My working life got off to a bad start and it was all the fault of Mick Jones (the footballer, not the front man in The Clash). Not many people have got the sack on the very first day of their very first job without actually even doing any work but I came very close and my feeble attempt to retain my employed status amounted to the utterance of five golden words, they being ‘United’s glorious scenes at Wembley.’
On Saturday 6th May 1972 I had entered into a verbal agreement with the manager of the R.S. McColl newsagent’s and tobacconist’s shop in the fashionable Seacroft Town Centre shopping arcade that I would accompany his outgoing Round No 3 paper boy on his route around Leeds’ famous Whinmoor Estate prior to taking over the round in my own right the following Monday. The maze of cul-de-sacs, tower blocks and subways awash with packs of rabid dogs, packs of rabid kids and rival paper boys intent upon leading astray any rookie deliverer of Evening Posts was too much for a young lad to attempt for a first time without the experience and guidance of a fifteen year old who had been doing the job all his working life (i.e. since Easter).
As reward for my labour on that warm spring afternoon I was to be paid the princely sum of ten and a half pence. You may scoff but that was a lot of money in those days. In fact it was enough to buy drugs with a street value of ten and a half pence or three bottles of fizzy Cresta pop, but I just said ‘No!’ to the Cresta due to the damage that it could have done to my brain. Oh alright then, I admit I did have just one or two to take the sting out of walking through the subway that went under the Ring Road to my place of work.
East Leeds legal highs, circa 1972.
I wasn’t too worried about making a success of the job as I already knew that it wasn’t the best way to earn money. My predecessor had told me on the way home from school a couple of days earlier that he was leaving to become a paper boy at local rivals, Forbuoy’s, who paid seven and a half pence a week more than the sixty two and a half pence per week that had been the juicy carrot that had seduced me into putting my foot on the first rung of the employment ladder. Little did I know then that this would be the first of many crap jobs that I would have to endure during my decades of scratching around to earn a crust and that I would eventually make a career of making career changes. In my life the word ‘career’ has been more of a verb than a noun but I am now pleased to say that I am happy in my role as a Foot Health Practitioner, travelling the highways and byways of Wiltshire, Bath and North East Somerset to earn a shilling in return for hacking the nasty bits off pedal extremities . . . for the time being!
McColl’s did seem to me to be a good place to start on the road to financial security because its founder had been a Scottish international footballer in the 1890s who had started making toffee in the scullery of his humble abode to supplement the meagre earnings of a top class professional. I suspect that this is why Scotland is no longer a major force on the world football scene – all its potential star players are busy making toffee. Had the Scots in the Leeds team back then, namely Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer and David Harvey, all stuck to the toffee instead of becoming the footballing legends that they did, taking United to the F.A. Cup final as well as other breathtaking levels of success, then perhaps my sticky situation with an irate newsagent would have been avoided.
Looking back, I suppose I should have mentioned to Mr McColl’s representative on Earth (or Brian, as he preferred to be known on account of that being his real name) that Leeds would be on telly that particular Saturday afternoon. Perhaps I was a bit naive but I had rather assumed that a man who made a living out of selling newspapers and who lived in a city of more than a million people who all supported their local team (to do anything else was unheard of in those days) would be aware that Leeds United were playing in the F.A. Cup Final at the Empire Stadium, Wembley. Furthermore, in the days when the only match in a season to be broadcast live on television was the cup final I took it for granted that anybody with a pulse would know about it and watch it. Later in life I got to know Brian better and it unfolded that his passion lay in speedway and shooting (not at the same time, I would add, though that would probably be much more fun than either of the two sports taken separately) so I adopted a sympathetic approach to an employer who missed out on one of the greatest sporting occasions of all time. Fearful of repetition, whenever I have gone for a job interview since then, I have asked the members of the interview panel who their favourite football teams are, what they were doing on the day Leeds won the cup and if they’ve ever shot a speedway rider.
Ten minutes before the kick off my Dad pointed out to me that I would probably need to miss the second half as the population of a nearby council estate sweated on the arrival of its evening papers and a copy of Jackie (with a free David Cassidy novelty plastic comb) at 42 Sherburn Court. Calmly I finished singing Abide With Me, adjusted my cardboard ‘Come on United’ collapsible hat that I had ironically got free in the previous night’s Evening Post, momentarily contemplated the situation and retorted that everyone would be far too busy watching the match to be bothered about reading a scabby old newspaper. Monday night’s issue, with its photographs of United’s glorious scenes at Wembley would be much more important. I even suggested that it might be worthwhile having a day off school, thus enabling me to ensure that I would not be late to make the final link between supplier and customer in the cut and thrust world of journalism on this most magnificent of Evening Post reading days, so you can’t say that I wasn’t committed to my job.
From the second that the game kicked off I was on the edge of my seat and my mind was consumed entirely by what was going on on the Wembley pitch. My plan had been for United to be three up by half time so that the result was a foregone conclusion and that I could listen to the second half and the post-match celebrations on my Binatone transistor radio as I pushed printed details of the City of Leeds’ other events of the day (though I couldn’t imagine that there’d be any) through the letterboxes of the houses in Sledmere Green and Stanks Drive. So it caused me a great deal of inconvenience when the men in the famous all white strip were still only drawing nil-nil at the interval.
At about ten past four the forehead of striker Allan Clarke (the footballer, not the front man in The Hollies) arrowed the ball past goalkeeper Geoff Barnett’s desperate dive and into the Arsenal net. Our living room erupted in to brouhaha of celebration. Anyone who says there ain’t no party like an S Club party would have eaten their words at the sight of the uproar that followed Sniffer’s goal.
Well, in actual fact, I ran round the room shouting like an eejit and my Dad said, “Oh good, are you going to go and start that paper round now?”
One-nil is never enough though, is it? I couldn’t walk out on the team with such a slender lead so for the first time ever in my working life I said to myself, “Oh, sod it!” and just carried on watching the game.
It was an interesting encounter for a number of reasons but unless you’re a Leeds fan you’d never remember it for its entertaining football. I’ve seen DVDs of it a few times since then and, safe in the knowledge that the right team won, it’s been a struggle to concentrate on it for the full ninety minutes. However, at the time, for me it was the most exciting sporting event since dirty Chelsea had beaten Leeds in the 1970 F.A. Cup Final. Arsenal were the previous year’s double winners. If we could snatch the F.A. Cup away from them then Leeds would more than likely repeat their feat. It was the one hundredth anniversary of the first F.A. Cup Final in which Royal Engineers (later to be re-named Arsenal) lost one-nil (an omen) to Wanderers at Kennington Oval. Neither side had their first choice goalkeeper available as Geoff Barnett stood in for Bob Wilson (who had been an excellent Scotland goalkeeper but relatively poor at making toffee) in the Gunners’ goal and David Harvey (who was later to become the Scotland goalkeeper) stood in for Leeds’ Gary Sprake (who had been the Welsh International goalkeeper and should have tried earning a living from making toffee – he had a head start over the rest as he was born with butter fingers).
As the game went on the excitement intensified. After taking the lead, United opened up with some fine attacking moves with Clarke, who had rattled the crossbar with a first half header, a constant menace and Bremner and Johnny Giles controlling the midfield, as ever. Meanwhile a bundle of Evening Posts lay sadly dormant and unread on the floor next to a box of Curley Wurlies in the back room of an East Leeds paper shop.
Arsenal were restricted to a handful of chances – Paul Reaney kicked an Alan Ball shot off the line as Mrs Atkinson at 23 Farndale View started to wonder what time Kojak would be on the television that night. David Harvey pulled off an amazing twisting save to keep out a deflected Frank McLintock shot as Mr Hopkins of 78 Farnham Way started to think about where he could pick up a used Ford Anglia for under a ton. And in the seventy fifth minute Charlie George’s shot hit the crossbar just as little ten year old Janine Wilkinson started to root about for something to line the floor of her rabbit hutch. But these were isolated incidents in a game mastered by Leeds and, just down the road from the impatient readers; a fledgling paper boy was poised to spring into action to resolve any Late Night Final deficiency problems.
At ten to five the referee looked at his watch, blew the final’s final whistle and Leeds had won the cup. My Dad tried to push me out of the door to go and start work on the paper round. He often tried to push me out of the door, long before I had passed the recruitment interview at R.S. McColl’s. Mind you, I was a spotty fourteen year old at the time so I can see where he was coming from now. Spotty fourteen year old boys aren’t the sort of thing you want in your lounge. They clash with the curtains.
Leeds United players celebrating with the F.A.Cup
and almost getting me the sack.
You wouldn’t have got me to take my eyes off the TV screen at that point for all the tea Fine Fare because United’s glorious scenes at Wembley were tinged with sadness. In the eighty eighth minute, crossing the ball in from the right for what almost produced a second Leeds goal, Mick Jones dislocated an elbow and was still receiving treatment when the rest of the Leeds team climbed the steps to the Royal Box (the specially allocated Wembley seats, not the cricketing accessory) to receive their winners’ medals from the Queen. Big Norman Hunter made a return journey after collecting the bandaged Jones and led him up the steps in a touching scene as Wembley was awash in a sea of white, old gold and blue. Unfortunately the touching scene prolonged the BBC's coverage of the event and the paper deliveries across a waiting Whinmoor were put off even longer.
But how could anybody walk away from such top notch viewing to go and do a job of work? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who put their career to one side for an hour to watch a grinning Billy Bremner lift the cup and Mick Jones struggle up to get his medal. I’ll wager that Apollo space missions were put on hold so that astronauts could catch a glimpse of Don Revie hugging his captain, that the Berlin Wall was unmanned for a while so that East German guards could give a couple of rousing choruses of ‘ee-aye-addio, we won the cup!’ and paperboys across Manchester let their paper delivery bags lie idle as they looked on in awe.
Then it was all over. We had done it at last and I could enter the recovery stage of my nervous breakdown. The solitary television cameraman toddled off home for his tea and coverage went back to the studio for analysis of the goal until Grandstand too came to an end so I watched the BBC news to see the goal again. Then the Generation Game came on our screen so I was off the sofa like a shot – the invited experts in the studio on that particular Saturday were teaching the ‘anything for a laugh’ contestants how to slaughter a goat as a sacrifice to the God of the Corn in a dark and distant corner of an as yet unexplored territory in the Third World - I can’t remember exactly where but the word ‘Swindon’ rings a bell!
This was sufficient to get me out of the house and round to see Brian who wasn’t very happy with me. The outgoing paper boy had done the delivery alone (and obviously missed most of the match – sad loser or what?) but I wasn’t sacked because I gave such a detailed account of the event I had just witnessed, the joy and the tears, the pain and the glory, but more significantly my dismissal would have meant that Brian would have had to carry the bag of papers round the estate himself for the following week and until a new recruit was press ganged. I’m pleased I thought to use the term ‘press ganged’ here as there were so many similarities between working conditions as an R.S. McColl paperboy and an eighteenth century sailor in Lord Nelson’s Royal Navy; most notably the remuneration package.
However, my absence from work on that day did mean that I would be thrown in at the deep end alone when I went to spread the word of the Yorkshire Post Newspaper Group on the following Monday. But I did survive the ordeal and you’ll be pleased to know that my employment continued for seven wonderful months until the chill dark nights of a north country winter hit me hard and the more temperate surroundings and financial rewards associated with a Saturday job in Dodson Bros’ illustrious frozen food emporium lured me away in the same way as a talented young footballer at an average Premiership club might be attracted to Manchester United. No wonder it’s so hard to get a paper delivered these days – the cash strapped newsagents just can’t compete with the wealthy big boy employers of small boys (and girls) like Tesco. However, for the remainder of my short but reasonably happy career in journalism, whenever I was late for work I just let those magical words ‘United’s glorious scenes at Wembley’ slip from my tongue and Brian’s scowl would crumble like a brain cell immersed in Cresta pop.