Chapter Eight – Matches And Men
Just as the prospect of season 1956-57 brought springtime to August again, I could look back with much pleasure on my first full season of International football, with its exceptional experiences against Spain and Brazil and a first look at that master-footballer, Didi, plus the first foreign tour for Haynes with the national side, including as it did something of a triumph in Berlin. Fulham had remained in their Second Division rut, stapled to the middle places in the table, and there was the golden memory of a fabulous Cup match with Newcastle United. The season had given me one note of deep sadness, with the death of Taffy O’Callaghan. I suppose Taffy was the one man of whom you could say he was my ‘coach’. I have never had any personal coaching in my life, as happens to players abroad where the team coach takes them on the field individually and runs through faults and weaknesses with a view to bringing about improvement. But sometimes Taffy and I would go out with a ball, and he would talk about the game to me. He was a Welsh International inside-forward and through various points and practice passing, and so on. He was a warm, kindly man, and is greatly missed.
The next minor peak in my career was my appointment as club captain for the start of the season. I remained the youngest player in the team. This caused yet another Press storm. Fulham were indicted for every imaginable reason, the main one being perhaps that it made good reading in the dog days just before the season started when football engages in its annual July battle with the summer sports for space on the sports pages. The Daily Mirror was inspired to produce a story to the effect that Fulham had made the appointment at the request of the F.A., who planned to make me, aged twenty-one, the captain of the England team. All this had been going on as I sailed back from South Africa with Bedford Jezzard and Len Quested, so that I knew nothing of events at home. Had it been true I should have been suitably flattered, but unfortunately the F.A. quickly made it known that it was not. This honour was to be deferred.
The new season opened with the perfect fixture for Fulham: at home to West Ham United. For me, that meant Andy Malcolm (pictured), and if there has ever been at any time on any field a more dour character than Andy, I never met him. Andy plays his game, at least against me, with hardly a kick at the ball throughout the match. No matter what I say to him, Andy never speaks. He just looks more sombre than ever and he keeps on tracking me all over the field. He hits me hard too when the time is right, although never unfairly. He is a good player. He does his job well, though it is not the kind of game that appeals to me in any sense. In that match I was injured, and Fulham were roundly cuffed by four goals. It was an injury which plagued me on and off all season. I came back too soon after my first treatment, and after playing a couple of games, the ankle went again and led to a really unsatisfactory season.
The defeat by West Ham was the first of four in a row, and Fulham were off to yet another feeble start. Some excitement in the shape of the arrival of Roy Bentley from Chelsea in September helped lighten the gloom. Roy had been discarded by Chelsea after helping them win the championship, and he was widely experienced in Cup, League and International football. He was an outstanding player for Fulham, first in the inside-forward positions, and then at centre-half, where his great skill in the air was a remarkable asset to him and to Fulham’s defence. He contributed a great deal to the defensive improvement shown by the team.
Next week, Johnny gives his take on who was better, Tom Finney or Stanley Matthews.