With another Six Nations underway and the buzz building at Pontypool Park, I’ve been thinking back to my first game and how I became a Pooler supporter:
“It’s your own fault, David. If you’d let her sit and watch it on TV with you, she’d have got it out of her system by now and we wouldn’t have this problem.” My mother smiled. “You’ll just have to take her with you.”
“Fine. I will.” My father, the eternal martyr.
I was trussed up in layers of clothes before he could change his mind. This had been a long-fought battle and I wasn’t about to blow it.
My mother was right, as usual. It was his own fault I wanted to go to the rugby. If he hadn’t made it seem so mysterious then I might have let it pass me by. But I enjoyed mysteries and was determined to solve this one. I had to discover why Dad shouted at the television on those Saturday afternoons in winter.
Between January and March, Dad’s friend, Malcolm, would waddle his way down the road armed with a wicker shopping basket of beer cans. He’d slip off his worn brown hush puppies, pad his way into the front room and place the basket in front of the TV as if it were a shrine. Then, as Malcolm crouched cross-legged on the floor and my father settled into his armchair clutching the remote control, Mum would ease the door to before ushering my brother and I outside to play.
From the garden we could hear the shouts, cheers and groans and they intrigued me. “Why is Dad shouting at the television?” Mum would sigh, mutter something about men being boys and I was none the wiser.
Now here I was, at the age of eight, about to find out. I was going to my first rugby match at Pontypool Park. It was November, bitterly cold, my cheeks, ears and nose were stinging but my heart was pumping hard from excitement and from trying to keep up with my father. He wasn’t a tall man but he was fit back then – he’d been a PE teacher – and he hated being late. We’d left Mum and my brother in town, so dragged firmly along, I scampered towards the fairytale park gates and stumbled down the wide steps until we had to slow down - joining the jam of people crossing what Dad called the troll’s bridge into the main park.
My father pulled me on through the scrum of coats and whiffs of brylcreem. We stopped by a wooden hut with peeling green paint to buy a programme and I heard the murmur from the ground for the first time. I insist on holding my own ticket and clutch it as we scramble uphill to the bank. My father puts me squarely in front of him, hands on my shoulders, and manoeuvres me through the crowd until we reach a crush barrier close to the halfway line. He props me against one of the uprights and slips under the crossbar behind me to stop me getting carried away if the crowd moves forward, he explains.
There is a buzz in the ground as the players take to the pitch and my father leans forward and says that we’re playing in red, white and black. Good, I think, that’s the strip I prefer out of the two. I love the vibrant hoops of the Pontypool kit repeated on the goal posts. There seems to be colour all around me from the coats and scarves of the supporters to the trees and hills surrounding the ground. The last of the autumn leaves cling to the broad trees in the park and on the hills above. This place is magic, I whisper to Dad. He laughs and says the only magic he wants to see is out on the pitch.
The whistle blows. A muted thud as the ball floats into the air. It falls to the ground and bodies thump against each other. A wave of muscle rub comes my way on a breath of cold air. We have the ball. The crowd shifts and starts chanting “Pooler, Pooler”. I hear my father’s own warm tones among them and see red, white and black pushing relentlessly forward. “Come on, Pooler”, echoes a strange little voice. It’s mine but doesn’t feel like it. I join in, louder this time, and the crowd tilts forward following the ball, chanting “Pooler, Pooler”, as a jumble of red, white and black drives on and on and on until it collapses under the posts. The referee’s yellow arm shoots into the air just as his whistle peeps. The bank roars and the blank scoreboard shakily hooks up a four.
I feel tingly all over, but this time it’s not the cold.
Now I know why Dad shouts at the television.
Do you remember going to your first game? How old were you? Who was playing? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your first memories of watching Pooler.