In an early interview for Boy’s Own magazine Peter West asked Pompey-born Pat Neil whether he harboured hopes of becoming a professional footballer. ‘Definitely not’, the lad replied, ‘I hope to be a schoolmaster, and ideally I would like to get a teaching appointment in Portsmouth, and play soccer on Saturdays just for the fun of it’.
A sweep of the game’s glistening new academy system is unlikely to yield any youngsters with their priorities in quite the same order. Sitting with Pat today, this former headmaster’s tone remains unchanged; ‘back then pro-footballers weren’t paid a lot of money, maybe 10 bob more than the average. There were no long term prospects, how many players who retired in 1955 worked in the media for example? Very few if any…..if you were lucky you might get a pub to manage or a job at the dockyard’. But there are no regrets. The get out clause for talented youngster looking to earn a better living elsewhere was the ability of the top amateurs, turning out for just their expenses, to play in the professional game; a phenomenon perhaps not immediately familiar to the contemporary fan.
Modern discussions of amateurism have inevitably focussed on the murky and seemingly all-encompassing issue of illegal payments, yet these conversations with Pat recall simpler truths, no less worthy of remembrance. The first few years of his career offer a glimpse of an often thorny relationship with the professional game, exposing paradoxes inherent in the amateur ideal; but the lens they provide reveals a world, perhaps naïve and sleepwalking from view, yet full of impossible schoolboy adventure that at times verges on glorious daydream.
As a fourteen year old, selection for Portsmouth, then Hampshire County Schoolboys very quickly led to the first of a number of Junior England Schoolboys call-ups. Pat explains that this was ‘when Matt Busby and Stan Cullis were cherry picking the England schoolboys left right and centre’. As managers of arguably the country’s top two teams in Manchester United and Wolves both made contact with Pat’s father about the possibility of signing him but given his scholarly ambitions it was felt that the best place for him at that stage was Portsmouth where he could continue his studies. ‘My father went down to meet Busby and his assistant Jimmy Murphy at the team’s hotel prior to the game against Portsmouth and they talked to him about me signing with Bobby (Charlton). Bobby Charlton in fact was in the same situation; he was a grammar school boy but they made arrangements for him at 15 to finish his education in Manchester’. Busby had a similar proposal for his own schooling and “Cullis was doing the same, he even came down and knocked on our front door”. His father was nevertheless adamant that his son would remain where he was.
During the close season in 1955 Pat, by now a regular in the Pompey Youth team, spent his summer holidays working in the offices at Fratton Park. The only football played during pre-season was the public trial matches which were common at most clubs and after impressing in the first fixture Pat was introduced as a half-time substitute in a second trial match a few days later pitting the first and second elevens against each other. First choice and England international outside right Peter Harris had injured an ankle during the same practice match and in the run up to the season opener at Huddersfield, to general surprise, the manager’s thoughts turned to Pat. ‘Be ready to go straight into the first team’, Eddie Lever told him, ‘I know your experience is almost nil, but you can make it’.
Despite a creditable performance Pompey slipped to a 1-0 defeat and the return of Harris saw Pat sit out the midweek fixture at home to Wolves. It was another injury, this time to outside left Gordon Dale, that gifted Pat his first team home debut against the 1953 cup winners Blackpool. Covering Dale’s outside left role he found himself face to face with a 40 year old Stanley Matthews, but not to be overawed he made one and scored one in a 3-3 draw.
Pat would continue in the side and an early season midweek return fixture against Wolves gave him the opportunity to remind Stan Cullis of the talent he had so recently courted. ‘What confidence for so young a player!’ he would ‘wistfully’ tell the Portsmouth Evening News, ‘you could see it from the first moment he touched the ball’. The paper felt there was no doubt that the Wolves man was keen to recruit the young prodigy but with a confidence all of his own the journalist gleefully commented, ‘Mr Cullis hasn’t a hope, and he knows it, hence the wistfulness!’
Despite enjoying deserved praise for his performances on the pitch, there was inherent conflict around his place in the squad. Pat’s extended run in the first team continued to be at the expense of Gordon Dale and he knows there were a few comments from the players regarding the propriety of the situation; ‘Dale happened to be the most expensive purchase Pompey had ever made (£20,000 from Chesterfield) and here’s this sproggy amateur keeping him out’. He describes a situation whereby as long as he was performing and scoring the odd goal the issue was muted, yet as soon as he put in a bad game the questions about his inclusion were immediately raised. ‘From their point of view even playing in the combination league for the reserve team I was still keeping out a professional who may not have got a game that week or may have been playing in the ‘A’ team’.
A sensitive lad in a fickle arena, Pat quickly became the target of a few of the supporters at Fratton Park. An amateur international call-up and involvement in a qualifying match for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics against Bulgaria in Sofia saw him lose his place in the first team. After Christmas he recalls ‘I was playing in the reserves at Pompey, and youth team from time to time, but wasn’t playing particularly well’. And so the initial euphoria of the amateur dream seemed to have soured and as the season wore on into winter Pat began to question himself. ‘Some people were giving me stick….I think I probably decided that I wouldn’t play too many more games…….I’d give up and play for the school’. This was incredibly bad news it would turn out for Pompey and a close-season newspaper headline would be its bearer; ‘Neil Bombshell Rocks Pompey: Soccer’s wonder boy signs for Wolves’ Manager Eddie Lever was angry, confused, sad and all in the same article. ‘I have never felt so disgusted about anything in football’, he said, ‘it seems silly to me that he should continue to live in Portsmouth yet play for a club some 200 miles away……..we’ve had him since he was fifteen and were relying on the boy for next season’.
He had no contact with Portsmouth or with Lever over the summer yet all the while ‘a fellow called Mr Potter who was a scout from Wolves, made several visits and took me and my mum to dinner to persuade me to sign’. Under manager Stan Cullis Wolves would be the dominant team of the decade and this time it was different for Pat. In reality he fully understood the practical difficulties facing a schoolboy based in Portsmouth playing football for a club so far away and the same had not escaped his school masters. ‘Against all logic I tried to make it work and that only happened because I was able to persuade the head teacher and my dad’.
The move caused a stir on a national level, raising so many of the questions that a changing game was grappling with in relation to the amateur player and his place amongst professionals. The ‘retain and transfer’ system meant that clubs could hold a professional player on their books until they saw fit to release him. If the player refused to play he would simply not get paid and it was freedom from this restriction of movement, along with the financial aspect, that was so appealing to amateurs throughout the game. A player would sign as an amateur normally for a period of a season and when that time was up he could move on. Technically Pat and Wolves had done nothing wrong but Portsmouth’s cries were echoed by other clubs in bemoaning a system that allowed young players in whom they’d invested so much to simply walk away to one of their rivals.
Pat would initially spend the last five weeks of his school summer holidays staying in Wolverhampton and taking part in their pre-season preparations. The club put him up in digs with another new arrival Cliff Durandt, a young South African player, and all of a sudden he found himself living on the next street to Wolves and England captain Billy Wright. The streets were connected by an alleyway and every morning Pat and Cliff would wander over to knock on Billy’s door. Unmarried and in digs himself, Wright would walk with his young colleagues to the bus stop whence they would travel in to training together.
With the end of the school holidays and a return to the south coast, Pat started his life as a Wolves player in Portsmouth. Training was an issue. ‘I used to stay behind after school and kick a ball around with the sixth formers’. When this wasn’t possible he ‘went for a run or played badminton or basketball in the gym……I couldn’t go to Fratton Park could I’. Pat didn’t tell Wolves and they didn’t ask but in his opinion ‘I was fit and the fitness levels weren’t what they are today…..it never occurred to me that I might not be fit enough to play’. Pat was disappointed to start the season in the reserves but, surrounded by the like of Roy Swinbourne, Johnny Hancocks and Eddie Clamp he soon realised he was still in first class company and would need to be patient.
It was a telephone, Pat recalls, which was the key to a first team debut quite out of the ordinary. His dad’s off-licence had a phone and it was the only one in the Buckland district of Portsmouth. Its presence meant that it gave Stan Cullis the opportunity to call the Neil household at short notice and this he did one weekend in early December 1956. Opponents Red Banner from Europe’s new footballing powerhouse Hungary were the latest challengers in a sequence of prestige floodlit friendlies at Molineux against the best international club sides of the day. Wolves had yet to lose one of these encounters and with the added novelty of their live television transmission they had really captured the public’s imagination. Just to add to the anticipation for Pat the Hungarians had played Portsmouth two weeks previously and he had gone along to watch the game with his dad. Worried about the reception that he might receive, he had kept a very low profile on the twenty minute walk to Fratton Park and, wrapped up in his winter coat, had hidden himself amongst the bodies on the terraces.
‘It was quite a cold miserable day’ explained Pat remembering the Tuesday of the Molineux match. With two days holiday from school he took his train to London and transferred across town to Euston as usual. ‘I can remember treating myself on the train to a glass of sherry’ Pat chuckles, recalling how he had tried to take his mind of the game. On arriving at the ground ‘the team sheet was up on the board…lots of people were buzzing around…..but my name wasn’t on it, Mullen’s name was on it’. Pat remembers initial confusion and disappointment turning quickly to excitement. ‘I think Jimmy Mullen was laughing and joking, then Cullis came into the changing room and he took the team sheet down and put another one up, and my name was on it’. Laughing as he explains, Pat wonders whether perhaps he was going to do that anyway and the previous sheet had simply been there from the day before, he still isn’t sure. Then out came the golden shirts which Pat recalls were actually a luminous yellow for the floodlit occasion.
The match started badly for Wolves as Red Banner took a fourth minute lead through Pat’s opposite number, left winger Szimcsak. Would they be the team to finally topple the home side? The answer arrived 10 minutes later when the balled dropped to Pat on the corner of the penalty area. ‘Neil found himself the loneliest young man in the world with the ball at his feet 15 yards from goal and nobody to challenge him’ extolled the Telegraph. ‘With the hungry assurance of a veteran he thumped home the low right-foot drive that keeps Wolves up on that pedestal'. The match would finish 1-1. ‘I don’t remember much about the game after that I must admit’, sighs Pat, ‘I was so elated that I’d scored a goal that it hadn’t even occurred to me until a little while later that I would be in the team for the next Saturday!’
Pat would indeed play the following week against Manchester City at Maine Road. As well as being his league debut the match was marked by the return of Bert Trautmann, City’s German goalkeeper who had broken his neck in the previous season’s FA Cup Final. Pat scored again in a 3-2 victory but would play only three more first team games for the club. The demands of his life simply became too much as the season progressed, exemplified by the fact that following his final first team outing at Goodison Park on the Saturday, Pat would be representing Hampshire Grammar Schools against Sussex at Chichester on the Tuesday. National Service and university would ultimately take Pat away from top flight football for the foreseeable future, however he would return during his undergraduate years at Cambridge to be involved with some of the amateur games most iconic sides, teams like Pegasus and Corinthian Casuals most notably. But the late 50s and early 60s saw the decline of the amateur ideal really gain pace. The end of the maximum wage in England would see the pace of progress, both physically and tactically, accelerate beyond the reach of the amateur. The lurking problem of the shamateur accepting illicit payments continued to undermine the distinction until in 1974 it was finally laid to rest, leaving everyone on the pitch as simply a player.
Pat would ultimately return to his beloved Portsmouth and is still heavily involved with the Pompey Former Players Association. As the world of the paid player became more flexible he would actually try his hand as a professional in 1962 whilst continuing to teach part-time locally. Yet unable to force his way into the Pompey first team on a regular basis and after just two further appearances Pat decided to re-instate himself as an amateur; a process that exemplified the authorities’ stubbornness in the face of change, not to mention an apparent blindness to irony. “The Football Association charged me ten shillings for the privilege”, he says smiling, “I still have the receipt”.
Steve is on Twitter @steve_ringwood.