I was a Teenage Autograph Hunter
Nick Brodrick goes back to a time when a pen and a small notebook was all a boy needed for a hobby...
Well, to be strictly accurate, pre- teen at the outset, which gets me off the hook slightly. Still above the age of criminal responsibility, though, so no real excuses. Here’s how things unfolded. I’d started to get a bit bored with standing on the end of Platform Four at Hemel station, diligently recording the numbers of a procession of class 86/87 electric locomotives, four- car multiple units (EMUs to those of us ‘on the inside track’) and freight- hauling diesels. What I really wanted to be looking at was steam engines, which had been consigned to history in August 1968, although even this was a moot point, as electrification south of Crewe had effectively ruled out any chance of seeing them locally several years earlier.
I was ready for change, particularly the sort that involved someone else doing the actual writing. And the more so because it directly involved a brand new set of idols – Messrs. Walker, Welbourne, Williams, Eddy, Garvey et al.
I suspect I must have first thrust pen and programme under the noses of my helpless victims towards the end of the unimaginably exciting 1968/69 promotion season. Players back then were readily accessible, both before and after matches, and were also endlessly friendly and compliant. I cannot honestly recall a single instance of a Hornets player evading my entreaties, however often I bothered them, which was a hell of a lot. I must have well over 50 ‘Mike Walkers’ salted away somewhere, for example; I’d even make sure I sat in close proximity to him at reserve games, so he was never safe from my “And please put ‘Best Wishes’” routine.
Visiting players were also generally happy to oblige. Chris Balderstone of Carlisle United, one of the last of that select group to combine professional football with first-class cricket, was a prime example. Half-an-hour after suffering a narrow defeat, he volunteered to take my autograph book onto the team coach that was ready to depart, returning soon after with it signed by the entire team.
There was one high-profile exception: the Liverpool side that suffered humiliating defeat in the 1970 FA Cup quarter-final. No doubt fresh from the roasting to end all roastings from Bill Shankly, they marched past me, eyes fixed straight ahead and a very large ‘Sod off’ written in their body language. The only one to give in was substitute Ian Ross, whom most people had never heard of. Striker Alun Evans went one better by deliberately landing a copious mouthful of phlegm on one of my shoes. An early form of ‘taking one for the team’, I like to think.
My favourite signature of all had found its way into my book at the conclusion of the previous round’s victory over Gillingham; that of the Gills’ goalkeeper, Johnny Simpson. As I write his name, I can see clearly from memory his beautiful ‘copperplate’ script, which he carefully inscribed letter by letter over a period of what seemed like about a quarter of an hour. Simpson made a record 571 appearances for his club, but nothing became him quite like his autograph.
From about 1972 onwards, I began to grow out of the hobby, whilst making selected exceptions for the likes of Mr EH John, whenever such possibilities arose. To be honest, the team sank to such depths of ineptitude during the mid-70s that the idea of hanging around the main entrance waiting for an Arthur Horsfield or Ian Morgan held little appeal. Or, more accurately, no appeal at all.
Like a true fair-weather fan, I picked up the thread once again the moment things started to get interesting during the early months of the first Taylor era, but in truth what had seemed endlessly exciting at 13 felt a bit embarrassing at 20, and so I decided to call it a day.
There was, however, still life in the old pen-wielding dog. My two sons, both a similar age to me when I first began, started attending matches with me, just at the point GT returned to weave his magic all over again. In many ways not that much had changed – the players were still accommodating, although by now it was shirts that they were signing, rather than programmes. You could even largely still decipher what they had written, but trouble was brewing in one small corner of Vicarage Road, and its name was Rosenthal.
Perhaps unfairly, I pin the blame for today’s miserable apologies for autographs firmly at the door of ‘Rocket Ronny’ and his frankly pathetic ‘twin angled lines’ effort , the first example any of us had come across of the ’I really can’t be arsed to do this’ signature. Rumours had also begun to circulate of further outrages being enacted in the name of player autographs; ‘RK’ by Roy Keane, ‘The Hart’, risibly, by John Hartson. Even our own David Perpetuini got fed up halfway through his own surname and was happy to be known merely as David Perp.
It was the end of an era. Almost before you knew it, you were left with 20 virtually illegible scrawls across a shirt, explained away purely by the addition of squad numbers, for those who could be bothered to cross-reference it. But you still see plenty of hopeful faces crowded around the team bus at home games, so what do I know, really. What I do know is that for a magical couple of years, when I truly lived and breathed football, it was just about the most exciting thing I had ever done.