Here is a chapter from my forthcoming Bob Booker biography which deals with his first few frenetic days after he signed for Sheffield United. I hope you like it and I would welcome your comments.
It had been over two years since Bob Booker had last played regular first team football for Brentford and he had been involved in only 25 games in the intervening period. He had started 7 times and lasted the full 90 minutes on only one occasion, at Bristol Rovers, an occurrence that had left him gasping for breath by the final whistle.
There were obvious and serious question marks about his fitness when he joined Sheffield United. Would his ailing left knee stand up to the physical pressures and demands of first team football? Would he be able to twist and turn and demonstrate the mobility, flexibility and stamina required to play regularly in the Third Division, particularly for a team like Sheffield United which prided itself on a punishing and demanding high energy, high tempo style that required its players to maintain exceptional fitness levels?
Could he cope with the mental pressure of a promotion push, something that he had never really experienced at Brentford who had only briefly threatened to challenge for honours in the 1981/82 and 1982/83 seasons before such hopes proved to be a mere chimera?
Could he rise to the challenge and responsibility of becoming a potential first choice again after such a long period marooned on the periphery of the action?
Would he be able to prove himself to a new set of fans, most of whom had barely heard of him and would his new teammates accept and welcome him?
How would he deal with the prospect of nearly 20,000 supporters baying their disapproval at him should his performances fall short of their expectations?
How would he feel when he read Tony Pritchett’s articles and match reports criticizing him in the pages of The Sheffield Star or heard supporters venting their fury about him on the notorious “Praise or Grumble” post-match show on BBC Radio Sheffield?
These were all issues that deeply concerned Bob as soon as he put pen to paper for the club, however his feet barely touched the ground as he was thrust straight into the promotion maelstrom and such negative thoughts and fears were quickly dismissed and dashed from his mind.
I spoke to Derek French, Dave Bassett’s ebullient physio who played such a valuable role behind the scenes in keeping the squad fit and in good cheer. He had much to say about Bob’s state of health at the time that he joined the club.
“Bob lived near me in Watford and as we knew each other well I had seen him privately a few times for rehabilitation sessions when he was recovering from his injury, so I knew how serious it had been and quite understandably he was very concerned about whether he would be able to play again as ACL repair work in those days was nowhere near as advanced as it is today.”
“Before we signed him Dave Bassett had asked me about his fitness and whether I thought we would get anything out of him given that he had hardly played any football for such a long period of time. I told him it would be a bit of a gamble but knowing Bob as I did I thought that coming up to Sheffield and having a change of scenery would give him a massive boost, but that I honestly couldn’t guarantee anything. That being said he was going to be coming on a free transfer so it was really a low risk gamble that wouldn’t cost us anything if it did not work out.”
“If his knee had been totally knackered we would not have been able to sign him but Harry was only hoping to get a year or so or, at best, a couple of seasons out of him so we didn’t bother with a huge medical examination for him, we just made sure that he kept himself in decent shape.”
“After he signed we worked really hard with him and every day after training he would come to the gym and do lots of extra work to strengthen and rehab his knee. He showed a lot of dedication and determination, as he fully understood that he had been given a totally unexpected last chance to extend his career and to be part of a team that was going to win things. A change is as good as a rest and the transfer gave Bob a totally new lease of life as well as a huge mental lift. I think that in his excitement about the situation he found himself in he simply forgot about his knee and ignored the pain and he just got on with things!”
“He kept himself very fit over the 3 years he was with us. We knew that his knee was always going to deteriorate over time and given that he started playing every game for us after such a long break from regular action and was put straight into the firing line he initially suffered from a few niggles and hamstring problems, but nothing that was unexpected or out of the ordinary. After a few months he got himself really fit mainly thanks to his own hard work and he was really flying. He looked after himself very well off the pitch and was never really a drinker. He was determined to enjoy the time he had in Sheffield and threw himself into the local community and he was a total credit to both the club and himself.”
Dave Bassett confirmed in his autobiography that he had been aware of Bob’s career and capabilities for many years but he initially saw him merely “as a short-term solution” but quickly admitted his error and wryly amended his opinion to: “Did I say short-term?”
John Garrett admits to having vaguely heard of Booker, and in that I am sure that he was in the absolute minority amongst United fans, despite Bob having scored at Bramall Lane for the Bees back in 1982, whilst Derek Dooley had absolutely no idea who he was when Bassett informed him that he wanted to sign Bob and was simply grateful that he would not cost anything.
Bob received a new lease of life in Sheffield and the fact that he played so regularly for Sheffield United for 3 years, missing only 5 matches in the 1988/89 season after making his debut in late November, as well as playing 52 and 33 times respectively over the next 2 seasons, clearly demonstrates the power of mind over matter and his utter determination to maximise the opportunity he had unexpectedly been given.
The first that Sheffield United supporters heard about the move and Bob’s arrival was on Wednesday 23rd November when the banner headline “BOOKER PRIZE FOR BASSETT” appeared in the Sheffield Star and Tony Pritchett announced that “Bob Booker, Brentford’s experienced midfield player, is to move into Bramall Lane tomorrow to reinforce Sheffield United’s promotion challenge after the loss of Simon Webster with a broken leg.”
Dave Bassett was quoted as saying “I have known Bob a long time, he comes from the same town as Vinnie Jones but there the similarity ends. I wanted to take him at Wimbledon a few years ago but I couldn’t do the deal.”
“I had my eye on him again this season but until the accident to Webster it wasn’t so urgent. I didn’t want to sign him just to play in the reserves but now we need an extra man. It is a matter of grabbing when you can.”
“He can play midfield or up front and I have brought him to go into midfield for us.”
Booker expressed his surprise and joy at this unexpected move: “It is unbelievable coming here at this stage of my career. After 10 years plus at Brentford, to finish my career here is tremendous. I have been blown off my feet today; it is a dream. I am really excited about it.”
Bob was thrown straight in and played for the first half of a drawn reserve game at Huddersfield on the Thursday night in order to blow out the cobwebs after all his recent travelling up and down the motorway and ideally prove that he was fit enough to make his debut against Bristol City at Bramall Lane on the Saturday afternoon. His experience allowed him to husband his energy and get him through the 45 minutes relatively unscathed but he could already see the difficulties that lay ahead.
“The Huddersfield game was a real eye opener for me. Harry had the reserves playing in exactly the same way as the first team, which was fast moving and high energy football. I had experienced their system at Griffin Park earlier in the season when I was playing against them, which I found quite hard enough. Now I needed to adapt very quickly or else I could see problems ahead and I would not last long at the club. In a nutshell I was nowhere near fit enough to keep up with the pace of the football the Blades were playing.”
Bob had barely played for over two years and he was concerned that he would now be unable to cope with his new anticipated workload given that matches were coming thick and fast as United were still involved in the FA Cup and the Sherpa Van Trophy with the Saturday games generally punctuated by a midweek match too. He quickly realized that he had to look hard at himself, his fitness levels, training regime and the way that he prepared for matches and tailor and adapt things according to what was going to be required of him.
“I needed to train hard, but also train smart as to play Harry’s game you simply had to run and run for 90 minutes – there was no escape and no hiding place. I was so relieved that I had only played 45 minutes at Huddersfield after the week that I’d had – that was more than enough and all I wanted to do was to crawl off the pitch, get back to the hotel where I was staying and catch up with some much-needed sleep.”
“There was no respite for me as Frenchy wanted me in early on the Friday to give me a massage and start me off on my new training regime. I owe him so much for the way he managed my knee from day one, I couldn’t have survived at the club for very long without him. On our way back to the hotel he gave me the run down on what I was in for on the following day which would be a typical Friday morning’s training session and would consist of a warm up and ball work with Geoff Taylor before Harry would turn up at some stage and take the rest of the session.”
“I wasn’t sure what they had in store for me and was pleasantly surprised when Derek said ‘don’t be surprised if Harry throws you straight in on Saturday, and there’s a real opportunity for you here if you’re up to the challenge and are able to take it.’”
“I was as nervous as a kitten before my first training session on the Friday and felt exactly like I had so many years beforehand when Pat Kruse gave me a lift to the Brentford training ground for the first time. ‘Come on Bob’ I said to myself as I prepared to enter the dressing room, ‘you’re a seasoned pro with over 300 games under your belt, you can do this,’ but I still felt like a little boy on his first day at school.”
“Thankfully I needn’t have worried as there was a strong Southern contingent in the squad as Harry had already brought in a number of his former Crazy Gang members from Wimbledon in Simon Tracey, Francis Joseph, who, of course, I also knew from my Brentford days and Wally Downes with John Gannon soon to follow. As soon as Frenchy introduced me I heard a voice with a strong Northern accent shout out: ‘Not another Southern softie’ – that was my welcome to the Northern bunch, in this case Sheffield born Dane Whitehouse! This totally broke the ice and for the next ten minutes it was like World War 3 with good natured abuse flying everywhere between the Northerners and Southerners!”
Being as this was 1988 and not today when the practice is far more in vogue, there was no rite of passage or initiation ceremony for the newcomer and Bob was not required to stand on a stool or similar and sing a song as the price of his admission into the group and his new teammates were thankfully spared his ghastly tone-deaf rendition of a favourite by The Who, Def Leppard or even, heaven forbid, Alice Cooper!
“I could tell straight away that this was a happy and united
dressing room filled with so many strong and memorable characters who were all pulling together and supporting one another in a way that I had never experienced before in my career. Dave Bassett, Geoff Taylor and Derek French ran a close-knit and happy ship where everyone worked and played hard and laughter was never far away. You can never win anything if your dressing room is divided or split into cliques with lots of whispering in dark corners but here everyone mixed and gelled together.”
Bob was immediately made to feel a part of the group and welcomed by the likes of Chris Wilder, who is now managing the Blades, and fellow midfielder Mark Todd. Bob clearly remembers his first sight of his new skipper Paul Stancliffe who as a Rotherham defender had marked him out of the game in his second match for Brentford way back in October 1978. “He walked into the dressing room and spotted me, did a double take and shouted out ‘what on earth are you doing here – you’re even older than me!’ He was right too as I was born 4 months before him. Well, that was music to the ears of the Northern contingent who laughed their collective heads off. Whilst I was still trying and failing to come up with a witty riposte the ex-Wimbledon crew came to my rescue: ‘He might be older than you, Stan, but he’s played more games already than you’ll every play and he can score goals too.’”
No pressure then and little did they realise that Stancliffe was to go on and play 674 times in a 20-year Football League career nearly double the number that Bob managed!
Bob felt a bit more relaxed and at home after this lively introduction but he knew that whilst it was all very well holding his own in the dressing room it was what he did on the pitch that counted the most.
“Geoff Taylor popped his head around the door to tell us it was time to leave for the training ground. I wondered why he kept his distance and didn’t come in but my unspoken question was answered when his words were met by an immediate fusillade of laundry baskets, kit and football boots. There was no hiding place in this dressing room, you either joined in or fell by the wayside.”
“Chrissy Wilder and Mark Todd offered me a lift and from that moment on Chris and I became great friends. He was a lot younger than me but we soon discovered that we had much in common. We both came from close-knit families and we were both local boys done good. Born in Stocksbridge, he had been an apprentice at Southampton but he finally signed for his beloved local club and was so proud to be a Blade. His mates sat right behind the dug out at Bramall Lane and the main characters of that group were two lads called Witt and Dallas who also became great friends of mine.”
“Chris was the manager of their Sunday morning football team and he often invited me to go along to watch the lads in action. This was a bit weird as on a Saturday they were all at our game singing Sheffield United songs and eventually even my name, but the next morning I was just one of the lads watching them play. We would end up at the local pub after the game having a few John Smith’s together. This might not have been an ideal preparation for training the next day but it helped me settle down and became part of the local community and Chris was to play a massive part in my life in Sheffield.”
“On the drive to the training ground Chris and Toddy
started teasing me about the match at Griffin Park, ‘wasn’t that the game you played terribly in and got taken off?’ The banter was as cutting as anything I remembered at Brentford – that’s footballers for you, but it also had a serious side as I soon recognized just how important Simon Webster had been to the team and how popular he was and I realised that I had a large pair of boots to fill.”
Bob knew that the other players would be watching and judging him on the training ground, just as he had done to every newcomer he had encountered at Brentford. He had become part of the furniture and a respected senior player at Griffin Park but now the roles were reversed, all bets were off and it was up to him to prove that he deserved to be there and could add something to a team that had already demonstrated that it would be challenging for honours that season. If he didn’t he knew that his stay would be short and that retirement would be beckoning again.
“After the warm up the footballs came out and every dodgy touch was greeted with cries of ‘how many games has he played’ and all kinds of stick was being thrown my way but I was loving it and I did OK. By now, Harry had arrived and made his way over. In his strong Cockney accent he said ‘OK Geoff, that’s enough of that rubbish!’ Even the manager was throwing banter around and the players were loving it.”
“We all caught our breath for a while whilst Harry and Geoff had a discussion. I looked behind me and Carl Bradshaw and Simon Tracey were wrestling with each other on the floor, which was apparently a fairly common occurrence and nobody took any notice of them!”
“As soon as Harry began to speak the atmosphere changed and the players all gave him their full attention and you could tell that he commanded their total respect. Even now nearly 30 years on I can clearly remember what he said: ‘Right lads, listen up, these players come with me, the rest of you stand on the side, watch and listen and keep stretching.’ Harry then started calling out the team for tomorrow’s match and my name was included. I did a double take, was I really in the starting eleven, could I have misheard him? My stomach lurched and I didn’t know whether to feel terrified or exhilarated. After the week I’d had, I really wasn’t expecting that despite the hint that Frenchie had given me. The team lined up in a 4-4-2 formation and I took my position up in midfield, next to my new little Irish mate Toddy who was a great technical player, and way out of my league in terms of his skill on the ball.”
“Now came the hard work as I was given a crash course into exactly what was required to play centre midfield in this Sheffield United team and I knew that I had to prove a quick study. Harry stood over some footballs just outside our penalty area, in front of our back four. He served them in turn to the centre halves and then the fullbacks. Each time he shouted out ‘two touches, hit the corners.’ As the ball went forward we all squeezed up the pitch like soldiers in formation filling in areas where the ball might go. At the top end of the pitch Deane and Agana knew exactly where and when to run. If they ended up receiving the ball outside the box they gave it straight to one of the wingers and then sprinted into the penalty area where they knew the ball would go.”
“I was used to picking the ball up from one of the Brentford defenders, turning and then looking either to make another short pass to a midfielder and keep possession, or to hit the ball long towards one of the wingers or central strikers. I would then follow my pass as quickly as I could and attempt to join in with the next phase of play. Harry then fired in a set of detailed instructions to me and made it clear that I would have to reprogramme myself as everything was done differently at this club in terms of the style and pattern of play and the midfielders were the workhorses of the team.”
“He told me that I should never come short for the ball from the defenders as they would be aiming what he called a ‘Reacher Ball’ to either Deane and Agana or towards the touchline ideally level with the opposing penalty area and we were always looking to turn the opposition defence by getting the ball in behind them.”
“As soon as the ball was launched forward by a defender or Benno in goal my first task was to keep up with the play and then get goal side of my opposing midfielder and look either to get a knockdown from our strikers or wingers or pick up the second ball as it was half cleared. When I got the ball I was instructed not to do any Cruyff Turns or anything fancy on the ball but to play a simple forward pass ideally to one of the wingers. Once that mission was accomplished I was not allowed to rest on my laurels but told to get into the penalty area as quickly as possible in order to support the strikers and get a strike in on goal – not much to ask for as I quickly learned the hard way that every game would consist of a series of lung bursting 70 yard runs up and down the pitch.”
“That was only half the task as when the opposition were in possession I had to squeeze up on them, try to compress the pitch and ideally stop them playing and win the ball back and start the entire process yet again. Set pieces were crucial to our success and given my height and strength in the air I was told to make late runs from beyond the far post and ideally meet Brian Deane’s near post flick-ons. I was also allocated a strong header of the ball from the opposition and told to mark him at their set pieces – not too much to ask for from an old crock with a dodgy knee!”
Stunned and left almost speechless at the extent of his workload and what was going to be expected of him, Bob cast a furtive glance at his midfield partner, the tiny Mark Todd and wondered if he had been a 6-footer before he joined the club and had gradually been worn down by the demands of his duties?
“After about 15 minutes of pattern of play work Harry brought in some of the other squad members who set up as he expected Saturday’s opponents Bristol City to do. Every possible detail was covered. Finally we practiced a series of attacking and defensive set plays. By now my head was reeling with information overload and the need to keep concentrating on what I had seen and heard – and this was supposed to be a quick and easy training session!”
“What Harry said was just as important as what he did and at the end of the session he spoke simply and passionately
about the importance of getting back on track as we had lost 2 of our last 3 league games as well as the need for all of us to remain switched on at set plays and every time the ball was out of play.”
“At the end of the session he finally introduced me to the squad and said to the lads, ‘I’m sure you’ll make him welcome even if he is a Southern softie!’ He then turned to Geoff Taylor and asked if he wanted to take the lads for a 10-minute game of North v South. This was greeted by cheers from everyone and the next few minutes were total carnage as the tackles flew in with barely a thought about there being a game tomorrow. The final whistle blew and luckily everyone was still in one piece!”
“We then headed back to stadium for a hot bath and the banter was relentless. An unwary apprentice was seized by Wally Downes and Simon Tracey and thrown into the kit skip where he was forced to remain for about 5 minutes, which must have seemed interminable for the poor lad. Thank goodness I had never been an apprentice and I can’t imagine anything like that being allowed to happen today!”
“After our hot soak, Chrissy Wilder informed me that we were all going down to the social club to have lunch together. Now I began to understand why this team was so successful as all the players bonded together to form a tightknit unit which was physically and mentally strong and full of winners with everyone supporting each other.”
“Paul Stancliffe then itemized all the club fines. These included being late, wearing dirty boots or the wrong kit, not wearing flip-flops in the dressing room and borrowing someone else’s shampoo. The list seemed endless and went on and on and I knew I had to be focused and on the ball at all times or my improved wages weren’t going to last too long.”
“After lunch Chrissy Wilder invited me back to his house which he shared with Tony Agana. However, I was mentally and physically exhausted and decided to go back to the hotel to rest and start preparing myself for one of the biggest games of my career. I was at a new club with new players, a new manager unlike anyone I had ever previously worked for, with new fans and new expectations. I’d only been there for a couple of days but I already felt like a Sheffield United player and now I had to go out and perform like one.”