Tuesday, 9 September 2014


One afternoon in October 1996 the phone rang. It was the sports editor of the Daily Telegraph. He said. 'You're a Boro fan. You know Wilf Mannion?'

I said I was and I did.

'Good,' he said, ''You can interview him for us. Focus on the Sunderland versus Boro matches. It's the last North-East derby at Roker Park next week. 600 words. Three o'clock Monday.'

Of course when I said I knew Wilf Mannion I didn't mean I actually knew him - I meant that I knew of him.

I spoke to Andy Smith at Middlesbrough Supporters South. He told me to phone an old man in Redcar named Albert Lanny who acted as Wilf's manager. He said, 'He'll probably want paying. He doesn't do anything unless he gets paid.'

I'd never worked for the Daily Telegraph before. In fact I'd barely worked for any newspaper. I had no idea if they'd pay for an interview. I could have asked, I suppose, but I didn't want to look like some naïve idiot. I thought I'd just pay Wilf myself and say no more about it.

Luckily my Mum phoned up at this point. When I mentioned Albert Lanny she said, 'Oh I knew him when he was a little boy. I was at the Convent with his elder sister. We used to go round for tea. They were Italians. Very glamorous. They made ice cream. They were smart - a cut above Pacitto's and Rea's. Ask about his sister for me.'

I phoned Albert. When he raised the subject of payment, I said, 'My mother was asking after your Maria. They were at St Mary's together. Pam Fixter. She knew you. Red hair. From Marske.'

Albert said he thought he remembered my mother and we had about ten minutes of fruitlessly trying to fathom out whether he did or not. By the time we'd finished he seemed to have forgotten about the money, or had decided that since I had some vague family connection via the Catholic Church he would waive the fee. We arranged a time for me to go to his house in Redcar and interview the great man.

Three days later I spent an interesting few hours with Wilf Mannion, though not much of what he said made it into the Daily Telegraph.

By this time Wilf was well into his seventies. He was good company, but his memory was not entirely reliable (as we shall see) and there was a prickly edge to him. He'd had a rough time in World War Two and a tough time after he'd finished playing. He'd come to feel himself undervalued, forgotten. Other players of his era - Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton - were better remembered, more prosperous, celebrated. Many older sports people are rude about the current generation of idols, Wilf was no different, but he was equally dismissive of his contemporaries - as if by diminishing them he would make himself seem bigger.

Wilf was born in South Bank, always one of the poorest and hardest parts of Teesside. He'd learned to play on waste ground using a pig's bladder as a ball. When he'd gone to work at South Bank steelworks as a fourteen-year-old he'd been drafted straight into one of the departmental teams. Inter-departmental football in a steelworks is not a game for the faint of heart.

 'The first match I played, I got the ball, beat a couple of defenders and scored,' Wilf said, 'I was young and the opposition thought I was being cheeky. Their captain come up to me. He said, 'If you do that again I'll break both your fucking legs'.

'The captain of my team heard. He said, 'How, you, leave him alone. He's only a little lad.' And the bloke turned to him and said, 'Shut your mouth, or I'll break both your fucking legs an' all'

When Wilf had begun playing for Middlesbrough they'd had a famous forward line - all five were internationals. I started off by asking him about that. I said, 'When you first came into the Boro team you were playing with centre-forward George Camsell.'

Wilf's pale eyes sharpened, 'Aye, he said, 'And I'll tell you something about George Camsell - he was ruddy useless. He couldn't trap a sack of cement.'

I'd been raised by my Grandfather to regard Camsell as King Arthur in football boots.  I blurted out, 'He scored 345 goals!'

Wilf sneered, 'Oh aye,' he said shooing away the idea with a wave of his hand, 'He could score goals alright.'

And so it went on. Wilf had little time for any of the players of his era. Matthews was one-dimensional, Lawton a Lancastrian Camsell. When I raised the topic of Len Shackleton he shook his head. 'Shackleton wasn't a footballer - he was a ruddy circus act.'

The only player who escaped his scorn was his fellow England inside-forward, the Sunderland skipper Raich Carter. When I asked about Carter, Wilf sniffed, 'Carter,' he said, then, after a moment of thought, 'Aye, Carter was alright.'

From this I concluded that Raich Carter must have been a bloody genius.

In the 1930s Sunderland and Middlesbrough were two of the best teams in the country. They rarely finished outside the top eight. Sunderland claimed the last League title won by a North-East club and Boro edged closer and closer to emulating them only for Hitler to intervene. I asked Wilf about that time and the games against Sunderland at Roker Park. Did he have any particular memories of those occasions, anything that had stuck in his mind?

Wilf thought for a while. He smiled. 'Aye,' he said, 'I recall one time going up there. It must have been about 1938. I was only a young lad. I was sat on the coach next to Bob Baxter. We come down into Seaburn. There was this pub there on the corner on the seafront. Big place. There was a mob of people drinking outside. I looked across and in among them was Patsy Gallacher. He was totally ruddy pissed. I said to Bob Baxter, 'There's Patsy Gallacher and he's pissed'. Bob nods his head, 'Aye, most likely,' he says.

Wilf smiled again. 'Aye,' he said with a happy sigh, 'I'll always remember that.'

I imagined the headline above my piece in The Telegraph: 'Patsy Gallacher was Pissed - Recalls North-East Legend'.

In the end I cobbled together enough material from the cassette recording to write my piece, finessing some of it, as we say.. Here it is. It's not particularly original and there's barely anything about the derby, but there's a postscript that's worth sticking round for.


Wilf Mannion was gifted with such sublime skills that his England team-mate Tommy Finney once said: 'It was as if he'd been sent down from heaven.' Tonight, as part of the entertainment before Roker Park's last North-East derby, the angel returns to planet football to play a five minutes-each-way game. At 78 he can be forgiven if his wings are a bit creaky.

Mannion has warm memories of Tees-Wear derbies, particularly those of the immediate pre-war years. Then, with Sunderland champions in 1935-36 and FA Cup winners in 1937 and Middlesbrough rarely finishing outside the top half-dozen places, the games had an added edge.

He said, 'Sunderland had some wonderful players, Raich Carter, of course, the Scot Patsy Gallacher, Bob Gurney, but nobody frightened us in those days. That Middlesbrough team was fantastic. If it hadn't been for the war we were bound to have won something. Had to.'

Mannion believes this was the golden era of the English game, 'The football in the Thirties was just out of this world,' he recalls, 'The ball was kept on the ground and we just wove patterns with it. It was beautiful. Beautiful.'

Off the field things were distinctly less pretty. 'Players were treated very differently then, In 1938 England were sending a team to South Africa for the summer. The Boro manager, Wilf Gillow, called me aside one day after training. He said, 'We've received a letter informing us you have been selected for this South Africa trip. However, you won't be going because I feel you need to rest.''

Mannion waited for the words 'we will, of course, compensate you for the loss of earnings.' They never came.

'But you couldn't say anything. You couldn't answer back. I mean if you even forgot to call the manager 'mister' you'd be up before the directors.'

Mannion and his fellow professionals were treated as third class citizens by the men who ran the game, often quite literally.

He recalled an incident after the Great Britain versus The Rest of the World game in which he scored twice in a 6-1 win. 'I got on the train home. It was full, so I sat on my case out in the corridor. A journalist came up and said: 'What are you doing out here? It's empty in first and second.' But you see, we were only covered for third class travel.'

After the war Mannion returned to Middlesbrough, but grew progressively more disillusioned with life at Ayresome Park. When his contract expired during the summer of 1948, he decided to leave. The dispute which followed would be a forerunner of those involving George Eastham and, much later, Jean-Marc Bosman.

Mannion said :'I wanted away, Middlesbrough wanted to keep me. I heard Everton offered £27,000 and Glasgow Celtic £30,000 plus two Scottish internationals, but the directors wouldn't let me go at any price.' The transfer record had been set the previous February when Sunderland paid £20,000 for Len Shackleton.

The terms of Mannion's contract made it impossible for him to leave without permission. 'It was a slave contract. It was the one my parents had signed when the club took me on as a boy. I was too young to sign myself. They didn't know anything about that sort of thing. They just signed me away.'

In protest Mannion refused to play. Unsupported by the PFA, h stayed on solo strike for four months. Eventually news came through that his case would be debated in parliament. It was too late for Mannion. With his first child newly born and his wife chronically ill he was desperate for money. He went back to Ayresome Park.

Mannion played for Middlesbrough until 1955, when, with the club relegated into the old second division he announced his retirement at the age of 36.

Any alleged bitterness caused by these events has long since dissolved. In a recent poll one in four Middlesbrough supporters - most too young to have seen him play - named him as the club's greatest player.

'It's marvellous.' Mannion said, 'It's there forever. You couldn't ask for anything better, could you?'

The day after the piece appeared Nick Varley, author of the excellent Wilf Mannion biography Golden Boy, phoned. I'd met Nick when he was researching Golden Boy. He'd come out to talk to me and we'd taken the dog for a walk. He said, 'I see Wilf told you that story about The Rest of the World match, about the third class travel.'

'Yeah,' I said, 'Amazing story.'

'It would be,' Nick said, 'If it was true.'

Nick said he'd talked to Tom Finney about it. Finney said that Wilf had got it wrong: the players stayed on after the game, there was a gala dinner, they ate seven course meal and drank champagne. 'I've seen photos,' Nick said.

I was taken aback, then a thought occurred to me. I said, 'Hang on a minute, the same story is in your book.'

Nick laughed. He said, 'I know. It was a bit of dilemma. You see, I was writing Wilf's story and that was how he told it. That is genuinely what he thinks happened. In the end I decided to leave it as it was.'

The story of Wilf sitting on the suitcase was a fabrication - stitched together from the many slights and injustices the Golden Boy had endured. It was a fable, I suppose, containing a moral truth.

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