MY NUMBER IS NINE
episode, taken from The Wizard issue: 1695
Bradwick City are the best team in the First Division – yet nobody supports them! Why?
Centre-Forwards are crazy. Otherwise they aren’t much use to a team. When I say that centre-forwards are nuts I’m excluding the fellows who shirk the jarring crunch of a tackle, the bruising shock of an iron shoulder, the searing pain of stamping studs on the bones of your feet, the risk of splitting your head open on a bony skull. But I wouldn’t call such fellows centre-forwards at all. I will start with an illustration of why centre-forwards are crazy. It happened near the end of our last game. I’m Stan Stagg. Where do I play? Need you ask? My number is nine. I’m Bradwick City’s centre-forward. Bradwick are in the First Division of the League. It was a football critic who wrote this about me a few weeks ago – “Stagg is one of the country’s best centre-forwards, though he has yet to obtain the favour of the England Selectors. “He is a shambling fellow with dark, untidy hair, who slouches about the field like a man with a chronic grievance who is carrying a chip on both shoulders. “He has a flair for appearing to be taking no interest in the game whatsoever and then materialising in the right spot at precisely the right second. “He kicks a ball as if he hates it.” In the match about which I’m going to write we were playing Huntford United at home. With ten minutes or so to go nothing had disturbed the goal nets except the breeze. When I write about playing at home, that signifies no advantage at all. I suppose that thirty thousand spectators were watching the game. You will note that I have not described them as supporters. Supporters? The idea makes me laugh. At the slightest chance they gave us the bird. Bradwick, you see, is one of those mushroom industrial cities where the few locales have been swamped by incomers. To the Scots, who were watching we did not compare with the Rangers or Celtic. Welshmen, indeed to goodness, measured us up against Cardiff City and found us lacking. You can guess what the Lancashire folk said about us, comparing us with Preston North End, Bolton, Manchester United, and the other Lancashire clubs. I think one reason for our unpopularity, whether home or away, was that we were regarded as a snooty team. It was definite team policy to play football at all times, under all circumstances. We knew we were good. We believed we were so good that, by and large, we could lick the other team plus the referee and the linesmen if need be. We believed we could do it while playing strictly to the rules even if the other side were grabbing every advantage that trickery could obtain. Because of this attitude we were often called Big Heads. Maybe it’s true. You can make up your minds as regards that after reading my story. That’s what I’d like you to do. First, meet our team. I reckoned I was crazy to play centre-forward and Mick Granville had the same streak for the risks he took as goalie. If the game had been played with red-hot cannonballs he would still have stopped ‘em. The right-back and captain was George Anderton. He was so calm and unruffled that he would finish a game with every hair still in place. Our left-back, Vic Hooper, would have tackled a runaway train. Arthur Marton, the centre-half, was the tallest man in the side and as quite off the filed as his younger brother, Ticker, was noisy. Ticker Marton played left-half. In Willie Duncan and Nipper Lloyd we had two fast, tricky wingers, though the latter was only a bantamweight and small bantam at that. I had no complaints about the inside-forwards, Eric Chadwick and Bert Hutchings. The latter was the veteran of the team and saved himself a great deal of running about by using his brain. He was nicknamed Baldy. Yes, I know I’ve left out the right-half, but now he has to come in. His name was Harold Harley. He had a pale face and sandy hair. There is just one man in football I hate and that man is not Harley, but my dislike for Harley came near to it. He got in my hair and I got in his. At the time about which I’m writing we had not spoken to each other for a week. I shall have no respect for the judgment of the England Selectors until they give the blighter an international cap, though. You see, although in my opinion he is a stinker, I also think he is the best right-half playing in British football. I happen to know he thinks I’m the best centre-forward. He thinks I stink too!
An “Impossible” Goal
The ball went out near the halfway line and it was our throw. I stood in the middle of the pitch looking as if my feet were held down by tent pegs and guy ropes. My sleeves hung loosely and my shirt with it’s number nine on the back was outside my shorts. My stockings were just staying up. Our great trainer, Doug Barrington, did not care for it and called me a scarecrow. But he did not tell me to alter my get-up. He knew I had a reason for looking as I do. When I play football I must feel loose and free. Harley picked up the ball and turned it over in his hands in a certain way. It was a signal and I knew where he was going to throw. Huntford United had given away five goals in eleven games, so strong was their defence. But the crowd were on to us as if we had failed to score against the Bath Chair Rovers. Harley faked a throw up the wing and I loped swiftly into the space into which he flung the ball. I trapped it and took it along in the same movement. Armitage, the Huntford centre-half, one of the hardest stoppers in football came ramping towards me. He turned the scales at fourteen stones and was as quick on his feet as a featherweight boxer. I could nearly feel his breath on my face before I flicked the ball past him. He barged into me and rocked me backwards. He felt as if he were cast in reinforced concrete. Baldy Hutchings was on to the ball like a terrier and netted. The linesman with the red flag wig-wagged it violently. The referee gave a long blast on his whistle and pointed to the spot from which Baldy had shot. He had judged Baldy to be offside. Baldy was not offside. He had been behind the ball when I passed. We did not protest. We did not approach the referee. We did not say a word. It was not our way. As I have told you, we reckoned we were good enough to beat the other team, the referee and the linesmen. So, when the referee made a bloomer, we treated it with silent contempt. The referee glared round as if expecting to have to argue, but all he saw were our backs as we turned them on him. Armitage bawled at Clarry Clint, the right-half, for letting me get away. We soon came on again. Ticker Marton cracked the ball towards me. I took a bash in the back from Clarry Clint but passed back to Harold Harley. I could read his thoughts and he could read mine. He held the ball for a few moments and then lobbed it down the middle. Before the ball actually left his foot I spurted, brushing past Clint and jinking so that he could not get at my feet to hook me over. The ball was going to bounce high between Armitage and me, and I guessed he would take a full-blooded kick at it. Because centre-forwards are crazy I went after that ball as hard as I could run. If your number is nine you make sure of getting to the ball first and counting your teeth afterwards. I did not spare a glance for Armitage. My eye was on the ball. I rammed my head into the ball and then saw the studs of Armitage’s boot as I jerked my face back. The goalie, Cardew, hurled himself to the side and just deflected the ball round the post for a corner. Armitage clapped his hands as a signal for the United to pack the goal area. Nipper Lloyd placed the ball in the quarter-circle for the corner-kick. I stood near the penalty spot with Armitage covering me. Nipper smacked in a power drive, the ball rising head high towards Baldy. Our veteran was mighty quick with his header. He nodded the ball down towards the goal and there was so much velocity behind it that it cannoned off Cardew’s hands. With players tearing towards the ball I launched myself at it as if fired from a torpedo tube. The ball was inches off the ground as I banged my head against the ball and sent it into the net. The studs of a boot raked my cheek and then Armitage fell on top of me. He came down hard and my spine bent under his weight. The newspapers were likely to state that Stan Stagg had scored another of “his impossible goals.” They would be wrong. It was not impossible. There was a chance and I took it because I am a centre-forward and centre-forwards are nuts. The crowd were cheering, but it was not worth bothering about. Earlier on they had jeered when I’d shot over the crossbar. I flipped an eyelid at Baldy and he winked at me. We were not a team to indulge in hand shaking and hugging when a goal had been scored. When we saw the ball in the net we were satisfied. A minute or two afterwards the game ended. Armitage came up to me with his hand out. He was a stopper and a good one. He had handed out some vigorous tackling and blocking. I did not like it, but I could take it. He had not come on to the field with the determination to cripple me. He wasn’t like the man I hate – a centre-half who is a killer by instinct and design. You are going to hear about him now. The match with Huntford had been played on a Wednesday, Bradwick’s early closing day. I did not hang about afterwards and within an hour was sitting in a Diesel train on my way home. The front seat of a Diesel is a good place for looking at the scenery. I had ten miles to travel to reach Hestford, the small town in which I have lived all my life with the exception of the two years when I was doing my National Service. The landscape was largely slag-heaps, ash tips, scraped earth, scrummy pools and canals. Hestford had been a small country town which had become the centre of a mining region. Tradition dies hard, and country folk still came into town on market days. The interests of the district are football, racing whippets and pigeons in that order. The train reached Hestford and I walked across the platform with my hands in my pockets. I did not have to take them out to show my season ticket. The porter on the gate looked at the scrapes on my face. “What have you been doing to your face?” he asked. “A budgerigar scratched me,” I said. I heard him laughing as I walked away. I was spoken on and off as I went along Station Street. There was a fat man standing at a corner, thumbs hooked in the top of his trousers. He had a ragged moustache and a bit of a squint. The blue scars of a miner were in his skin and if you looked hard you could see faint burn scars as well. His name was Eli Cooper and he had a funny, squeaky voice. It was a strange thing that Bradwick City had never been popular with the Hestford folk. They supported Ledworth Rovers, a Second Division team, fifteen miles away. “Ah, you made hard work of it, didn’t you, Stan? Said Cooper shrilly. “Les went over on his motor-bike and says you should have had a bagful of goals. “There was a reason for it, Eli,” I said. “Our team have got a rotten centre-forward.” Eli was the last man in Hestford off whom I should try to score with some cheap gibe. You see he had a crazy streak, too. Only a fellow who was crazy would have gone through the fire-doors without a mask when there was a gas explosion at Hestford Main Colliery and fetched three men out of an inferno, finishing with his own clothes blazing and in hospital for months. Eli could say what he liked about my football. There was only one man in Hestford that I hated! I turned up a steep street to reach the terrace where I stayed with my widowed sister, Vi. Here husband had died as a result of war wounds about four years previously. Shrill yells rose from a rough bit of ground and I looked down on to my first football pitch. The Tin Can Dribblers were having a game and among them was my nephew, Alfie, a lad of nine. Though a tin can was their usual football, that evening they had a red rubber ball. It was unlikely to last long. It would soon get lost. While I was there it required a frantic dash by Alfie to stop the ball bouncing into the black water of an old quarry. At the top of the street was a terrace consisting of five houses in a row. I lived in Number One. The front door of Number Five opened and Ray Copsbrook, the centre-half of Greyborough, another First Division team, stepped out. He was tall, and broad across the shoulders. Ray Copsbrook was the man I hated. He was a killer centre-half. He was the meanest, dirtiest player in football. You will be hearing a great deal about Copsbrook and of my tussles with him. I had been sixteen when my attitude towards Copsbrook turned to hate and I am going to tell you why. It will be necessary to flash back, as the film people term it, but it is the only time I shall go back in the course of this narrative.
My Big Chance
After I left school I played centre-forward for Hestford Vics, a team in the Ledford and District Youth League. At that time Copsbrook played for the Rovers, another club in the same League. Although we lived in the same row of houses we had not attended the same schools. My father, a steeplejack, had got me into the Foundation School, an ancient institution in the town. Copsbrook went to one of the secondary schools. I scored many goals for the Vics and this led up to a big surprise. Most of the Vics were former pupils of the Foundation School and, in the winter when it was difficult to train, we had the use of the gym on one evening a week. Mr Pritchard, the sports master, kept his eye on us and was a help in many ways. I can remember as if it were yesterday how we were training in the gym one night in October when Mr Pritchard, who was later than usual, appeared in the doorway. He fetched his whistle out of his pocket and gave a couple of toots. “I have big news for you and especially Stan Stagg,” he announced in the hush. “Stan, I’ve heard that you’ve been picked to take part in the Youth Trial at Cammington Park on Saturday week.” I just stood and gaped at him. “I’m not as surprised as you look,” he chuckled. “I think you have an excellent chance of getting your cap and playing in the Youth International against Scotland. “That’s not all,” went on Mr Pritchard. “Hestford has certainly got into the picture because Ray Copsbrook has also been selected. You’ll be playing against him, Stan, as he has been picked for the Reds and you for the Blues.” The idea did not depress me because in out League against the Rovers I had scored a couple of goals. After gym I celebrated my selection with the other lads with a blow-out comprising pop and fish and chips. In spite of the feed I felt I was treading on air as I made my way home with the news. When I reached the top of the hill I saw Copsbrook. He was sitting on his bike by the lamp-post talking to a pal, “Have you heard the news?” I demanded. “We’ve both been picked for the Youth Trial.” “We never have!” he blurted out. “I expect we’ll get a letter in the morning,” I said. “Mr Pritchard has just told me. Copsbrook’s eyes gleamed. “If you’re pulling my leg I’ll scrag you!” he said. “We shall be up against each other,” I said. “We’re on opposite sides.” Copsbrook grinned. “That’s bad luck for you,” he replied. He spoke jauntily and I never guessed there was any threat in the words. Both my mother and dad were alive in those days and they shared my excitement. On the following Saturday I had a goal-scoring spree in our League game and put the ball in the net seven times. The next week seemed about a month long. Saturday came at last and at half-past ten in the morning twenty-two lads fanned out on to the pitch in Cammington Park, the ground of the famous Albion. I was among them, proud as a peacock in my jersey with the number nine on the back.
Stan v. Copsbrook
The ground had a capacity of 70,000. I have played there many times since when it has been crammed. On the morning of the Youth Trial the gate probably did not amount to seven hundred. At first it was a scrappy game, with the teams consisting of individuals who had to establish some sort of touch. We were on the defence at first while I mooched about wondering if I were ever going to see the ball. At last our outside-left, a very tall, thin fellow, got a pass and went down his wing at a terrific bat. He swerved in and put the ball towards me along the ground. I was just outside the penalty area and had the inspiration to shoot. I shot without trapping the ball and it whizzed wide of Copsbrook and the Reds’ goalie and finished in the corner of the net. It was the big moment of my life. Within a minute or so the Reds equalized with what I considered to be a soft score. It was not long before our lanky outside-left made another run. This time Copsbrook advanced towards me to blanket any first-time shooting chance. The outside-left was a cute player. He did not pass directly to me, but placed the ball behind Copsbrook. He put a bit too much weight behind it, however, and it skipped towards Willis, the back. I raced for the ball flat-out. It did not matter to me that Willis was a heavy-weight compared with me. With my gaze on the ball I went for it. I was crazy in those days, too. Only goals counted. Willis, perhaps worried by the occasion, lashed hurriedly at the ball. He failed to get much loft on it. Biff! It hit me smack between the eyes and flew from my head into the goal. I was not completely dazed and was conscious that I’d scored. That made up for everything. The referee took my arm. He asked me if I were all right. I said I was and he did not whistle for the trainer. By the time the game had run another couple of minutes my head was clear again. When I next got the ball I steered it out to the left. The winger failed to dodge Willis. There was a skirmish and the ball went out for a corner. The kick led to a melee in front of the goal. In the swirl of figures I saw a chance of getting the ball and darted for it. I clashed with Copsbrook. We were at close quarters when he brought up a knee to my groin and I dropped, writhing in agony. The referee did not whistle till he saw me tucked up. “He hurt himself when he rushed into me, ref.!” exclaimed Copsbrook. Copsbrook had been so slick with the foul that he was not suspected of dirty play. When I had been carried to the side of the goal the referee restarted the game by dropping the ball. There was no free kick. I was off the field for about five minutes during which time the Reds equalized. “Sorry you laid yourself out, Stan,” said Copsbrook loudly on my return. I didn’t say anything. What was the use? I got stuck in and got the ball after my teeth had been rattled by a shoulder charge from Betts. I shot hard and it was another corner as the goalkeeper tipped the ball out. . Copsbrook and I sprang for the ball as it came over and I deflected it with my head to the left. We landed. An instant later I felt excruciating pain as he brought his heel down on my instep. The outside-left scored from my header, but, gritting my teeth, I went down. The referee whistled for the goal and then saw me stretched out. “What happened?” he exclaimed. “His foot got under mine as we dropped,” said Copsbrook and there was a look of dismay on his face at hurting me! He was a great actor all right! I was carried away, and when they got my boot off it was found that a bone was broken. I played no more football for months. . Copsbrook was capped for the English Youth Eleven. Since then he had become a famous centre-half. He had not played for England as a senior, though many sports writers urged his inclusion. He was robust. That was what they called him. Certainly he played a relentless game, said these sports writers, but what was wrong with that? But there was plenty that they had not spotted about him. . Copsbrook was so slick when he hurt a man that he had never been detected. Every centre-forward who had come up against him knew what sort of player he was, however. Many feared him. I did not fear him. I hated him. He had gained his Youth cap by crippling me. I lived for the day when I could blast his reputation with a goal scoring blaze. When Copsbrook came out of the house he looked at the marks on my face and just raised his eyebrows. I turned my head away from him and hurried on. My next clash with Copsbrook was soon to take place. On Saturday we were playing Greyborough. Goals against him there, a lot of goals, would gag the sports writers. There would be an end to the demand that he should be picked for England. In a small town like Hestford the fact that Copsbrook and I were not on speaking terms was, of course, widely known. My sister, who was several years older than I, opened the door for me. “In trouble again,” she said when she saw my face. “I got it heading the winner,” I replied. “You’re daft,” she said. That was when we heard the yells and saw the lads gathered in an agitated cluster at the edge of the quarry pool. “One of them’s fallen in!” Vi screamed. I ran down the street as fast as I could swing my legs and swerved on to the rough piece of ground. Terrified faces were turned towards me as I sprinted towards the pool. “Alfie fell in!” one of the boys yelled. I flung my coat off and, as I eyed the dark surface, I saw a pale blob some yards out from the side. Without waiting to take off my shoes I dived in. The cold was paralyzing and took my breath, but I struck out and clutched a handful of jersey. I hauled Alfie to the side and dragged him out. Vi had kept her head. One of our neighbours was an ambulance driver and she had him with her. He came running down in his shirt sleeves. Alfie was so limp and still I was afraid he was dead, but I can say at once that the ambulance driver’s artificial respiration brought him round. I stood watching the ambulance man, stood in my wet clothes while the chill seeped in. In fact, it was not until we had carried Alfie home and put him to bed that I really realised how cold I was. I woke in the night with the shivers and in the morning I had a raging cold. I was wrapped in the eiderdown when at about ten o’clock I used the phone, rang up the ground and spoke to Doug Barrington, our trainer. “I’m going to nurse a bit of a cold today, Doug,” I said. “Yes, you sound thick in the head,” replied the trainer. “D’you think you’ll be fit for Saturday?” I had an honest chance of dodging a tussle with Copsbrook, for you did not get over a cold like mine in a day or two, but I’m a centre-forward, and, therefore, crazy. “I won’t miss it,” I said. “You can count on me to turn out at Greyborough!”
MY NUMBER IS NINE 40 episodes appeared in The Wizard issues 1695 – 1734 (1958)
© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd
Vic Whittle 2004