My first meeting with Colin Collindridge, a player for Sheffield United, Nottingham Forest and Coventry City either side of the war, was both a pleasure and slightly unnerving...


The taxi driver wonders why anyone would want to travel from London to Newark-on-Trent on a mission to visit New Balderton.

‘All it is is a new housing estate,’ he says. ‘Not much of a place at all.’

His cynicism may prove justified but Colin Collindridge, one of the oldest surviving Football League players, lives here, an invaluable source for my book When Footballers Were Skint given his direct link with professional football’s pioneering days.

Collindridge was born in November 1920, only four years after Fergie Suter, the man widely regarded as the game’s first professional player, died in middle age. As a young man Collindridge mixed with many of the figures who had contributed to the game’s formative years.

The taxi driver is right, the estate he has just turned in to is a regimented assembly of what the Americans call cookie-cutter houses. Maybe he was right, too, in implying that there could be nothing or no one of interest in surroundings of such overbearing conformity.

Collindridge is in the kitchen brushing leaves away from the back door when his wife, Glenice, lets me in. It is only when he sits down in his armchair in the front room that I register his complexion, which is pink, glowing and blemishless. Glenice, who is sitting opposite him on a small sofa, suggests he spends far more time than is necessary maintaining it.

His clothes are neat and look carefully chosen, particularly the brown corduroy trousers.

Is this really the sturdy competitor who played for three Football League clubs when a bit of clogging was mandatory and if you could not play with freezing mud filling your big leather boots you should be doing summat else?

Collindridge starts by telling me he was born at Cawthorne Basin. In case I should wonder where exacty this is, which I do, he adds that it’s down the bottom of the hill a quarter of a mile from Barugh Green, the first village out of Barnsley on the Huddersfield road.

‘Half the relations of mine lived in Barugh Green and there were about 40 of them. I still love that place and Barugh Greeners, though I was quite young when we moved to Wombwell, on the other side of Barnsley, where my dad got a council house.

‘I couldn’t have been born any better really. I was working-class Yorkshire, south Yorkshire, where most people were skint. Some of them had got work at the colliery and some hadn’t and it was the mine owners who ruled – only the one thing they didn’t do was dare fight my dad.’

A patriarchal home life when he was a lad and a tightly knit mining community forged in him what I soon learn is an uncomplicated set of values.

Throughout my two interviews with Collindridge – the second was partly to clear up some things he had said during the first and partly to convince myself I had not dreamed him up – I am constantly reminded, in various ways, that where he came from near Barnsley a man was nothing without his manhood and a footballer was nothing if he was not prepared to settle something behind the stands with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up – and then share a pint of bitter and a laugh.

These are things that obsess him over and above the considerable success and popularity he achieved at his three League clubs – Sheffield United, Nottingham Forest and Coventry City – as a speedy left-winger, and occasional centre forward, with a bullet shot.

He and Glenice are as attentive and hospitable hosts as you could find, but even today seated and leaning back, his face softened by a disarming smile and never wasting an opportunity to extol the singing voice of Bing Crosby, Collindridge makes me feel ever so slightly uneasy.

In fact there is one tense moment when his face clouds and he stiffens just a little. He wants to know whether, since I keep glancing at the clock, I would prefer to be on my way. I tell him – and, thankfully, he accepts my explanation – it is the family photographs on the mantelpiece that are distracting me, not the time.

But I get the sense that in common with most men who regard their masculinity as the ultimate badge of worth, he holds women in the highest regard, even fears them a little. Of the two other people in the room with him, I suspect he would pick a scrap with me if he wanted the easier victory.

‘I’ve met hundreds of nice females,’ he says, ‘including my missus, who’s a good Nottingham girl who puts me in my place.’

Glenice rolls her eyes wearily at having to listen to a familiar script. Collindrige keeps going: ‘You’ve heard of Jock McAvoy, the boxer, a Lancashire lad who fought for the world light-heavyweight title? Well my missus is a better scrapper than Jock was.

‘And you’ve heard of Betty Grable? Well, she paid a million dollars to insure her legs and they were great legs and my missus had legs that were as good as Betty Grable’s. But she doesn’t believe me, because she doesn’t believe anything I say…’

He returns to his father: ‘He worked in the mines after he left school. He’d got one or two mates who stuck up for miners and he could use his tongue, my dad, but he could also use these [he holds up his fists]. So if the coalmine owners had one or two rough tough guys my dad used to sort them out generally with that [he holds up his right fist], although I think he were a southpaw, actually.

‘He taught me nicely but the only thing was at school I was always in scraps because someone wanted to fight me. And, of course, generally I showed them that one [he holds up his left fist] and banged them with it, because I was southpaw. So that was part of my upbringing.’


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback.