ONE rainy day in North Wales 30 years ago I walked into a grocery store and a wall of suspicious silence.
“Hello,” I said cheerfully. That one word identified me as a foreigner, and the rest of the customers immediately reverted to speaking Welsh.
My beef these days is with football fans. When people start talking about football they might as well be speaking Welsh.
I am repeatedly excluded from manly conversation by these rude ‘footballists’ because I know virtually nothing about the game, and knowing nothing about football is akin to having had one’s head lopped off and still turning up in a pub and expecting to be bought a drink.
It is apparently unforgivable.
Football is a language I never learned. You have to know who plays for which team, where they came from and how good they are, where the team is in which league or division, what their colours are and what their ground is called.
When you’ve mastered that, you apparently have to come to terms with who their managers, coaches and physiotherapists are.
The game itself is brilliant to watch, and many’s the time I’ve followed this wondrous interplay of personal and team skills without a clue as to the names of the teams.
As a teenager I went with a gang to a dozen Town games at the old Leeds Road Cowshed, but only because a girl I fancied used to get excited and wave her scarf about when Town scored.
They didn’t score nearly half as much as I would have liked, and I didn’t score at all. But that’s a story for another time.
The only time I got behind a team was in the 1997/98 season, when Emley AFC by some miracle started on the route to the FA Cup.
“I didn’t know village teams could play in the FA Cup,” I said in the pub, but it was too late. They had already started talking Welsh and speaking across the space where my head was supposed to be.
Just for the record, Emley took out Morecambe in the first round, held Lincoln City to a draw then beat them 4-3 in a breathtaking replay, and were finally demolished 2-1 by West Ham: village boys playing against the likes of Frank Lampard, John Hartson and Rio Ferdinand.
A similar story but even more incredible took place in West Auckland in 1909.
It was so incredible they are still talking about it. A team of miners from West Auckland in County Durham won the first World Cup in Turin, Italy that year.
That’s working miners, taking time off from the pits.
With the World Cup rapidly approaching, this is the time to remember what an extraordinary moment in football history that was.
According to Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood, the authors of a play called Alf Ramsey Knew My Grandfather, miners were invited by the tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton to play against the best professional football teams from Italy, Germany and Switzerland.
The cup at that time was called the Lipton Trophy. The miners collected it in 1909 and returned in 1911 to defend their title as world champions, defeating the mighty Juventus 6-1 to retain the cup permanently.
“The trophy is on display at West Auckland Working Men’s Club,” said Ed Waugh.
“It’s magnificent and truly encapsulates the greatest football story ever told, a true story of characters overcoming seemingly impossible odds.
“While its central theme is football, it really is about friendship, solidarity and community. The families had to pawn their belongings to pay for the trip and the lads didn’t know whether they had jobs to return to.”
The trophy isn’t actually in the WMC. It was nicked in 1994. A lifelike replica stands in its place.
The play, if you fancy seeing it, is at Newcastle’s prestigious Theatre Royal from May 11 to 15.