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Meetings With Remarkable (and not so remarkable) Men

By Paul Bretherton
From Issue 59, Winter 2002

Sir John Smith, Euston Station, 1992

The daddy of ‘em all, Sir John Smith, God rest his soul. The briefest of encounters but absolutely memorable all the same for some strange perverse reason. Now just let me digress for a second from my tale, to tell you readers that, deep down, I just love having David Moores as the chairman. I really do.

Rarely appearing on our screens, a la Ridsdale or Kenwright. Never naming a stand after himself, a la Ellis. And never giving Interviews or spouting utter drivel in tabloid columns al la Uncle Bulgaria Bates. Always quiet, self effacing and modest to boot, but most importantly I suppose, always there with the necessary funds to back the Manager.

If only he would lose the ageing rock star hairstyle; hasn’t he heard of Victor’s in Paradise Street for gawd’s sake? And if he also crashed his fags once in a while to us chain-smoking bad boys in the Paddock, then he’d be my ultimate hero. I’d even go so far as to carry a huge portrait of the man to the game, occasionally release a booming “El Presidente” cry to the masses through my hand held speaker whilst firing a revolver into the air. So if (as heavily rumoured to be true) this publication does make its’ way back to the boardroom, and you’re reading this Mr Moores, then you’ll have a supporter for life in me If you’d whack your expensive looking tabs round to help ease those frayed nerves during the game. Tell you what; I’ll arrange for a portrait sitting of your good self, bedecked in Military Camo fatigues, arms crossed sporting ray bans, and I promise to carry it shoulder high around on our travels this season to show my personal appreciation. What other chairman would be able to boast of having such a close relationship with their supporters eh? Erm…where was I?

Ah, of course; what’s this have to do with John Smith you may well ask? Well, I firmly belief our current chairman’s style owes a big debt to our former great, a man who wrote the book on playing the quiet man, silent partner, deliberately shunning the limelight and instead letting the media concentrate on the most important aspect; what happened out on the park. In fact the only time I’d seen him interviewed, was news footage of him when Shankly quit and on the Club Video of 88 recalling the decision to appoint Paisley as his successor. This man presided over our most successful period ever, yet he always seemed to cut this lone unassuming figure in the background, never once taking the credit for our run of unparalleled success and using it as a basis for self-promotion. You only ever saw his face in the Programme on European nights, dishing out his strictest sternest head teacher type warning about misbehaviour and the consequences of pitch invasion. And that’s just the way it should be in my opinion.

True, he was quite scary looking and at times wore such a disturbing miserable sneer that it was infamously rumoured to have given James Mason inspiration for his creepy Mr Straker character in Salem’s Lot. On the other hand, you could argue on those extremely rare occasions when he was pictured radiating a smile (usually when he was collecting one of those huge over the top cheques on the pitch), it was possibly more disturbing than the grimace itself?

Small points aside, the man was, correction, Is, a Legend at this football club, and you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who influenced our greatest years more than the man himself. So I hope you forgive me, to admitting to fleeting pangs of nerves, when deciding whether to approach him or not. Ten feet away from me he stood there reading the Times, casually glancing up at the Arrivals Board, then back down to his choice of reading matter displaying some deep burrowed intensive frowns. ‘Go-go-go’ I thought, and so I did.

Not wanting to resemble the Terminator searching for a certain Sarah Connor, I attempted to be as casual as possible in my approach. Beaming from ear to ear, thrusting out my hand, and saying ‘Hi’ didn’t seem to go down too well with him though. He looked me up and down much like me or you would do on being approached by one of those crazies off the tube. And this was when the panic set in. I mean, just what the hell do you say to your Club Chairman anyway? Players are different of course; you can embarrass them with shouts of encouragement or even discuss their relative performances - but what to say to a Chairman or Directors of the Board even? Where do you even start?

‘How’s the Turnover this year?’…Or ‘Why are the insides of the sausage rolls at the ground, bright pink instead of browny-red like in the shops?’ Absolutely nothing is there?

So fairly pathetically I asked him for a score prediction for the Cup Final the following day. He cleared his throat and muttered back...“Piss off”

“Okay Mr Smith”, I replied, a little taken aback.

Did I fume? Did I tell him to do one himself? Did I push him up against one of the columns and ask him to repeat himself? Of course not. I gave him a ‘thumbs up’ and winced.

Believe you me, I was sorely tempted to say something. Namely why, on the money he must have been earning, did he still appear to be dressed in the same old mac he wore to the 84 European Cup Final. And then snatch his paper and toss it to the floor for good measure. But I relented. The man after all was a god in my eyes and they say all geniuses have flaws, don’t they? Beating a hasty retreat, I still observed some kind of protocol though. I didn’t once turn my back on him, I’ll have you know. Some things are still important in life!

Two minutes later the fellas I’d travelled down with shouted me over to let me know that they were ready to hit the capital and one blurrily asked me who the arl fellah was I’d been speaking to. “Dunno mate, got mistaken, …thought it was a mate of me dad’s but it wasn’t”, I quietly replied. Shamefully I was just too embarrassed to admit to being ‘dissed’ by a geriatric.

And that was that. So if by chance you were sat in a dodgy dingy Soho boozer that Friday pre Cup Final afternoon wondering why one Red was looking a bit preoccupied instead of heckling the dancers with his cohorts, now you’ll know why. Twas me. I’m still gutted ten years on.

Paul Stewart, The Village Hotel, Warrington 1994

This chance meeting happened in the salubrious surroundings of the Village Hotel, and it just so happened to come the very next night after the three each against the Mancs.

Now I’d seen him on the morning of the game at Melwood as I took a mate from the South to have a peek at the place and the chance to see the professionals at work earning their crust. The permed one had long since been banished to the stiffs and on this morning as the first team went through their paces, he had been ashamedly forced to train with the Youth Team.

I felt for him, I really did. It was awful to see our multi million pound star half-heartedly perform star jumps with Sammy Lee barking instructions of “get your knees up higher”. I just shook my head and turned away. He’d apparently been suffering from loss of form and niggling injuries and was getting his fitness levels back, yet in spite of this the Management team seemed intent on humiliating him. How the mighty can fall, I thought. Well, cut to 36 hours later and my sympathy well and truly evaporated.

Still gushing with pride and buzzing over the comeback of the night before, three of us decided to head into the town centre and enjoy a late night tipple or two, and that was where we spied him.

Sitting back on one of those trendy looking couches, he was accompanied by two buxom dayglo peroxide blondes, draped all over him. There he sat tapping his feet to the beat, decked out in a pair of leather kecks so tight, they would have made Frank Worthington blush at the indignity of them.

A quick grunt to the lads followed by a huge extended finger-pointing jab in the direction of the couch and I was off, fuelled by a mixture of adrenaline and lager. I decided I was gonna perk him up with a pep talk and a well deserved back pat, much better than Sammy lee could muster.

Now normally I wouldn’t have been this forward, preferring just to stare, but alcohol does tend to let you lose those inhibitions doesn’t it? And I guessed that he was probably desperate to shake off the unwanted attentions of the two laydeeeze currently nibbling on his ear. I mean come on, let’s be honest here, if me and you were to suddenly make it as Pro’s tomorrow and get the chance to play for the Reds, earning a mega crust to boot, we’d be in the Albert or the Park post match wouldn’t we? Discussing how the game went with like-minded people, rather than quaffing pink champagne in some phoney VIP area, lap dancers on tap.

So up I went, blatantly ignoring the conversation that all three were now deep in (admittedly a disgraceful show of manners) and did no more…. than rub his head to announce my arrival! Eeeek…why oh why! Did his head have healing powers of sobriety? Did I just want to confirm whether that perm was natural, or was he indeed a ‘gel head’? Or did just plain old nerves get the better of me? The latter I think. And he took it remarkably well, more so than his companions seemed to. Probably the whiff of my breath saved me from a punch as well as my unsteady feet and Barry George-esque staring eyes. I really did seem to unnerve him with this, the strangest of introductions.

So with a mumbled apology, I forcibly moved myself onto the couch and started to chew the fat of all things football with him, drawing evil withered stares from Blondies 1 and 2. Not that I can remember too much of what we spoke about, not now, not even then, as I was far too busy staring at his loafers, and wondering just how much they’d cost, and why he chose not to wear socks.

I do remember though, discussing his occurring injury problems which were contributing to his first team absence, and in front of me he promised to fight hard for his place when fit, and make a mark at the club and indeed show us all what we were missing. He even called me ‘mate’.

I guess I lasted about ten minutes in all. The next thing I knew, his companions whispered into his ear and he apologised to me (yes, apologised!) that he was going to have to take them onto the dance floor to keep them happy, and so with a knowing wink to me and a thumbs up back in return from yours truly, he was up and off.

“Go easy…don’t strain that injury,” I blurted back. They disappeared some twenty feet to the minuscule dance arena, and what I witnessed thereafter will indeed haunt me for the rest of my life. The appalling Resident House DJ, as white as Michael Jackson I may add, pitched it up in a embarrassingly toe curling wannabe Jamaican Patois style as he announced to the gathered throng: ‘Paul Stewart in the house people, yeah mon, strut your stuff, wiiickkkeddddddd…In the Village toooooonite!...Pauuuuuull Stewart people’

And with that all three of them proceeded to throw some mightily impressive shapes whilst everybody took a step back and gave them their deserved stage. And did our injury prone midfielder bat an eyelid? Did he hell! He was loving it, as they put on an impromptu (but obviously over rehearsed) performance to Black Box’s ‘Naked in the Rain’, cheers and applause raining in the background. And that’s when I thought, “Hang on, he’s got a thigh strain or so he says? What the hell’s he doing dancing like that when he should be on the treatment table, or resting at home in bed?”

My face turned from a cheesy grin of admiration to a scowl as I thought back to his laboured efforts at Melwood the previous day and this now sudden recovery of Lazarus proportions. I swear to you, if I’d been slightly coherent I would have been pestering the barman for change for the phone and badgering Directory Enquires for Souness' home number.

“Disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful” I muttered to my mates as I rejoined them and slunk back to the bar and into a night of drinking oblivion. “You’re just jealous” one replied “and he’s crap anyway, who’s arsed”. I suppose he had a point.

PS: I recently met a witness to that night who claimed, much to my shame if true, that I too tried the same dance manoeuvres, from the safety of the bar area and was ‘whooping’ it up with the rest. He followed this up by stating that my reason for my indignant outrage and mutterings of maintaining ‘club standards’ was due to my total incompetence at performing to a similarly high standard and, instead, looked like I was fighting an invisible hula hoop. I can well believe it.

And the perm was natural, by the way.