On a chilly Saturday afternoon two weeks ago, my Present politely shook hands with a large chunk of my Past.
Boundary Park football ground transverses the invisible boundary between two adjacent towns – Oldham and Chadderton. We sat in the Chadderton end of the ground – imaginatively abbreviated to the “Chaddy End” by the Oldham intelligenzia. It is unclear where the actual boundary line is – I assume it’s along the halfway line.
We had missed the start of the game due to the delays in parking and buying a ticket. At Oldham you can choose your own seats. On a quiet day you can choose your own kick-off time. FAQ : “What time does the game start?” A : “What time can you make it?”.
In our haste to sit down, we expertly managed to choose three seats behind a stanchion, which proved to be good exercise for the neck muscles. When the game became a little dull (about 3 minutes in), my eyes began to wander, along with my mind. I mused on the boundary between the present and the past. I questioned what had happened to the directors boxes in the main stand. And I remembered beating out tunes on the advertising hoardings – in the days when spectators used to stand and young lads could afford tickets from their own pocket money. As in football, as in life – there are things which had changed, and things which had stayed the same. And not always the right way round.
Two of the stands and the terracing and the turnstiles were the same as they ever were. There is a level of dilapidation where no further discernible dilapidation is possible. We used to drop lighted matches down between the wooden terraces at the back of the Chaddy End. These have gone. And the stands are infested with plastic seats, specially shaped to accommodate a well-built Lancastrian pie-eater’s bottom. Speaking of which – had they (the pies) not run out – I am sure they would have been from the same batch as the ones I chewed through in the 1970s. You know that feeling when you chew and chew and chew but nothing happens?
On the Present side of the nostalgia boundary, things were different of course. One stand at Boundary Park has been replaced by a very large ditch – a target which the Oldham players were finding with alarming regularity. Unlike the goal net. These days they have more than one ball, so the man in the hi-viz jacket had plenty of time to retrieve the latest sliced ball from the bunker. They also have more than one substitute. I used to be able to name the Oldham 11 – now I would have to be able to name the squad. I can’t. And radios have been replaced by smart-phones. You can now read the scores at your own cost rather than listen to them for free. Such is the inexorable march of progress
Outside the ground, there remains the long, dark stone wall stretching up the slope of Sheepfoot Lane, enclosing the eponymous Boundary Park hospital. The road used to be made of cobbles – in fact I was almost shaken out into life by them , as my mother was driven from home to hospital on the day of my birth. The cobbles have long gone. And so generations of cyclists speeding down the lane have missed out on that unique, magical feeling of being transported from bone-rattling cobbles onto the blissfully smooth tarmac at the bottom of the hill. It is a feeling I have yet to rediscover in life. I doubt I ever will.
Suitably becalmed, I would lean round the corner onto Boundary Park Road before wheeling my bike up the path at the back of our house. The house is still standing after all these years.
The old running track next to the hospital is now a B&Q and the field and farmhouse at the back of our house now appears to be some sort of car showroom. Commercialised anti-progress, in my old-fashioned opinion.
If only we could pick and choose which of our monuments and memories survive.
As I mused, memories and current realities tackled each other, in some weird game of past versus present. Past was 3-1 up at half-time. I had stood right here 40 years ago behind the crash barriers with Pennington, Lewis and Rooney, surging forwards as Shaw or Fryatt netted another goal at the Chaddy End, or Whittle scored the winner against Man Utd.
I felt like standing up and shouting out “does anyone remember me?”. I didn’t of course. I feared the echo of my own voice in the silence of the stands. And the intolerable evisceration of my memories.
Or more likely, “sit down Bottomley – you old fool, who the chuff do you think you are?”
The whistle blew and we filed out as I always did, muttering about the performace and the result. We spilled out onto Sheepfoot Lane, walked along the long, dark stone wall stretching up the hill. Bottomley father, Bottomley son and future Bottomley daughter-in-law. Consigning another day and sketchy memories to the flimsy pages of our personal history.
Maybe one day in the Future, they will walk past the ground and tell their children how they used to come and watch the occasional game here with grandad.