by Margaret Potts & Dave Thomas
Reviewed by Alan Tomlinson
From WSC 247 September 2007
Harry Potts played for and managed Burnley in some of their most successful periods from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, and again in some less successful times in the 1970s. This book combines the memoir of his wife, Margaret, with the broader context portrayed by writer Dave Thomas. It is an engaging book, a richly illustrated portrait of a time and culture a million miles away from the excesses of the post-1992 English football elite.
As a boy growing up in Burnley in the Fifties and Sixties, for me the success of the club was a taken-for-granted fact of life (I delivered the papers to the modest semi-detached residences of England internationals; the Potts’s daughter Linda was in the girl guides with my sister). Margaret’s Story brings the time and the culture alive, though, locating biography in history, and conveying the excitement and adventure of the success of the small-town club and its national success and European adventures.
This is a gracious book, in which few have a bad word to say about Harry: he may have exuded boyish charm, but he also generated loyalty from generations of players who saw in him an ideal combination of surrogate father and gentlemanly dignity. Which isn’t to say that Harry was a soft touch. Margaret’s Story reveals the complex contradictions behind the gentlemanly courtesies of Mr Potts the manager. Harry was enraged, as a manager, when he thought that his players and teams had been cheated, or got a raw deal from some referee (a routine injustice, it seems, on the European trail); but as a player he was the diver of his day, tumbling forward unlikely yardages to claim to have been felled in the penalty box. He was the charming and supportive family man, but rarely at home; his love was the training ground, the talent-spotting journeys, the deals to be struck. He was a trained sports professional with his well earned coaching qualifications, and Burnley’s pioneering training facilities and practice drills; but in his later days he lampooned sports science-based analyses of the lack of physical conditioning of professional footballers. Harry was the glamour boy of that era, all blond hair, smiling good looks and public charm; but the personification of the Protestant ethic at work, and ascetic at home. Toasted crumpets, Dick Barton on the radio, Ovaltine or cocoa and bed at nine o’clock was a typical evening in for Harry and Margaret in their early days: “He needed a lot of sleep, his mother said. If there was a match on Saturday there was no sex after Thursday.”
Margaret’s apparently innocent but acidic asides are targeted at a considerable rogue’s gallery: her battle-axe mother-in-law, Burnley’s infamous chairman Bob Lord (and his wife) and Jimmy Adamson, the captain who was to usurp Harry as manager. But the book never slides into sentimentality or hagiography. Harry was also the nearly-man, hitting the bar at Wembley in the 1947 Cup final, managing Burnley to the title in 1959-60, and then to the “lost” Double of 1961-62 when “homespun” Burnley, runners-up to Ipswich, lost at Wembley to glamorous Tottenham. But on the whole he was a winner. The road outside Turf Moor was renamed “Harry Potts Way” five years after his death.
This is a book about a lost time. Once “little” (a widely used adjective in the book) Burnley could compete with the metropolitan powers. The domestic and familial stability of Margaret, born and raised in the town, widow of Burnley’s “Beckhamesque figure amongst the cobbles”, is testimony to a culture of locality and loyalty that is increasingly rare in the money-ridden culture of celebrity that characterises the modern, globalised game.