When I was 11 or 12 years old, in those halcyon days before the world rather took it upon itself to be encouraging my teenage angst, and at a time when the wages from a morning paper round could keep you in sweets, books and regular copies of the Exhange and Mart, my over-riding love was for football. Being born a bit before 1966, I grew up with England being top dogs in world football, and the ’66 world cup squad was so legendary, that when it came to choosing a club to support, I could only ever follow West Ham. After all:
I remember Wemb-er-ly
When West Ham beat West Germany
Martin One and Geoffrey Three
And Bobby Got the OBE¹
Unfortunately, the logistics of getting to Upton Park eluded me for a number of years, and so I ended up following them from some distance, sticking pictures of Trevor Brooking and Billy Bonds on my bedroom wall, and listening out for their results on Saturday teatime with what I thought was the appropriate passion of the die-hard fan. Years later, I finally made it to Upton Park, which I really recommend if you want to see a bizarre building in the middle of the scariest part of London ever…but that’s another story.
Being 11 or 12 and living out in the sticks didn’t leave much option for live football, once I’d readily discounted the prospect of following Watford or Luton Town. Fortunately, help was at hand, in the towering force of Dacorum and District League 2 stalwarts – Little Gaddesden FC. I’ll readily admit that any passion I might have had for following the team was primarily driven by the fact that home games took place on the playing field directly in front of our house, so I could leave the house at 2:55, vault the fence and amble over to the pitch well in time to watch Glen ‘Rise Like A Salmon’ Farney practising his headers, or our trusty goalkeeper Bill Whitman squeeze the last out of his pre-match fag, in the desperate knowledge that he’d not have another for at least 45 minutes.
I could spend a long time here reminiscing about LGFC, and I’m not sure that anyone other than me and my Dad would find it particularly interesting, so I will cut to the character who titles this blog. Alf Sheringham had previously been the village policeman, and still carried with him that air of authority and mild annoyance that village policeman are all blessed with. He would, undoubtedly be called a ‘stalwart of the club’ these days, and operated as Manager, selection committee, line marker, liaison officer and no doubt half a dozen other roles that he was unable or unwilling to foist upon other worthies, such as my Dad.
After Alf had organised someone to run the line (often my Dad, who would occasionally wear tracksuit trousers for just that occasion), and ensured that the invalid carriage that carried his trusty sidekick George Bunting was not actually parked on the pitch, he would monitor the game with a hawk like precision that even Jose Mourinho would envy. Occasionally the odd command would be barked out, often to the complete bemusement of the players, who, I probably should have mentioned, felt that Alf’s role as manager was pretty nominal at best. Alf’s most important role in the game, however, was required for scenes that are not really part of the modern game. Matches were still played with leather balls that laced up (this I remember as our dog had become very unpopular for running on to the field during a game, picking the ball up in her mouth, and running off). These balls got heavier and heavier (and bloody dangerous if you were foolish enough to header one) if it was raining. Which, I seem to remember, it generally was. And the rain made for a muddy pitch. And football then, as it is not now, was very much a full contact sport. Consequently, in each game there were a few crunching tackles which would catapult one of the players several yards into the mud, where occasionally they would let out a single syllable of pain. Or in the case of thundering midfield dynamo Jimmy Alexander, a muttered bid for retribution. If it looked like the player was unlikely to get up (and referees those days liked to be very sure indeed), then the whistle would blow, the ref would click the button on his fancy stopwatch, and, assuming it was a LGFC player motionless in the mud, it was time for Alf’s big moment. With a spring in his step that frankly belied his years, Alf (or ‘Sir Alf’ as he was rather predictably known by the team), would race on to the pitch, carrying his trusty red plastic bucket, containing a few pints of cold water and a sponge. No matter what the injury, the process was the same – sponge the mud off, slap on a bit more cold water, and the player was mended. There were some exceptions to this, when the player failed to respond completely, and then it was time to race to a house with a phone to call for an ambulance, as there was at least one broken bone to sort out.² But most times, the player would get up, shake themselves off, and prepare for the next challenge (or, in Jimmy Alexander’s case, a well deserved booking for violent conduct).
For several years I marvelled at what magic there must have been in Alf’s sponge. And I mention it now because I have a knee that’s impossible to run on, and I fear I’m about to embark on a whole painful, expensive and time-consuming round of treatment and diagnosis from physios, sports doctors, faith healers, masseurs and no doubt all manner of other witch doctors and snake oil salesmen.
What I need, of course, is someone to deliver an instant solution. If I could just have one go with Alf’s magic sponge…
¹If you don’t understand this stuff, look it up. Or, frankly, go away. There’s nothing for you here. Step away now.
² Incidentally, my Dad broke a bone in his foot during the annual ‘Dads v Lads’ match in about 1974, after a late and frankly vicious tackle from one of the ‘Lads’. He got up, finished the game, went to the pub, came home and took himself to the hospital the next day for an Xray. He probably could have gone on for a couple more days if he hadn’t rather foolishly taken his boot off.
One thought on “Alf’s magic sponge”
I’m searching for details of Whitman’s in Little Gaddesden in the 20C & saw your post about Bill Whitman as goal-keeper. Can you tell me any more about him???
Hope you can help!…………. Thanks in anticipation!
Andrew Whitman (Bournemouth)