Boris Becker

Boris Becker

We met in church, one of those gargantuan cavernous gothic number which had been turned into a pub. Wine bars at the time were de riguer but this was a proper south Manchester pub selling prime chuck steak burgers with jalapenos and mayo in a brioche bun. It was 1985 and like most other things in Manchester, this place was ahead of its time. The slumbering giant Man Utd had finally awoken under charismatic Big Ron Atkinson – Cup runs and optimism were in vogue. Into this setting ghosted Mr Steven Williams, blond, teutonic and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the dashing Wimbledon-winning aryan blade who had set the tennis world alight. Steve’s gruff northern vowels punctuated the air but I didn’t yet know who this geezer was. Years before, a Spurs and England World Cup winner Martin Peters was nicknamed ‘the ghost’- due to his knack of nipping round the back and scoring vital goals. But Manchester’s Boris Becker had just ghosted into my life and there he would remain. Talking loudly with Kes Finnan, Big Alex and The Kid about United, spontaneously they burst into Stretford End song. So why did I so like the gib of this natural football foe? Munching on my sublime burger in bun, I heard a savvy Mancunian drawl – ‘Hey pal, I’m Steve’. ‘All right, mate’ I replied almost dropping my gherkin. Cutting straight to the chase he enquired ‘Are you a red?’ ‘No, Man City’. ‘Oh, were you born in Manchester?’ ‘No’ I responded ‘Kent’. Boris Becker won three Wimbledon titles in a row, fearlessly hurling himself on the hallowed turf, charming the world, shagging Russian temptresses in shoe cupboards and wowing the media with his natural elan and good looks. Steve Williams’ own life was equally dramatic. After a brief RAF career, he drove a delivery van in Oldham. He was an airline mechanic in London. He studied at Sheffield, Loughborough and a number of other UK academic institutions before settling into his natural profession, logistics. Mirroring my own life work/pattern of thirteen countries with two suitcases in ten years, the boy continued to travel. However ‘Bozza’ as he was now known, always had that crucial element of surprise. In 1990, ostensibly crashing on our Tooting sofa for one night only, Steve joined our World Cup panel. He stayed for two weeks drinking inordinate amounts of Becks beer whist cheering his beloved Germany on to victory. He followed the teuton dream, his championing of all things Deutsch, a refreshing counter to the poisonous Jerryphobic tirades launched by mainstream media everytime In-ger-land lock horns with The Fatherland. Then as Tooting Superstars was in full flow mid-nineties, he executed the most brilliant rant against the Delia Smith corporatised prawn sandwich-eating Sky TV criminals who were ruining his game. Tellingly, so much of what he predicted that warm summer evening came true. Power-crazed foreign owners, World Cups in Qatar, a game strangling itself through its own greed and shortsightedness. Stavanger, Leipzig, Derbyshire and Berlin were his new outposts. Truth be told, Steve, like so many other genuine working-class fans had been priced out of their rightful place on the terraces. But like the other love of his life, New Order, the response was always Hooky-style sardonic resigned wit. Singing along one night to a popular hit ‘Things can only get better’ he drowned the awful anthem with ‘Things will always get worse’. So prescient when dealing with this post-Thatcher/Blair Big Lie Britain. Another time we all met at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Bozza bumped into an old aquaintance, Clint Boon. Very soon we were quaffing backstage with his band The Inspirals and curiously Mark Lamarr who insisted on plying us with drinks. Later Steve blagged a lift home on the tour bus. On another occasion at a friend’s stag do in Madrid, we were watching a young Fernando Torres, when marching up the north stand steps came Mr Williams, literally out of nowhere. He got me to drop off his bag in London the next day. Last year I was having a pint or two with Boris, not surprisingly at Victoria Coach Station. I was ruminating on my Dad’s philosophy of ‘work hard and try to be honest’ when Mr Williams stuck up his fists. ‘My Dad told me to use these, cos life is one long scrap’. Blunt, loyal, dry and as sharp as a razor, the ghost got up and left for the airport. On his way to another hick town, another dollar, on the road less travelled. Be sure of this, we haven’t heard the last of Denton’s great nomadic warrior.

Advertisements

The Promised Land

The Promised Land

Sundays were not spent in church or in the pub. It was de-tox day for the likely lads of Moss Side. The elegant if slightly neglected Alexandra Park was ideal for a three hour kickabout shaking out all the toxins of the previous night’s excesses. The local crew, Reggae Bernie, Mike Slaven and Earl the Rasta were waiting for their weekly tussle with the rudeboys of Laurel Avenue. Mad Dog excelled on these occasions, running wildly, chasing every lost cause, to such an extent that Chrissie-boy Rowlands could oft be heard muttering ‘Oh no, there goes Sean on another excursion’. Carrying a gashed knee from an earlier feisty challenge from Gorton Garry, Earl shouted at me. ‘Hey, white boy – you bin dissing the Cheetham Hill possee?’ To guffaws of laughter. Then I spied out of the corner of my eye, Mad Dog running with the ball in the direction of Whalley Range. Here on an adjacent pitch, a young boy stood with a man I immediately recognised. He rolled the ball like a guided missile, towards his son who deftly flicked it onto his neck, gently letting the ball float down his back. His Dad barked ‘Two feet son – go to work’. At that precise moment I seized my chance ‘Mr Moses, it is a pleasure to meet you. I am Socrates and a fan of Man City, but I saw you play at Old Trafford’. ‘Thanks son’ he replied gruffly but with a kind look in his eyes. ‘Look after your knee’. With that the supreme midfield ragga icon of the eighties was gone. After the match, walking home, I reflected how during my years of watching Remi Moses for West Brom or Man Utd, we had never once seen a fancy flick or rink-a-dink trick such as the one performed by his son. Remi simply was your archetypal midfield ball-winner in the glorious days when tackling was allowed and football was an honest contact sport. Questions flooded my mind. I stopped off at Mr Singh’s corner-shop for my customary pint of ice cold milk, patched on my dettol knee plaster and pondered life. Why was his brilliant career cut short? Did he live near the Moss? Would his son make it? Did he enjoy a drink with Robbo, Whiteside, Sparky and the boys at Paddy Crerand’s Altrincham watering-hole? Truth be told, we knew very little about the publicity-shy midfield enforcer who was part of Ron ‘Bo Jangles’ Atkinson’s famous FA Cup winners. Back then the Red Devils had all the best tunes. Standing on the Stretford End one sunny day, the crowd suddenly broke out into song ‘Oh Remi, Remi, you part the waves, you part the sea. Oh Remi, Remi. Remi Moses’. The London boys would occasionally come down and play on a Sunday, right up to 1992 and I always hoped to catch another glimpse of Remi and son. However, Manchester’s Moss Side like many other parts of England after Thatcher’s failed social revolution had changed. Sadly not for the better. Teenage boys on bikes, scouts and thugs now menaced these areas ahead of the gangland drug wars to come. A war so heinous and vicious, partly caused by the Grocer’s Daughter smashing-up of old stick-together working class communities. That great social leader and man of vision, Hartley Hanley would soon appear on Granada TV exhorting his people to stop killing each other’s children. No Mr Moses had long departed and I found myself praying that in the words of Mr Ray Davies, ‘Yes, I hope tomorrow you’ll find better things’.

Chicken in a Basket

Chicken in a Basket

When Bowie, Pink Floyd or Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham were in town there was only one hotel. Boxing glitterati in particular loved this place. Nowhere in the north of England had more of a buzz than fight-night at The Midland Hotel, Manchester. Alick Rowe was the son of Herefordshire pub tenants who grew up at The Commercial, an ancient hostelry near the train station. He won a scholarship to Cambridge, wrote television dramas such as Tripods, Two People, Clare and a film called Morgan’s Boy. He also taught me English, a subject I had now graduated in at Manchester Polytechnic. He invited me to dinner at La Française, the Midland’s finest restaurant to discuss his new corporate identity project. Spiffing Images Design was in full creative flow and had designed a superb package for £140. We dined in the grand salon where Mr Rolls first met Mr Royce in 1904 and despatched the Lendrum brothers to Malaya to provide the rubber to make the wheels go round. After pan-fried frogs’ legs in a delicious but challenging Bearnaise sauce served with sautéed potatoes and baby tomatoes, washed down with ice cold Chablis, Mr Rowe handed over the cheque. ‘Remember David Nobbs, Paul? He and I are match sponsors for Hereford’s next home game. Would you care to join us?’ How could I not. The game was against Shrewsbury, a local derby, with the potential for a bit of agro at the Bull Market End, the gate swelling to 4,000 plus fans. I invited Commie Ken who had never been to a professional football match. However his response was curt. ‘No, Mr Paul. These pointless bourgeoise leisure diversions are a curse on the proletariat’. Yet the thought of actually meeting Winston White, Hereford’s dazzling winger was too alluring. So I jumped on a train. Hereford United were perennial, mid-table fourth division plodders. However when Winston was on form the regular 2,000 crowd in this fabulous old market town let out a roar which could be heard half way across the Brecon Beacons. On a bright blue-sky Saturday we strolled into Duggy’s newsagents on the Commercial Road and Alick purchased his customery pack of panatella cigars and a tube of wine gums. We marched towards the ground, past the players cars and into the VIP lounge area. A pre-match lunch of prawn cocktail followed by chicken-in-a-basket was washed down by a glass of Chardonnay. Besuited players, courtesy of C&A, sporting slick perms and shiny leather slip-ons paraded past our table. The air was thick with cigar-smoke and the odour of Aramis aftershave. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed the creator of ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ (possibly Britain’s finest ever TV comedy). The avuncular Mr Nobbs had a kindly and modest demeanour. His ‘A Bit of a Do’ TV series was flying high with regular viewing figures of 14 million plus. We shook hands. He remembered my name and as the match kicked off, Alick’s daughter joined us shouting out ‘Oy Dad, where is your scarf?’ Winston White destroyed the left back and shimmered on the wing like a twinkling northern light. The game ended in a high scoring draw and we adjourned to the VIP bar. Winston, freshly-showered and gelled was now in a plush Saturday Night Fever cream suit and flashed me a Hollywood smile. Shyly I approached the great man. ‘You remind me of Manchester City’s Dave Bennett. Well played’. To which he replied ‘Oh, so you’re a Man City fan? I might play for you lot one day’. Alick played the host magnificently, pressing the flesh, buying rounds of drinks and charming the chairman, who I recall was a dodgy property developer. Sadly Spiffing Images offers of full new corporate re-brand concepts for Hereford United and David Nobbs were politely rejected, though as a sop, we were invited to the Perrin mansions for tea. I lit a cigar and soaked up the ambience as the wine flowed. A good move because I’ve never been in a boardroom since and The Bulls are now playing in the semi-professional league. I lost touch with Alick Rowe who later went to prison in Shrewsbury after an incident with a Hereford Cathedral choirboy. Upon hearing the news, memories of a 1980’s road trip through France with Alick and a Hereford musician, the curiously named Ratty came flooding back. So did my recollections of meeting people like Cheryl Campbell, Kenneth Cranham and the producers of Howard’s Way. Mr Rowe ended his days living in Thailand but his favourite song by The Kinks ‘I hope tomorrow you’ll find better things’ lives on, as does his literary legacy.