Back in the late 60s and early 70s I used to spend most of my school Summer holidays at Lord’s cricket ground where, like many youngsters of a similar age I spent the day not watching the cricket and glorying in the achievements of the stars of the time in the Middlesex team such as Peter Parfitt, John Murray (an ex-Brentford Junior), Mike Brearley, John Price and Fred Titmus but instead, I remained glued all day to the back door of the Members’ Pavilion in the hope and anticipation of actually meeting the players in the flesh.
An MCC steward, an ex-military type in full commissionaire regalia would guard the pavilion door seemingly with his life and suspiciously look down his nose at us lest one of us should attempt to enter the hallowed and forbidden ground which was the province of lords and gentry rather than a bunch of ragamuffin kids like ourselves. He would establish a cordon sanitaire and we were not allowed to come within a few yards of the entrance in case we obstructed the path of our elders and betters.
Players would come and go throughout the day, some of them would sign our dog-eared autograph books with lordly disdain, others would engage us in a bit of patronising banter and small talk and we would barely manage to stammer our replies so overwhelmed were we that they had actually deigned to speak to us, a few (and one day I shall name and shame them) would ignore us and mercilessly push past the beseeching pack of schoolboys as we clamoured for their signature.
One sweltering hot Summer’s morning Lancashire came to town and we boys salivated at the prospect of obtaining the cherished autographs of the likes of stars such as Clive Lloyd, Jack Simmons and Peter Lever. They drove into the ground in a convoy of vehicles and we surrounded them in the car park in search of their signatures. One of the players was struggling under the weight of his massive cricket coffin and I instantly zeroed in on him. It was the wicketkeeper, Farokh Engineer, an Indian Test player of massive ability, charm and flamboyance. Wicketkeepers always seem to accumulate more equipment than their team mates and he was desperately looking for some help.
I seized my opportunity and without being asked, I grabbed hold of one end of his case and together we manhandled it towards the pavilion door where the jobsworth steward awaited us.
He can’t come in here he roared with relish as he pointed at me scornfully, and to my undying surprise and pride Farokh said he’s with me and I have invited him in. Stunned, the steward stood back and I accompanied Farokh inside the holy of holy’s and together we puffed our way up the stairs to the away dressing room bent double with the weight of his case – now I know where my bad back came from!
I expected to be peremptorily dismissed once we had arrived but instead Farokh sat me down and took the time and trouble to engage me in a long and detailed conversation about myself, my schooling and whether or not I played cricket. He, an established Test player and superstar treated me, a young kid whom he had never met before and would never see again, with interest and as an equal, and I have never forgotten his kindness.
Forty-five years or so on, and I still have the pictures that he autographed: To Greville with Best Wishes from Farokh Engineer and he inspired me to become a wicketkeeper.
You will not be surprised to learn that to this day Farokh Engineer, now a portly man of seventy-seven years, and long since retired, remains an absolute hero to me and always will do.
As I hope you will understand from that convoluted story, given the example he set and how wonderfully Engineer behaved towards me, since that occasion sportsmen do not earn the sobriquet of hero very easily from me and in fact there is only one other sportsman who has ever come up to the mark.
I have been watching Brentford, man and boy, for fifty years now and however much I have liked and admired so many players there is only one who I would actually class as a hero, and he and the others who come very close to earning that accolade all come from the same era – the late 60s and early 70s, a time when I was still young and impressionable and in those more innocent days I still saw some of the Brentford players in an heroic light.
My first couple of years watching the Bees passed by in a blur as the players were largely faceless and indistinguishable to me as I was still earning my spurs as a supporter and was not yet able to identify them as the individuals that they were.
Allan Mansley was the first Brentford player who truly stood out to me initially as much for his looks, as he had the long flowing locks and sinuous gait of a George Best, as for his ability. In an era of plebeian mediocrity when players with real flair and talent were the exception rather than the rule – particularly at Brentford, Ollie Mansley completely broke the mould. He played with passion and effervescent joy, galloped down the left wing with gay abandon and beat his opponents by virtue of a combination of pace, body swerves, dribbling ability, trickery and the precocity of youth.
He had an annus mirabilis in 1968 when he was touched by the Gods and scored goals of every hue – swerving free kicks, rasping volleys, solo runs, clinical angled finishes, even a looping twenty-yard header over a mesmerised Halifax goalkeeper. I followed him with the rapture of a star struck thirteen year old and he could do no wrong in my eyes and I ached to be as talented and handsome as he was.
However like all the best heroes, his fame was glittering but transitory and shortlived as he was irrevocably hobbled by the thuggery of the pantomime villain, Chesterfield’s Keith Kettleborough and never truly recovered his pace and verve and within a year or so he was gone and his career withered on the vine.
Alan Mansley remains a hero to me to this day because he was the first Brentford player who stirred my emotions and made me realise that football was a beautiful art as well as a sport and that there was room for guile and intelligence as well as organisation and brute strength.
The fact that despite his outrageous ability his career never reached the heights that had once looked likely, was truncated through injury and that he also died tragically young, makes him even more of an heroic figure to me, if a more tragic one. I never spoke to him – I never dared to do so, and can only hope that the man himself lived up to the image. Thankfully I am reliably informed by others who knew him that he was indeed a lovely young man and I am glad to hear so.
There were others of that same long past generation who I also revered although not to the same extent that I hero worshipped Allan Mansley. The likes of Chic Brodie, Gordon Phillips, Peter Gelson, Alan Hawley, Alan Nelmes, Jackie Graham, Roger Cross, John O’Mara and Bobby Ross were all talented players who gave the club long, loyal and dedicated service. I admired them all but none moved me as much as Ollie had.
Over the years the club has boasted many more players of massive ability and personality including such personal favourites likeFrancis Joseph and Stan Bowles but as I grew up and the players indeed, became younger than me I knew that the day for heroes had both come and gone and was now long since passed.
As an adult my eyes have been well and truly opened and I see the players for what they are – good honest professionals doing a job generally to the best of their ability, living separate lives off the field and possessing the foibles, weaknesses and shortcomings of all men.
I know that their loyalty to the club that I have supported for nigh on half a century and will do for the rest of my life, will last for the duration of their stay with us and not a jot longer – and nor should we expect anything else. Brentford, in most cases, is simply a staging post in what they hope will be a long, varied and successful career.
The nearest I came to feeling any different was when we launched The Big Brentford Book Of The Seventies four years ago and Dave Lane, Mark Croxford and I invited some of the most popular players from that decade to a launch event at the club and Alan Hawley, Jackie Graham. Peter Gelson, Paul Bence, Terry Scales, Pat Kruse, Andy McCulloch, John O’Mara and Paul Bence all attended.
They were without exception a delight to be with, reminiscing happily about the club to which they had all devoted so great a proportion of their footballing career. Icons they, and the likes of Kevin O’Connor, most certainly are, but real heroes, in the true sense of the word are rare on the ground and I have only had two sporting heroes and I will be forever grateful to Farokh Engineer and Allan Mansley for providing me with so much joy and inspiration.