James Lawton: Tributes paid to Jeffrey, the boy wonder of another time

Family ensures that extraordinary talent of an honourable player who was cut off in his prime will never be forgotten
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The Independent Online

Three years after his death, and on the same day as The Sun continues to tell the cocaine-addled story of a young football superstar who didn't happen, Alick Jeffrey takes his place in the nostalgia book market.

The launch at Belle Vue, home of Doncaster Rovers - his only League club except for Lincoln City, who signed him when all chance of glory was over - is perhaps not the publishing event of the year.

The print run was set at 1,000 - or 999,000 less than that recently granted to David Beckham's third autobiography. This is no reflection of the relative talent of these two players. If events had taken another course, it was widely believed that Jeffrey had the potential to be one of the greatest English players who ever lived.

But instead, he broke his leg playing for England's Under-23 team against France. It was an appalling misfortune. Sir Matt Busby, creator of the "Busby Babes", had promised Jeffrey on the eve of that match, "I will come and get you in time". He had already given Jeffrey £200 - or the equivalent of 20 weeks' wages for a young player in those frugal days - as an earnest of his intention to smash the record transfer fee for a teenager.

After breaking his leg, Jeffrey called Busby to ask him if he wanted his money back. Busby said, "No, lad, get well as soon as you can - and buy something nice for your mother". Jeffrey bought his mother a state-of-the-art washing machine. Different days, indeed.

The book, Alick Jeffrey - The Original Boy Wonder - is written by Peter Whittell, a former Daily Express news reporter who was growing up in South Yorkshire at the time Jeffrey appeared to be set for the football firmament.

Despite his affection for the subject, Whittell took a little persuading. "I was going to the pub when I bumped into Jeffrey's son," the newsman reports. "He told me the family had got together and decided they wanted some monument to their father. Alick Jnr said that they didn't want the sands of time to just drift over what could have been a fabulous career and I was very touched. I then talked to a lot of big names and the game and I decided that if I was Alick's son I would probably feel the same way." The Jeffrey family footed the publishing bill - and hired printers in Scunthorpe.

The story commends itself in various ways. At one level it is a fascinating recall of another age, another set of values - at another it might be profitably bought up by the Professional Footballers' Association and distributed to every Premiership plutocrat who has ever woken up with a whisper of a complaint on his breath.

When people commiserated with Jeffrey over his broken leg - it kept him out of the Football League for seven years and when he returned, it was with Skegness - he said: "Don't weep for me, think of those lads in Munich. If I hadn't broken my leg, I would probably have been on that plane."

That wasn't wishful thinking. Jeffrey was a certainty to make it. Everyone agreed. Busby and his old friend, the sublime inside forward Peter Doherty, who was then the manager of Second Division Doncaster, had a row that took many years to repair after the latter won the race to sign the good-looking Yorkshire boy. Jimmy Murphy, a former drill sergeant with all the lack of sentimentality that implies, went on the record to say that he rated Jeffrey in the same bracket as the great Duncan Edwards, who everyone agreed was the supreme talent to be lost in that snowstorm in Munich.

Nobby Stiles recalls that Jeffrey's arrival at Old Trafford was considered a formality. "Everyone knew he was special," the World Cup winner says. When Sir Stanley Matthews, who was no more famous for extravagant comment than the hard-headed Murphy, saw Jeffrey for the first time, he said he was a football genius.

He had beautiful balance and scored spectacular goals. He was playing in the Second Division at the age of 15. He scored a winning goal in an epic FA Cup duel with Aston Villa, when six matches were played in 17 days. He represented England at every possible level below full international - the first player to do so.

When Jeffrey left the game as a 17-year-old he was awarded £4,000 in compensation - against Doncaster's £15,000. He never complained, and eventually resurfaced with Skegness, who were managed by George Raynor, the famous coach whose work, while never really recognised in England, was celebrated in Sweden when he took that nation to the 1958 World Cup final against Brazil. Raynor skilfully taught him to make the best of his reduced athleticism, and when he returned to the League with Doncaster seven years later he was the League's top scorer with 39 goals.

Jeffrey was never the most dedicated professional who ever lived. His League comeback, inevitably set along more modest lines, was ravaged when a car he was travelling in had a head-on collision with a lorry in the early morning. The accident occurred after a night of revelling in Stoke - yes, Stoke - but when sympathy was offered, Jeffrey pointed out that his driver - and team-mate John Stevenson - had died in the crash. He had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Until his death Jeffrey was a popular figure around Doncaster. Always amiable when confronted by old fans as he walked to the bookies' shop and the pub, he was thrilled when Doncaster's passionate owner, John Ryan, appointed him club president - and was always to be seen proudly sitting at the front of the team bus, even in those days when the club had been banished to the Conference.

Jeffrey always said that he had nothing to complain about. He had a lot of pleasure in life. He had a family he loved and it was one that was proud of him. There was a purpose in everything. He broke his leg but he didn't die in a Munich snowdrift. Once he was a wonder boy but, for him, life rolled on, and for this alone he was grateful. Alick Jeffrey Jnr was right. It was necessary to record such a football life.

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