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First Trip to Filbert Street…

From The FOX No111 – January 2002 a series entitled ‘Filbert Street Memories’. This wonderful contribution was from Nigel Horsley…

filbo cowboy

Tuesday 8th of April 1958, a normal sort of day for your average ten year old. Got up at day break and rode up to the fence line to check there’d been no rustlers at work during the night. Even managed to out run a small war party of Sioux warriors on the way back to the ranch. Gravy and biscuits and a bit of branding before breaking in a couple of ponies…
All brought to an abrupt halt when Ma told me I’d been summoned to the lodge of the Elders. On arriving I was faced by “He Who Manages Squaws Who Make Stockings” (Uncle Cyril) who told me I was to join the Elders that afternoon to go to my first football match at a place called The Filbert Street. We passed round the pipe, this was strong medicine!
I knew something about football, I was a member of the primary school swarm; one of a team of fifty centre forwards whose purpose in life was to move around in a tight block relying on the shouted evidence of spotters who reckoned they had a good idea of the whereabouts of the ball. Some of the swarm had proper boots with leather studs you could nail in. I had a pair of Arthur Rowes with moulded studs (cutting edge at 27/6 from the Co-op). Peter, on the other hand, had black pumps and a snake belt to hold up inherited over large shorts. When we got off the playground and onto the pitch, Peter detached himself from the swarm imagining the white lines to be rail tracks and he became a little shunter. Probably still is for all I know!
On the way to The Filbert Street that afternoon, we travelled through strange places like Leicester Forest East (bandit country)! I sat in the back of the car sliding around on the cracked leather seat clutching onto the cord grab handle scouring the trees for outlaws. Walking from the car to this mystery place I had no idea what to expect beyond what I already knew about football; the zero zero ten formation so loved by primary school teachers in the nineteen fifties, the occasional shunter, the excruciating pain of being hit on the inside of the thigh by a misdirected punt from one of the swarm.
Over a moat and there it was, The Filbert Street, rising above the landscape; a medieval fortress, a magnet for the county’s noblemen, Earl Shilton, Count Esthorpe; West Indies fast bowlers Broughton Astley and Dunton Basset all gathering for a council of war.
Uncle Cyril had said we were upstairs in the double decker for the game, which meant little to me, though I considered it an interesting prospect, watching the game from the top of a bus. Into the fortress, up the stairs, twisting, turning, ever upwards, overtaken by Musketeers looking for Richelieu and ducking to avoid Basil Rathbone’s flashing blade as he was locked in mortal combat with Errol Flynn…
Then emerging into this amazing amphitheatre- this was no fortress, this was the Colosseum and I was Caesar. The noise, the pressing of expectant humanity, this was bliss. Bring on the Christians, bring on the centre forwards, put Peter to the sword. The Romans sang and a uniformed band played. Just before three o’clock one of the band detached himself from the others and lifted a post horn to his lips. The notes were lost in an amplification beyond imagination. “He Who Manages Squaws” put his hand on my shoulder. This was a rite of passage. Blue shirts, white knickers, the Gladiators. White shirts, black knickers, the Barbarians. Why was there only one centre forward? Why take turns to kick the ball? So fast, so strong, so uncompromising…..Brilliant!
I wasn’t aware that Leicester City were involved in a dogfight to remain in the First Division, nor that these Easter matches were critical to them staying there. And here they were, playing the Fancy Dans from Luton (fifth in the league). And here were Leicester, at half-time, losing 1-0 to a Gregory goal (the Luton centre forward). The day before, the reverse fixture at Kenilworth Road had resulted in a 2-1 win to the Hatters. So, the mood at Filbert Street was, at 3-45 that afternoon, as it has been so often since, sombre. Woodbines were passed round the trenches; Uncle Cyril crawled through mud and over duckboards to bring me Bovril. A whistle from Captain Black in the middle and off we went into no man’s land. Maclaren, Milburn, Ogilvie, Morris, King, Walker, Riley, Hines, Gardiner, Rowley and Hogg, all that was left of the swarm and facing defeat, facing relegation but fixing bayonets for one last push. And here were 32,480 of us, knitting socks and packing bully beef for the men at the front. On they pushed, bruised, bloodied, defiant. I have an image printed indelibly into my memory of a City defender clearing from his own goal line with an overhead kick as Luton were repelled yet again…
I don’t remember a single one of Leicester’s four second half goals, just the upsurge of noise, the corporate relief of turning round an impossible situation, of clawing a way back from the foot of the table and securing a place in the top flight…to finish the season one place above the drop zone; it did for me, it sure did. Since then, well, like the rest of you, ten percent elation, ninety percent the other! There have been many great times at Filbert Street for me- the 6-0 thrashing of Manchester United in 1961; Being one of 41,622 sardined into witnessing the 2-2 draw with Spurs in 1963, and, most recently, the culmination of everything Martin O’Neill strove for in the 5-2 defeat of Sunderland in March 2000.
Uncle Cyril died in 1975 but I’d like to think he was with me twenty years later when I took my own sons, Jack and Harry (then 9 and 6) on their first trip to Filbert Street. We sat upstairs in the double decker just behind the goal. We had to do that didn’t we? And we witnessed managerless City turn a two goal deficit into an amazing 3-2 win over Norwich. I’m sure I felt a hand on my shoulder and saw, through the mist, one daring spectator climbing in via a telegraph wire. I saw five swans fly over the ground and a nervous sixteen year old prepare to take over from the world’s number one keeper. Ken Leek played half a game in a schoolboy cap to help protect a head wound, Keith Weller donned white tights, Martin O’Neill exuded charisma and the tannoy announced Coventry’s relegation!
And when the doors finally close at Filbert Street where will the ghosts go? What happens to the decades of energy, the passion, all that hope, every false dawn and every realised dream, the theatre of mud, sweat and cheers? It is simple. When we’ve all gone, generations of new fans will travel to Freeman’s Wharf to cheer teams not yet born to heights not yet achieved or to depths not yet plumbed.
New ghosts, new screams, new sighs, fresh dreams.

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