He played for just 25 shillings a week but backs a strike

Eric Lancelotte, a goalscorer with Charlton before the War, tells Ronald Atkin today's rich players are right to fight for union cause
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The Independent Football

Though no longer quite so nimble of foot as in his days with Charlton, Eric Lancelotte remains, at 84, a credit to the football profession. The onset of glaucoma means he is no longer able to attend matches or watch much of the game he loves on television, but nothing, absolutely nothing, can stop Eric talking football. "A man of a few million words" is how he describes himself, at ease on the sofa of his Whitstable home, one of the oldest surviving practitioners of the beautiful game.

You might think a footballer whose first wages were 25 shillings a week would be scornful of the current strike threat by his old union, the PFA. Not at all. Eric is robustly in favour. "I would go on strike for this cause," he insisted. "Most of my generation are dead, so better benefits would be no use to them. But the generation that came after me, some of them might be in need."

Not that his approval of the present set-up is unqualified. "The money has become unreal. Even Tom Finney opened his mouth, which he doesn't often do, and said 'Football has gone bloody mad'. An excess of money seems to spoil things. Today you've got blokes on £50,000 a week or more, but a lot of them don't get anything like that. It's a team game, so how do you play with a bloke in the forward line getting £50,000 a week and a bloke at the back getting £500? That's ridiculous."

Lancelotte is a product of football's modest age. There are no souvenirs or trophies on view in his living room, just pictures of his adored grandchildren. "I knew Finney and Stan Matthews well. They were the most modest of men. All the players were modest in those days, none of the business that goes on today, all this showing off to the crowd. Nobody did that. Mind you, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with it."

Lancelotte, an inside forward, saw nothing wrong, either, when he was taken to Charlton as a 15-year-old by a scout who had spotted him playing on the marshes at Abbey Wood, and signed as an amateur for 25 shillings a week by Jimmy Seed, the newly-arrived manager. In 1933 he considered that decent money for a kid. "And in any case I loved football so much I would have played for nothing," said this India-born son of a regimental sergeant major. "When I got my first money I went straight down to Woolwich Market and bought my mother a watch.

"I signed professional forms at 17. My wages went through the roof then, to three pounds ten shillings, and when in the first team, five quid. But you only had a nine-month contract and if at the end of that time they didn't want you, you had to find yourself another job." Half a crown of Eric's precious cash went on joining the newly-formed players' union and his weekly contributions were a shilling.

By the time Lancelotte made his first-team debut, in 1937 against Grimsby, Seed had lifted Charlton from Third to First Division but, like so many other footballers, the brake was applied to a promising career by the War. "I was being tipped for international honours," he said, "but when the War came everything stopped." Eric served with the RAF in India and Burma for four years, was leading scorer in representative games out there and at the end of the War joined an all-star squad, including the Spurs goalkeeper, Ted Ditchburn, and the Compton brothers, Denis and Leslie, entertaining the troops in remote locations. "We flew 30,000 miles in five weeks," he said. "We would drop down into the jungle to play a match against a battalion, or would play an England-Scotland friendly where we kicked one another to death."

Though he missed Charlton's 1946 FA Cup final defeat by Derby because he was still in the services, Lancelotte was back with the club the following year when they again got to Wembley, this time beating Burnley 1-0. But the Cup was won without Eric, who lost his place before the semi-final. "That was the biggest disappointment of my life," he said. "And it meant the end of my time at Charlton."

In his 17 years with the same club there were outstanding memories, like playing against Arsenal in front of a 70,000 crowd at The Valley, with spectators perched on the roof of the stand. And heading the winning goal against Chelsea, gashing his forehead on the lace of the ball as he did so. "But things like that don't matter when you're enjoying life." The primitive equipment caused other damage. The clumping, steel-toecapped boots resulted in Lancelotte breaking bones in his foot three times. "I refused to wear cotton wool inside my boots because I couldn't feel the ball if I did. As part of my injury treatment I had to have injections from the club doctor, a man called Montgomery who wore a monocle. He would charge across the room to stick a needle in you, he believed if he hurt you you wouldn't come back too often."

In 1948, aged 32, Eric joined Brighton, managed by his former Charlton captain, Don Welsh, for the then club record fee of £3,250. At 38 he was still playing non-League football at Ashford, for the best wages of his career – "twice as much as I got at Charlton, £8 a match for at least two matches a week, whether I played or not. But I packed up at 39. I would have loved to go on longer but I was getting injured more and more. At Dartford a bloke caught me in the eye and split it open. The lady doctor who treated me said, 'You'd better pack up or they'll kill you. They're young and you're not.' She was right, so I did."

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