Back in the summer of 1989 I was living in a flat in the Old Kent Road. One evening I started thinking about the stories my Grandfather, Harry Fixter used to tell me when I was a boy. Born in 1904, he grew up in Essex Street, Middlesbrough in one of those terraced houses with front doors that open straight onto the pavement and a step is a sign of affluence. His father was a tugboat man who ran off with another woman. His mother was a hand-painter at Linthorpe Pottery who ended her days in St Luke's Asylum. He had two brothers, redheads like him and several cousins of uncompromising fierceness. He was a dandy and a reckless troublemaker who could reduce a room full of strangers to helpless laughter simply by shrugging his shoulders. I sat down at the little manual typewriter I wrote on in those days and banged this out. It became the first in a series of three articles that ran in When Saturday Comes that autumn. Some of the stories are exaggerated, a couple are made up. The most unbelievable of them are the ones that are true.
PAST IMPERFECT – THE TRUE STORY OF BRITISH FOOTBALL
PART ONE: TOUGH AND SUPER-TOUGH
‘The ball was heavier in them days,’ my grandfather would say waggling his false front teeth up and down reflectively, ‘It was like a bloody cannonball,’ he’d say, and laugh.
‘It soaked up water like a camel’s hump. The mud stuck to it an’ all. On a wet day that ball weighed more than King Farouk’s Christmas pudding. I’ve seen Jack Carr at Ayresome Park get under a kick out from the opposition keeper and the ball would drive him into the ground like a steam-hammer driving home a rivet.’
'He'd be sunk in the ground up to his neck. They had a gang of navvies on hand just to dig him out. They weren't allowed on until half or full-time, mind.'
‘Sometimes he’d spend 85minutes of the game like that; on the edge of the penalty area with only his head visible above the mud. And he still made a contribution.’
‘And that pitch was muddy. There none of this drainage, or underground heating, or astrakhan surfaces or all that jesse-ing about. That pitch was like the Somme. And if we were playing Sunderland so was the game.’
‘Aye, it was like the Somme on the third day that pitch. Boro brought down this new winger from Scotland. Ten minutes into his first game he fell into a crater by the left touchline. They never recovered the body. But nobody kicked up a stink. Players were tough in those days. Death was a way of life to them.’
‘The goalkeepers were the toughest of the lot. They didn’t get protection from the referees like they do now. I remember Dixie Deans shoulder-charging Tim Williamson that hard he sent him straight through the back of the net and up out the roof of the Holgate End. He landed, third bounce, on a tramp steamer that was sailing down the Tees. When he woke up he was in Trinidad. And the ref just waved play on.’
The players were stronger, too. They had to be to run about in those boots. They weren’t like these modern things. They’re just sand shoes. In those days players made their own. Billy Pease had a pair he’d knocked up out of old off-cuts of stHis left boot was sunk by a U-boat during the Dunkirk evacuation.’
‘And there was none of this moaning about wages. Andrew Wilson would have played for the Boro for no more than a couple of smacks on the back of the head with a five-pound lumphammer. And when times were bad, he’d have settled for one.’
‘Times were hard, then. But there was no hooligans. My cousin Davy once run on the pitch and laid out Leslie Compton, mind. But that was under extreme provocation. There wasn’t a jury in the land would have convicted him. Except for the one that did.’