In the first of a series on players who have had an unusual appeal to fans, Al Needham mourns the failure of his schoolmate to hit the heights
It’s a galling experience when you realise you’ll never make it as a football star, but even more of a kick in the nuts when you live vicariously through someone else and they don’t manage it either. Only two people I grew up with made it in football; one was a call girl pictured on the front of the News of the World with Alan Hudson. The other was Wayne Fairclough.
We grew up on a Nottingham council estate and it was obvious that if anyone in Top Valley would have their face on a Panini sticker, it was Wayne. He had the pedigree – his older brother Chris was attracting attention from Forest. He was the best player in the area by a mile and Best Fighter In The School. He commanded the kind of respect in class usually afforded to Dalai Lamas; to be invited to his house to play Subbuteo in the late Seventies was the Westglade Junior School equivalent of getting into Studio 54.
By the time we were teenagers, he was so evidently on the path to glory that I expected him to be carted off to Lilleshall at any moment. I had big plans for me and Wayne – he was going to Football Valhalla, and I was going to leech off it. He’d take Forest back into Europe about the time I was bragging about knowing him at college. I’d see him get his first England cap on a TV in the student union of whatever university I decided to go to, and cast a spell over an entire bar of precociously sexual drama students while I told them about the time we used to sing Sham 69 songs in the playground.
The first sign that things were wrong was when he signed for Notts County instead of Forest. Not to disrespect the oldest professional club in the world, but in my glory-hunting state of mind it was a bit like getting a Grifter for Christmas when you really wanted a BMX. But it wouldn’t be too long before he was picked up by a bigger team, and until then I was avidly buying the Football Post to check on his form – more often than not, in the reserves.
And I was right. As I moved to London, Wayne moved on as well, in a £80,000 transfer – to Mansfield. And my heart sank. Nobody has ever impressed women and potential employers with the fact that they knew someone who played for Mansfield Town. By now, any feelings of envy towards him were replaced by pangs of guilt and pity, even though I knew he was probably earning the equivalent of my entire grant in a month and lording it up in both Mansfield nightclubs.
Mansfield was his pinnacle. He racked up 131 appearances over four years and even scored 12 times, but by now my avid support had deteriorated into a cursory glance at the team sheet in the Sun and a quick flick through Rothmans whenever I was in WH Smith. One day, in the summer of 1994, an old schoolmate told me he’d gone on a free to Chesterfield and I was getting desperate. I needed a talisman to prove that someone from my background could go on and make something of themselves, and I really needed it to be him.
And then Chesterfield went on that incredible run to the Cup semi-finals, and I felt our time had come. I bragged relentlessly that I knew someone in the squad, and was utterly assured we were just one game from greatness. All he needed to do was something spectacular – like punching Dennis Wise – and the dream was back on. I settled down in the pub, told everyone about the bond I had with him (which by now had been expanded upon so badly you’d have thought we were brothers) and waited for the team sheet. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that the season before he’d moved on to Scarborough, and stayed there just about long enough to unpack his suitcase before he was shuffled on to Northwich Victoria and out of the League for good.
Wayne’s still playing – he’s been at Ilkeston Town for the past two years. And I’m still following him. I’ve been scouring the internet trying to discover whether he still has a contract. But the relationship has changed. Whereas not so long ago I was desperate to bask in his glory, nowadays I hope he’s got a mortgage, saved his cash and has something he wants to do with his life when he hangs up his boots.
But having said that, I just heard that Chris Fairclough has taken a coaching role at Forest. Maybe he’ll get his brother in. Maybe he’ll start to shine in an administrative role. And, just maybe, in the year 2020 I’ll be in a pub watching Wayne Fairclough, manager of England, carried on the shoulders of his World Cup-winning team. I’ll be easy to spot. I’ll be the middle-aged bloke with this article blown up on both sides of a sandwich board.
From WSC 175 September 2001. What was happening this month