Exuding beer and bad breath like a physical weapon, the skinheads scowled at her. 'What do you think of Alan Hudson?' they demanded.
'I think he's brilliant,' she replied honestly, for she had watched the wayward genius have several breathtaking games.
'Yeah, worst thing wot ever happened was when he left Chelsea,' the biggest said gloomily. And they walked away.
You can understand how they felt. In 1975, England beat West Germany 2-0 at Wembley in probably the last great English victory. Hudson had torn apart the invincible German team, the crowd chanting 'Ole]' as he left Franz Beckenbauer sitting on his backside. It looked like the start of an era.
Alan Hudson. The player who could hit the crossbar at will from the edge of the penalty box. The man who drew superlatives from some of football's most respected names (Gunter Netzer, Stan Cullis, Don Howe, to name a few). Even Bill Shankly, scarcely renowned for his lavish praise, paid Hudson the ultimate tribute after Stoke had beaten Liverpool, at the time perhaps the best team in the world, 2-0. Shanks came into the Stoke dressing-room, went straight up to Hudson and shook his hand. 'That was the greatest performance I have ever seen,' he said, and walked out.
The remark that Hudson himself remembers best came from Tony Waddington, whose inspired signing of the highly talented midfielder for pounds 250,000 gave Stoke their best seasons. 'You'll play for a World XI before you play regularly for England,' he predicted.
The former Chelsea pin-up was the centrepiece of Waddington's greatest team. On his very first training session for Stoke, Hudson was made to wear a differentcoloured shirt. 'Pass to this man,' Waddington said, 'and everything will be all right.' And it was. Had it not been for five first-team players with broken legs, Stoke would probably have won the League.
But Waddington's death two weeks ago has done Hudson no favours. Standing on the touchline of a cross-country course pitch in no man's land outside Crewe, the onetime darling of the King's Road looks like hell. Nobody recognises the former England hero. He is unshaven and slightly overweight, his eyes dull and slightly sunken. By his own admission, he'd been drinking more than he should. He was with Waddington an hour before he died.
'I've cried more during the past week than when my dad died,' he says. 'Tony was my second father. I just wish I could have taken him to some of the places he took me as a player. But he died before I could really say 'thank you'. '
We are watching a dire reserve- team game, redeemed only by the delicate touches of a dark-haired 18-year-old. His name is Billy Hudson, and he has just signed for Crewe. Two years ago, Hudson's nephew looked set for a dazzling future with Tottenham. Venables had marked him for stardom. But with two proper games in two years, the youngster walked out. Is history repeating itself?
'Billy is a better player than I was at that age,' uncle Alan says. 'I see myself in him a lot. I think l can help him.' And Billy listens carefully too, though he won't remember much of Alan's golden years: he would have been learning to walk.
His reverence is the more surprising because he hasn't had much to admire in recent years. Hudson came back from America after three brilliant seasons as captain and assistant coach of Seattle Sounders ('The side were good enough to be in the top three in the Premier League'), but afterwards played too often with injuries, and never recaptured his prime form.
He squandered the money he'd saved, on booze and daft schemes such as running a pub and a nightclub. His generosity was renowned (he gave his coveted Real Madrid shirt to a young fan who was dying of leukaemia) but too many took advantage. Now he's 42, living apart from his long-time girlfriend Laurel, flitting between friends' houses and guest-houses, and out of work. He's given up writing for Sunday Sport. ('I got fed up telling people I was from the Daily Telegraph.') Even his eight-year-old son Adam is more interested in playing Gameboy than football.
Just one more dumb footballer, with his brains in his boots or his Admiral shorts? Hudson is determined that this will not be his epitaph. 'I hope people will not judge me yet. There are a lot of things I intend to do.' And it's not all talk. A television chat show with Stan Boardman and Mike Smith, formerly of the Dave Clark Five, is in the final stages. A book of his life is due out this year. Most of all, he is still determined to prove himself as a manager.
But while lesser players have secured jobs, Hudson hasn't even managed to get a non-League position yet, though he's come close. Even Stafford Rangers told him: 'You wouldn't understand football at this level.'
Hudson is convinced he has a lot to offer. 'I would love to get hold of a smaller club and make them big. You don't need a coaching certificate. I've had some of the very best teachers, and I've watched them and listened. People say I couldn't handle the modern game. That's rubbish. But it doesn't have to be played as so many clubs do, with managers screaming away. I reckon managers and coaches should be banned from the touchline.'
It will take a bold chairman to appoint Hudson to a position of power. Would he be buying a has-been lush or a visionary footballing genius?
But perhaps more to the point, would you rather watch a long-ball game inspired by a former defensive clogger, or a side playing what Waddington called 'the working man's ballet'?
Even skinheads know the answer to that.
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