The 1974/75 season was my fifth supporting Everton on an every-game basis, with hitch-hiking now a fixture of my away day travels.
Relatively easy hikes to the likes of Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham had all been successfully completed, but long-distance trips to London and beyond remained train journeys. That was until 24 August 1974, and the Blues third game of the season away at West Ham.
Together with three mates I’d returned from hitch-hiking to Paris, for a camping holiday in the Bois de Boulogne, in time for the opening two games at Goodison. So confidently – and more importantly, ever so slightly short of cash for train fares – West Ham would have to be my first London thumb job.
Saturday dawned gloriously sunny and a ten-minute walk saw me on the East Lancs Road by Swinton Park Golf Club for just after eight o’clock, thumb at the ready.
I always kept my scarf out of sight when setting out from Salford for away games, on the assumption there wouldn’t be too many Evertonians around. With it tucked inside a jacket, I was delighted when after a few minutes a Ford Consul 375 pulled up.
The female driver – it was unusual for women to pick up hitch-hikers even back then – leaned across to wind the window down and asked if I knew the way to Birmingham.
I confirmed I did as I was going that way and she invited me to join her. A terrific start to the day, and off we went towards Liverpool and the M6 junction at Haydock Island.
It was a warm morning and something of a surprise that she had the heater on full blast; it was like riding in a mobile sauna. She chatted away, but I was sweltering and before reaching Haydock, I decided it was time to remove my jacket and scarf.
Bizarrely, my pulling down the jacket zip seemed to raise an alarm within her and she suddenly asked; “You’re not an AA man are you?”
“Er no, I’m hitch-hiking to London.”
“You’re not a football fan are you?” she rather worriedly enquired.
Pulling my zip back up I lied; “No, I’m going to see my brother.”
It turned out that parked behind where she’d picked me up was an AA van and she’d assumed I was its driver.
We joined the M6 and despite the intense heat, I relaxed. I figured if I could be near to Birmingham by about half nine, that would be a great start. The lady though was somewhat spooked by my not being an AA man and she went rather quiet.
We passed Knutsford, Sandbach and Keele services in relative silence but approaching the exit for Stafford, she told me she would stop and let me out there. We were nowhere near Birmingham, so I asked if she could at least drop me at Hilton Park services. She refused.
I didn’t argue and when she pulled over, I thanked her for the lift anyway.
Hitch-hiking from junctions rather than service areas is much less enjoyable. Nevertheless, the chance to loosen my jacket and enjoy the cooler air was welcome, but the Stafford junction wasn’t seeing a lot of traffic join the motorway.
It was a good half hour before a van pulled over and I was on my way again. The driver was happy to drop me off at Hilton Park.
After a quick drink, it was back to the slip road and the big right thumb, but now showing my scarf hoping to catch the attention of any southbound Blues. A truck stopped and I climbed in, telling the driver I was heading for London. He said he could drop me at Corley services as he was only going to Coventry.
That was good for me. I’d be about half way by half ten, so things were going well.
Corley proved to be a difficult stop. The sunshine was now baking hot and nobody leaving seemed the slightest bit interested in picking up hitch-hikers. Time was passing so I decided on a change of tactics.
I walked back to the café and started approaching guys who looked like truckers, but to no avail as there were no takers.
Returning to the slip road, eventually a MK1 Cortina carrying four guys with blue and white scarves flying passed me before slowing down. As I ran towards it, however, the car sped away. I was livid and shouting obscenities after it, I threw the biggest V-sign ever.
The car stopped and reversed back. I feared a hiding for my actions.
One of the guys jumped out and asked what my problem was, saying they were only having a laugh. I retorted that it wasn’t funny for Blues to take the piss out of a fellow Blue.
He told me they were Preston fans going to Watford.
Oh. Oops, sorry.
To be fair, they all saw the funny side and offered me a lift as far as Watford. I gleefully accepted, piled into the back seat, and off we went.
The Preston fans were a hoot. We had a great laugh talking football as only down-to-earth terrace-residing footie fans can.
The car sped on, onto the M1 passing Watford Gap, Rothersthorpe and Newport Pagnell before disaster struck… Steam started billowing from under the bonnet.
We pulled over, lifted the bonnet and clouds of steam greeted us – the radiator header tank had split.
After the radiator cap cooled down, we emptied a couple of bottles of water into it and set off again. Somehow, we made it, limping into Toddington services.
Four of us ran to the toilets to re-fill the bottles with water while one went to the shop. He returned with two packs of chewing gum and promptly stuffed the lot into his mouth. Ten minutes of relentless chewing, masticating like a donkey on a sack of carrots, saw him produce and spit out a huge ball of gum.
He moulded the gum all over the split in the header tank and we re-filled it with water, crossing fingers that the water wouldn’t pee out – it didn’t.
We re-filled the bottles, bought two more packs of gum just in case of another burst and after a long delay, gingerly got back on the road.
Time was now against me. The Preston fans suggested going into Watford and getting a train rather than trusting my luck with more lifts. I agreed.
The gum-repaired radiator miraculously survived and we made it to Watford railway station. I shook their hands, wished them well with their game and ran to the ticket office for a single to Euston.
And things just kept getting…
I’d just missed a train and next one wasn’t for another half hour. Time was now critical… I was looking like missing the kick off at Upton Park.
Sod’s Law says if something can go wrong, it will do. The train was delayed by ten minutes, I wasn’t going to reach Euston till just before three o’clock. I resigned myself to missing some of the first half.
At Euston, I dashed down the stairs to the Underground, checking how many changes I’d need to make. My brother had said East Ham or Plaistow were the best stations if I had to get the tube.
Northern Line from Euston to Moorgate; Hammersmith and City Line to Plaistow – I was back to sweating, it was past three o’clock.
Alighting the tube at Plaistow, I asked someone where the footie ground was and set off running.
I finally reached Upton Park, the Boleyn Ground, home to West Ham United as the clock reached 3.45. I found the half-time turnstile as one of the locals came out scowling and cursing.
“What score is it pal?”
“Them fackin’ scarsers are winning two-nil,” he said in his best Alf Garnett voice.
He wasn’t blowin’ many bubbles.
Paying the half price gate fee, I emerged onto the main stand paddock terracing to learn Joe Royle with a penalty and Bob Latchford had given the Blues their interval lead. Both goals had come in the last five minutes of the half.
How unlucky… to go through what I’d been through to miss two goals by a matter of five minutes? All that effort to miss the goals, but I was still happy.
When your luck’s out…
The game restarted and the ‘Ammers came on strong. And bugger me, in a two-minute spell midway through the half they tied the game up. Billy Bonds, with a penalty, and John McDowell with the equaliser.
Talk about feeling gutted – I felt like the contents of an offal bucket on a Grimsby trawler.
I was hot, sweaty, short of money and we’d blown a two-goal lead that I hadn’t even seen us take… gutted just isn’t strong enough.
All good things cometh to those who wait…
Everton steadied the ship and inside the final 10 minutes launched an attack.
I honestly can’t remember the full move or indeed who played the final pass from the left flank.
But I have a blindingly vivid memory of my all-time Everton hero, Colin Harvey, firing an absolute beauty from the edge of the box. He’d met the pass perfectly and his shot flew into the top right hand corner, giving Mervyn Day no chance.
And yours truly went absolutely nuts in amongst a sea of Hammers fans.
At the final whistle, with victory secured, I stuffed my scarf deep under my jacket before exiting the ground. Avoiding seething home fans searching for a ‘scarser’ to give a good kicking, I made my way back to Plaistow.
I got the tube into the West End, hoping to meet my brother in the Lyric, the pub at the back of the theatre he was appearing at. The train fare home would require money; I wasn’t hitch-hiking home after the journey to get here.
He wasn’t there. I crossed the road to the stage door, but the theatre said he wasn’t in yet for the evening show.
I went back to the pub to finish my pint and must have looked somewhat forlorn. Telling the enquiring landlady my tale of woe, she kindly dipped in the till and gave me 10 quid. Thanking her, I trundled off to Euston to catch a train back to Manchester.
I hope our George paid her back.