A 1960s memory of meeting Liverpool FC’s feared mid-fielder. This was written for the launch issue of Total Sport magazine in 1995. I seldom write about football, or about myself (though I am fascinated by both). But this piece was so well-received that I used it again to round off a chapter in Liverpool: Wondrous Place.
We walked on, through the wind. Walked on, through the rain. Our dreams, quite frankly, were tossed and blown. But we walked on, walked on, with hope in our hearts.
Then we said, ‘This is cack. Let’s go home.’
For a year or more we’d been collecting footballers’ autographs, and tramped the dreariest avenues of suburban Merseyside to obtain them. Enough was enough. It’s not that our boyish adulation of these sporting gods had waned. But you get bored. And the autographs just weren’t selling like they used to. And then there’s your nerves. Things like the Tommy Smith Incident. It all gets to you in the end…
While it lasted, though, the scheme had been a money-spinner. It all began with Liverpool’s stylish left-winger Peter Thompson, in this way.
Official histories say little of my part in building Bill Shankly’s classic 1960s Liverpool team. But now I shall break my silence. In 1963 my family stayed in a village of “holiday chalets”, nestling on some rain-lashed promontory of the North-west coast. The chalets lacked gaiety, and most other amenities, but in their favour they were co-owned by Peter Thompson, then a young player with Preston North End. It so happened that Shankly wanted him badly. Peter Thompson visited our chalet one evening, and I urged him to join Liverpool. This he duly did and, with the team now complete, the Reds embarked on three decades of unparalleled footballing triumph.
I look for no reward. One simply does one’s bit.
It was great to get Peter Thompson’s autograph that night. But even better was to take that autograph into school and be offered money for it. Clearly this was the racket to be in. In those days Liverpool and Everton installed their young married players in club houses around the suburbs. The schoolboy grapevine had most of the addresses, a little detective work revealed the rest. We’d simply pay them a visit.
You’d knock on the door and there would appear the player’s wife, who was about 20, or 45, or something. You would say ‘Is so-and-so in, please? Please can we have his autograph, please?’ The amazing thing, looking back, is that so-and-so would always emerge at the door and sign our books without complaint. Nor did it seem to annoy them that the same small boys were returning for their autographs on a regular basis.
The Liverpool and Everton men were equally decent. Anfield skipper ‘Big’ Ron Yeats was a vast Scotsman of fearsome aspect but friendly disposition; the Blues’ Roy Vernon, a Welsh international, would always stand us tea and biscuits. (I read of his death, in late 1993, not having thought of him for 25 years, and I was struck by just how sad I felt.) There was Alan Ball, not much taller than we were.
Gordon West, Gerry Byrne, Alex Young (‘the Golden Vision’) and Brian Labone were others whose semi-detached privacy we repeatedly violated.
Ian St John was idolised by Liverpool boys; getting his autograph six times was sound business. His house seemed wonderfully modern: a sort of split-level, Scandinavian ranch-o-luxe style, with little dark green coniferous things planted outside. It offered one of those glimpses, which 60s children so relished, of an amazing future – a future which, for some reason or other, never actually happened.
But the turning point was the Tommy Smith Incident. Here our tale takes on a darker aspect. Why did his wife let us in the house? She must have known he was asleep on the sofa! We’d have gone away peacefully. Given Smith’s terrifying reputation in those days, who wouldn’t? Did she want to see carnage on the shag-pile?
‘Tommy,’ she said. ‘Wake up, Tommy. These fellas want your autograph.’
This was madness. Obviously the woman had completely forgotten who she was married to. Tommy Smith was feared by everyone. Opposing centre-forwards sustained career-abbreviating injuries just by thinking about him. There was a fashion on the Kop for calling Liverpool’s three midfield men ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’; but it never caught on, probably because the last two adjectives seemed to be Tommy Smith’s alone. When he wrote his autobiography it was called I Did it the Hard Way, and nobody ever stood up to say, ‘Oh no you didn’t!’
How to describe Tommy Smith’s expression this fine day? Like a bear with a sore head? No, that would be too amiable. Like a bulldog chewing a wasp? Too hail-fellow-well-met.
In fact he looked the way Tommy Smith would look if he’d just been abruptly woken up from his afternoon nap to find a couple of spindly kids in his living room, holding out their scabby little autograph books and saying ‘Please can we please have please…’
We knew fear at that moment, and we understood mortality. Tommy Smith regarded us through those tiny, and very far from Bambi-like, eyes. His breathing was heavy. His sleep-creased features, the famed complexion that made Mount Rushmore look like a Camay advert… Given the choice, you’d rather be gazing at something else. You’d rather be a million miles away. You’d really rather not exist at all.
‘Please can we please…’
Then something very strange and rather magical happened. Tommy Smith smiled.
‘A’right, lads?’ He reached out for the first pen and autograph book. ‘How’s it goin’?’
We’d survived. But one’s bottle goes. It was time to get out of the autograph game. Make way for new kids, younger and hungrier. Our market was saturated, anyway. (As indeed were our trousers, if memory serves.) When you come through a near-death experience like that, you feel you have been spared to serve some higher purpose with what remains of your time on earth. The last autograph I ever got is the only one I still have. It’s Jimmy Tarbuck’s, signed at Anfield on a match programme in 1965. I could never sell it. I don’t mean for sentimental reasons. I just mean I could never sell it.