Millwall Football Club’s floodlights were just the other side of the railway arches from my bedroom window and so, inevitably, I followed the entire male side of our family into their glare.
Once I reached the age of five, Dad deemed me steely enough to attend my first fixture. It was Millwall v Newport County, which we won handsomely, 4-0. Few moments in my life rival the experience of attending my first game, of being instantly exploded into the screeching Hogarth sketch wired to the national grid that was match day at the Old Den.
Overnight, Watch with Mother had lost its edge. As we left the ground that winter’s night in Cold Blow Lane, inching along familiar pavements made fantastic by the tumult, with a dozen of his dock mates smoking, jabbering, swearing all at once, Dad shouted down to me: “Enjoy that boy?”
Enjoy it? I haven’t stopped shaking since.
Dad felt the call of this club deep in his bones. Millwall as a thing, a manifestation, walked with him always, making it part of who he was. Christ, he was actually from Millwall, one of those children raised in Millwall, he worked in the Millwall docks. Such personal identification made him wildly over-protective toward his club and down the years he chalked up a record for being ejected from many different grounds, including the Den.
Some of my earliest football memories are of being beside him as we noisily departed stadiums before the final whistle – usually with stewards, sometimes a policeman, showing the way. Gillingham, Oxford, Southend, on at least two separate occasions at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park, and most vividly, during a 6-1 defeat at Loftus Road – these were but a few of the grounds where Dad made an early exit amid a flurry of flailing arms and bad language.
I soon got used to it and would just sigh as I was denied the dénouement at yet another match. I would also, during school holidays, wander around to the notoriously intimidating ground – once described as “an enormous trap” – to watch the players training.
You could do that then, simply amble unchallenged through the club gates and sit on the echoing terraces while your heroes larked about in front of you. I would then stand in the tiny car park, wait for them to get changed and ask them for all the latest in a series of repeated autographs. In all I was as besotted with my football club as any fan of the Beatles then or Justin Bieber today.
I could play a bit too. I played for school and borough – Bermondsey – and rose early every Sunday to take part in the far-off Norwood Sunday league for a team inexplicably called Loughborough.
The one thing I didn’t have was aggression. I could be intimidated by an opposing team member at the drop of an eyebrow. I’d seen many post-match scores settled in the changing rooms and it didn’t appeal to me. So on the pitch I was fly, a good goal scorer, and blessed with what they call a good footballing brain – but no bottle at all.
As my dad put it after one lacklustre match: “Don’t get stuck in much, do ya, boy?” And here would be a perfect point to once and for all let everybody know I did not kill Bob Marley. Let me say it again: Bob Marley’s death had nothing to do with me.
Now, if you are unaware of the internet legend that claims I did indeed kill Bob Marley, you’re probably wondering quite why an individual should wish to go round noisily ruling themselves out of murder inquiries. Particularly celebrity ones. Particularly if the celebrity concerned was not actually murdered.
Well, I know exactly who to blame for this criminal slur. Me. Oh, and I had an accomplice. My big mouth. OK, so the rumour goes that while representing the New Musical Express football team against the Wailers one evening, I savagely tackled Bob Marley and mangled his big toe. So injured was Marley that he had to hobble off.
Cut to several years later and Bob tragically dies of a cancer that doctors say originated from an old footballing injury. In his toe. Got it? No further questions, your witness. Except, and here’s a humiliating confession, I never did play football against Bob Marley and the Wailers.
It’s true that in 1974, many years before I joined the NME, the nascent Jamaican legends had indeed played an informal match in Hyde Park against an NME XI. And it’s true that I later played many games for the same – rather good – rock press team. But that wasn’t until 1979 and, useful a squad as we could be, the hurtful truth was that knocking over the likes of the Jam and Madness hardly pointed to glory when old stagers constantly reminded us young pups how good Bob and the boys were.
You couldn’t get near them, apparently, and to pit yourself against opposition of that calibre was, unlike those pesky lightweights, a real test. Which was why, many years later, on the radio, I shamefully parlayed my playing past to include the Wailers fixture.
On about the tenth retelling of my boast – and by that I mean lie – a chuckling caller interjected, “Here, you weren’t the one that gave him that injury that killed him, were you?!” and I suddenly figure how funny it would be if indeed that grim penny dropped on me live on air. Feigning shock, I pretended to piece together the events and of course recalled how heavily I had actually tackled the great man at one point.
For the rest of the show I pretended to be very distracted by this awful realisation. Then I went home. Then the internet got invented. Then people started hissing at me in the street. Then it was too late.
Above and beyond such things as dates and radio bravado, though, is the undeniable fact that anyone who knows me can vouchsafe: far from being some sort of midfield animal, I’ve never actually put in a tackle in my life and am rightly infamous for it. Useful in other ways, maybe. But getting stuck in, as Dad would say? No. See, they might bite back. Even from the grave.