Saturday, 26 September 2015

THE TRAGIC SPONGE

A splendid tip to watch Julio Arca play at Brandon Welfare Ground last week was enlivened by an elderly man in full pirate regalia getting on the bus at Langley Moor. You can read more about it in the next issue of When Saturday Comes.

Consett v Bradford Park Avenue in the FA Cup today. Rob of Fly Me To The Moon has been working on an archaeological dig at Park Avenue recently, so with that tenuous link here's something I wrote for the Official Unoffical Voice twenty years ago.





For over a century the magic sponge was an essential item in every football trainer’s kitbag. Then came the leaner, fitter age of the physio and the painkilling spray. Soon magic sponges were surplus to requirements. Without concern for their future, football, the master they had served so faithfully and so well, wrung them out and tossed them aside.

 
There are a thousand magic sponges out there, this is the story of just one of them: Ronnie Soft (Middlesbrough and England). Once celebrated by the Holgate End with his own chant (“Ee-ay-ee-ay-ee-ay-oh/Down your waistband Ron will go”) now a washed up husk earning a precarious living wiping the flies off motorists windscreens at a busy road junction near Marton shops.
 
“The Boro scout spotted me while I was still at school. It was the autumn of 1967” Ronnie recalled twenty years later “I was a bit wet behind the ears, but even then there wasn’t a marker I couldn’t handle – or a stick of chalk or crayon come to that. They took me on as an apprentice. I spent a few days at Ayresome Park just absorbing things; my new environment, the atmosphere, some excess embrocation off David Chadwick’s knee”.

 
 
“Despite the fact I was doing quite well with the youth team it came as a shock when one day Stan Anderson called me into his office and told me that on Saturday my place was in the bag”.
 
That afternoon in front of 27,000 people the nerves that were eventually to prove his undoing surfaced for the first time “I felt clammy all over,” he would later confess, “Then Gordon Jones took a blow in the nuts and the next thing I knew Harold Shepherdson, the trainer was signalling that it was time for me to do a job for the team.”
 
Soft’s impact was immediate. “I made quite a splash,” he would tell his first biographer Michael Parkinson in 1970, “Most of it over Jonesy’s jock-strap! And that was it, fame. My life was changed forever. It happened so fast the details never really had time to sink in.”


 
 
By the time Jack Charlton arrived on Teesside Sponge was a celebrity thanks to an international call up to the England squad. But his edges were already beginning to fray. Wild nights at the Club Marimba and a busy romantic life (Sponge claims to have been the loofah of three Miss Worlds) took there toll.

 “I know it was stupid and unprofessional, but the night before the Poland game I allowed Bobby Moore to take me out on the town with him. Bloody hell, I soaked up some stuff that night. Lager, whisky, champagne, beeswax furniture polish….if it was on the table I polished it off. When I woke up next morning I was on the floor in the gent’s toilets of a fashionable West End night spot.”
 
“I got back to the team hotel in time for breakfast, but Sir Alf only needed to take one sniff at me to know that I’d been out on the piss, literally. Luckily he was a tight-lipped man and chose not to comment. But I sensed that the writing was on the wall and nothing I could do would ever erase it”.
 
“After that my career never really recovered. Sure I had some great moments with a bruise on Alan Foggon’s thigh and there was that steamy night in the laundry basket with Pan’s People’s knee socks but my life was sliding. It came to the crunch in 1976 when Shep took me to one side and introduced me to a new lad, “From now on this fella’s going to give you a hand,” he said waving a can at me.

I asked what it was. “It’s an anaesthetic spray,” he said.
 
“Why is it that funny shape?” I asked. “It’s an aerosol”, Shep said. Well, you’re telling me it was. Soon I couldn’t get a look in for that little squirt”.
 
Within six months Ronnie Soft had left Ayresome on a free transfer to a Redcar window cleaner. “Yes, I do feel bitter,” he confided in a newspaper Where Are They Now feature a few years ago, “Football squeezed what it could out of me and then threw me away like an old rag”.


 
 

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