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  • Phil Blacker

Farewell Bootham Crescent

So finally it’s farewell old friend. It’s been the longest of goodbyes, protracted by problems pre-dating a pandemic which then denied us the chance to say goodbye properly at all. So often it appeared the final game was coming, then the next one and then the next, prolonging the painful exit – you knew it was coming, but the elongated delays somehow made a state of denial all the easier to exist in.

In the end, when that end finally came, it was perhaps appropriate in the context that no-one knew it at the time. The scheduled last hurrah was postponed because of the pandemic, although at least the restrictions had briefly been eased to allow what would therefore prove the final fixture to be played in front of a section of supporters, and it even ended in a victory. Josh King’s goal against Guiseley the last to bring a roar, only from the fortunate few rather than a full house, a fitting footnote might be stretching it but in these times any solace can certainly be sought.

For me any hope of a last trip down memory lane, a concluding look around the old place, was denied by government guidance. Living in a different tier meant no chance to shed a tear in person. At least I was there in cut out form for last season’s play-off, although the less said about that performance the better – if the crowd hadn’t been made out of cardboard there wouldn’t have been many of them left by the end. Cardboard Phil ended up round the dinner table in my enforced absence at the Blacker family home this Christmas, and was probably still perched there as that winning goal against Guiseley went in.

But at least there’s a certain symmetry in my particular story which also began in the family home. For to focus on the end would be churlish, instead let’s reminisce rather than regret. I take you back to October the 4th 1986, the day before my 8th birthday. A few months earlier the World Cup in Mexico had really stirred an already developing passion in the beautiful game – glorying in the goals of Gary Lineker, mesmerised by Maradona, outraged by the Hand of God. My increasing interest in football was by now bordering on the obsessive, and as unexpected as it was for the parents of a boy brought up on a remote rural farm, they realised this was more than a passing whim and finally bowed to the inevitable – probably the most memorable birthday present I’ve ever had was arranged, a trip to see my first ever professional football match…at Bootham Crescent.

Now I can’t pretend York City against Mansfield Town in the old Third Division bore much resemblance to the World Cup that had so captured the imagination – and a miserable 3-1 defeat set the tone for much of what has followed supporting the Minstermen. But there was something about the sights and sounds of that day, of that stadium, that instantly had me hooked and remain embedded in the soul. No matter that Ian Stringfellow tormented the York defence that cold afternoon and that Gary Ford’s goal was barely even a consolation, sign me up – I’m City til I die!

That first trip was memorable for so many reasons, none more so than the behind the scenes tour my parents had somehow arranged for me and a handful of school friends. Not only did I get to see my local side in person for the first time, access having previously been restricted to snippets of highlights on regional TV, listening when possible on the radio and the local newspaper match reports that I’d pour over, but we were invited into the inner sanctuary. From the club shop for the must have match program, to the secretary’s office and, scarcely believably, on into the dressing rooms an hour or so before kick-off.

And there they were. These demi-gods of my childhood, preparing for action. Denis Smith the manager readying his tactics, Ricky Sbragia strapping on his shin pads, Dale Banton pulling on the famous red and blue colours. It was almost too much to take in, and some of the memories are now a little hazy. But not all of them. Where was Keith Walwyn, the goalscoring colossus of my youth? A strapping centre forward (sadly no longer with us, taken way too soon nearly 18 years ago) who was my original footballing icon, my first encounter with him was an unorthodox one. Glancing around all the faces, hoping for a photo opportunity, I couldn’t see Keith… until he came striding out of the showers - butt naked. The awkward amusement amongst a group of schoolboys was one thing, the reaction of City’s star striker, my Mum and Mrs Corser, our chaperones on the day, when they all unexpectedly came face to face was quite another. The dressing room visit was hurriedly cut short, I missed out on my photo and York’s top scorer was a surprise late omission from the team that day – I never did find out if the reason was related!

Never again did I venture into the Bootham Crescent dressing room but over the years there’s not much else of the stadium I haven’t seen. Whether it be crammed in on the terraces behind the goal in the David Longhurst Stand with my Dad or my mates, paying the extra pound to take a seat in the Popular Stand with my Mum or Grandpa, up in the (relatively) posh seats in the Main Stand when invited into the Vice Presidents Lounge by our neighbour and renowned York fan Dougie Mack, (revelling in the chance to vote for the man of the match and take advantage of unlimited half time sandwiches and a cup of tea), to sitting in the press box cutting my teeth career wise reporting for Radio York. Whatever the circumstances there was always a certain thrill.

It wasn’t the biggest, the smartest, the most modern. Many of my school friends used to scoff. Why go to little old York City when you could support Liverpool, or Arsenal, or Manchester United? Well because it was home. It was the stage on which my teams dreams were dashed or occasionally, and all the more memorably, came true. It stirred the emotions, memories were made, friendships fostered, a relationship with the sport from which I’d fortunately forge a career was formed.

And it all happened here, under the floodlights in this small pocket of the city of York. More memorable for me than the Minster, the Viking Centre or the Shambles. Sandwiched as it was between the army barracks, the terraced housing and B&B’s and the railway line. There was the often arduous task of finding a parking space somewhere along Bootham (an out of town replacement should have some benefits), or the mile long walk from the train station, past the bingo hall and the boozers, the smell of the fast food vans, beyond the away coaches and the police dogs, a swift transaction with the program sellers, occasionally pushing the boat out for a half time lottery ticket or two, onwards through the turnstiles or later the press entrance – a ritual and routine ingrained forever.

On the pitch the highlights are elevated by the years of mediocrity or worse that sandwiched them, as at any club. The famous wins, different generations of club legends all viewed from the same setting over the years and to a similar soundtrack of ‘we are York'’ echoing from the Shippo. At various stages of life, from that infant introduction, to the more serious secondary school sporting rivalries, returning during university holidays and then more intermittently when work allowed, or at one stage for work itself, there was a comforting familiarity about a trip to Bootham Crescent, whatever the context.

The famous 1985 FA Cup victory over Arsenal was just a year before my inaugural visit, but I’ve been there for the Manchester United and Everton League Cup wins, the play-off semi-final success over Bury and onwards to Wembley and so many more. And times tinged with tragedy too – watching David Longhurst lose his life on the pitch from the stand that now bears his name will always be a cause of sombre contemplation.

I’ve marvelled over the full back play of Andy McMillan, thrilled at the darts down the wing of Super Jon McCarthy or walked in a Tony Canham wonderland. Hailed the saves of Chris Marples and Dean Kiely, celebrated the goals of Paul Barnes and, of course, the great Keith Walwyn. Bizarrely, one of the last Wikipedia entries for Bootham Crescent details how, in 2018, it was transformed into the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the filming of a Bollywood movie called Gold. Inexplicably, in an unrelated quirk of fate and one-off career diversification, I was in that movie playing the part of a BBC commentator. I would never commentate at Bootham Crescent again and now, without knowing it at the time, have watched my last football match there. But it will always remain that mystical little piece of land where the magic happened.

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