In the early Sixties Shack’s was what we called our local off-licence on Durham Road, just west of what’s now the Metro line. The proprietor, though I didn’t often see him there, was none other than football great Len Shackleton, the Crown Prince of Soccer, one of the most gifted and outspoken English footballers of the mid 20th Century. I was in there around 1963 with my Dad when he asked Shack if he would give me his autograph and I clearly remember the smile on his face as he obliged. I was quite surprised to discover a month or so back that I still possess the autograph book containing that signature. Like most middle aged British guys I’ve accumulated lots of stuff that would appear to be valueless to other people…well, okay – to women.
Before I had this book it was the property of my big brother Graham but he bequeathed it to me as a Christmas present in the dim mists of time. For that reason I’ve no idea when or where a number of the autographs were procured. Alarmingly the first signature is of Dave Hollins, the Newcastle goalie who once in a fit of fashion consciousness sported black tassles on the arms of his green jersey. The page is more than balanced out by the entries of two Sunderland stalwarts of the Sixties – winger Harry Hooper and inside forward George Herd. George’s signature looks rather like he did; short and stocky. Things reach an early peak with that of Jimmy Montgomery and I remember getting that one myself outside the players’ entrance at Roker Park around 1963. The very young Monty was with his girlfriend and she beamed with pleasure as she watched him sign. A number of other regulars of our promotion-winning side of 1964 are there including Cec (Irwin) and Len (Ashurst) our seemingly perennial full backs, George Mulhall, Jimmy McNab and the mighty Charlie Hurley. A mate of mine, Brian, and I actually went round to Charlie’s house near the Barnes one lunchtime when we were at Chester Road Juniors and plucked up the nerve to knock on his nice semi-detached door. We politely asked his wife if Mr Hurley was at home and he appeared, took our books and disappeared behind the door before giving us them back and shutting the door again, without saying a word. We were over the moon and were so buoyed up by our success that we wondered who we could pester next. We couldn’t top Charlie and we didn’t know where any of the others lived except occasional forward Willie McPheat, who was living near the General Hospital on Chester Road, but when we went round he was out, or hiding. Anyway, I see that I must have intercepted him at a later date as he’s in there – mind you, his signature looks more like ‘Roger Wood’ to me. Hmm, maybe he slipped up there? There’s one semi-complete entry, that of winger Allan Gauden (‘Sunderland Reserves’ as I’ve labelled him) which looks like ‘All G_______’. I remember his taxi showed up at the crucial moment.
Along with a lot of other kids I’d hang around after matches in the hope of getting a few signatures and sometimes we’d race like lemmings if we saw other kids chasing after some unidentified figure only to discover it was a player we weren’t interested in for some reason and turn away moaning. Most players would be happy to stop and sign but they had their limits, while others wanted to get out of there and into a taxi or whatever as fast as they could. I’d sometimes go to reserve games and the cat and mouse stuff was easier for us there with the young hopefuls only too happy to bask in some recognition. The only trouble was that we’d occasionally tag onto an existing queue without knowing who was signing. This was no doubt the case with the entry of the young Billy Hughes, which I’ve labelled ‘Hartlepools Reserves’.
I haven’t tried to get a footballer’s autograph for over thirty years (Monty’s, at Brisbane Road five days before we won the Cup) and wonder if, apart from major dudes like Niall, they still stop and sign kids’ books, arms or whatever. I’d be interested to know. At any rate I can’t picture any of the current well-paid squad doing stints behind the counter of an off-licence in the near future.