Robust and Uncompromising
I read in the paper this morning that Paul Scholes of Manchester United (and England) is retiring to become a coach at the club. We can only hope that he’ll be teaching younger players the finer points of the game rather than the dark arts, in both of which he was an expert practitioner.
It got me thinking about some of the ‘dirty’ players, or self-styled Men of Iron, I used to watch in my younger days, when I was an avid football fan. ‘Dirty’ is what we called them on the terraces, though in the press they would be politely euphemized as ‘robust’ or ‘uncompromising’. Almost invariably they were defenders. You don’t get quite as many opportunities to be uncompromising trying to score goals as when trying to prevent opponents from scoring them.
I have a short list of favourites. You wouldn’t have heard of them, unless you are my age and happened to share my enthusiasm for the same unromantic teams: Bromley and Leyton Orient.
Bromley, a leading amateur club in the post-war years when non-professional football had a significant following, played in turn in the old Athenian and Isthmian Leagues, later subsumed into leagues identified by brands of paint rather than by the nomenclature of noble ancient Greeks. Bromley’s manager, well beyond the time either his managerial skills or age justified, was one Charlie King, a local builder’s merchant. Among the worst aspects of Charlie’s manifest incompetence was his insistence – for a despairingly interminable number of seasons – on reserving the centre-half position for his son-in-law, Len Wager. Big Len was the kind of player for whom the terms ‘robust’ and ‘uncompromising’ might have been invented. Opposing forwards foolish enough to be caught in possession of the ball anywhere near Bromley’s penalty area were tempting a fate as predictable as a sunrise: down they would go as if felled by a gate slammed shut by a sudden gust of wind. They were usually tackled from behind, Len’s pace being that of a hamstrung ox, his ability to pivot the nautical equivalent of an ocean-going liner with faulty steering. In any game featuring Len’s name on the team sheet, Bromley kicked off with a handicap of at least one penalty. On those rare occasions when it was announced over the tannoy that Len couldn’t play because of injury, the crowd would cheer heartily, the yells of relief followed by silent prayers that the incapacity would be serious enough to keep him out for some time. It rarely was.
At the Orient, then playing in the Third Division (South), Len’s doppelgangers were Syd Bishop, who also played at number five, and Stan Willemse, a burly South African-born full-back, whose forebears could well have been the kind of rough-riding Boers who, half a century earlier, stoutly resisted the military might of the British Empire. I fondly recall Syd engaging in memorable tussles with – and often getting the better of – such eminent protagonists as Brian Clough, a centre-forward then with Middlesbrough, and Denis Law, an inside forward at the time with Huddersfield Town – neither of them of angelic disposition on a football field. There used to be a demolition firm in East London called Syd Bishop (no relation) whose corporate motto was ‘Watch ‘em Come Down’. Orient’s Syd may have been inspired by his namesake. Willemse was known to some local fans as ‘The Windmill’, on account of the flailing arms and legs which Stan deployed when brutally dispatching wingers into the wall surrounding the pitch.
Orient, it must be said, had no exclusivity on such characters. One particular opponent whose style of play was always calculated to upset the home crowd was Charlie Williams of Doncaster Rovers, a Yorkshireman of mixed race, and one of the first black players in professional football. Usually greeted with good-natured cheers as he trotted out to play, he was more often than not roundly booed as he trotted off. Charlie once famously boasted, “I was never a fancy player, but I could stop them buggers that were.” As dour and unpopular on the field (other than Doncaster’s) as he was, Charlie was equally affable and popular off it. After retiring from the game he became a comedian in northern working men’s clubs and went on to carve out a career on television. He was later awarded an OBE for services to charity.
I suppose one ought not to applaud the peculiar physical skills such players brought to the so-called Beautiful Game, but at least there was nothing underhanded about their methods – no sneaky tripping or shoving – just restrained violence. And I never saw them remonstrate with a referee, for which the whistlers in black ought to have thanked their lucky stars. They might have ended up seeing stars.
May 31, 2011