I ought to come clean immediately. This wasn’t my first match, or even the second … or third. However, more than any other it, with hindsight, clearly had a profound effect on me and my later enthusiasm football grounds (note the careful omission of the word ‘Groundhopper’); the more decrepit, the better.
OK, for the sake of completeness, lest I be condemned as a total fraud, let’s get those formative details out of the way. My very first match (I have no idea of the date or the score) was a Schoolboy International – England vs. Scotland – at The Den, probably in 1968 or 69. I recall that the tickets had been given away at school and my dad was no doubt pressurised into taking me, as he was far more into horse racing than football (a couple of years later – August 1970 – I also pressurised him into taking me racing at Epsom, but that’s another story).
Although Millwall was my local professional club, playing in all-white back then and boasting the likes of Derek Possee, Harry Cripps, and Eamonn Dunphy in their team; not surprisingly I wasn’t allowed anywhere near Cold Blow Lane on my own, so I never became a Millwall fan. Instead, my Uncle Dave came to the rescue and took me to Stamford Bridge. My first game there was a League game vs. Burnley which the visitors won 3-2, and I marked the occasion by vomiting all down the side of Uncle Dave’s white Mini on the way home (I still get travel sick in Mini’s to this day).
What was special about this game at Champion Hill however, was that it was the first match I was permitted to attend on my own. Well, not entirely on my own; it had been suggested by a friend at school that I come along, but you know what I mean. Champion Hill was a short number 37 bus ride from Peckham Bus Garage, to Goose Green, East Dulwich; and a short walk from there. I can’t recall the exact date but thanks to the wonderful ‘Football Club History Database’, which should be amongst everybody’s ‘Favourites’ I can confirm the year, and by a process of deduction make an educated guess that it was quite likely 9 September 1972.
It’s interesting that my first experience of a non-League football ground was not a roped-off pitch with a small shelter as might be the case today. Back then there were still some amazing old stadiums around and Champion Hill was one of the best of all. It was a venue with a capacity of over 20,000 with an enormous pitch-roofed stand along one touchline, and deep covered terracing (covered on the far side) all around. The stand alone had seating for 2,400 and everything was painted blue. Nowadays, when I think about my love of old traditional football grounds, it is quite clear where this fascination comes from. By this time course, the crowds were nothing like the 20,744 who attended the FA Amateur Cup Final there in 1933. The terraces were overgrown with weeds and crumbling, and we spent most games wandering around, just like the young teens that irritate me at matches today, rather than taking too much interest in the football. I certainly don’t remember too much about this particular game, other than Hamlet lost and that Hampton played in white shirts and black shorts. On occasions however, we would sit in the stand and savour the atmosphere (largely the smell of chips from the Chippy at the entrance to the ground).
After a few games I confirmed my allegiance by purchasing a hand-knitted scarf in the club colours. Now as any non-League aficionado will tell you, the Hamlet colours are pink and blue. Imagine an all royal blue strip, with a bright pink vertical stripe down the front of the shirt and you’ll get the picture. Living in Peckham, I have to confess that I tended to keep the scarf hidden until I reached the ground. There’s no point being a loyal supporter and getting bashed up for wearing a ‘girly’ scarf after all. I also purchased a few old programmes from the shed that served at the club shop, but thankfully, this was an affliction that didn’t last; I soon had other items to collect … like vinyl.
Apart from the aforementioned chip shop (there were no refreshments on sale at the ground as I recall), my other abiding memory of Champion Hill was a TV shop opposite East Dulwich station. Here we would pause outside on the way back to the bus stop, to watch the teleprinter on BBC Grandstand as it slowly revealed the football results from around the four divisions.
Before long I was travelling to away games, and far flung venues such as Sutton United, Woking and Bishop’s Stortford. Of course, none could compare to Champion Hill and when my school relocated from Camberwell to Wallington, necessitating a train journey; I often travelled by the most circuitous route possible from Peckham Rye and looked wistfully out of the train window at it passed Champion Hill (East Dulwich), and also Wimbledon’s old Plough Lane ground (Hayden’s Road) and Sutton’s Gander Green Lane (West Sutton).
Who cared if I missed Assembly, the train journey was far more interesting.