If the attitude on the pitch in top-level football has always been to play hard, the attitude off it – particularly towards training – used to be, well, somewhat different.


Viewed from today, some of what went on in training in the 1940s and ’50s seems positively bizarre.

‘We trained hard enough but it was all left to ourselves,’ Johnny Paton, the former Celtic and Chelsea player, says. ‘Alec Dowdalls, the trainer at Celtic, used to come out with a white coat on, have a look for five minutes, say, “You all right, boys?”, then go back in.

‘Once when we wanted to play five-a-side behind the goal – you weren’t allowed on the pitch – I was detailed to go in and ask Dowdalls for a ball. When I asked him, he said, “Why do you want a ball, you’ll see enough of that on a Saturday”.’

Running was the staple exercise that kept players fit. Howard Riley’s account of how Leicester City trained is fairly typical: ‘Clubs have all got academies now and tremendous facilities but our training was basically centred on the Filbert Street ground.

‘Early season training might include going up to Bradgate Park for some long-distance running, but mostly we’d report to Filbert Street where we’d train on the track round the pitch – lapping, sprinting and some hurdling – and have five-a-side games in the car park wearing gym shoes.

‘We didn’t do a lot of training with the ball apart from the games on the car park and the odd practice match on the main pitch during the week.’

Riley would go back in the afternoons to practise crossing the ball with the goalkeeper Gordon Banks and one or two other players. ‘But that was voluntary,’ he says, ‘and the groundsman wasn’t too happy. You always had to get past him if you wanted to go on the pitch, which seems incredible now.’

In so many other ways the footballer’s life was less fraught, more closely related to the everyday grind of those who watched them or the hacks who wrote about them.

‘At Liverpool, we played a European match in Bratislava,’ Gordon Milne recalls, ‘afterwards the lads went for a beer – we only drank beer, there was no wine or anything – and the five or six journalists who were covering the game came along too.

‘They might be criticising us the next day but we’d all sit together. That was how it was. There wasn’t the edge there is today. Journalists are no longer allowed to fly with the players, they don’t talk to them, they fall out with them. Our time was really good.’

Cliff Jones gives a different slant on the lives of his generation being rooted in ordinariness. Having been carried shoulder high from Ninian Park after scoring Wales’s winner against England in 1955, he did what most other young men did on the Monday morning after the game – he clocked on for a day’s shift.

‘At half past seven I went into the fitting shop at the Prince of Wales Dry Dock,’ he says. ‘I was met by my foreman, Dai Ward, who was a good bloke. He said, “Cliff, well done on Saturday. Now there’s your tools, you got proper work to do, son.”

‘I thought, “Eh, you’re right.” And that’s what shaped me and made me realise how fortunate I was to play football for a living and not, if you like, work for a living, because, as I say, football ain’t work.’

And just like Joe Punter on the terraces, players got married on Saturdays during the football season – rather than in high summer in an Italian monastery.

Freddie Steele, the Stoke City striker, had been granted permission to marry on the last day of the 1937-8 season when Stoke looked safe from relegation. Come the final Saturday things had changed and Stoke had to beat Liverpool at home to stay in the First Division.

The full choral church ceremony went ahead as planned, Steele chatting to the priest and church warden about the game that afternoon as they waited for the bride. The one concession to the match was that Steele missed the reception so he could be in good time for kick-off. He then scored with a diving header in a 2-0 win that kept Stoke in the top division.

‘In the Sixties,’ the Arsenal player Terry Neill says, ‘our rivalry with Tottenham was probably greater than it is now and I remember a 4-0 win against Spurs at the old Highbury, a young Pat Jennings playing in goal for them and I scored a penalty. And that was the day George Graham, who also scored a goal for us, was married.

‘As footballers did in those days, he got married at eleven o’clock in the morning [at Marylebone Town Hall]. And Terry Venables, who was playing for Tottenham against George in the afternoon, was his best man. George then brought his wife to Highbury to watch the match.’


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