© 2015 Don Hale
At school, right from the juniors, I was always considered a good athlete and excelled at the long jump, relay, 100 & 200 metres events. I was also very keen on football and I am sure that it was my speed over short distances that first attracted a host of talent scouts from several football league clubs.
I loved to play on the right wing and regularly cut inside for shots or crosses. It was this ability to play on either flank that often confused more rigid defences who were still rather uneducated in the art of tactics. I was lucky at my secondary school in Whitefield, north Manchester, because we had a couple of very good football and athletics coaches who introduced a new range of coaching methods that seemed to bring the best out of my limitations to excel in mixed sporting events.
It was hard to decide on whether to play football or take part in athletics events as they often clashed. Duncan Lewis was a brilliant football coach and tactician who coached several teams in the Cheshire League or old Lancashire combination football league. He was light years ahead of his rivals and took many FA coaching badges with senior professionals at proper league clubs.
Often, I had a difficult and at times uneasy relationship with him, yet regularly attended his special coaching sessions at Radcliffe with players from the local Radcliffe Borough team – who were a good Cheshire league/non league team, and played with a number of ex-professionals.
I played and trained with the Borough from the age of just 14 and I am sure this interaction helped develop my footballing skills and stamina. In addition, I also signed schoolboy forms for my local team Bury FC, who were then in the old Division Two, with a wealth of international and skilful players.
They were a bit of a yo-yo side and from memory were always hovering around the relegation areas of the division battling with the likes of Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace, Leyton Orient, Cardiff City, Carlisle United etc. The excitement however, was of playing for their junior sides in the morning at places like The Cliff – Manchester United’s training ground of the late 1960s – or at then league clubs such as Southport, Barrow, Bradford, and then racing back to Gigg Lane to watch the lads play at home.
Half the time, the young players would be assigned cleaning or laundry duties on match days but I had the time to talk with home and visiting players. Many of the top clubs of that division included the likes of Southampton, Manchester City, Huddersfield Town, Wolves, Birmingham City, and Bolton Wanderers, who all brought a huge army of travelling supporters to Gigg Lane to help create a great atmosphere.
That division meant Bury were very close to stardom and the promised land of Division One (now the Premier League), who at that time was bereft of overseas players – so local homegrown kids like me theoretically always had a chance to make the grade.
Bury was one of the top feeder clubs with a great reputation for producing future stars who would then be sold on to keep the club going. During my time as a kid playing there, I was coached by the likes of Colin Bell (Manchester City & England), Terry McDermott (Liverpool, Newcastle & England), Colin Waldron (Burnley), Ray Parry (Bolton & England), Paul Hince (Manchester city), Bobby Collins (Leeds Utd) and a host of other former stars.
I trained every Tuesday and Thursday night at Gigg Lane for the football, and often on either a Monday or Wednesday for athletics training with Bury Athletics Club track on Market Street with international sprint star Barrie Kelly. In between, there were regular sessions at Radcliffe with Mr Lewis, or athletics coaching at lunchtimes with Mr Bennet.
My fitness and stamina improved tremendously and I was soon representing the town team at both football and athletics. I even appeared in two English Schools athletics final events, one in Lancaster, the other at Peterborough, competing in the 100 metres heats and finals. I think my best place was 4th but I thought I had won and only lost out by a few hundredths of a second due to looking across the line – for which I duly received a good rollicking!
During this time the school also won the Panter Cup – a coveted inter-schools relay competition – and I was proud to captain the team through the heats to win the trophy for the first and only time. We only had the prize for about a week however, before thieves read abut our success and duly broke into the school and nicked it!
On the football side, we had a great team and reached the latter stages of the All-England schools trophy on two consecutive seasons. In defence we had Don McAllister, a rough tough centre-half who eventually played for Bolton Wanderers and Spurs, whilst my midfield colleague was another fellow athlete in Stuart Jump, who went on the play for Stoke City and Malcolm Alison’s Crystal Palace. The scouts obviously came to watch Don or Stuart, but when they realised they were already spoken for, looked for alternatives – hence my invite to join Bury.
I was fast rather than furious or particularly skilful but my time at Bury lasted for about seven years in total playing for the juniors, A, B, C, youth side and reserves with a few first team games in Lancashire cup matches, pre-season friendly’s or Manchester senior cup outings. I was fortunate to play a number of reserve games at many top First division grounds, where sometimes the crowds were larger than Bury’s own first team home gates.
I hoped to become a professional player and left school with ambitions rather than firm intentions. A signed apprentice forms at Bury but spent time loaned at other clubs such at Shrewsbury Town, York City or Blackburn Rovers, to gain experience. Terry McDermott was a good player, friend and colleague of that time, along with Malcolm Alison’s son David, David Holt, and Charlie Gisbourne, who went on to star for many years with Crewe.
Each club I visited had varied coaching and training methods. Some hardly bothered with a ball during the week, concentrating on running and fitness so that players would be hungry for the ball on a Saturday. Others did little fitness work during the season and played endless attack and defence scenarios.
Bury introduced international athletics coach Joe Lancaster to boost fitness. This meant regular visits to the track at Leverhulme Park in Bolton. Joe was a legend in athletics and although I was familiar with some of his training methods, I think we all struggled at first to incorporate this type of cross training with football. I found they did not always mix well and picked up a few niggling injuries.
Injuries were a problem for an ambitious, and aspiring young lad and I became frustrated and impatient sat on the sidelines. Often this meant I was sat in the stands next to the journalists and radio commentators.
At one match I was annoyed by the BBC man constantly getting things wrong and started to chip in with comments. He didn’t like it, but the producers in Manchester told him to allow me to speak about free kicks, tactics or general news about players – so quickly I became one of the very first pundits!
This association became a regular and popular occurrence with listeners until the manager found out, and banned me from talking about Bury, saying that the opposition coaches could hear my comments in the dug out and could make alternative moves. I didn’t really believe this but had no option and was then only allowed to talk about other teams.
My injuries continued and so I enjoyed the outings to other grounds and was soon co-commenting on First, Second and Third Division games all over the country for the BBC. I was a regular at Maine Road and covering top of the able matches with City, United, Newcastle, Liverpool, or Sunderland.
Bury had a succession of managers during this period, and after first signing for Les Shannon, I think I played under about five others, including former player Les Hart (a great inspiration), Jack Marshall & Jimmy Meadows.
Jimmy had been a great player at Manchester City and came to Gigg Lane after successfully managing Stockport County. They formed an uneasy alliance and I had already clashed with Jack Marshall during stints at Blackburn over a few general maintenance issues, where I preferred playing or radio work to cleaning boots and doing the dirty laundry.
The arrival of these men coincided with a period of enforced injury and despite my best efforts to achieve fitness I became the unexpected winner of the sack race – without either of them ever seeing me play!
So after 200 plus matches in Bury colours, and scoring about 60 odd goals, my full time professional football days were over, so I was now reliant that other opportunities might soon beckon?
I was devastated by my release from Bury but received many offers to play in non-league and after a season or so in the wilderness, playing for amateur sides, where I could score at will, I joined Lytham St Anne’s, and played Cheshire league and/or Lancashire combination football.
This worked out well for a while but I was getting more and more involved with sports writing, radio commentary and special features, so I gradually stopped playing regularly, opting to appear in charity matches, or special fundraising events, where I received several surprise opportunities to appear with top stars from the world of football, showbiz, stage and screen.
From a turbulent few years of playing, travelling, and injuries, suddenly I was embroiled in a whole new world, where my early sporting career seemed to be now opening a few doors…