Back in the 1960s shopkeepers in Britain took a particular delight in telling you they didn’t have what you wanted. You’d ask them for something and they’d shake their heads, all the while giving you the affronted yet superior look of a Salvation Army general refusing whisky from a drunk Catholic.
Jack Hatfield’s Sports Shop in Borough Road, Middlesbrough was different. In Hatfield’s they didn’t have what you wanted, they had something far better than that: they had what you needed, you just didn't know it yet.
Jack Hatfield had opened his sports shop in 1912. Hatfield was from Stokesley. He was a national and local hero. In the Stockholm Olympics of that year he’d won two individual silver medals in the swimming pool and a bronze in the relay. For a man from the North Riding of Yorkshire that was a phenomenal effort. Because Hatfield’s main rivals were Australians and Americans, men who trained in the warm azure waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. By contrast, Jack Hatfield trained in a pond in an ironstone quarry in Gribdale called The Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon wasn’t a lagoon, obviously, but it was otherwise aptly named. The water in it really was blue. It wasn’t the cerulean blue of the Aegean, admittedly. It was a sort of opaque, milky blue. It looked quite a lot like anti-freeze. And indeed it may have been.
After training in the Blue Lagoon, Jack Hatfield went over to Sweden and finished second in the 400m freestyle and the 1,500m freestyle. And, as my Granddad often said, ‘If the swimming pool in Stockholm had had dead dogs and dumped bedsteads in it he’d likely have won both.’
Off the back of his triumph Jack Hatfield set up his sports shop and he did a roaring trade. By the time I started going Jack himself was dead and the shop was staffed by an assortment of his sons and nephews.
My first encounter with the staff at Jack Hatfield’s came remotely, but it set the tone. I was at infant school. My mother had promised to go into town and buy me a Boro shirt. The atmosphere in Hatfield’s was always frenzied. The brothers were fantastic salesmen. They shouted and yelled and rushed about, scaling ladders and rugby passing shoeboxes and tennis racquets to one another over the heads of customers. It was like being in a Marx Brothers movie. Perhaps it was this that bamboozled my mother, because instead of buying me a plain red Middlesbrough shirt she came back instead with the red-and-white stripes of Stoke City. The Stoke City shirt differed from that of Sunderland by dint of having white collar and cuffs instead of red. This subtlety was lost on my contemporaries and for years I would be saluted with a cry of ‘Ay, ay, it’s Colin Suggett.’
My mother had also purchased me a pair of shin pads. These were of ancient vintage – I have some vague idea they were endorsed by Charles Buchan - and stuffed with horsehair, to which, judging by the weight of them, the horse was still attached. When I put them down my socks they made my shins so thick I had to run with my feet wide apart like Frankenstein’s monster.
Within a few years I had become seriously addicted to Subbuteo table football. The teams came in green cardboard boxes and there were hundreds of different ones to choose from. The teams were quite expensive. I had to save up. All the while I was saving I was studying the Subbuteo catalogue - which had pictures of all the teams in it - and deciding which to buy.
When I’d made my choice I’d go to Jack Hatfield’s. Hatfield’s had the biggest range of Subbuteo teams on Teesside. I’d go in through the door with my money in my hand. ‘I would like to buy a Subbuteo team, please.’ I’d say, ‘I would like to Ajax of Amsterdam, winners of the European Cup.’
The salesman in Jack Hatfield’s would consult his racks of teams. He’d shake his head. He’d say, ‘Ah, now, I don’t have Ajax of Amsterdam, but I tell you what I do have...’
And five minutes later I’d leave Jack Hatfield’s Sports Shop with a big smile on my face and a brown paper bag containing a team. It was not the XI of Cruyff and Neeskens that had revolutionised the game, but something far, far better than that. It was a 00 scale version of Alloa Athletic.