The National..

It’s Grand National Day after two great days racing at this most fabulous of race courses which makes me wonder, as always, why only two or three meetings a year, if that? Congratulations to Peter Scudamore and his partner Lucinda Russell for a huge winner yesterday.

I was a regular at Haydock Park in my early days at Stoke City, which was a little closer to me than Aintree, and by early I mean my first time around in 1974/75 and returned there later when moving back and it was there I first met the lovely Reg Hollinshead, the trainer of My Lifetime Lady and many good horses, although better known for the amount of top talented jockeys coming through his care at Upper Longdon. As Dusty would sing: In the Middle of Nowhere much like a lot of training yards and facilities around Britain, but some are in the most charming villages and I remember one morning seeing his “lot” walking through the village with not a care in the world, which might have rubbed off on them through Reg, because although he might have had his own worries he most definitely was not one to show them. As I said to Mike Cattermole, who praised him very highly, he was to racing what Bertie Mee was to football, the quiet hero, who stood back from what has become – through SKY, BT, and BBC – more of a footballing circus act than The Working Man’s Ballet, as Mr Waddington named our game quite aptly.

One of the things I loved about being around players, who are both ‘greats’ on and off the field and great fun, and would exchange stories much like “Pub Talk” but more serious because football management will forever be a great talking point for all of the diverse characters and then there were those with no character at all, those who took it far too seriously. My love for Bill Shankly, and how I would loved to have played for him remains, but as I wrote earlier his tongue-in-cheek quip about football being more important than life itself, as I have always maintained, has come to be proved rather wrong these past twelve months, because health has meant empty stadiums and as I always joked seriously with my nearest friend Tony Davis (TD) is that, ‘Health is more important than money’ which I win on both counts. He agreed with me some years later after being at my beside for many hours through those crucial days in the Intensive Trauma Unit.
I have had several room-mates in my career, like many a player, but being out and about with Alan Ball, especially in the “wee small hours” was quite educational and talking of Bertie Mee the man who took him to Arsenal from Everton, for another record transfer fee of £220,000 in 1971 the year after he and Everton won the old First Division Championship and we won the FA Cup. What a lot of football people tend to forget is when winning the 1966 World Cup AB was still playing his football for Blackpool the club where Matthews, although from Stoke-on-Trent and played under Waddington, made his name at the seaside club.
After he left school, Wolves decided not to take Ball on. The midfielder then started training with Bolton Wanderers but they too decided not to give him a professional deal, as manager Bill Ridding said he was too small.
I had the great pleasure to see him in the following match: At age 17 years and 98 days, he became Blackpool’s youngest League debutant. On 21 November 1964, Ball scored his first hat-trick as a professional, in a 3–3 draw with Fulham at Craven Cottage. It was not long after that my father took me to the Cottage and was told exactly the same thing about myself, but the difference was I was still at school and maybe an inch smaller than the brilliant inside-forward, though he played this role rather differently than any other. If you can imagine telling your young son at seventeen going into his first ever senior match that in two years he’d become one of only eleven players to be on the Hallowed turf to become a World Cup winner?
Incredible to the point of it being fairy tale stuff!
I keep this in mind when I continually hear these pundits talk of the New Golden Generation of our game and compare them to Alan Ball, and in a word there is simply no “comparison” and there isn’t a coach or manager on earth who can clarify his genius. The late Ron Greenwood said, “Simplicity is genius” therefore I can use that word without a hint of hesitation, plus I had the incredible pleasure to play alongside him and the daunting experience of the opposite – and the first time was quite spellbinding. A few weeks before leaving Merseyside for north London he took me and my Chelsea team-mates apart at Goodison Park, with a performance that left one of many scars on me which was the day those Evertonians knew they had the title in the bag. Although I did not wear a watch whenever on the field, unlike Gento in Athens, Everton were 5-0 up on the hour with Ball running riot eventually running out 6-2 winners.
Bertie Mee was the Arsenal manager for a decade from 1966 to 1976 which was only a few months before I joined the club and my everlasting memory of signing was when walking through the Marble Halls from the treatment room and bumping into the rather disheveled looking ginger nut of the man who I thought I was going to play alongside for this great football club. He told me that he had been up to Blackpool and looked like doing some kind of deal but fortunately Southampton intervened and took him to the Dell, which in many ways was a career saving move for him, as he brought that Alan Ball dimension to the club. I find this very intriguing, two men coming together after Arsenal had won the League and FA Cup Double from extreme backgrounds, as Alan was from Farnworth in Lancashire while Mr. Mee was born in Bulwell, Nottingham and here they were at Highbury. You simply couldn’t write the script which goes further as Bertie played for Derby County and Mansfield Town and like Alan in later years made 16 guest appearances for Southampton. After his playing career was cut short by injury, Mee joined the Royal Army Medical Corps where he trained as a physiotherapist and spent six years, rising to the rank of sergeant. After leaving, he worked for various football clubs as a physiotherapist before joining Arsenal in 1960, succeeding Billy Milne. The rest is history as Mee was given the manager’s job and he insisted that if the first season was not a decent one he’d walk.
I spoke of the “wee small hours” which is when AB told me the story about the time he had come back from an England match, at Hampden Park, and as players did in those days traveled back on the Thursday and continued enjoying themselves. Alan was most definitely no exception to this rule, a rule that several of our Chelsea players stuck to and on this particular occasion he was on his way home and stopped at a rather good looking little club and thought he’d have a couple of nightcaps. Having been out since the end of the night before’s match the word disheveled springs back to mind as he walked in and ordered a squeaky, “Large Gin and tonic, please.”
I can picture it now as the barman leaned over the bar and said, “Before I pour this drink Mr Ball I must make you aware that around this time your manager usually walks through that door, so would you….” and Alan was on his way. The following morning he walked into Highbury and was summoned to the managers office where Mr Mee told him, “Alan, you are playing brilliantly for us and England and I’d love you to keep it that way, but there is one thing I must insist, and that is stay well clear of my pleasure places,” and like in the club the evening before Alan walked without another word.
I tell this story because like playing the game there is an art to management and the handling of a certain individual, to treat them like you would like to be treated – and I hope that you understand, like Waddington would have done the exact same thing – that this was great management and not only an “art” but “the art of simplicity.”