My uncle Johnny and his red guiding light
19:12 02 November 2014
Growing up in the black and white days of the 60s and 70s, I could never work out what was happening in the minds of fellow schoolboys who didn’t support a English football team.
If there was anything that dominated my life it was football. Post-homework dashes to Wisbech park, kicking the ball about until the light disappeared, then a precarious, police car-dodging ride home, minus lights.
We all had a team. Mine was Manchester United. The reason was my uncle Johnny, whose enthusiasm for the boys in red was such that it was virtually impossible not to fall for them. My dad’s team was Spurs, but it was a token gesture and never enough to sway me, particularly once Uncle Johnny had lit the fires within.
Every time I saw him, the usual family pleasantries were quickly sorted and talk turned to the latest developments at the Theatre of Dreams. I was regaled with stories and oohs and aahs of Best, Law and Charlton. I was informed why they were so good, so brilliant, so dazzling, so wonderful.
I couldn’t wait for the short walk from his house to play football. He dribbled like one of the wizards themselves, commentating as he ran. Family folklore had it that he had been offered trials with two of the big London clubs, but illness put the mockers on a career in the pro game. Once, when delivering something to Peterborough United’s ground, he started chatting to someone about the state of the club. The man offered him a job: it was the Posh manager of the time.
I remember in my formative days as a reporter, going to The Swan Inn at Parson Drove, his home village, for an article on a local dramatic group. They sat me down on a stool in the middle of the pub and quizzed me about uncle Johnny. They showed me a village team photo, pinned to the noticeboard, with him on it.
Over the years uncle Johnny had a huge effect on me; I learned what was good about football, and what was bad about it. I learned to enjoy the beautiful game – all through conduit of Manchester United, the club that could do no wrong. There was no such thing as a bad story or bad news as far as he was concerned.
On Monday, we say goodbye to uncle Johnny. He was 81. He paid me the biggest compliment by saying he enjoyed reading my columns so this one, the hardest I have ever had to write, is for him. Thanks.