fans set off from Carlisle and Torquay, Hartlepool and Shrewsbury, not giving a bugger about their home-town club, wanting instead to share in the success and glory of someone else's team. Not much fun supporting Carlisle this season. Or last, despite the incredible escape.
The London supporters had their first meeting on 16 November 1974. CUFC were at that time in the First Division - blink and you missed them. They asked three Cumbrians to be honorary vice-presidents: Derek Batey, ex-Border TV, who used to be famous on television for Mr and Mrs; Melvyn Bragg - what happened to him? - and your very own Hunt. Our three names have appeared on the masthead all these years, although recently Melvyn has been replaced by Peter Beardsley, MBE.
I still have the honour, despite never having been to a club meeting, but last Saturday, I made it. I went to Brunton Park to see Carlisle play Brighton, a match sponsored by the London supporters. They paid £1,500 out of their hard-earned club funds, for which they got a pre-match finger buffet in the sponsors' lounge (yes, they do have one), good seats in the stand (well, there's not a rush for them these days), a full-page advert in the programme and a chance to pick and meet the man of the match. Man Utd and Chelsea get hundreds of thousands from match sponsors, mostly business firms, who can write it off as advertising, publicity or hospitality. CUFC London supporters did it out of pure love. Ahhh.
A total of 46 London-based supporters made the trip. As I looked around the sponsors' lounge, I tried to see a common denominator. Average age 37, with wives, partners and children. No sign of any sad gits. They all seemed to have good middle-class, white-collar jobs.
Malcolm Fawcett, who edits Hit the Bar, was there with his three children, one of whom was mascot for the day. He comes from Seascale, down the Cumbrian coast, and is an accountant, now working for Conoco, the big American oil firm. In his current editorial he apologises for various bits missing in the mag, saying he had to chair a conference in Moscow, and then a girl spilt coffee over him on the Tube.
He was a founding member of the club. Editing the mag takes up a whole week of his spare time every six weeks. I wondered why, with his skills, he was not doing something more worthwhile, saving the planet, finding a cure for cancer, rather than helping a little football club. He has asked himself that. He thinks it does help. It gives exiles in London a focal point, sometimes finding them a job and a place to live.
In the 1980s the London supporters' club nearly packed up, when it was down to 36 members and could manage only three people at a committee meeting. Now it is thriving and hopes to reach the 400-member mark this season.
A quarter of them live in the London area, inside the M25, while the rest are elsewhere in the UK, plus abroad, in countries such as Fiji, the Philippines and Japan. They have several Internet sites and had a club tour of Germany this summer. It's a social thing as much as a football thing - people from Cumbria keeping in touch with each other when they've left home.
Their 25th anniversary committee meeting is on 17 November. It will take place at the House of Commons.
"The meeting follows and slightly overshadows the state opening of parliament," says the announcement in Hit the Bar. Present will be Carlisle's MP Eric Martlew and also, so they hope, the MPs Tony Banks, Joe Ashton and David Clark. Well done, lads, keep up the good work.
On the absence of swearing in the mag, I did ask him that. It was a deliberate change three years ago. Lads who met in the pub, 25 years ago, did rather let themselves go in print. Now in their middle years, with families, they want their children to support the Blues, as members of the Junior Blues, so the language has been cleaned up. And I should think so too.
Is it also a sign of football in our times? Once the property of working men, now a plaything for the middle classes?