In an unlikely setting, David Wells enjoyed several hours in the company of some famous English footballers

It’s a damp, blustery evening a few weeks before Christmas. There are more than the usual number of middle-aged men about, some furtively clutching carrier bags and cardboard tubes. Many are heading to the Wolverhampton Civic Hall, a large soulless venue with the feel of a school hall circa 1975, where earlier in the week Alice Cooper had been appearing. Tonight is billed as “An evening with the 1966 England World Cup Squad”. It should read “or most of them”, as two cannot appear and Bobby Charlton presumably prefers not to. The company run by agent Terry Baker (“the only worldwide agents for Pelé’s signature”) do a steady line in selling signed memorablia in the foyer. One of their clients, Jimmy Greaves, is the evening’s compere.

The hall is a bit more than half full, with the majority of the audience men over 50 and not a target market for hair care products, their bags containing items they would like to have autographed. The evening starts half an hour late, with some stand up from Greavsie. It’s fairly standard fare – some you’ve heard before, some quite funny, some borderline offensive – and, apart from frequent use of the “f” word, wouldn’t surprise anyone who saw him on ITV in the 1980s.

Then the eight come on to the stage. The first impression is just how old and physically frail some of them look. Each tells an anecdote or two, or six in the case of Jack Charlton, and sits down. Some, such as Charlton, are natural raconteurs, while others struggle to hold the audience either by going on too long or telling a story which isn’t particularly interesting. Each mention of Bobby Moore is greeted with rapturous applause and the audience is treated to frequent and gratuitous mentions of Midlands players of the 1950s and 60s before the players shuffle off for an interval.

The second half starts with a bit more Greavsie followed by a benign Q&A session, during which a few interesting points come out – Geoff Hurst is the only one to sell his shirt from the big day (for £90,000), while Nobby Stiles has Alan Ball’s and Jack Charlton claims he has two of his own, one from each half. Charlton says that he and Alf Ramsey rarely spoke and, despite their well publicised disagreements, the best player he ever played with was his brother.

Hurst in particular does not come across as an especially likable character, most of his stories being about himself (“I sat next to a man who didn’t know who I was!”; “I used to be manager of Chelsea you know”). He practically elbows Terry Baker off the stage in his enthusiasm to present the raffle prize, seemingly seeing himself as the spokesman for the group. There are more questions and we learn that there are too many foreign players in the English game, being attracted by the fact that the Premier League is the best in the world, and that because of this England will not win the World Cup. After we hear that none of them will ever work on television again because they tell it like it is (Greaves offers a less printable explanation) and they shuffle again off to more applause.

Attendees with vouchers can then go behind the stage to meet the players. Those with carrier bags but no voucher leave looking slightly disappointed that their artefacts will not be signed, pausing only to glance at the signed Jimmy Greaves canvases before trudging back out into what is now a noisy Wolverhampton Friday night. My feelings at the end are mixed – I grew up with these men, watching in football in the late 1960s and early 70s, and it’s a tremendous thrill to see them and hear them speak, ponderous as some of them are.

But there’s also a feeling that it’s all a bit tawdry. Here is a group of pensioners who should be feted for bringing about probably the greatest sporting achievement this country has ever seen. Yet they are now trawling around the country in one last effort to cash in on the endless public interest in their success and being given predictable questions on which to offer predictable and safe opinions. And yes, I did buy something – a book signed by Geoff Hurst, which will not be finding its way onto Ebay.

From WSC 276 February 2010

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