1955 – My father and Billy Gray
It was finding a copy of the February 1955, Charlie Buchan’s Football Monthly that set me off on this train of thought.
It’s one of those wonderful, old editions with the lovely bright Technicolor full-page pictures, the sort that looks more like a painting than a photograph and looks wonderful when framed and hanging on the wall. On the front is Manchester United and England’s Ray Wood. On the back is Stanley Matthews. The centre pages in black and white feature the Wolves – Honved game which Wolves won 3–2 on one of those Molineux nights when we all thought we ruled the football world. They were two down at half time and came back in the second half showing all the features of the British game that we still think will win us World Cups and Champion’s Leagues, effort, competitiveness, determination, running power and strength.
Inside: more full-page colour pictures, Len Boyd of Birmingham City and Billy Gray of Burnley – the latter of course the reason why I bought this magazine in the first place from that treasure store of memorabilia – EBAY. Billy Gray was another player my father talked about but I don’t suppose he ever stopped to think I hadn’t yet reached the stage where I was really that interested. Still in the top class at Roomfield Junior School, now demolished and the site of a block of flats, my life was more to do with Hornby Dublo electric train sets up in the attic. Colin Walker had a train set, Edward Cockroft had a train set, but neither had a dad who was a model railway enthusiast, and built scenery and stations and houses. It really was the bees’ knees and was still there several years later when I was in the sixth form. But then girls took over and there was more to life than playing with your Duchess of Atholl.
He really was pretty good at making things, my dad, and even built a large canoe at Evening Classes. There was a ceremonial launch at Lee Dam high up on the moor near Lumbutts above Todmorden. It was at the beginning of the long walk up to Stoodley Pike, an ancient stone-built monument, even further up on the hills. It was completed in 1856 a date that coincided with the end of the Crimean war. An earlier monument had collapsed. And that was the one that was completed to coincide with the Battle of Waterloo. Only once did I ever climb up the spiral stairs to get to the balcony. Lee Dam was where folk used to go on New Year’s Day and swim in the frozen water. Maybe they still do. But for a whole summer we took that canoe up there and paddled about in the sunshine.
Of course I looked at the Billy Gray picture for longer than the others, taking in the detail, the art, the colour, the classic, collared, long sleeved claret and blue shirt (although the earnest Billy Gray has them rolled up), the long, baggy shorts, old style, alternately hooped, claret and blue socks. And then, finally, the boots. And what magnificent enormous boots they are; brown leather, ankle height, the sort that some pros used to soak in water to soften them; the sort with which you could kick down a barn door. And all finished off with crisp white laces, half a mile long that you wrapped round half a dozen times in those far-off days and then tied at the back.
Anyway, that picture stirred a few memories about how my father used to tell me about Billy Gray. How he was also a boxer, tennis player, and golfer. Gray was yet another Geordie my dad said, and Burnley bought him from Chelsea because they’d just sold Billy Elliott, who maybe was my father’s greatest hero on account of his style of play. Kick first, don’t apologise later, just don’t apologise at all. Anybody who has seen a picture of Elliott with his close-cropped hair and unsmiling face would never want to meet him down a dark alley. Before one game, troubled by his teeth, he took them out and filed them down, then put them back in again, the blood dribbling down his chin. Dracula was risen. According to father, Gray was something of a rarity too, a winger who scored 19 goals in his first season at Burnley. He left in ’57 but later appeared for Nottingham Forest in a Cup Final and my father sort of glazed over and went into one of those nostalgia trances that we all do sometimes when the past re-appears: for me – in the pages of that old Football Monthly. I can remember him still grinning at the flickering TV black and white screen saying, “Ey Billy Gray’s playing, well I never, fancy that.”
An old, worn, battered pair of these boots is perched on a shelf in my office, remnants of a distant age. God knows how many games they played, or how old they are, they might even be pre-1950. I look at them and wonder if they once belonged to some old pro – Alan Brown, Doug Winton, Tommy Lawton maybe – who knows – even Billy Gray? The right toecap is almost worn through, the leather studs almost worn away, nails sticking up everywhere in the sole underneath.
As a scrawny kid at Todmorden Grammar School, I bought my own first pair of boots in ’56 or ’57 if I remember rightly, just like these, though these are not the ones. We played on Centre Vale Park, on a full-sized pitch that was a mudbath in rain, and like the Siberian Steppes in a frozen winter. We clip-clopped down the steeply inclined Ferney Lee Road in our football boots and kit, crossed the main road and then jogged into the park imagining we were at Turf Moor. When I eventually got into the school team my father looked at me with new eyes filled with respect. The greatest pleasure of being in that team was to get the secretary’s job. It meant doling out the bus fares but also writing up reports of the matches. I did this job for a season and if you read those reports now you will wonder how I was never signed by Burnley. My thrill-packed performances, power-shooting, fearless heading, handsomely described by me, were always outstanding. The big bonus was the unclaimed bus fare money; it always seemed such a shame to hand it back to the office.
Now, I look at the old boots, think of the other lads who were in the team and then other memories of the fifties drift back – the first black and white TV sets, the Festival of Britain, sportsmen like boxer Randolph Turpin and runner Roger Bannister, the Man United Munich air disaster, the Goon Show, Buddy Holly and of course the Coronation.
My father had a cobbler’s last down the cellar and I remember changing the studs one day, on my old boots, pulling out the old with pliers and nailing in the new ones. I dubbined them before every game. God knows where they ended up, the dustbin no doubt. The next pair sometime in the 60s were Puma, sleek, black, screw in studs, modern, lighter and stylish. The sort you never wanted to get dirty. But I have to say it’s when I look at the old brown monsters on the shelf or see the boots in the Billy Gray picture that I get a lump in my throat and come out in goose bumps. These were presumably the same type of archaic boot that the impoverished teenager Willie Irvine brought over from Ireland for his trial games at Gawthorpe. Jimmy McIlroy took one look at them and promptly gave him a pair of his.
Flick over the pages of the magazine and there are adverts for Smiths Empire watches at 42 shillings and 6 pence. Umbro was the big name in sportswear. It was a time when you rolled your own cigarettes with a Rizla machine. Charles Atlas besported his muscles and assured everyone that they too could be a He Man. Lucozade was the big drink.
And then, on page 16 is a half page advert for boots: the “Arthur Rowe” as worn by Len Shackleton, Danny Blanchflower and Nat Lofthouse. These were advertised as streamline and slimline, the former in brown jungle calf at 69 shillings and 9 pence. The slimline came in black calf at 54 shillings. There were two fittings, medium and full medium and sizes and half-sizes were from four to twelve. But they still came up to the ankles giving support and protection. Tough toecaps still protected the toes and dare I say it “the metatarsal” the bone that nobody had heard of in the fifties.
Arthur Rowe was a Spurs man through and through and the first man to lead them to the Championship. His “push and run” style of play broke new ground in the early fifties. After the Championship they were second, then FA Cup semi finalists but then the team faded, Rowe’s health began to fail and he never really recovered from a breakdown in 1954. He resigned in 1955.
By the seventies, when Burnley legend Harry Potts was managing Blackpool, there were the beginnings of worries about the new boots that were being manufactured. Blackpool had suffered a glut of injuries and a fan at a club forum asked why this was – especially cartilage. Potts blamed the modern boot. He claimed that the one basic type of boot being manufactured gave little support to the joints and less protection to the ankles. Players throughout the country were suffering more and more injuries, cartilage, Achilles tendon, ankle and muscles. Modern boots favoured speed he said at the expense of protection for the vital joints.
And today, boot design, even slimmer, lighter and lower, favours speed and touch even more. Boots so soft they are almost like plimsolls; boots so soft that protection is minimal if not non-existent so that broken toes are commonplace; no end of England internationals hobbling from grounds in the last few years the result of metatarsal injuries. And the players, particularly the star players who have a say in the design of their own boots are thus much to blame themselves.
Having said all that, I remember a story told to me by Brian Miller of Burnley and England. He began his career in the fifties and was at his peak in the early sixties. No modern, lightweight, namby pamby boot for him. His fifties boots were the old fashioned, stiff, brown leather “special” with which just one kick would send any opponent flying over the perimeter wall. Somehow, he still managed to break a toe. But here’s the thing. He didn’t spend five or six weeks on the sidelines a la Beckham or a Rooney, he simply cut a hole in the boot so that his strapped-up foot would fit in and pressure would be taken off the affected toe. Then he played on as normal in an age when a magic sponge and a bucket of water was the cure for every injury. Treatment was so rough, ready and primitive that players joked they’d rather play on without it. Scans and oxygen tanks, what were they? A metatarsal… what was that? If you’d asked anybody from the fifties he’d have probably said, “Pardon.”
Contrast that to the Rooney toe affair, all through May prior to the June 2006 World Cup. Would he play, or wouldn’t he? Yes, according to the inscrutable Sven, no, not if he isn’t fit according to the angry faced Ferguson, and don’t forget who pays his wages, he ranted. How’s he doing we all wondered? Scan after scan and constant TV news updates. Pictures of him scampering up flights of steps: skipping round the new car Colleen bought for him: dancing at the Beckham’s Full length And Fabulous World Cup Party: Ferguson making pronouncements about his condition and not risking him: full page features in the tabloids with intricate details and diagrams of the human foot and the exact location of the metatarsal. The shock and horror on faces throughout the land when the news came through of his injury at Chelsea in ironically the last game of the season, not to mention the concern of all his England colleagues who gathered round. Irony of ironies the game was already lost and he was simply chasing a loose ball that he could well have left. “Oh s*** he’s a mate,” said the ever-eloquent Joe Cole who would later refer to Prince William as a “nice geezer.” Words like “tragedy” and “disaster” abounded. It became a national obsession. “Only a miracle will heal his metatarsal in time,” wrote Henry Winter in the Telegraph Sport.
In history what did we go through this century… the Somme… Blitz…D-Day… Hiroshima…JFK’s assassination… man on the moon… but none of them ever had the media coverage of Rooney’s afflicted toe. At the end of every news programme we didn’t have the rain forecast any more, we had the Wayne forecast. That’s how bad it was. In the meantime, during the big 2006 World Cup build-up our full length and fabulous footballers whupped Hungary 3–1 and trounced Jamaica 6–0 with Rooney’s unlikely deputy Crouch, grabbing a hat trick and missing a penalty to boot. But in 2010 our World Cup heroes were just appalling and slunk home in shame back to their mansions and swollen bank accounts.
Beckham’s boots meanwhile as you would expect were state of the art for the first World Cup game against Paraguay. They went under the grand title of “Adidas Predator Pulse Boots.” On one tongue was his personal logo of a footballer kicking a ball. On the other was the flag of St. George. Beneath the flag, in silver stitching, was written Eng v Par, 10 06 2006. His signature was stitched on the instep and on the back was a “V” for his wife Victoria, his initials “DB” and his player number 7. On the back of the heel were printed the names of his three sons– Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz. All this was in an overall colour scheme of blue, red, gold and a hint of silver.
In the forties there was the legendary and indestructible iron man and centre half Alan Brown (pictured) at Burnley. Just to look at him put the fear of God up opponents and some of his teammates as well. He would have eaten Roy Keane for breakfast and then had Patrick Viera for afters. Given the chance to look at a pair of Beckham’s modern boots his reaction I am sure would have been simple. “What in God’s name are these, ballet shoes?”
Anyway, I looked again at the picture of Billy Gray’s boots. Then I picked up the ancient, weighty pair that lives on the shelf above my collection of Burnley mugs. It occurred to me that if Rooney’s feet were inside a pair of 1950s boots, then neither he nor any other modern footballer would ever break a toe. But never mind, I suppose if there is one plus it is simply this. 2006 was the year we learned how to spell metatarsal.
But 1955: Billy Gray, and that Football Monthly turned the years back to when I was still in short trousers at Junior School. Lads today don’t wear short trousers, do they? They are in designer jeans the minute they can first stand up or even as babies. Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Commercial TV went on the air. Princess Margaret decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, or in truth she was told she couldn’t. Disneyland first opened outside Los Angeles. James Dean died at the age of just 24, “Oh no, oh no,” my mother moaned for a day. Donald Campbell set a new speed record across Ullswater in the Lake District. Ian Fleming wrote Moonraker. Britain was already squabbling with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Dixon of Dock Green made its debut on BBC.
And Bill Haley released Rock Around the Clock. It was amazing, an incredible new sound and that too was a memory of 1955 for me. The first rock and roll records and we had a gramaphone (as they were called then) that played the old style 78s. How easy it is to forget that folk today will have no idea what they were unless they see one in a museum. I still have one down in the basement. Great clumsy discs with minute grooves, into which you dropped a needle on the end of an arm, and then out came the music as the disc whirled round. So, anyway, there I was one night, in bed, and in came the folks with a few friends late on, and onto the gramaphone went the first rock and roll records I ever heard. It was a seminal moment. I got up and sat at the top of the stairs to listen. Every day on the way to school I walked past Parker’s Record Shop on Halifax Road and there were all these records in their thick paper sleeves in the window.
In the summer of 1955, Grammar School was still a year away. In September it was the first trip for me to Turf Moor. I wasn’t hooked. Manager Alan Brown presided over a team that had finished 10th in the season just finished. Tommy Lawton came back to Burnley in the Arsenal team. With rich irony it was ex player Billy Elliott who knocked Burnley out of the Cup. It would have been a certainty that my father told me about how Tommy Lawton began his career at Burnley, and then the irony of Elliott’s goal, but I have no recollection, probably too busy with the train set. The year closed with a resounding Burnley win over Newcastle in front of over 29,000 people. My father would undoubtedly have been there. It was a 3 – 1 win and guess who scored one of them – yes Billy Gray scored one of them.
Perfect.Share this page :