Sunday, March 9, 2008

On Our Way To Meet Alan Banks

I recently came across the photograph below in my study at my Knysna, South Africa house.

Of course, it’s me in the picture along with my late twin brother Randy, as he was then known. Well, I had to show it to Bianca the local girl who kindly comes during the week to tidy the house and make me breakfast and lunch …

But in posing the question to Bianca “Which One Am I?”, looking at this photo provokes a lengthy story of “Who I Am”. And as you read on, this entry is hardly about me but rather about someone I have greatly admired and continue to admire.

The photograph was taken in Bulstrode Gardens, Cambridge, England in late July or early August 1964. I was 11 years old. Travel and football mad.

A few months earlier, at the end of the Easter holidays, I had accompanied my 2 brothers to London and then onto the Brighton bound train which took them to Haywards Heath where they alighted to be ferried to their “prep” school, St Peter’s Court. I continued on the train to Patcham station, just before Brighton where I knew there was a youth hostel. At 11, I had already stayed in a large number of hostels, especially those in London at Holland Park and Earl’s Court, sometimes with my brothers, other times by myself. I think that when I checked into the youth hostel this time, the warden called my mother to verify that all was in order. However, the next morning upon departing I was not handed back my youth hostel card, a type of passport that carried my picture and details and that had blank pages for “stamps” and which was absolutely required. It was explained to me that I needed to be 12 years old to stay unaccompanied in a hostel and my card would be sent to the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) in London.

In due course, I received a letter from the YHA informing me that my membership had been suspended! No extended jaunts for an interminable 9 months!

Well, together, with my ever enabling mother, I hatched a scheme whereby my brother Randy and I would sign up for an escorted walking tour of Devon in the far west of England that coming summer and we would get our travel fix that way. Little did I know that football would enter the picture.

So here we are in Bulstrode Gardens, equipped with brand new rucksacks and off to catch a series of trains to Plymouth, hundreds of miles away, where our walking tour would begin!

I did not mind the leisurely 10 miles a day walking. I did mind that the footpaths rarely took us along river valleys but rather across them resulting in some very steep climbs of the local hills. I soon rebelled, declaring I was off and either hitched or caught a bus to the next hostel on the itinerary, Salcombe. Randy must have made a friend among the other walkers as he stuck with it.

I do remember a memorable afternoon in a boat fishing for mackerel in Torbay, the town of Brixham being the end destination of our escorted walk.

Now it was time to make our way back to Cambridge by train.

I distinctly remember sitting with Randy in an open seating carriage, sitting across a table from him. We would have boarded at Torquay station. Within half an hour after the train made its stop at Exeter St David’s, I could not believe my eyes when a familiar figure came walking past.

Alan! Alan Banks !!!

Here we were, 2 young American boys living in Britain and a guy who could have passed for the fifth Beatle with his broad Liverpool accent and dark moptop was on our train. And he was going to sit with us and chat!

Alan is truly an extraordinary person who is known to a mere fraction of mankind but who has had a profound effect on anyone who has met him.

He’s a footballer, a soccer player. He’s 69 and he still plays. I last saw him play 45 years ago …

He played most of his career for lowly Exeter City and finished with them in 1973. Yet more than 30 years later, he was voted the most popular player of all time for the Grecians, as the team and their fans are known. He had spent the previous 2 seasons before joining Exeter with even lowlier Cambridge City in the Southern League and I probably only caught his last half season with the club, the compressed half season of 1963 after the great freeze. I have to look it up but he was reported to have scored an unearthly total of 120 goals in 2 seasons … Pele like in his finishing.

Yet … Alan Banks was a cast off, not once but twice in his career. By modern day standards, he should have become a gangbanger, a sociopath. Instead, he made a glorious life for himself.

Alan was destined for greatness. Perhaps it was growing up during the war that stunted his growth but he ended up with an exceptionally low centre of gravity similar to the great Gerd Mueller. He was Liverpool born and bred and was signed to Liverpool FC.
Just shy of his 20th birthday, he scored on his debut against Brighton in the old second division. Yes, mighty Liverpool were a second division team for many years until the arrival of their great saviour, Bill Shankly. Alan never succeeded in gaining a regular spot in the line up and over 3 seasons made just 8 appearances but scored an impressive 6 times. And the club sold him the equivalent of 3 divisions down to Cambridge City for 3000 pounds and probably a wage of 20 pounds a week.

He was cast off. By no less a football savant as Bill Shankly, 2 years into Shankly's reign. Banks, at age 22, no longer waiting in the wings at one of the cathedrals of English football, Anfield, but making the forced move across to East Anglia to a non league side, albeit one drawing 4000 to its matches, still considerably less than attending Liverpool’s other great team, as Bill Shankly famously quipped, Liverpool reserves.

Together with the ageing, lumbering Tommy Wilson, 3 years removed from winning the F A Cup final with Nottingham Forest, Alan Banks terrorised the Southern League, winning a nail biting championship in 1963 over cross town rivals Cambridge United.

Banks was patently too good for the Southern League and had not even hit his prime as a footballer. But it was fourth division Exeter City, not a big London club, that swooped to sign him for 5000 pounds, giving Cambridge City a small profit on their investment.

As others have reported, Alan transformed the Grecians from also rans to winning promotion in his first season, scoring prolifically. When we met in August 1964, Alan may have been still commuting across the breadth of the country to play matches. He was down to earth, possibly as intrigued meeting these 2 young American twins on the train as we were by getting to speak with him for the first and only time.

It was at what should have been the peak of his physical ability as a footballer that Alan was given a second chance at playing in the old English second division with Plymouth Argyle. But he barely played half of the matches that season and was soon back on the train to nearby Exeter. Cast off for the second time!

Well, Alan settled back into the fourth division and continued plying his old trade of scoring goals into his mid 30’s. Still, Alan was not finished. He dropped down to non league Poole Town in nearby Dorset, then continued with Tiverton Town.

I note that there was a referee by name of Alan Banks active in the 1980’s and I wonder if it was the same man. We do know that Banks has turned out in his 60’s for the Exeter City Legends football team.

Even though Alan left for Exeter City in 1963, he served as the bait to get me hooked on watching Association football, a totally foreign sport in those days for a Californian boy.

It had all started as a 9 year old at my wondering what was going on under the distant floodlights that I could see, poking my head through the skylight, from the attic of our semi detached house in De Freville Avenue in Cambridge.

Eventually I paid my shilling to pass through the turnstile and I saw this graceful man in white shirt and black shorts, almost on cue, stick the ball into the net. Within weeks, I was riding the supporter club coaches to away matches and visiting far flung reaches of Britain (Merthyr Tydfil!). Soon, I would follow second division and later first division Queens Park Rangers to matches all over England,. But other than the chance meeting on the train, I never crossed paths with Alan Banks again. But I always looked for Exeter City’s results and Alan’s goals in the Sunday papers.

To liven things up, here's a portrait of Bianca

Oh, to answer the question : I am the handsome boy on the left. At least I think so.

My brother Randy became better known as Randolph Fields, the first chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways, among his many accomplishments, before his untimely death from cancer at age 44.

Alan Banks will be among those attending the centenary dinner of Cambridge City F.C. on 10 May 2008. Details are to be found on the following link. I very much regret I will not be able to make it; I'd love to be there and either meet or ask about old football supporter friends like Hedger and Bruce Young from the Cottenham area.


Alan Banks said...

Yes Robbie, it was a surprise when a friend told me about your article
about me. Not being an internet bod I would not have known if it had not been brought to my attention.

I do remember you, in fact I have a very old cutting from the Cambridge paper about you as a 10 year old American boy being a City fan. You seem to know everything about me. It is a pity you cannot make it to Cambridge for the centenary celebrations, it would
have been good to see you again.

My wife and I hope to make it a
couple of days in the city to catch up with old friends.

I have 5 grandchildren including 2 boys who both play rugby, and I
really enjoy watching them but I still see Exeter City's home games.

I send you All Best Wishes


Rod said...


Alan Reidy said...
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