Tales of the Bob Bank

News of the death of Brian Clark (1943-2010), the Cardiff City striker whose headed goal famously beat Real Madrid in the first leg of the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final, brings back memories of my teenage years as a City fanatic –  Bristolian Clark’s stint at Ninian Park coinciding with my period of peak interest in the club’s fortunes. From the mid 1960s until I left for London to seek fame and fortune (finding, it would turn out, neither) I followed City home and away, graduating from the enclosure wall in front of the Grandstand as a little boy, via the Grange End in adolescence as a clueless wannabe skinhead in the early years of football hooliganism and, when bum-fluff turned to stubble, on to the grown-up recesses of the Bob Bank, an uber-masculine repository of seen-it-all-before sarcasm, withering character assassinations, merciless piss-taking and doleful fatalism – all drenched in a fug of stale sweat, bladder seepage, Bovril, Brylcreem and Capstan Full Strength.

So called because it cost a shilling to stand there when the original open, ash embankment was raised in 1910, the Bob Bank became the deepest terracing at any UK football ground after it was extended eastwards to the Penarth Railway in 1958, being almost as wide front to back as the pitch itself (the tallest terrace before all-seater stadia, incidentally, was at Charlton Athletic’s ground The Valley). At the same time a roof was built over the back section, upon which the words ‘Captain Morgan Rum’ were emblazoned – the only advertisement in Cardiff to be a landmark in its own right, most appropriately since the 70% proof distilled sugar cane tipple, in those days produced by the Seagram company headquartered in Montreal, was named after Cardiff’s own Henry Morgan (1635-1688), an infamous pirate who began life as the son of a tenant farmer in Llanrumney. Under that glowering roof I learnt some eye-opening life lessons – important stuff, like the fact that modish threads from Concept Man at C&A are unsuitable attire for a sporting fixture, that skinning up in the open air in a force 8 gale is unwise, and that it’s possible to indulge in a bout of mutual masturbation with a complete stranger in public and go unnoticed. Oh yes, nearly forgot: and that there’s a global conspiracy to cause me maximum distress and inconvenience.

Had I not left Wales I would no doubt have continued my Ninian odyssey and proceeded along the well-worn trajectory of the Cardiff male: sensible mittens and a thermos flask of something hot in the Canton Stand; tut-tutting in a camel coat about Tarki Micallef’s “distribution” among used car dealers in the Grandstand; and ultimately, I suppose, shackled to a wheelchair in the crumbling, wind-swept, blind corner known as the “disabled section.”

But that never happened. I set off on my adventures and over the years I gradually fell out of love with Cardiff City, catching only the occasional game when they were playing in London or when I was visiting home. Divorce proceedings were completed after Wales, not before time, set up its own football pyramid in 1992 and City refused to participate. Nowadays essentially the leveraged debt vehicle of property developers, the Bluebirds are a toe-curling embarrassment: the only capital city club in the world playing in another nation’s leagues. Since the calls of hiraeth summoned me back to Wales I have not attended a single City match, and will never do so again unless/until they take their rightful place in the Welsh Premier (in which case I would immediately join the Supporters’ Club – and angle for the presidency).

The Bob Bank has long gone anyway. It was converted to seating and its capacity slashed when the Safety of Sports Grounds Act was implemented in 1977. The ineffable collective experience of human solidarity, equality and trust brought by standing shoulder to shoulder with unknown masses was lost forever. Ninian Park was demolished in 2009, to be replaced by a Redrow Homes estate of ersatz boxes, while the new stadium on the other side of Sloper Road is a characterless breeze-block effort of overcooked blue cladding, numbered seats, cctv cameras, jobsworth stewards and dull corporate clutter. The world-weary wit and wisdom of the Bob Bank is no more and the working-class male Cardiffian now has few outlets for his natural sociability, rebelliousness and gobby creativity. Meanwhile, young men have been denied the formative apprenticeship of the Bob Bank and are reduced to gleaning clues to masculinity from tv commercials and Steven Seagal videos. This calamitous diminishment of possibilities accounts for their lonesome, hyper-individualised retreat to the tattoo parlour and the gym, where shallowness is not just the business model; it’s the ultimate accolade.

Clarky’s header, Bob Bank in background