Footballer biographies are two a penny these days, but this wasn’t always the case. First published in 1996, Chelsea, Stoke and Arsenal legend Alan Hudson’s The Working Man’s Ballet was unusual in its time of being a non-ghosted tale of battles on and off the pitch, demons fought and, yes, Ben Shermans worn. London Books, run by John King (Skinheads, The Football Factory) and Chelsea Shed boy Martin Knight, are now republishing Alan’s biography, which John says is an account of “shared rebelliousness” between the dressing room and the terraces.
They say you should never meet your heroes, that they will always let you down, and yet there I was on my way to the Blackfriars pub by the bridge of the same name to have a drink with Alan Hudson, my boyhood idol and all-time favourite footballer. It was the summer of 1996 and my first novel, The Football Factory, had been published a few months before, while an early version of The Working Man’s Ballet had also recently come out. I’d said that Alan was my favourite player in an interview and a meet-up had been arranged. Another name was mentioned – Martin Knight. I had been told he was a dodgy character, but as I neared the pub my only worry was Alan. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. What if he let me down? What if he didn’t like me? Or I didn’t like him?
Outside of literature and broadcasting, it is very hard to guess a person’s character without meeting them in person. Just because someone can sing or play guitar or kick a ball about doesn’t make them an interesting of even nice human being, and there have been a few who have been disappointments. This wasn’t the case with another Alan – the author Alan Sillitoe – as writers are storytellers, and so their work is bound to reflect their personalities. Alan Sillitoe turned out to be even better than his fiction promised.
His first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was published in 1959, and focuses on a young factory-worker called Arthur Seaton, a likely lad determined to remain an individual and not be ground down by the system. He enjoys a good drink and roams the pubs of Nottingham, pulling women and getting into trouble along the way. He refuses to be bossed about or bullied. The novel was turned into a film by Karel Reisz, and starred Albert Finney in the Seaton role. Like the book, it was a huge success and remains a classic, part of a wave of British cinema that set out to represent and celebrate working-class life in this country.
A year later, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner was published. The main character is Smith, a borstal boy who turns out to be a very good runner. It clears his mind and gives him a sense of spiritual freedom. He too is proud and determined, not about to bow down and sell himself out. The governor badly wants Smith to win a race on behalf of the borstal, as it will elevate his own standing, but despite his love of running the boy deliberately loses the race. This was also turned into a high-profile film, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courteney. Smith, Seaton and Alan Sillitoe – youth, young man, older man – all remind me of someone.
Luckily, Alan Hudson was just as I hoped he would be – friendly, thoughtful and funny. And he is another storyteller. After a pint or two we went outside and stood by the river, resting our glasses on the big concrete wall lining the embankment. The summer sun beat down on us as the Thames flowed slowly past, and it was easy to think back and remember Chelsea in the 1970s, the good times and how it used to be, the decline after the Cup Winners Cup victory in 1971 and defeat to Stoke in the League Cup final in 1972, the years after Alan had left and Chelsea struggled and were relegated and the loyal supporters lived through the Dark Ages.
We were heartbroken when Alan and Ossie fell out with manager Dave Sexton and were transferred. Alan moved to Stoke and I remembered how happy I was when he finally made his England debut in 1975, his performance against West Germany followed by the demolition of Scotland, both ironically under former Leeds and new England boss Don Revie. Sadly, his outstanding displays were not rewarded with further caps, as the conservatism of those at the top appeared to return. A transfer to Arsenal followed his time at Stoke, and at Highbury he lined up next to a player he greatly admired in Alan Ball, before moving to the US and Seattle Sounders.
In 1996, Chelsea were a year away from winning their first FA Cup since 1970, and in 1998 they would repeat the Cup Winners Cup victory of 1971 with a 1-0 victory against Stuttgart in Stockholm. This meant a great deal those who had followed the club as children in the Seventies. Dennis Wise was the midfield dynamo, with Robert Di Matteo next to him in the Chelsea midfield, and in my head I matched them to John Hollins and Alan Hudson. Elsewhere, the media was reviving the past in a more commercial way. A Cool Britannia tag was being attached to a remix of a Swinging Sixties that had drifted into the early Seventies. Blur were supposed to be the Rolling Stones. Oasis sounded like the Beatles. A version of psychedelia saw Hawkwind mixed with dance music to create the Happy Mondays. Austin Powers was the new James Bond.
The Premier League and Murdoch’s millions were attracting the first New Fans and young media professionals to a sport they had in the past ignored for being ‘rough’ and ‘common’, so-called lads’ mags rehashing their idea of a Jack The Lad culture, but one positive was that the flamboyant players of the Seventies were being remembered as a small backlash against the gentrification of football began. At Chelsea, the club’s re-emergence had already focused minds, and more genuine links could be made between the originals and the brilliance of Zola, Vialli and Rude Boy Gullit.
These thoughts were washing around my brain, helped by the drink and the heat, while the publication of The Working Man’s Ballet slotted into everything that was going on around us. This Martin Knight character seemed alright and we had lots of similar memories following Chelsea, an interest in literature and public houses. He definitely liked a pint, which was good, and as we stood by the Thames with our hero, who was fit and relaxed and oozing class, life did seem very sweet.
© John King / London Books 2017