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Friday, June 16, 2006

Back Street Football

by Tom Clare

To say that I am disillusioned with football at the moment must be the biggest understatement since the day when the Mayor of Hiroshima, whilst sat on the throne in his smallest room reading the Hiroshima Times, uttered those immortal words; "what the fcuk was that?" I have loved my Club, and the game in particular, for well over half a century, so to witness what is happening in football these difficult days, has left a wound that is proving to be hard to heal.

I am a sentimental, and nostalgic old bugger at the best of times. But what I find now is that my mind keeps turning over so often, that it keeps returning me back to the cradle of that sentimentality, and nostalgia - my childhood.

I was born shortly before the end of the Second World War, and into a Manchester that was a very different place than what you witness today. The city centre in those dark days was literally a bomb site. The evidence of that was there for all to see well into the early 1960's, particularly along Portland Street and back Deansgate. But it wasn't only the city centre that suffered; large urban areas were devastated too. My own birthplace was less than a mile from Piccadilly Gardens, in the beautiful (sic) district named Chorlton-upon- Medlock. These were the days long before there was enough quality council housing to meet the City's needs. Large parts of the inner city areas that surrounded the city centre were nothing more than out and out slums - Chorlton-upon-Medlock, Ardwick, Beswick, Ancoats, Collyhurst, Deansgate, Hulme, and Moss Side. Rows upon rows of uniformed, bleak, two up and two down decrepit terraced houses, most without electricity, only lit by gaslight; no running hot water, just a cold tap and pot sink; no inside toilet - it was outside in a yard and had no lighting of any note. A visit to this place during the middle of the night was most certainly not a prospect to look forward to, especially during the long winter months! These so called houses were heated by means of a small coal fire, normally in the room that used to pass for "the living room." All of them had a cellar, wherein lay the gas meter, and also the "coal shuttle" - coal was dropped through a metal grid in the pavement in the street above - that's if the family could afford coal! So as kids, depending on your age, your duties included going down that cellar in the dark, finding the gas meter, putting a penny into it, thus keeping the living room lit and the gas stove functioning, or fetching a shovel full of black coal to replenish the falling fire. In today's modern society, these houses would have certainly been classed as uninhabitable, and condemned without any question at all.

The families that lived in these abodes were mostly first, second, or even third generation immigrants. Irish, Scots, Poles, Ukrainian, Italian, just to name a few. Honest to goodness working class people who just wanted nothing more than to work for a living and dream of the chance to escape from these slums into a better life. They were God fearing people, who worked hard to keep their families together, and raised them on strict principles. Religion did play a big part in family life. It didn't matter that these people were often exploited by notorious landlords, and discriminated against by selfish employers; they never lost their sense of pride or their sense of values. These communities were always very close knit, and they were a family within families. They shared their lives together - the hardships, the joys, the sorrows, the failures, the triumphs - and there was a bond between them that even today, has lasted for generations.

Television was not a luxury that these families had back then. Entertainment in the home was normally through the means of the radio which was powered by what was called an accumulator - a heavy, cumbersome thing, made of heavy duty glass and filled with acid. It had three terminals on the top which you would attach leads from the radio on to, and it needed charging regularly. Music played a large part in family life and it wasn't unusual to find that several members of a family played several different instruments. I can recall balmy summer evenings as a very young child, sat on the front door steps with my Mother late into the night, listening to an impromptu street concert - Mother taking part by singing in her beautiful soprano voice, later joined by Dad after he had staggered home from the pub. For us kids, a trip to the local "bug hut" (cinema) on a Saturday morning was a treat that we all really looked forward to.

Families tended to be a lot larger then than they are today, and again, it was not unusual to see families with five, six, seven, and sometimes even more, kids. There was always lots of activity and most of it was outdoors; sport being the main attraction. The girls would play netball, rounders etc, whilst the boys would play football and cricket, depending on which season it used to be. Swimming was a big attraction, for both sexes - the baths in the winter months, and anywhere where there was water outdoors during the hot summer months - Fog Lane in Didsbury, and Barney's Croft in Collyhurst, were two of the places I recall with affection where we swam in those summer months. As I got older, The Galleon in Didsbury was the place in the summer months with it's huge outdoor pool and playing area. It was there, each Sunday during those summer months that you would find most of the single United players; Taylor, Pegg, Edwards, Charlton, Colman, McGuinness, Whelan.

For the boys, football seemed to consume us all. Our families were divided in whom they supported. United or City - there was no in-between. Back in those days, I can't recall any of the local kids supporting the likes of Bury, Rochdale, Oldham or Stockport. It was only when I got to Grammar School that I found out that the kids with "funny accents" and who seemed to live far away, supported these teams. I could never come to terms with the fact that they did not support either City or United! We used to play football for hours on end, and if we were not playing the game, then we would read everything about the game that we could get our hands on. Our appetite for football was insatiable, and our dreams were of wearing the famous red or sky blue shirts of the main professional teams that graced our City.

Backstreet football in those dear days was the norm and we formed what we termed "Backstreet Leagues." Normally, the ball that would be used would be of the tennis variety. The surfaces we played upon only had the briefest nodding acquaintance with grass - they were either cobbled, or concrete! But it was upon these surfaces, and with that small ball, that we honed our skills.

I smile today watching the professional game and see people who are termed as "wide right, or wide left" - very few of them excite me anymore, and that loveable term "winger" has all but virtually disappeared. In those dear old days when footballers wore long shorts, and wore boots akin to diver's boots, the sight of a winger dancing along the touchline delighting or disappointing the watching people, was a commonplace sight on the football fields of Britain. Wingers back then were a little different to the rest - they were temperamental players whose performances were controlled by the state of the moon - or in reality, simply by the fact of whether or not they felt like playing well! I can remember watching my favourite pub team "The 'Ammer" back in the fifties. They had a winger named Herbert Dawson - eccentric he was, to say the least. He used to wear a flat cap and woolen gloves on days when there was inclement weather. Nobody would say a thing - neither team mates nor spectators - Herbert was a winger! Had he been a centre half or a full back, or a centre forward, he would have received some "gyp" from people attending the games, and would most definitely have been marked down as a nutter of some sort, and asked to mend his ways or retire from the game!

These "closet wingers" as we called them, grew up, and learned their business in the "Backstreet Leagues." My own team's successes or failures, depended on the quality of our wingers. We went unbeaten at home for two years, mainly due to the skills of Johnny Bambrick, a little Irish lad, and our right winger; and also to a long row of outside toilets which graced one side of our "pitch." Johnny was the absolute master at charging down his wing, and then, when challenged by big brutish defenders, at the last moment he would flick the ball against a toilet door, nip around the defender and collect the rebound. The only times that I ever saw him fail was on the occasion when the toilet just happened to be occupied, and the occupant of the said toilet would open the door just in time to take one of Johnny's passes into the proverbials!

Little Johnny's reputation as a closet winger grew and he became somewhat of a local personality. Of course, inevitably, our and his success could not go on for ever and the slide downhill for both the team and Johnny came on the day we met a team called Melbourne Street Klondyke. The Klondyke bit was because the street where they came from put one in mind of a frontier town during the gold rush! To describe them as hard opponents would be doing them an injustice - utterly ferocious would be a more accurate description! They resembled a team of "Blockheads!" The reason being that most of their players had surprisingly large foreheads and close set eyes!

You must also remember that in these "backstreet leagues" there was no referee to penalise dirty play. The simple ethic used to be; "If you get kicked, say nowt, but wait your time and kick back!" Also in these games, there was never any of the game's niceties or formalities, like shaking hands and congratulating kids from the other team. Any team which happened to beat the feared Klondyke realised that when the game ended, the sensible thing to do was to piss off home rapid, because any attempt at any kind of cordiality would undoubtedly have meant a free trip to the local out-patients department!

So it was in this frame of mind that we began the game that began my team's fall from grace. All was going reasonably well, until young Johnny began his first run down his wing. In and out of the Klondyke defence he went, flicking the ball up and down against the toilet doors, the rebound magically appearing at his twinkling feet. With the Klondyke "blockheads" absolutely mesmerized, he walked the ball around their 'keeper, and through the space between the gas lamp post and the wall (which was the goal!) and scored our first goal.

Now the "blockheads" were never short on swift answers when faced with a problem of this nature. When Johnny next set off on one of his runs, we first became aware of the Klondyke genius for tactical improvisation! As Johnny showed his class and twinkle-toed his way along those toilet doors, a Klondyke half-back, built like one of those shithouses, began a diagonal run towards him. As he reached Johnny, he didn't stop to challenge, nor did he hesitate to decide which way Johnny was going, he just kept on running as if his target was somewhere on the horizon beyond Johnny's right shoulder. It was as though he was locked onto Johnny with radar! The collision was inevitable and the noise of the impact, bone on bone, was terrible, followed immediately by the sound of the crash and splintering of wood, as Johnny, the halfback, and the ball, crashed through one of the green toilet doors! The game stopped, and we dashed over to peer inside the toilet and survey the damage.

The scene was quite chaotic. Johnny and the cockeyed halfback lay at peace on the floor. They were surrounded by large fragments of wood and what can only be termed as jagged pieces of brown and cream sanitary ware. Unfortunately, there was a third body inside. Poor old Mr. Broderick the local firewood man, had been sat in there with his brace and bit overalls around his ankles, a large pot mug of strong tea in one hand, his Daily Mirror in the other, with a tube of pile cream lying on the floor to ease his suffering, bothering nobody at all, and now he lay in a twisted comatose state at the back of the toilet with his hairy arse stuck up in the air pointing north. The wall at the back of the toilet looked as though it had been pebble dashed in a sharp tone of sepia! A sight, as you can imagine, I'll carry with me to my grave!

The game had to be abandoned and we had to beat a rather hasty retreat. It turned out that we were never to play on that "pitch" again, mainly because the law warned us off and not much later the council pulled those toilets down. After his recovery, Johnny was never the same winger without those toilets. Our "closet" winger suffered a drastic dip in his form, and eventually fell out of favour. His family moved away from our area and after a couple of months in his new environment, I did hear that he had been forceed into premature retirement, residing in a remand home having been incarcerated there for stealing lead from a church roof!

Yes, my memories and nostalgia give me a little comfort today. I think of all the great wingers I have been lucky enough to have watched through my lifetime; Finney, Mathews, Mullen, Hancocks, Mitchell, Clarke, Berry, Pegg, Douglas, Connelly, Pilkington, Holden, Blunstone, Paine, Callaghan, Thompson, Lee, Summerbee, Armstrong, Chamberlain - that's 20 without thinking too hard - and all Englishmen - what would I give to see them plying their trade today! Believe me folks, they would have you on the edge of your seats - and where did they begin? - why back street football of course!

Paul Parker's new book

The Men in Black - paperback edition out next month

Lee Sharpe's book now in paperback, just £3.99!

Bryan Robson's autobiography - coming in May

Bill Foulkes

The Lost Babes


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