John Nicholson: How John McEnroe and two guys from Teesside helped transform Wimbledon
As Wimbledon settles in to dominate our lives for the next two weeks, John Nicholson recalls how John McEnroe, and especially some working class heroes from Middlesbrough, dragged it into mainstream accessibility.
Wimbledon has come a long way in recent years. While it is a resolutely middle-class experience in comparison to going to see the local football club, it is, I’m sure, far less stuffy and uptight than was once the case.
And let’s be in no doubt, it used to be very stuffy and uptight, largely attended by the serried ranks of stern upper-middle class, middle-aged ladies of the Home Counties in billowing pleated skirts along with their blazered husbands in panama hats, looking like they’d just returned from a stint in colonies. It was all very polite.
So in the early 80s, when John McEnroe came on the scene and started shouting at umpires, slamming his racket around the place and whining “chalk flew up” at line judges, the Giles and Georgina’s were not best pleased. Mac was thought very vulgar; a punk upstart who was soiling the hallowed turf with his common American ways.
Of course, this was EXACTLY what those of us who loved tennis, were working class and didn’t live in the Home Counties, loved about him. Mac was rock n roll, he played guitar, wore a headband and generally behaved like he was on tour with Van Halen. Oh and he was sodding brilliant at tennis, obviously.
He’d won the title in 1981 and again in 1983, so when 1984 rolled around, and he was in the form of his life, two pals of mine, called Lash and Nut (being actually called McLashan and Nuttal) – decided this would be the year they would get their passports, leave Teesside and go to that there London.
By hook and but especially by crook, they got tickets to see McEnroe playing Pat Cash in that year’s semi-final. Cash was also a hero of ours for also being fond of guitars, rock n roll and headbands, but was Australian so had to be slagged off remorselessly.
Now, Lash and Nut’s idea of sporting entertainment was shouting abuse at Middlesbrough FC players at Ayresome Park, not a place you traditionally had to watch your p’s and q’s. So the quiet reserve of centre court was going to be something of an alien environment for them.
But they were not monsters, they knew they’d have to behave and had assured all of us who doubted their ability not to cause trouble, that trouble was not on their agenda at all. They would eat strawberries and applaud politely.
But there was a problem. Oh yes. They did not realise Pimms was alcohol. No. They were two men in their 20s raised on Cameron’s Strongarm, and had not encountered it before but were happy to purchase a couple of jugs of it mixed with lemonade and sank one quickly – before declaring it tasty but needed alcohol added.
Now, if you live in certain parts of these isles, the concept of carrying around bottles of spirits on you is all part of normal life, and so it was for Lash and Nut, who like many, would often carry bottle of vodka and add it to a bottle of pop to help lubricate many a social situation. Back in 1984, they didn’t search people going in for explosives or hooch, for that matter. So they’d got into Centre Court with a litre of vodka which they proceeded add to the Pimms and lemonade.
As they took their seats for the match, the vodka was hitting their bloodstream and making them, shall we say, boisterous. The way Lash subsequently tells the story, they were sat next to a woman who looked like Joyce Grenfell on one side and by someone who looked like Margaret Thatcher on the other. ‘They weren’t best pleased to see us, like. But we were nice to them. Called them missus and everything. I think they were scared, actually.’
In one of his first serves, McEnroe, who the lads were supporting, delivered a powerful ace which provoked Nut to declare “stitch that you Aussie c*nt!” Oh dear. Other fruity expressions of encouragement followed with liberal use of the letters ‘f’ and ‘c.’
McEnroe was taking Cash apart in a brilliant display of tennis, winning the first two set 6-3 and 7-6. As the third set got underway, our heroes got a warning from what they subsequently called ‘some fucker in a blazer’ after Nut had declared loudly that McEnroe should ‘chin the f*cking umpire’ following some sort of dispute.
The Giles and Georgina’s were outraged at this incursion into their fiefdom by the common folk and proceeded to complain about their presence. But they were tightly packed into the stands. It wasn’t like you could send security in and match them out, not without really making a scene.
By now Lash and Nut were seven sheets to the wind and bolshy with it. “The drink hit us like a ton of lead.” We’d had a litre of voddy between us in about 90 minutes. We were totally caned.”
I can’t find the footage on YouTube now, it seems to have been removed, but there is a point at which McEnroe wins a fantastic rally and the camera captures Lash getting to his feet, punching the air and shouting “f**king get in you beauty!” like he’d seen the Boro score a goal. If you can find it, he’s the one in a bright red and white Boro shirt with McLean Homes on the front.
There is also brief footage, as McEnroe goes up to the net after winning in three sets, of the two of them, now asleep, arms folded, heads lolling back.
“We passed out. Never even saw the last couple of games. They marched us outside and told us to never come back,’ said Nut. ‘As I recall, Lash called the fella a big Tory twat. It wasn’t our finest moment. But how were we to know that Pimms was alcoholic? We’d have only put half the bottle of vodka in if we’d known. I think McEnore liked it though. He definitely looked over at us at one point and he had that evil grin on his face. I wonder if he remembers two drunks in Boro shirts shouting at him?”
Whether he does or not, I’m sure those who were sat around them have yet to forget the day Lash and Nut came to town.
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