I was born in Crumpsall Hospital and grew up in Manchester. My early life was spent in Hightown almost within sight of the obscene tower of Strangeways Prison. It was when I was about 2 or 3 years old that my dad began making footballs out of newspaper and string and began teaching me to trap and kick the ball. Not being a perfectly spherical object of course, the “ball” did not always go as my dad directed. He did not accept the deficiency inherent in the “ball” and kept me kicking and kicking until he approved. I didn’t complain. I just wanted to please my dad. He also introduced me to Maine Road. As tiny as I was, he took me to see City. I can still remember that first match. City in their light blue shirts and white shorts, and the opponents in white shirts and white shorts. I have always assumed that it was Coventry City, but that’s not necessarily true. Today (more so than is years gone), the colour of strip worn is not the “official” colours of the team. I recently saw Man. United on the tube and at first thought I was watching Everton or Chelsea!
Then we moved into a new house in Prestwich near Bowker Vale station. The end of the street was Manchester, but we were officially residents of Salford. That impacted me when years later I took the scholarship exams. My friends all went to Manchester Grammar or Manchester Central High and I could only sit for Stand Grammar. I failed, but later took the exam and passed for Openshaw Tech. However, I’m leaping ahead. War broke out and initially the FA stopped play (thank the Gods very briefly) but football was not the same after they resumed. So many players went into the forces and arrangements were made for “loaners.” If a league player was stationed in the area he was borrowed by the nearest local team. That’s when programmes were a penny, and very useful! By this time, I had been going to Maine Road every week, watching the first team and the reserves. However, with the advent of the war, the government took over Old Trafford for storage or something and United began playing their home matches at Maine Road. I suppose Old Trafford was rightly considered expendable.
Me and my dad were staunch City supporters. When I had saved my newspaper route’s pay, I bought a rusty old bike (new ones were unavailable) and rebuilt it with spare (used) parts. I called it my WASP (With All Spare Parts!) and joined my dad who had his bike and went all over to see City on the road. My mum objected to me being exposed to all kinds of weather and traffic but we went off anyway. Dad always had sandwiches (often watercress!) and a thermos of hot tea. We even went to Burnley to see a cup semi-final and just barely avoided being crushed to death. Thirty three people died before the game started. Saint John’s ambulance people were very busy that day, and so were the police on horseback who cleared the pitch for the game. It was played. When we got home (not knowing that anyone had died – my dad had told me that they had passed out) my mum had heard the news on the wireless and really was sick with worry. She had some very sharp words for my dad who was very quiet and listened, which was rare for my dad.
As for players, my dad’s favourites were Sammy Cowan, Jackie Bray, Eric Brook, Matt Busby and Sam Tilson. Dad told me stories (over and over again I might add) of what it was like to watch Eric Brook go down the left wing like a will-o’-the-wisp and dad claimed “Brooky” had a shot like it came out of a cannon. Dad always referred to “Little” Tilson as a centre forward who had magic rather than size. He also me told me that in 1934, Frank Swift (who was only a teenager) fainted in the goalmouth after City won the Cup by beating Portsmouth 2-1 at Wembley. Tilson got the winner.
My heroes were Frank Swift, Peter Doherty (who scored 21 goals in 1943-44 without appearing in many matches!) and Smith who played without a right hand and ran with his right arm behind his back. My favourite team was: Swift, Westwood, Fagan, Sproston, Emptage, McDowell, Wharton, Smith, Constantine, Doherty and Clarke. Then along came Linacre and Eastwood and Bert Trautmann. I have so many wonderful memories from Maine Road. Only two sides of the stadium were covered, the stands and one end. Everything else was open. When I was just a tot, my dad would sit on the rail (just behind and to the right of the open end goal) so I could watch my hero Frank Swift do his stuff. He was marvellous. Swift was in the army during the war and served in the 8th Army in Italy, France and Belgium. He had tried his hand as a police auxiliary constable before he was called up, but after about 15 minutes of traffic control at Market Street and Piccadilly (near Lewis’s) he packed it in and walked away leaving the traffic in a muddle!
I was a student at NYU in 1956 and was enrolled in a journalism course (by this time you’ll be wondering why I wasted the money!). I was touring the New York Times and stopped to read the news flashes as they came in by teletype. That’s where I read of the BEA crash in Munich that wiped out the Manchester United side and killed Frank Swift. I was in shock. Don’t know or remember how I found my way home. Even now I can feel the loss. He had watched me play at Belle Vue, and even patted my tousled head. I didn’t wash my hair for weeks afterward! I have a memory of a Man. Utd. ‘keeper playing at Maine Road that had his shorts torn by a City forward. Since I was behind the goal, I watched fascinated as the trainer ran onto the field with new shorts and his mates gathered around to enable him to change. Through a slight gap in the red shirts surrounding him, I saw a bright red moon! That’s when I realised that when you blush, you blush all over! I think his name was Compton.
We came to the States after the war and after City had won the second division championship and were promoted. For years and years I’ve had to be contented by sterile scores in the Sunday newspapers (if the newspaper needed filler) and lost track of the comings and goings of the players and the feel and personality of the team. But in 1958, I managed to get a job with Pan Am and began my career with the international airlines. In 1971 I joined Sabena as the Telecommunications & Data Manager for North America. As such I found that it was dead easy to get passes to the U.K. and a plan was born. Of course the pass privilege was not unlimited, so I had to pick my trips judiciously. Not by coincidence did my quick trips home coincide with with a Man. City appearance. I got back to Maine Road (didn’t recognize it at first) and to West Ham, Chelsea & QPR to name a few. I wore two buttons on my jacket. My City pin and a button that reads “I HATE MAN UTD” … I was never challenged!
I got off the airplane at LHR one Saturday morning. City were playing at West Ham and I handed my passport to the stern faced Immigration Officer at his little desk. He glanced at my place of birth and said “Welcome home.” His next question was how long I intended to stay in the U.K. I glanced at my watch and said “Oh, less than 24 hours.” Then suspicious, he quickly asked the purpose of my visit. I said I had come to see a football match. He said “All the way from the States?” I nodded “Yes.” He turned to the chap sitting over to his right and asked him if there were any important matches that day. He said “No.” Then looking at me, he challenged me to tell what match was so important that I flew over 3,000 miles to see. Quickly I thought (and the devil grabbed my brain) and I replied “Rochdale and Gillingham.” His jaw dropped perceptibly and in almost shock he said “ROCHDALE? ROCHDALE? I WOULDN’T CROSS THE BLOODY STREET TO WATCH ROCHDALE – LET ALONE FLY 3,000 MILES!” And he waved me through. I could almost read his thoughts – mad bloody Yank! Of course when I returned to LHR the next day to return to JFK, the chap checking passports and boarding passes saw that my passport had been stamped just the day before. He also asked why I had come to London. I told him the truth. To see Manchester City play at West Ham. He glanced up at me and grinned. “Wasted trip eh? They lost 1 nil didn’t they?” I just nodded. Just my luck he was probably a West Ham supporter. But now with the advent of modern technology (I can’t stand the terms ‘information super highway’ and ‘cyberspace’) I’ve found MCIVTA and it’s like finding a cool, clear oasis in the desert.
First printed in: MCIVTA Newsletter #143 on