Half a World Away – ASC Goalies Coach Martin Johnson Shares Soccer Memories from Childhood in England

Half a World Away – ASC Goalies Coach Martin Johnson Shares Soccer Memories from Childhood in England

Growing up in England, going to watch a football (soccer) match was a regular occurrence for every sports-loving child. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, we had an absolutely thriving football community – there were 20 teams in Division 1 and 24 teams each in divisions 2, 3 and 4 – that’s 92 fully professional teams, plus hundreds of semiprofessional and non-league teams in the divisions below, all fighting their way up the promotion ladder for the dream of being a top-tier club.

These teams all located within an area that’s smaller than the state of California, with some grounds within a mile of each other, as was the case with my first love Liverpool FC and their local rivals Everton – their grounds separated only by Stanley Park – a paradise for any young soccer fan.

With so many amazing clubs, there was always a match to go and watch, whether being fortunate enough to go to a Division 1 game of the team you supported, heading down to the local non-league team with a group of your friends, or your Dad taking you to the local “Big” club, which was usually the team closet to you that was highest up the league tables.  For me, the 3 teams that this involved were Liverpool FC and my 2 local teams: the Northampton Town Cobblers in League 3 and Rushden Town in the non-leagues. Rushden Town would later would merge and rebrand to become Rushden and Diamonds – more on that farther down in the story.

I want to share 3 experiences that are etched in to my memory deeper than all others. There’s 1 for each of the 3 teams I supported in my childhood…

The first memory is from my very first time attending a game at Anfield, the storied home of Liverpool FC. It was in the late 80s – a time when Liverpool was on top of the Footballing World, and I was absolutely fanatical about them. I had to wear my red Liverpool shirt everywhere I went, as everyone else got dressed up for picture day at school I wore my shirt.  I dreamt about playing at Anfield and Idolized their number 1 Goalkeeper at the time Bruce Grobbelaar, often mimicking saves in the playground on Monday mornings, that I had seen him make at the weekend.

My first memory went like this: It was a Tuesday at school like any other, apart from the fact my Mum had told me Dad    would be picking me up from school early for a dentist appointment. The time of day to be picked up came and I got in the car, off to the dentist I went, or so I thought. We had been in the car a while and I started to realize we wasn’t going to the dentist as we were on the motorway, continuing with the ruse, my Dad told me some story a 7 year old would believe and I went back to staring out the window dreaming of Football. After a while I started to see Sign Posts Liverpool – 100 miles, knowing we was playing that evening I turned to my dad and asked “are we going to Liverpool?” After trying to hide it for a few more seconds, he couldn’t deny it any longer and he told me we were going to Anfield to watch Liverpool vs Luton Town. I can still feel the creases in my cheeks from the smile that came across my face – I was going to Anfield!!!

When we arrived, I marvelled at seeing floodlights lighting up the night sky and the main stand, which towered over the houses of Liverpool like the Colosseum of Rome.  We parked our car and headed to the stadium.   I remember walking through the streets holding dad’s hand, hearing the conversations and the groups singing on their way to the stadium from the car.  We entered the ground and was in the depths of the stadium and you could feel it shaking with the sounds of song from “The Kop” filtering through every part of the Old Stadium. We walked up the steps to enter the stands and there it was, like a painting, I had goose bumps the size of goose eggs, it didn’t seem real but there it was – flags waving and scarves held high as they serenaded the players warming up.

The KOP, the Famous Stand I’d dreamt of seeing and one day standing on joining in with the songs. I wasn’t in it tonight but I couldn’t stop staring at it even once the game begin I found my eyes wandering over to see the supporters swaying in unison side to side erupting with noise at every half chance and letting out groans of frustration when the ball went wide. Then it happened John Aldridge Opened the scoring for Liverpool and I couldn’t believe the noise!! The sound of the Anfield crowd would be ring in my ears for the rest of my life. I was hooked!

My second memory of being on the terraces of a game that would live with me forever would come a year later.  The Northampton Cobblers had been drawn against Division 1 side Coventry City in the FA Cup. Northampton were in Division 3 a similar scenario to ASC San Diego playing LA Galaxy in the US Open cup today.

My Friend Mark Richardson and I were going to the game with our dads, as we had so many times before. We followed our normal gameday routine, but for some reason, things felt different that night. “The Big Boys” were coming to town: Ogrizovic, Borrows, Billing, Peake, Downes, Smith, MacDonald, McGrath, Regis, Speedie, Drinkell… we were excited.

We, parked the car walked to the stadium.  Mark and I hung back from our dads as usual, talking about what we thought was going to happen at the game, who was going to score etc. I was so excited at the thought of beating a Division 1 side in the oldest footballing competition in the world.

As a Kid growing up in England, FA Cup Final day was a real event.  You’d get up, put on the BBC and watch the teams leave their hotel see the fans walking down Wembley way watch the all-day buildup to the climax of 2 teams taking the pitch.  We imagined ourselves in their places, and dreamt of one day walking out onto that hallowed turf and then lifting The Cup in front of all our fans.

This was the start of Little Northampton Town’s bid. They didn’t have a hope – it was a formality that the big stars of Coventry would come into the County Ground The Cobblers shared with the cricket team and move onto the next round of the Cup – but tonight was to be something different.

We went through the turnstiles into the stand behind the goal, it wasn’t the Kop but it was ours! Our dads dropped us off at the front of the stand, where there was a wooden beam that  ran the length of the stand that all the kids sat on and the dads would leave them there and head to the back of the stands. They’d be back at half time with a meat pie and some Bovril for us to warm up with. We had no idea what was about to unfold on this night, but for some reason it felt like there was a little bit of magic in the air.

Northampton came out the gates and was at Coventry, I remember the excitement as Mark and I kept leaping up as we got in Coventry’s half. Our talisman, Bobby Barnes latched onto a through ball slid it past the keeper and it hit the upright!! What a chance, would we get another? Then just before halftime Barnes again ran onto a ball down the left-hand side he crossed to the near post and there was Steve Berry to nick it past the keeper 1 – 0 Northampton!!

The ref blew for half time and we couldn’t believe it! The crowd was singing it was as loud as I’d ever heard the county ground.  It was like the whole of Northampton had crammed into the ground that night and we were all singing together. Surely we couldn’t hang onto this lead, but let us enjoy it whilst we can! Our dads came down with the halftime delivery and we were all smiling just as hard as I had back at Anfield, “Can you believe it dad” as we hugged to celebrate.

The second half got underway and it was end to end – could we hold on?  It could go either way from here as Coventry upped the ante. The crowd was getting more on edge and nervous the Northampton players legs began to tire and Coventry mounted one last attack in Injury time, David Speedie launched one last ball into the box. The Covenrty striker with fresher legs rose above the tired Northampton Defenders to head on goal but into the arms of the waiting Gleasure. He cleared the ball and there it was the full time whistle – Northampton had done it! What a night!! I couldn’t sleep when I got home, still hearing those sounds from the terraces ringing in my ears, and dreaming of when my day would come to play in the FA Cup.

My Final Memory came from my local non-league club, Rushden and Diamonds – a team that when I grew up I would play against and Wayne Crowe would play for – playing against each other, a fact we discovered when I started working at ASC San Diego with him – A big world made small by sport.

My local team Rushden Town had merged with another local team Irthlingborough Diamonds, local businessman Max Griggs (owner of Dr. Martens shoes) had bought both clubs and had a vision to bring top league Football to the area and he began his venture to move the team up the leagues. After four years building the ground and squad the time had come, last game of the season against Chester the League already wrapped up after a successful season and we was going to be playing League Football next season. All year we had been attending the games and dreaming that the plan  to get in to the top leagues was finally going to happen.

Our ASC team reminds me so much of Rushden and Diamonds in the early days – A passionate group wanting to bring a professional Football team to an area that is desperate for a team to support.  The Rushden and Diamonds project was a success due to this groups passion and investment to provide a professional culture in the lower leagues and the fans dedicated support from day one when things didn’t happen overnight. The dream would be realized and  the club would make it to the professional leagues and have a top notch stadium to play in. The area was revitalized, and the passion of local supporters I had seen as a child in Liverpool and Northampton was now on my door step!

The club unfortunately does not exist after falling into financial troubles and ceasing to operate. But the passion of the fans this club generated in the region lived on and they regrouped and founded AFC Rushden and Diamonds with the vision of once again moving up from the lower leagues to the professional ranks.  As a grown man living in San Diego I now have a new dream driven from the passion and experiences I had as child.

My dream is that we seize the opportunity we have here in San Diego, right now, to make ASC our team. We can establish traditions, sing songs, and chant chants that will make this team uniquely and truly ours. We can be the team that all San Diegans can take their children to – to watch amazing games and have them feel what I felt the same as when I first walked into Anfield, to hear the roar of the crowd as the Cobblers toppled Coventry, and feel that pride, that can only be achieved when a community unites in support their team.

Feeling inspired?  Create vivid soccer memories with your family – catch every game: