I WASN’T expecting time travel at the weekend. But there was Aaron Wilbraham on Match of the Day, scoring a consolation goal for Norwich at Fulham, his first in the Premier League at the age of 32. And all of a sudden, I was transported back to 2001, a time when the nation decided it didn’t want a government containing William Hague and it was still possible to fill up your car without having to visit Wonga.com first. Do I hanker after those days? I’m not sure I do, really. But I’ll come on to that.
Wilbraham was Stockport County’s top scorer and player of the year during the 2000/01 season. Back then, County were just about hanging on to a place in what is now the Championship, playing at the same level as Fulham and Norwich, but about to begin a long descent towards the Oblivion League.
I saw a lot of Stockport that season, as I’d just started working for the town’s local newspaper. For any youngsters reading, a newspaper was like a printed version of the internet that came out once a day. Or in the case of many local papers, once a week. LMFAO.
Wilbraham’s 12 league goals arguably made the difference between staying up (which County did with a game to spare) and going down (which they managed by mid-March the following season). With hindsight, perhaps he was only delaying the inevitable. But even that counts as an achievement, I’d suggest.
And, thanks in part to Wilbraham’s goals, my first season of covering a professional football club had a happy ending to go with a few memories. Here are 10 of those memories, plucked at random:
1) Watching Wilbraham scoring the last-minute winner against Bolton, on his 21st birthday, to end a two-month run without a victory, stretching back to the season’s opening day. County won 4-3, having blown a three-goal lead, and manager Andy Kilner had the look of a man who had just learned his wallet had been handed in at the police station with nothing taken from it.
2) Being thrown out of a post-match press conference by Trevor Francis after a 4-0 defeat at Birmingham because I was talking at the back of the room. (I was trying to phone through a match report. I should have gone outside.) Then having to pull over on the M6 on the way home because my car engine looked as if it was about to blow up. (It didn’t, thankfully.)
3) Wondering if a midweek home game against Norwich at the height of the fuel crisis would go ahead. It did. Norwich turned up and so, remarkably, did some away fans. Their team won 3-1. Goodness knows how they made it home again.
4) The Manstock County fiasco, and the unsuccessful plan to move to Maine Road. I mean: Manstock County? It sounds like a rock festival headlined by Meryl Streep.
5) Driving to Norwich and back on a Tuesday night for a game that saw Stockport trail by three goals at half-time and eventually lose 4-0. An hour into the drive home, I was still in Norfolk.
6) Discovering Kilner had disappeared off home without bothering to conduct a press conference following a home draw against Grimsby, causing me to launch into a sweary rant, much to the bemusement of Yorkshire broadcasting ubermensch John Helm, trying to write a match report nearby.
7) Dealing with Jarkko Wiss, who played for Finland against England in a couple of World Cup qualifiers, and him agreeing to give me his home address so that I could send round a photographer to take a picture of his ankle injury. (You try getting a Championship player’s home address the first time you speak to him these days.)
8) Popping into the new press room (basically a room in the club’s Learning Centre, in a corner of the ground) at half-time during a game against Sheffield Wednesday to discover an incredibly fat man, who clearly wasn’t a journalist, hoovering up all the sandwiches laid on for the media.
9) Covering an employment tribunal brought against the club by Jim Gannon – then a recently-departed player – which was also attended by a rather large bloke whose trousers had split in exactly the same place as his underpants, causing him to unwittingly expose himself every time he sat down.
10) Witnessing the debacle that saw Roy Evans offered and then reject a role as a technical adviser to Kilner, who was furious because he felt the former Liverpool manager was being brought in over his head. With rumours that Kilner might be for the chop, County beat promotion contenders Birmingham 2-0 thanks to two Shefki Kuqi goals. Birmingham fan Jasper Carrott, watching in the stand, looked suitably bemused.
But as that annoying twit used to say in that early 1990s NatWest advert, it wasn’t all work, work, work. And it wasn’t all fun, fun, fun, either. I was in my early 20s, unsure of myself and still figuring life out. Actually, that hasn’t changed, and I’m in my mid-30s now. Here is a little of what I remember of my life in 2000/01:
1) Moving into a houseshare, and then moving out again after four days after discovering that my housemates were nuts. They insisted on doing the cleaning at the same time every night, in the half-hour gap between Coronation Street and Eastenders. One night, when I was in my room during the appointed time, one of the housemates informed me: “You failed the cleaning test.” When I moved out, my landlord threatened me with legal action, as I’d signed a six-month tenancy agreement.
2) Spending what felt like months (but was probably only weeks) chasing a girl I fancied, going out on dates that led nowhere. One night, at a party, she pointed to her feet and started talking about what she called her FM boots. “And we all know what FM stands for,” she said quietly to me. (It stands for frequency modulation.) Flustered, I had no idea how to respond. We still ended up in a taxi together on the way back to her place at the end of the night. But during the journey, she got cold feet, and disappeared as quickly as she could on arriving home, wishing me goodnight. I texted to ask her out for a drink a few days later. She declined.
3) Going as Skeletor to a fancy dress party organised by a friend, who told a few of us that it was a 1980s theme. Arriving there to find that half of the guests hadn’t been told it was fancy dress, and had just turned up in normal clothes. Feeling quite relieved I had an outfit that was easy to discard, unlike the poor woman who turned up as Kermit the Frog. (I say poor; she looked fantastic.)
4) Sitting on the bed in my friend’s room while waiting for her to get ready for a night out, and discovering she owned a copy of William ‘Ken Barlow’ Roache’s autobiography. Flicking through and finding out it went into rather too much detail about his childhood masturbation habits. (My friend said she had never read the book, and that someone else had bought it for her. I do actually believe her.)
5) Going to the Reading Festival, and not getting a wink of sleep because my tent flooded. Calling it quits and getting an early train home before the Stereophonics came on. Saw Oasis. Missed Daphne and Celeste.
Thanks for bringing all of that back, Aaron.
Last on MOTD: Fulham 2 Norwich 1
Commentator: Dan O’Hagan
This is going to sound like the kind of crap name-dropping anecdote that people put on Twitter when celebrities die. You know the sort of thing:
“I met [recently deceased celebrity] in a lift in Skopje/Rotherham/Ayia Napa in August 1998. Seemed a really nice person.”
Ah well. Here goes: I interviewed Aaron Wilbraham after a Stockport game at the end of the 2000/01 season, against Crystal Palace. I don’t really remember anything about it.
But I remember the drive home afterwards, because that was really odd.
For some reason, once I’d completed all of the post-match interviews I needed to do, I ended up in the sponsors’ lounge with a couple of fellow journalists I didn’t know that well. I can’t remember their names now, so I’ll call them Phileas Hardhat and Timmy Strudelhoffen, and keep my fingers crossed that those weren’t their real names.
Hardhat was a gruff, old-school reporter, probably somewhere between the ages of 45 and 80 (it’s hard to tell with journalists sometimes, although he still had all his own hair), while Strudelhoffen was younger, with a whiff of ambition (or perhaps lager). They asked if I’d give them a lift home, and I agreed.
As we passed a large block of flats not far from Stockport town centre, Strudelhoffen suddenly piped up: “You know what? I’ve always wanted to see someone jump from the top of those flats.”
“Yeah, that’d be some sight,” said Hardhat, who then went on to moan about the number of young people in his neighbourhood. “Too many unwashed students,” he opined, possibly oblivious to the fact that I was under 80.
He asked me to drop him off at the end of his street. When I offered to take him to his door, he made it very clear that wouldn’t be necessary. I got the sense that he either didn’t want me to discover exactly where he lived, or that he was secretly homeless, and was trying not to let on. I never did find out which.
For the rest of the journey, Strudelhoffen proceeded to engage me in some remarkably awkward small talk (few people are as awkward at small talk as I am, but this chap beat me hands down). Still, it was preferable to discussing a desire to see people leap to their deaths from high-rise flats.
All of this from an Aaron Wilbraham consolation goal.
Wilbraham is not the first former Stockport County player to score in the Premier League this season – that honour went to his Norwich team-mate Anthony Pilkington in August. But Pilkington doesn’t trigger my memory in the same way.
Perhaps this is just as well. For if every goal by a Norwich player began a train of thought that led to images of Ken Barlow pleasuring himself, I think I might have to undergo some serious counselling before watching Match of the Day in future.
1. Fulham: 8 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
2. Aston Villa: 6 (2L: 4, 3L: 4)
3. Norwich: 6 (2L: 3, 3L: 4)
4. Wigan: 5 (2L: 8, 3L: 5)
5. West Brom: 5 (2L: 5, 3L: 4)
6. Stoke: 5 (2L: 2, 3L: 7)
7. Swansea: 4 (2L: 6, 3L: 4)
8. Sunderland: 4 (2L: 6, 3L: 0)
9. QPR: 4 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
10: Wolves: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 6)
11. Blackburn: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 5)
12: Liverpool: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 4)
13. Tottenham: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
14. Chelsea: 3 (2L: 0, 3L: 5)
15. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
16. Everton: 1 (2L: 9, 3L: 4)
17. Bolton: 1 (2L: 4, 3L: 6)
18. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 3, 3L: 1)
19. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
20. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
2L = On second last (Everton 2 West Brom 0)
3L = On third last (Wigan 2 Stoke 0)
(Teams receive one point every time they are last on Match of the Day. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)