Wilful neglect

Harry Pearson remembers the player and man who still casts a shadow over Teesside

For many of us who grew up around Teesside in the Sixties and Seventies, Wilf Mannion was a source of considerable youthful irritation. The older generation of Middlesbrough fan made it abundantly clear that those of us who had not had the privilege to see the blond inside forward play had missed a vital part of our footballing education and would therefore never be competent to pass any judgment on the game whatsoever. Any praise for a modern star was routinely dismissed by an unflattering comparison with the South Bank-born genius. It was as well Mannion was capable of lacing his own boots, for it was widely held that no one else was fit to do it for him.

As if that were not enough, Mannion was also held up as an example of the tragic fate that might befall any of us who expressed a desire to become a professional footballer. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” the doom-mongers would admonish. “Just look at Wilf Mannion.” And they would remind us how the Golden Boy was now down on his luck, broke and working as a labourer at ICI.

It takes a special sort of player to cast not one but two shadows over a region, and Wilf Mannion was undoubtedly special. Praise was lavished on him by his contemporaries, men such as Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews and Nat Lofthouse, who clearly knew a thing or two about the game. He could dribble, pass, shoot and set up goals as well as score them. His performance against Blackpool in 1947, when watched by his new fiancee Bernadette, was so stupendous even Teessiders who weren’t there can recall it viv­idly. If I was not con­cerned that the amount of tutting it would provoke could do irreparable damage to the plasterwork of retire­-ment homes across Cleveland, I might be tempted to men­tion a possible like­ness with George Best.

Mannion’s upbringing in South Bank during the Dep­ression certainly pre­pared him for a life of hard­ship. His recollection of his early days in the game are the perfect anti­dote to the dewy-eyed nonsense peddled in certain quar­ters about the sportsmanship of the good old days.
During his first appearance for his steelworks team, for example, the youthful inside forward dribbled around an older opponent. When play was interrupted moments later the man approached him. “Do that again,” he said, “and I’ll break your fucking legs.” Mannion’s captain heard this and intervened. “Leave him alone, he’s only 14,” he remonstrated. “And any more out of you,” came the reply,  “and I’ll break your fucking legs an’ all.”

By the time the Second World War began Mannion was an integral part of a Middlesbrough team that had finished fourth in the League and an England side regarded as one of the best in the world. While other famous players took PTI roles in the forces, stayed at home and, in some cases, amassed tidy sums in app­earance money, Man­nion joined the 7th Battalion of the Green Howards. He was evacuated from Dunkirk, then served in the Western Desert and Italy, where the great York­shire spin bowler Hedley Verity died virtually in his arms.

It took Mannion more than a year to be physically res­tored from his wartime ser­vice. Whether he ever fully recovered emotionally is another matter. Certainly his postwar career was marked by turbulence. There were arguments with the club over money, demands for a transfer, rumours of dressing room jeal­ousies and rows with other players.

The latter is certainly believable. Like one of his successors in the Boro forward line, Brian Clough, Mannion could be disarmingly frank. Interviewing him five years ago I asked about the great forwards he had played alongside, specifically Boro’s record goalscorer, George Camsell. “He was ruddy useless,” Man­nion said.

The series of disputes came to a head with Mannion’s infamous strike in 1948. Eventually circumstances forced him back to Ayre­some Park, where he played for a further six years. The bitterness created by his with­drawal of labour still lingered, however. Des­pite public clamour on Teesside the club re­fused to grant their greatest player a tes­­t­­­­­imonial until 1983. Proof that if the players were no longer as talented as they had once been, the game’s rulers remained as small minded as ever.

From WSC 160 June 2000. What was happening this month