The sad, early death of Brian Greenhoff took Ken Gambles back half a century to the makeshift pitch on South Yorkshire wasteland where the future star paraded his precocious skills. Greenhoff went on to play more than 290 times for Manchester United and Leeds United and 18 times for England. He ended his career as player-coach at Rochdale. Ken’s game was restricted to university, local and finally veterans football. And, of course, following Sunderland. For Ken, reflecting on boyhood pals who did make the grade and those who did not, the phrase that comes to mind is ‘they also serve who only stand and watch’
One of the more unusual side-effects of growing old is that whenever you read an obituary,the first focus seems to be on how old the deceased was
Older than you and it is only natural; younger than you and it becomes a bit disturbing. When I therefore read that Brian Greenhoff had died on May 22 having barely reached 60, it was a double cause for reflection.
I was taken back to the 1960s with the realisation just how powerful early memories can be. I began Barnsley Grammar School in 1960 and one of the highlights of my first week was being given a French book, Whitmarsh book 1, which had three years earlier been used by Jimmy Greenhoff.
Jimmy was already famous in Barnsley for being a hugely promising footballer aand a current member of the Barnsley Boys side who won the English Schools Trophy beating Liverpool Boys in the 1961 Final.
Of course he later went on to have a fine career with Leeds (despite his atrocious dive for a last minute penalty in our 5th Round second replay versus Leeds at Hull), Manchester united and Stoke, being tagged as “the best footballer never to play for England”.
In late spring 1964, when I was 14, a local smallholder allowed us to construct a small football pitch in one of his fields next to where I lived. We built “proper” goals with crossbars, had wire netting for the nets, sawdust markings, corner flags, the lot.
We arranged with mates at school from various parts of Barnsley, on what memory suggests was a Sunday but it might have been in a holiday period, to come for a six-a-side tournament. Teams from Monk Bretton, Kendray, Lundwood, Cudworth and Klondyke duly appeared and we had a competitive afternoon.
On that bit of wasteland, however, trod three footballers destined to make top-class careers out of the game.
Brian Greenhoff, then just 11, played for Kendray. We knew he was Jimmy’s brother and was also said to be a real talent. So it proved as mainly against much older players he showed composure calmness and a huge amount of skill for one so young.
From Cudworth came Steve Daley, who again only just 11. We had had regular kickabouts with him and several others in Cudworth park and I knew him fairly well.
He went on to play for Wolves, later being transferred in 1979 to Manchester City for a then record fee of £2m. He was an England B international, played in the States and is now a regular on the after dinner circuit.
Finally there was Stewart Barrowclough, then 14 and playing for Monk Bretton.
He was a popular lad and went on to make an impressive 424 League appearances although unfortunately 221 of them were for the Mags.
Of course what time had in store for any of us we’d no idea and had I been offered then, in some sort of Faustian pact, the chance to be a professional footballer yet die young, I’m sure I would have taken it.
As it was I played a decent level of University then local football until I finished at 35 followed by a couple of seasons of veterans football in my forties.
Other than the three players I’ve mentioned I’m sure none of the other 30 of us played at any significant level and none provided even a footnote in the history of the game.
Two aspects of this recollection,other than the fact 49 years have passed, struck me most forcefully.
The first is the respect and adulation we give to those footballers who have made it, especially our heroes, who in some marvellous way remain forever young and untainted by time.
When our 1973 Cup-winners took to the field at half-time during the recent Stoke home match, I suspect I wasn’t the only one who really saw a black moustachioed Bobby Kerr, a lithe Dennis Tueart and an agile Monty rather than the procession of ageing stars who took the pitch.
That is how I remember them and always will along with SuperKev, Quinny and Marco. It’s a sort of immortality that fans of all clubs subscribe to and I can genuinely empathise when Boro fans grow misty-eyed about “cowboy” Hickton or Wednesdayites drool over David Hirst.
In the excellent football retro magazine Backpass it doesn’t matter whether it’s an article on Liverpool or Hartlepool, Bradford or Banbury, supporters recall their favourite players with real affection and it must be marvellous to be so remembered as the years pass.
The second aspect is just how much I have loved, and still do, the game of football which, despite its inherent disappointments and at present the predominance of money, can still enthral and excite.
So many of my closest friends are such because of football, primarily though not all through Sunderland. My daughter has been a season ticket holder at Sunderland for the past 20 years and is just as daft as me about the club (this is totally her own choice and hasn’t directly been my doing). I have met and enjoyed the company of so many good people in pubs, at away matches and in the North Yorkshire Supporters’ Branch.
To a lesser extent even on Salut! Sunderland I am able to share a passion for Sunderland and the wider game with other committed, enthusiastic and intelligent contributors such as Pete, Goldy, Sobs and Jeremy for example.
When you think about it, 40,000 players and 18 fans wouldn’t make much sense so ultimately supporters are a massive and necessary part of what makes the game what it is, which is something the authorities ignore at their peril.
The chance to have played professionally, particularly at the standard of Brian Greenhoff, Steve Daley and Stewart Barrowclough, would have been wonderful. Yet with age I’m glad I never had the chance to make that devil’s pact for I am more than satisfied with my life and involvement with the game.
In the words of Jim Riordan, “Football has taught me much and has given me some of the happiest memories of my life”. As for ageing or deceased footballers, once people have hero-worshipped them, they don’t become mortal again but seem like otherworldly beings who never grow old.
I will always remember from that sunlit Barnsley afternoon of nearly 50 years ago, a slight, blond 11-year-old with the world at his feet.
May he rest in Peace.