Bucks Words and Forwards…

As a child, I could often be found doing one of two things. I was either playing table football, or writing stories on an old typewriter my parents had in the house. Both of these were usually solitary activities, as although not an only child, the spacing of approximately five years between myself and my older and younger siblings meant, during school terms at least, that we were not often together, with one at home whilst another was at school. In addition, my father worked long hours and my mother spent a lot of time taking care of domestic matters, so my recollection is often of being left to my own devices.

I loved sports, but wasn’t very good at them. A school report recounted that whilst I got a ‘C’ for achievement in physical education, I got an ‘A’ for effort. Conversely, I was very good at English, and would love to write stories, or would read books from the class library that I deliberately chose because they were a little more grown up. As an example, I read Richard Adams’ ‘Watership Down’ at junior school, principally because it had a lot of pages; it was an attempt to put myself above my peers. I was a small child, beset with a lot of anxieties, such as being the only child not to go on school trips because I didn’t want to leave my mother, and I found it hard to fit in at school as a result. I was timid, and I sought escape in escapism, hammering away at the typewriter on a flight of fancy. I loved words, would run around the house shouting out words that just felt good to say out loud. My mother would listen to the radio a lot as she did her housework, and I came to love radio, even more so as I got more into football. I’d listen to the radio commentaries on Radio 2, with the great Peter Jones relaying tales of Liverpool’s domination of Europe down crackly phone lines from far-flung countries. Then came the turn of Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa, and whichever club it was I was listening, captivated by the descriptions of vast concrete stadia in European outposts, brought to life by intimidating crowds into which those English heroes ventured like Richard the Lionheart in the Crusades, bearing the cross of St.George. I’d set my table football up and play matches against myself, and I’d hand-write team sheets, making notes of any goals that were scored. I’d even go so far as to get my cassette recorder, a birthday gift when aged perhaps 10, and commentate on my table football games, mimicking the commentary styles I’d heard on the radio. I doubt any of those recordings still exist, thankfully.

As I entered my teens, I got a little more confident, and I attended my first live football match. It wasn’t a bad one to begin with; a European Championship qualifier between England and the Republic of Ireland at Wembley. England won 2-0, Kevin Keegan scored twice. I had managed to get the last place on a school trip when another child didn’t turn up with his deposit, despite having put his name down first, and the main thing I remember about the whole experience was how big everything was. The journey, the crowd, the stadium. I didn’t have any friends on the trip, again because I was a bit timid, however I was taken under the wing of an older boy who was a bit of a tearaway, but who clearly had a heart of gold, because he took it upon himself to look after me, make sure I didn’t get lost. I never thanked him, so if you’re reading this, David Breeze, thank you.

From thereon in, my football watching was more local. I gravitated towards my home-town team, Telford United. Although not a fan, I was aware of the club because my father worked for the club chairman and main benefactor, Frank Nagington, after whom a stand at the ground is named. My father also worked with Brian Hart, who played in midfield for the club and who also happened to be our milkman! Brian’s son Andrew would in fact call to play football with me whilst his father collected monies from his customers, and he’d wear Brian’s white No.8 shirt from their Wembley FA Trophy win in 1971. In the early 1980s, the club caught my eye by reaching the first round proper of the FA Cup, when they beat Wigan Athletic. I wasn’t at that game but went to their next tie, a 1-1 home draw with Tranmere Rovers. They lost the replay, but within a few months were heading towards Wembley in the FA Trophy. I went with an acquaintance from school to the home quarter-final, a 4-1 win over Dartford, and I was starting to get hooked. The club did reach Wembley, winning the final with two Dave Mather goals to beat Northwich Victoria, and I was disappointed that I had to wait until August to go again. They followed that Wembley win by embarking on a series of FA Cup ‘runs’, reaching the fourth round in 1984 and then the fifth round in 1985, losing 3-0 to Everton at Goodison Park.

By now I was a fully fledged fan, and I supported the club, chiefly at home but sometimes away from home, probably until the early 1990s. I retained my interest in the club, but I reached a point where I felt they were treading water, and I’d go to games and think “I’ve seen this one before”. It didn’t help that I’d started also to attend ice hockey games, at my local team Telford Tigers, and when faced with a choice between the two, hockey won. It was fast, exciting, but also you were closer to the action, closer to the players, who would come into the bar after matches and drink with the fans. The feeling was one of just being more involved, and as a result my passion for Telford United waned.

I still had the desire to write, but being a quiet and rather bashful and timid teenager I was never going to follow that ambition. My family couldn’t afford for us to go to university, and my siblings and I didn’t entertain any hopes of doing so. In truth I don’t think expressing a desire to become a journalist would have cut much ice. I suppose I always felt that my parents view was that it wasn’t ‘a proper job’, that you wouldn’t make much of a living doing it, so we weren’t really encouraged to follow our dreams. I got a ‘proper’ job in a bank, and then after a few years I moved to work for our local water company.The writing dream was gone. Or maybe not…

Ice hockey was what my weekends were all about, and I successfully encouraged a number of work colleagues to come along. A fair number similarly got hooked, and at a game in around 1998 one of them found himself sat next to a rookie journalist from our local newspaper. That was Tim Nash from the Shropshire Star. He knew little of hockey, but had been sent to cover it anyway, and assailed my friend with questions about what was happening, etc. My friend told him that he didn’t know that much either, but that he knew a man who did, and with that he was given my phone number. I helped him out with stuff on the rules, the characters, the rivalries, and enjoyed being seen as an ‘expert’ (of sorts!) A year later, he was due to be covering both Telford United and the Telford Timberwolves (a new incarnation of the team), but changed face-off times meant he couldn’t cover both. He asked if I would like to write the match reports for the newspaper, and I jumped at the chance. I started to write copy for him, and as a bonus he passed on his role writing copy for two national hockey magazines. I was going to be paid for writing! I would provide match reports, and I’d phone the club’s Canadian player-coach for his thoughts on the game, injury updates, that sort of thing. Alas, it lasted just six weeks. The club’s owners, running things on a tight budget, had a dispute with the rink operators, the local council, and unable to get access to the rink at times that fitted with their players’ day jobs they pulled the plug. They didn’t want to lose money putting out a side they felt wouldn’t be able to compete, and though I understood I was hugely disappointed. I didn’t seek to continue the writing; my thought was that I’d had my little go at my dream, and that it had ended for a reason, because it wasn’t to be.

For about six years, I didn’t really attend any live sports, save for a few hockey games on overseas trips to the United States and Canada. It was then that AFC Telford United were being born out of the wreckage of failed tycoon Andy Shaw’s ambition to own a Football League team. I watched from a distance as the club was reborn, and at the end of their first season I went to their play-off final victory over Kendal Town. The club was gathering momentum, something that’s been well-documented elsewhere, including in one of my other blog entries, of which more later. I found myself back at the Buck’s Head, not the New Buck’s Head, and AFC Telford United were my team once more.

Back in summer 2010, I felt like I wanted to get involved. The Bucks had just installed Andy Sinton as their new manager, and I had a hankering to write for the club’s match day programme. I worked, and indeed still work, with data and statistics, and the increasing use of data analysis in football gave me an idea that there was a gap in the programme for something statistics-based. The club’s statistician, the estimable Maurice Barker, already contributed to the programme, however I saw his stats page as being something different to that which I had in mind. Maurice can tell you how many games Carl Rodgers played for the Bucks, or how many times we’ve beaten Tamworth, but my vision was for a page that looked at whether statistics about current performance might give some clues as to how a game might unfold. As an example, I look at when a team scores its goals; do they score more in the first or second half? Do they have a habit of scoring or conceding in the last five minutes of a match? I hoped that it might provide some discussion points and also genuinely give some insight, and it satisfied a little craving of mine to contribute something. If truth be known, once I’d written the articles I rarely looked at them, I didn’t even buy a programme to see them in print. It was something I did for me, and if other people liked it then that was good. However, I never went out of my way to see what any thought of it; that may seem odd, and I now accept that it is, but more of that later.

Fast forward to 2016…

I was still writing my regular article, but will admit that at times it felt like an obligation, and inspiration was sometimes hard to locate. At the beginning of the year, and in the midst of some challenging personal circumstances, namely a separation, football gave me a focus, something to look forward to. However, AFC Telford United were struggling, so much so that a lot of the club’s own supporters thought relegation from National League North was inevitable. Not really a lot to look forward to in that, surely? So you’d think, but out of nowhere, the club’s management of Rob Smith and Larry Chambers made an inspired signing in Josh Wilson, and suddenly results started to change. I won’t go into that too much, chiefly because I’ve written about it elsewhere on this blog (https://buckswriter.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/bucks-to-the-wall/). However, writing that appreciation of two men whom I hold in the highest regard not only gave me an escape, it started something. I’d written a couple of blog entries for Mike Sheridan, another Bucks fan who was, at the time, studying to become a journalist at Glyndwr University in Wrexham, and one of them, about AFC Telford’s search for a new identity, had been well received, albeit amongst a small captive audience. The ‘Bucks To The Wall’ piece seemed to strike a chord with fans once more, but the real high point for me came when I received a message from Rob Smith, via a mutual friend, that he and Larry Chambers had really liked what I’d written. It had stirred a lot of good memories for them, and he even used the word “sensational”. At a time when I was finding it hard to smile about life, Rob’s words of appreciation put a silly grin on my face. If he liked it, I didn’t need to care what anyone else thought of it; the subject of the piece liked it, loved it, even. That was hugely exciting, and gave me a sense of it having been worthwhile, even when some people might have thought I should be dealing with my collapsing marriage rather than messing about writing about football.

A few months later, I spotted on the football club’s website that they were looking for someone to write content for the match programme. I felt sure I’d seen the same request in the previous close season, so didn’t really think much of it; I had an idea that they’d just repeated the same request for volunteers, that there wasn’t a position to be filled. I was wrong. Another week or so later and I noticed that Stuart Preston, who had previously interviewed players and written content for the programme, mentioned via Twitter that because of his commitments to playing badminton, commitments that were to take him overseas, he couldn’t fulfil his previous role. I was at something of a loose end, had the time, and now there was an opportunity. I had always dreamt of writing about sport, but to write about my own team, to make a contribution? Encouraged by a friend, I realised I had to go for it. I’d learned from raking through the ashes of my relationship that one of my problems was anxiety, fear of trying, of playing safe. I understand where this came from, and also understood if I was to try and lock those fears away I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. I contacted the programme editor, James Baylis, and familiar with my previously small contribution to the programme he was happy to give me the chance. He has recently set up his own company, and producing the programme was an income stream for him as he looked to get things off the ground. I thought that by helping myself I’d also be helping the club and helping James  at the same time.

I took some advice from Stuart, and I then met James at the club’s last pre-season friendly, against a Birmingham City XI. He showed me the ropes a little, made a few introductions, and within an hour or two I found myself, digital voice recorder in hand, interviewing the new club captain, Gianluca Havern, and Lee Fowler, a much-travelled former professional who was my first big interview. I had thought a little about what to ask, basic questions such as “what are your hopes for the season?”, and they both responded at sufficient length to give me enough to produce what James needed. I came home from the game and set to work turning the audio into text. I was bursting with ideas, and put them to James, who was enthusiastic and supportive. By the copy deadline of Wednesday, three days before the season’s first game, I’d written or contributed seven articles for the programme.

The first game of the football season is always a day where the possibilities are infinite, where optimism reigns and the harsher realities of what the season might hold have yet to bite. For me that sense was heightened by the fact that what I had written was going to be on sale, for people to read. I suppose I was a little nervous, but excited also. Alas, I got to the ground too late to buy a copy, they had all gone! I couldn’t pretend that was anything to do with me, more likely people want an opening day programme so that they can match the names of the new players to faces. I managed to get a copy at the end of the game, when someone kindly passed theirs on to me; having seen my name dotted throughout it they had remarked that the programme seemed like ‘The Richard Worton Show’. It wasn’t, and isn’t in any way all down to me, there are many other people who contribute, and I will always to try give them the recognition they deserve.

I quickly learned that the cycle of matches means that you need to think ahead, plan who you are going to speak to and do some research. The last thing I wanted to do was come across badly; I didn’t want the players to see me and think I was some sort of trainspotter. I knew I had to earn their trust, and I’d do that by doing a good job, by knowing my stuff. Being able to attend all of the team’s games became an obvious thing to need to so also; it’s not easy to write or speak authoritatively if you haven’t seen the team play a particular match. I also started going along to see the team train. That in particular made me worry that I might be seen as a ‘hanger-on’, but to me it felt important; if I was writing about the players I wanted them to know who I was. In that way, I hoped if they ever read something they didn’t like they’d be able to let me know. So far, they haven’t done so, therefore I’m either doing OK, or they haven’t the heart to tell me; I hope it’s the former.

As the season has gone on I’ve expanded my contributions to the programme; I hope that the additions have been well received, and am happy to receive feedback from people as the last thing I would want is for it to be seen as me being self-indulgent. Writing for the club is something I do for the club, and for James also, but largely speaking I am doing it for myself. As my @BucksWriter Twitter biography says, I am “scratching a lifelong itch” by writing for the AFC Telford United programme, but it’s more than that. Writing was my release, it’s now become my passion, and I’m passionate about telling the stories of the people at the club, whether they be the players, managers, staff, volunteers or fans. I don’t do it for recognition, though obviously I hope people enjoy what I do; I do it because forming relationships with people at all of those different levels, and even extending that to other clubs and media organisations, helps to kill off my anxieties. It does that by making me feel that I’m contributing, and that I have something to offer. I now share in the triumphs and disappointments of the team in a way I thought no longer possible, and as well as the writing I now also do the club’s Twitter match commentary. Being a commentator or writer was my childhood dream, and I hope I can give those not at the game a sense of what I am seeing and hearing, but also feeling. My original programme contribution tended to be about facts, and whilst I like facts, the game should make you feel something. That’s what doing this has given back to me, that passion for my club, for people, and having lost it once I don’t intend to let it go again.

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