When Derek Brockway told us that this was the snowiest winter since 1982, my mind was taken back to a surreal Friday morning I spent at Ninian Park in that year.
City were scheduled to play a home game on the following day, and the match was in doubt due to the heavy snow. In those days, there was no health and safety officer to insist on postponemounts due to a “hazardous stadium environment”. If the pitch was clear and not frozen, then the game went ahead.
The call went out for volunteers to make their way to the stadium and help with the clearance effort. In these pre-internet days, it must have been a TV news report, or Ceefax which was used to deliver the message. We didn’t take the Western Mail, and I couldn’t afford to phone Clubcall at 35p a minute.
I was living in Bwlch Road, Fairwater at the time, and I used to walk the 3 miles to home games. I found a spade and set off on foot through the snow. I remember that I had some morsels of food stuck in my teeth from breakfast, so I took a small piece of pointy wood on the journey to help remove it. With my little pick and shovel, I was there.
There were about a dozen other helpers who had arrived. This disappointed me, as I was expecting a whole army of willing volunteers. It was one of the first times I realised that not everybody was as committed. Not many people lived within walking distance of the stadium and car travel was impossible that weekend.
Progress was slow, as a few kids and some older nutters struggled alongside groundstaff to make any impression. But then, as if in a scene from a sentimental Christmas movie, out of the tunnel walked the whole first team. I am sure they were walking in slow motion like the cast of a Tarantino Film. The sun was rising low behind them over the Family Enclosure. My heroes. I was speechless. I think I blushed.
There they were. Jimmy Mullen, David Tong, Linden Jones, Jeff Hemmerman, Ron Healey, Phil Dwyer, and the Bennett Brothers, Dave and Gary Bennett, from Manchester. They were best players I had ever seen at Cardiff City, and here they were , with me, digging snow.
I tried to be cool, really I did. But remember, this was a time when fans just didn’t have contact with players. There was no twitter, no fan meetings, nobody used player nicknames like Whitts, Chops and Bellers. We had no familiarity, not even the faux-familiarity generated by today’s social media. We saw them once a fortnight for 90 minutes on the pitch, and that was it. So much better.
The mood lifted amongst the shovellers. Our sullen chore was immediately enlivened by my first experience of football “banter”. Ron Healey was the prime joker, and I still use one of his lines to this day. “They like me so much in Cardiff they named a roundabout after me“. I can now never pass Ely Roundabout without thinking of that comment.
I was struck by the unashamed racism amongst the team. As a 15 year old boy living in Cardiff in 1982, I was used to endemic racism, but this was worse than anything I had experienced. It had started because Dave and Gary Bennett were complaining about the cold, and both were very reluctant to help with the work. They were pretty grumpy about the whole thing.
It became like a scene from Love Thy Neighbour. There were references to bananas and monkeys and the Bennetts being “the only players who would be seen in the snow” if the match went ahead. The brothers took it all seemingly in good heart. What else could they do? It wasn’t aggressive, and it was obviously routine. No wonder there were so few black players in the eighties. Perhaps it wasn’t just the snow that made them grumpy.
After an hour or so, it became clear that we were making no progress, and the game was called off. I had uttered not a single word to the players, and when we were all invited into the club for a cup of tea as thanks for our efforts, I demurred. The thought of making conversation was just too much. I didn’t want to feel like a silly fan in awe of these players. Which is exactly what I was, of course.