JOHN ATYEO was the best-known, best-loved and most accomplished player in the history of West Country football.
'Big John' to all who knew him, he merited the epithet for more than his strapping six-foot stature: five strikes in six games for England, more goals scored for one club (his beloved Bristol City) than by any star of any era, the extraordinary record of never being cautioned by a referee in more than 650 senior matches - all that tells only part of the story. The full measure of the man was evident in an engagingly open personality, combining the lively intelligence that made him a successful and enlightened schoolteacher with the unadorned simplicity of a true countryman.
From his boyhood in Wiltshire, Atyeo was an outstanding all-round sportsman but, though his talents at rugby and cricket were enviable enough, it was at football that he excelled. For a centre-forward, he lacked nothing: big-framed and brawny, majestic in the air, he possessed both skill and power in either foot and the acumen to apply those gifts to optimum advantage. Indeed, so colossal was his potential that he was coveted by the reigning League champions, Portsmouth, who gave him two first team outings as an amateur in 1950-51 and made strenuous attempts to secure his signature.
But Atyeo's roots were deep in home soil and he opted for the more familiar surroundings of Ashton Gate. Before long, he was scoring prolifically for Bristol City and in the mid-1950s offers poured in from the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and even Internazionale, the Milan club. The fee mentioned was pounds 50,000 - at today's inflated valuations, the equivalent of millions - but he was not to be tempted when in an era when players were limited to a niggardly maximum wage.
Atyeo's decision was influenced by the need for more mental stimulus than any game could provide. Throughout most of his career he played part-time, first working as a quantity surveyor, then training as a teacher, and but for that semi-professional status must have represented his country more often. Even with an international strike-rate close to a goal a game, even after scoring the goal that won England qualification for the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, even though he never finished on the losing side, he was discarded, the only conceivable explanation being that the selectors (there was no all- powerful manager then) objected to a part-timer. No matter, between 1951 and 1956 he served City royally, scoring 350 goals, helping them win the Division Three South title in 1955, and captaining them to promotion to Division Three 10 years later.
Off the pitch, Atyeo's life was equally fulfilling. On retirement from football he threw himself into teaching and went on to become head of mathematics at a school in Warminster, where he lived with his wife and four children. He was utterly dedicated and on exam days would rise early to offer pupils last-minute revision sessions at 7am - he reckoned there was more satisfaction in helping youngsters than in all his footballing glory and to the last he was unstinting with his time and effort.
A perceptive columnist for the Plymouth-based Sunday Independent, John Atyeo was open-minded and astute, modest and humorous, qualities enhanced by old-fashioned family values yet tempered by a certain disarming naivety that never left him. His death at home, following a heart attack, leaves the football scene immeasurably poorer.
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