by Russ Cowper

“Spotters badge Clive”, went the famous Ron-ism and it got me thinking.

When I was a young boy I recall leaving Manchester London Road station (Piccadilly for you young ones) on a train with my grandad. The train halted at the end of the platform where a phalanx of strange men were assembled. This being the early 70s snorkel parkas and flares were de rigeur, but what singled these odd fellows out was they all had those old sports bags draped over their shoulders, a notebook in hand, a flask, camera, butties, pen, a ruler and ubiquitous train registrations of the UK handbook. As we pulled off almost in unison the ruler went to the book and the pen neatly underlined the train registration number.  Train “copped” they returned to their flasks and butties.

Growing up in Cheadle, South Manchester, I lived under the flightpath of Ringway (Manchester) airport and me and my friends became fascinated with aeroplanes. Aircraft spotting became the hobby of my childhood. I spent many a Saturday morning sat at the end of pier A at Ringway, with my sports bag, flask, butties, binoculars, notebook, pen, ruler and my spotters bible the Civil Aircraft Markings (CAM). The book had lists of registrations, the ones I had spotted neatly underlined in a system which enabled me to cross reference with my notebook where and when I had first spotted the craft. I still vividly remember the excitement of “copping” my first Aeroflot Tupolev 154. One of the older lads had a radio tuned into the control tower and he excitedly shouted the Russkie had called approach. Everybody’s binoculars scanned towards the Pennines and there the smoky beauty was silhouetted against a bright Stockport sky. The ecstasy of copping that Russkie and the kudos it brought me was one of my childhood highlights.

Having matured somewhat, I no longer underline anything or spot things, I still take a passing interest though as many old men still do at countless railway stations up and down the country.

Nowadays though there is a new spotting phenomenon. With the advent of wall to wall live football and the rise of various forms of social media platforms, the new spotting hobby is the empty stadium seat. This is the perfect pastime for those who never leave the house and don’t want to freeze half to death waiting at an icy airport for an exotic aeroplane or drink lukewarm tea at a windswept station high in the Cumbrian lakes waiting for a 1930s steam all train. All you need for this new hobby is a comfy armchair, a 14” all in pizza, crate of Carling, a Sky/BT sports package. mobile phone, Twitter account, a PDF download of the stadium seating plan a pen and a ruler.

This new hobby that is sweeping the nation has a few easy rules to follow. You must tweet exaggerated excess empty seats, you must comment on how poor the support is and most crucial is you must remember to press your Sky remote pause button, refer to PDF and underline all the corresponding empty seats. This can turn 90 minutes of football into a full day orgy of underlining if you so wish especially if its City v Roma in the Champions league.

Its football on a new level, you no longer have to try and workout the tactical nuances of some mysterious East European coach, you simply focus on underlining Block 127, row N seat 365.  You can dream of the day the old bloke who is always sat in block 202, row W seat 74 has pleurisy and misses the game so you can get out your pen and ruler, underline it and tweet to the world how you have the ultimate empty seat “cop”.

This is football in its newest form. #spottersbadgeclive