Graham Kelly: Memoirs of a big name autograph hunter

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The Independent Football

Manchester United have stopped their players signing footballs and shirts outside their Carrington training complex, citing profiteers who deal in memorabilia on the internet. The club have apologised to genuine fans. Moreover, their striker Ruud van Nistelrooy has signed an exclusive agreement with a company that deals in authenticated sports memorabilia. The Dutchman will put his signature only to prints, shirts and balls for sale that are distributed by the company.

Liverpool and Everton are believed to be similarly concerned about rogue traders ripping off their players' image rights and exploiting children to obtain the signatures. So are we witnessing genuine anxiety or are these further examples of football being taken from the reach of the fans?

Whatever, it's a far cry from the innocent autograph hunting of my youth, when I even stowed away on the team coach taking the Fulham side containing the England captain, Johnny Haynes, from their pre-match lunch at St Annes to a game at Blackpool.

My love of the game was nurtured in part by hours spent seeking my heroes' autographs, initially those of the Blackpool team, who, difficult as it may be to imagine now, were in those far-off days second only to the pre-Munich Manchester United for a time. There was the fabulous Stanley Matthews, who was as elusive to the children hanging round the players' entrance as he was to countless full-backs. I always suspected he had a secret exit to the car park. Charles Buchan's Soccer Gift Book published a family snap with his son, Stanley Jnr, who was the same age as me, and still the great man displayed little empathy towards the young hero-worshippers.

The signature of the Scottish international goalkeeper George Farm was similarly difficult to obtain, but when he did deign to oblige, he took his own fountain pen out of his inside pocket and painstakingly inscribed "Geo Farm" (providing the proffered photograph was not an action shot from Pool's 1953 FA Cup win, which was not his finest game).

Bill Perry, who, of course, scored the winning goal in that famous match against Bolton signed for me countless times, as did the centre-forward of the next generation, Ray Charnley, who played for England once.

Just as difficult to imagine as Blackpool rivalling Manchester United in footballing terms is Blackpool attracting the top teams for training breaks in the manner of La Manga. But in my childhood days that's exactly what happened. The Norbreck Hydro stood on the cliffs a few miles out of town, with a golf course and a swimming pool, and clubs believed it was just the job to get the lads away from it all in preparation for a big match.

It didn't do much for Haynes, because his England career came to an abrupt end after the car he was travelling in crashed into the tram railings one night, but it was heaven for the local kids toting bulging scrapbooks. We always knew when United were in residence by going round the back to see whether the tracksuits were hanging up in the pool area. They were the regulars, as Matt Busby usually wanted some peace and quiet before European matches.

By chance, my family's barber moved his salon into the hotel and I needed little persuasion to go for my regular trim. Nor did I need a reminder to give up my place in the queue when Tommy Taylor, David Pegg and Eddie Colman walked in. At age 10 I couldn't understand why they seemed to be chatting more about girls than football.

Blackburn came to Blackpool before the 1960 FA Cup final. It's only a hop, skip and a jump away today, horizons are so much nearer. They would probably find more of their own supporters on the coast now, being a Premiership club. They had Derek Dougan in their ranks, who controversially asked for a transfer on the morning of the defeat by Wolves.

Wolves were another team who used the Norbreck. Their toughest player was the wing-half Eddie Clamp, who, unasked, signed his autograph "Yours in sport". Their superb captain was England's Billy Wright. Years later, at the foot of the Wembley steps after an England match, I was asked for my autograph. I was gratified to be invited to sign, yet highly embarrassed that Billy, the holder of 105 England caps, was ignored. He laughed it off, as anyone who knew him would understand.

I can't remember what happened to my scrapbooks. My love affair with Blackpool waned as my heroes moved on, but my love of football grew. I don't have many autographs left now: a later Matthews, a John Charles, that's about it, but, thankfully, the little kids were still outside the players' entrance at Blackpool on Saturday.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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