The Norwich lad who beat meningitis and went on to play against Pele
- Credit: Archant
Steve Buttle is the one who got away from Carrow Road. Chief Norwich City writer Paddy Davitt charts Buttle's uplifting life story and why early rejection was never going to stop him fulfilling his dreams.
At the age of nine months Steve Buttle was given the last rites. At 59, he was told he had four weeks to live after being diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. One of the Fine City's best-ever footballing exports spent his whole life fighting, but his remarkable story lives on four years after his death.
The South Harford schoolboy prodigy played against Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and counted Harry Redknapp among his closest friends. Yet early rejection by his beloved Canaries thrust him into the embrace of bitter rivals Ipswich Town. It could have been so different but for his infant brush with meningitis.
That pride and love in their son's achievements never dims for his parents, Freda and Arthur, sitting in the back room of a pretty Hellesdon bungalow that is a shrine to Buttle.
'They called the priest because they didn't think he was going to make it,' says 84-year-old Arthur. 'I was away in the navy at the time and it took me nearly two days to get home. I had to change trains at Peterborough and I never had no money, but there was a chap getting in a taxi going to the same place and he said to come with him. I was home for two weeks and had to pick the ship back up in Liverpool.
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'He was at the Jenny Lind and the nurse looked at him, picked him up and said it was meningitis. It stunted his growth. He still had his milk teeth at 11. In America when he played at Seattle they called him the 'mighty atom' and the 'iron man'. Over there if you are small and good you can be a success.'
'Arthur was a boxer, with his brother, in their younger days and I think that is where he got his fighting spirit from,' adds Freda. 'They said it was because I breast-fed him that was the only reason he survived.'
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Stephen, as his mother still refers to him, had won his most important battle. But there was more heartache to overcome when he was turned away by the Canaries.
'I took him down there. He was 13 or 14, but they said he was a bit small and to bring him back next year,' says Arthur, recalling the pivotal football moment in his son's life as if it was yesterday. 'He was crying his eyes out. I said, 'Don't be disappointed, next week I am on nights so I can take you down Ipswich'. He was good enough to play. That wasn't the issue. He was loads better than the others. He played for Norwich boys, Norfolk boys. Anyway we went in the car, drove into the ground at Ipswich and Steve got out and the bloke on the gate says, 'He's a little titch, isn't he? I'll give him one half and you can get off back to Norwich.' He played 45 minutes and the bloke came back and said, 'I am going to give him another half,' and then he comes back at the end and says, 'Right, come up to the office, we want to sign him on schoolboy forms.'
'After he had signed for Ipswich we had Norwich coming round the house when I was on nights, so it had got back to them.'
Freda takes up the fallout once City realised they had let a gem slip through the net.
'This man knocked on the door,' she says. 'He said he was a scout from Norwich and kept saying, 'I told your husband not to let him go. Will you please get him to cancel the contract at Ipswich because my job is on the line.' But Stephen said he had settled in by that stage. There were others as well. Man City wanted him after he went to Ipswich.'
'Well, if he was doing his job properly, he would have been alright,' shouts Arthur, from across the room, who reveals a principled stand from Steve wrecked his chance of being a big part of Sir Bobby Robson's successful Portman Road era.
'When he was at Ipswich Town his granddad died,' he says. 'The manager (Robson) said to him you are not to go to the funeral because I have three injuries and you and two other lads would be playing at Liverpool in the first team. I thought Steve would grab the chance but he said he was going to the funeral. About 10am on the day I opened the door and there is Steve saying, 'I told you I would be here, Dad.'
'He joked Robson probably just wanted him to push the basket with the kit but I think he would have played. He thought the world of his granddad. He said the manager had told him not to go and there would be consequences, but Steve said you are allowed a day off for a funeral.'
Bridges burnt, Buttle had to swap the elite of the English game for lowly Bournemouth and a lasting friendship with Redknapp that saw both become early pioneers in the first American 'soccer' revolution of the late 1970s. Buttle was a key figure in Seattle's run to the 1977 Rose Bowl final against a star-studded New York Cosmos side of Pele and Beckenbauer.
'We used to go every year while he was over there. Stephen would never tell you about playing against Pele and these big players. It just wasn't in his nature,' says Freda. 'The money was good in America and I think the trainer from Bournemouth went to Seattle. The biggest regret of my life was the season they won everything and he gave me the gold medal he was awarded for winning the league to bring home and I lost it on the underground. We had three bags and as I put two on the platform the door shut behind me. I should have put it around my neck but then I thought they might wonder where it had come from. I was dreading ringing him but he just said, 'As long as you got home alright, Mum, that is all that matters to me.''
The tears flow as Freda remembers the loss of a poignant memento. The importance she places on that medal is touching given Stephen's last, final fight of his inspiring life.
'He came home to Norwich after his playing days because his marriage broke up but he didn't know he had cancer at that stage,' says Freda. 'The doctor was more interested in talking to him about Norwich City. They couldn't find anything wrong but he was losing a lot of weight so we went to Cambridge, to a hospital there, and they opened him up and the cancer had spread and he was told he had four weeks to get his affairs in order and to say goodbye.
'His family came over from America and it was near enough a month to the day. I will never forget it, he came away from the hospital and said it felt like he had lost a final in extra-time.
'All his school mates still come around and see us now. When they went on the school bus as lads they would fight to sit next to him.
'He was so good with figures at school the teacher wanted him to get a job as an accountant but we have a letter somewhere saying he used to spend his time looking out the window at the football pitch. He couldn't wait to get out there.'
Million dollar deal had to be shelved
The fates conspired to deny Steve Buttle the chance to pull on the green and yellow shirt.
City initially turned down the highly-rated youngster but later in the midfielder's career injury and then family matters intervened. Buttle failed a Norwich medical during John Bond's Carrow Road tenure before a bizarre episode in 1981, known as the million dollar deal, involving a potential swap with Kevin Bond that saw former English record transfer holder Steve Daley also head to Buttle's Seattle.
Bond made the same journey across the Atlantic before a swift reunion with his Dad at Manchester City, but Buttle opted to stay in America.
'They wanted him so badly,' says Freda. 'They did call it the million dollar deal but at that stage he was very close to getting his green card in America, which would have given him and his young family residency and they would have been able to stay and work in the country. Stephen had to think about life after football and if he had come back to Norwich then he would have no longer qualified.'
'Bond was desperate to sign him,' adds Arthur. 'So he came up to Norwich and failed the medical because of his leg. He never come home, though, he went straight back to Bournemouth.'