New Balls Please

 

Never meet your heroes. It’s a hoary old sporting cliche but one that I should always abide by. In the late ’90’s my mate Bill nudged me  & pointed out a proudly displayed photo on a mobile phone screen belonging to someone  sat in front of us in the Matthew Harding Upper. On the screen was a picture of said person with Gianluca Vialli. Both Bill & I adored Vialli unreservedly. When Ruud Gullit exiled him to the bench during his first season we watched him pointlessly limbering up prior to one game. ‘Worth 27 Grand a week just to watch him do that’ said Bill with as near an expression of man love on his face as I have ever seen. Now that the selfie has replaced the autograph book pictures like that are commonplace,but at the time it seemed like a major coup. How did you get to be in that position & how did you pluck up the courage to ask for it to be taken?

I suspect former ‘Chelsea Fancast’ podcast stalwart  Chel Tel would have pulled it off. He once told a  story on the show of a drunken New Year’s Eve night spent in 1986 with the wayward (& sadly departed) John McNaught. The great aspect of that story was that John’s finest hour in a Chelsea shirt came when he scored twice at home to QPR. On New Year’s Day 1987!  I wonder if he even went to bed….

On one occasion I was merely a little unlucky in my lily-livered approach to interacting with players. In the late ‘60’s, before I had even been to Stamford Bridge, I am watching my dad play cricket in Windsor on a lovely Summer’s day. Adjacent to the cricket pitch are some grass tennis courts. Wielding the racket on the far side of the occupied court is a lean, tanned man, stripped to the waist wearing a pair of long trousers. I recognise him immediately, largely because I am obsessed with my A&B football card collection. I love the long, flat strips of pink bubble gum that comes with them & that the smell of the gum lingers on them for some while afterwards. I also love memorizing all the player profile facts on the backs of the cards. The topless tennis player is none other than Peter Osgood. Centre Forward. Debut 1964 v Workington. I look around for someone to share my joy at this discovery.  I quickly find someone & return but the tennis court is deserted. The great man has departed, seemingly in some ‘Field of Dreams’ sort of way because I haven’t been gone long. For several years after I tuck my autograph book next to the mangey nodding dog in the back of our Wolseley 1500 car when the Windsor fixture comes around. Peter Osgood remains conspicuous by his absence. Eventually, I mention him to one of the Windsor cricketers. ‘Oh, yeah, he used to live here. He’s moved now. Epsom or somewhere.’ I am crushed & never get to meet Peter Osgood. Though  I did, briefly, get to see him play tennis, seeing him score in Athens in 1971 would have been rather more impressive.

On other occasions I am simply rubbish. In the ‘80’s & ‘90’s I work in a bookshop that gets occasional visits from Dave Sexton. He is working for the FA at Lilleshall at the time, & is apparently a devotee of our Philosophy section. I am a West Stand Benches regular in these years. Philosophy isn’t big there. Kant is just something you shout at Teddy Sheringham. I once serve our extremely handsome first FA Cup winning manager, selling him some Gardening books, but do I tell him of the impact he has had on my life? No. I say ‘Hello’ ‘Thank You’ &  ‘that will be £42.97 please.’ Hopeless.

And so it has always been. I walk down a narrow alley way one day in Oxford & realise that the person walking towards me is Peter Houseman. He looks at me but I don’t speak. His face is as familiar to me as The Queen’s head on a stamp but in truth I don’t know him so can’t think of anything to say.  A decade later, prior to the ill fated 1988 Play Off against Middlesbrough, a similar thing happens around Stamford Bridge, when an injured Micky Hazard walks past me. Now a 24/7 Spurs bore, Micky was a great favourite of mine, one rare ray of sunshine in the general gloom of the Hollins/Whalley era. I still don’t speak & his company is quickly snapped up by somebody with a spine. After my parents retire to Dorset the local newsagent is former Blues,Coventry & Ipswich striker John O’Rourke but I don’t find out until he has retired. One wintry afternoon there I am walking along the largely deserted beach along the Jurassic coast at Mudeford when a familiar, short, stocky figure is ambling towards me. Lock up your wingers. It is none other than Ron Harris. He strolls by. I don’t speak. Pathetic. A couple of years later I am walking along the same stretch of beach in the opposite direction, remembering my non-encounter with Ron. I look up & a familiar, short, stocky figure is ambling towards me. It is Ron again. I still don’t speak . Again. Pathetic. Again. The truly daft thing about this is I know several people who have had dealings with Ron Harris & confirm that he is a top man, including one friend who hitched a lift off him one night & said he was great value. Although I had met him, briefly, once before, in 1976 after a game at Oxford, when he belched loudly as he signed his name in my autograph book. Or attempted to. The pen failed. Perhaps it’s just me.

I emailed the ‘Chelsea Fancast’ show asking if anyone had better tales to tell than my feeble shaggy dog stories. Had anyone ever crashed into Winston Bogarde on the dodgems at Southsea or had Celestine Babayaro ask to borrow their lawnmower? There was one lovely reply from a listener who had been woken up in the early hours of the morning by the sound of his hitherto impeccably behaved Au Pair (Au Pair eh, get you!) being noisily dropped off outside his house in the wee small hours of the morning, in an expensive sports car, by none other than the aforementioned Babayaro. The trail then ran cold but I live in hope…

 

 

 

 

 

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