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GEORGIE BEST AND ME

10-05-2007

Ever had a near brush with fame and fortune? Laurence Inman has. Quite apart from his current occupation of failing auditions for Crimewatch, the Birmingham writer and actor once got talent-spotted by a pro football club and could have given the over-rated Bestie a run for his money (well, almost).

Between 1968 and 1973 I lived in Manchester.

What I was doing there is all a bit of a blur now, but I’m sure it had something to do with the University.

Far clearer are my memories of football. For two of those years Villa were in the old Third Division, so I was able to jump on a bus and see them when they played at places like Bury and Rochdale. Most of the time, though, I went to see the big Manchester clubs, City one week, United the next.

I should point out that for nearly all games in those days you could just walk up to the ground and pay at the turnstile. And you stood to watch the game. The food was dreadful, and in some cases positively dangerous. I refer to the famous hotted-up pork pies at Rochdale; one bite and your face was sprayed with scalding liquid.

Of the two big-time clubs I preferred City. I could walk to Maine Road from where I lived. It was a cosy ground, fitting snugly into the rows of terraces in Moss Side. The other place was hard to get to and even harder to get away from.

I’d like now to settle one footballing ‘controversy’ once for all: George Best was not a great player. Compared to Colin Bell he was nothing. The ten or so bits of film they kept showing when he died, of him doing the fancy stuff, were more or less it.

In his playing days he was regarded with irritation and impatience. The fact that he had since attained ‘iconic status’ says more about the British capacity for sentimental self-deception than his ability.

Anyway, as I mentioned last week, I’m going to tell you about the greatest match I ever saw. It was, coincidentally, one in which I also played.

The football-memory of the general populace is unreliable and fickle. Even so, the fact that fewer and fewer people remember much about the 1970-71 season of the South Manchester League (Division One) must be a cause of deep regret.

My team, The Royal Northern College of Music, had just been promoted. I was not a student at the college. I had been invited to join the team by my mate Nige, (who played the trombone,) because he’d been impressed by my lightning overlap runs from right-back down Platt Park and because my personal motto (‘No man who enters my quadrant leaves it quite the same man’) had made him laugh.

I can list the members of that team even now. Apart from Nige and me, there was Ian, Nick, Chas, Tim, Dave D, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.

On the morning of Saturday October 9th 1970 we foregathered at Houghend Playing Fields, just up the road from Southern Cemetery, to face Wythenshawe Boys.

They were not ‘boys’ in short grey flannel trousers, or ‘boys’ with jam smeared on their spotty faces. They were ‘boys’ straight off the YP wing at Strangeways. ‘Boys’ with shaven heads and tattoos. ‘Boys’ that every team in the division dreaded having to play.

They thundered out of the dressing rooms onto the pitch and started their warm-up, which looked more like the preparations for some medieval ritual involving axes and pikes. They didn’t even glance at us.

We tried to interpret their feral grunts as they called to each other. Their captain was called Slasher, apparently, and the rest of the team all had nick-names which rhymed with Slasher.

At half-time were only 2-0 down. Everyone agreed we were lucky to have nil and still have eleven players upright on the pitch.

But in the second half something happened. We became imbued with a different spirit. I think what sparked it off was them taking the mickey. They started mocking our names. They called to each other in high falsetto voices: ‘Give me the ball Nigel!’ ‘Righto Tich, here you are!’

I can’t explain it. We started to play like a well-oiled machine, like a proper team, for the first time. Pain meant nothing. We rode every tackle, strode onto every pass and dribbled like dancing sprites. We won 3-2. Nothing like it had ever happened before. A bunch of poncey musicians and their mate had humbled the thugs of Wythenshawe.

My mate Nige trained with York City reserves. In those days a fourth division club like York had plenty of part-timers on their books. In fact, if you turned up early enough you could usually get a game. A bit like at the Blues these days.

‘Come with me next week,’ he said. ‘Meet the chaps. You’d probably get a run in the reserves.’

I didn’t go. It would only have paid sixpence and an orange.

But if I had…..that season York were promoted to Division Three, in 1974 to Division Two, just as Manchester United came down, so who knows, I might have gone on to play at Old Trafford.

It’s true. It is, really.

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