I had to put on a jacket, collar and tie and look as presentable as possible. Luckily, we have a good Oxfam in Cockermouth and anyway it's only once a year. This is when I get invited into the directors' box at Carlisle United at the beginning of each season. Fortunately, it paid dividends right away.
My friend Lord Clark of Windermere (a member of Tony Blair's first cabinet, when he was plain David Clark) had another guest that day, and before the game he offered us a tour behind the scenes. While the lads were out on the pitch warming up, we knocked on the dressing-room door, waited and then walked in, expecting the place to be empty except for the suffocatingly heavy presence of liniment. Ah, it took me back. I used to go into the Spurs dressing room 35 years ago, when I was doing a book. Not much has changed, except flares have gone and the energy drinks have funny shapes.
To my surprise, there was a lone figure in a corner, writing something on a blackboard. He glanced towards us, saw three boring blokes in boring suits, assumed we were all directors and went on writing. I realised it was Carlisle's manager, Greg Abbott. He was writing the names of the Brentford team, which he had just been given. Having done that, he started adding some words under each name.
Obviously this was some sort of exhortation or information for the lads, to gee them up or gear them up. He glanced towards us, sensing that some nosy bugger was prying, so I looked the other way, pretending I wasn't interested in what he was doing. Would it be abusive or libellous? We all know what footballers are like among themselves (much the same as cabinet ministers are), so presumably he would be using language they would understand.
“Bastard cheat", "Useless twat", "Fat-arsed diver", "Kick him in the bollocks early doors": those were the technical instructions I assumed he could be giving. When he had left the room, I was able to sneak a proper look - and they turned out to be utterly polite and harmless. "Likes heading the ball," it said about one defender. Another one was described as having "No pace". I had so hoped to improve my vocabulary of contemporary football terms. It could, of course, have been a cover. This was the censored version, in case any directors were around. Not quite the same words he would use in the team talk.
One of the joys of watching in the lower leagues is suddenly seeing players you thought were long dead, once household faces - at least in football households - but who had disappeared without you ever realising. In Carlisle's team that day were two phizogs I immediately recognised. One was Graham Kavanagh - how could I have forgotten his grey hair? - once of Wigan and Sunderland. The other was Ian Harte, that full-back with the deadly left peg who played for Leeds when they were half decent. I was last aware of him when I turned on a Spanish game and saw to my surprise that he was playing for Levante. I remember wondering if he was the last Brit left in Spain, as Becks and Owen were long gone. They don't need or want our lads any more, now that La Liga is the best in the world.
Kavanagh and Harte didn't do Carlisle much good, though, as Brentford thumped us 3-1, and the home supporters were well miffed. I was standing with the other directors as we clapped the team off the pitch, as one does, when a particularly abusive supporter yelled straight up at me. "Spend some money, you tight gits."
I knew I shouldn't have worn smart clothes.