We used to have a saying at Keele University. If you could remember it in the 1970s, you probably weren’t there. One thing I can recall, through the haze of 44 years, is being greeted on the day I arrived by a squat little gnome of a man. “Welcome to Keele University,” he said, as he shook my hand and weighed me up.
I took him to be a mildly eccentric academic, or perhaps some kind of student welfare officer. In a sense the latter of those possibilities was not a million miles away, because this was a legend in the making, Neil Baldwin – the future Stoke City kit man whose extraordinary life-story Marvellous is being strongly tipped for British film industry awards.
Since it was shown on BBC2 in September, Neil has become a celebrity who is anything but reluctant. Pigeonholed when a child as having learning difficulties, he has simply refused to let that stand in the way of a rich, fulfilling and often astonishing life.
“I was all in favour of the film, because it’s a great story,” he says when we meet again at a hotel in Stoke. “My opinion is that: ‘if you’re not happy, try to be.’ ”
Neil was already an iconic figure on the campus in north Staffordshire in 1970. He had started to go there a decade earlier and immediately felt at home. It was not so much a case of the university adopting him as of him adopting it. Although he never enrolled, he went to lectures that he fancied and was ultimately awarded an honorary degree. He already had behind him a career as a circus clown called Nello and had ambitions to be either a vicar or the manager of Stoke City. He used to roam the campus in a home-made dog collar, but had discarded that by the time I got to Keele.
He was, though, already running the Neil Baldwin Football Club, which had its own stand at the freshers’ mart and was rather stronger than the official university first XI. People who considered themselves too cool for Keele, would play for Neil.
I played one game for him – when we met in Stoke recently, he was adamant that it was indeed only one – and he claimed to be able to remember all the hundreds of students who had passed through the team. I was nowhere near good enough, not when he seemed to be able to rope in Stoke City players and players from other professional clubs at will. Graham Paddon and a post-World Cup Alan Ball were among the regulars. They were not the only people he numbered as “very good friends”; Tony Benn and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were others, while Kevin Keegan was president of the club.
The friendship that turned him from a campus celeb to a local hero in the whole of the Potteries – with the possible exception of hard-line Port Vale territory in Burslem – was with Lou Macari.
As the film shows, when the former Manchester United and Scotland player was appointed Stoke manager for the first time in 1991, he sensed that the odd little character hanging around the players’ entrance at the Victoria Ground might just embody something that was missing from the club.
He hired Baldwin as a combination of kit man and court jester. “I was good for team morale,” he says. “And as for Lou Macari, he’s just a very nice man.” Macari has called Baldwin “the best signing I ever made”.
He even gave him a game. Well over 50 and not remotely capable of running, he was brought on as a substitute against Aston Villa in a pre-season friendly for Gordon Cowan’s testimonial. The film shows him scoring, but this is one case of it being less than literal with the truth.
“It’s what should have happened,” is the way Neil puts it. “A lot more people recognise me now, which is nice.” Malcolm Clarke, Neil’s lifelong friend since he arrived on the campus in 1964 and now chairman of the Football Supporters’ Federation, says that the fame comes with a few pitfalls.
“He’s got all sorts of invitations,’ he said. “It just needs managing a bit.” So it’s yes to opening a new school for the handicapped – “I really want to do that, because I think I can help them” – but no thanks to the Regent Theatre, Hanley, who approached him about appearing in their Christmas pantomime, Cinderella.
There is almost certain to be a book of the film – another avenue through which Baldwin can act as an inspiration to those whose lives have not been as straightforward as they might have been. People with no interest in football have already admitted to being moved to tears by his story.
That is not to ignore the inevitable question of whether others are always laughing with him, rather than at him. The film shows him being mocked in his early days in the Stoke changing room, but going on to win over the players.
The same question applies to Keele. Any institution with several hundred cock-sure young students is bound to generate banter and mickey-taking, but Baldwin has a way of drawing out the kindness in people.
Clarke, a former Mayor of Newcastle-under-Lyme – one of whose first acts in office was to take Baldwin for a spin in the mayoral limousine – has seen 50 years of the effect his personality can have.
“He is totally lacking in any sort of embarrassment or self-consciousness,” Clarke said. “In fact, I’d call him unembarrassable. As Lou Macari said on the radio the other day, he’s a man without an angle.
“What you see is what you get with Neil – and he talks to a dustman the same way he would speak to the Queen.’
The Queen appears to be a rare omission from his contacts book, but there are plenty of others who are there.
“I was late for one of his team’s matches,” Clarke said. “As I got closer to the pitch, I thought ‘that referee looks like Uriah Rennie’. Sure enough, it was.”
“A very good friend of mine,’ added Neil. “A very, very nice man.”
No doubt the match was preceded by one of his inimitable team-talks: “I want you to go out and score more goals than they do. That’s the way to win the match”. All delivered in a highly-convincing Brian Clough impersonation.
More recently, Baldwin and Clarke were at a formal dinner at Keele, at which Baldwin was sat alongside the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. By the end of the main course, they were swapping phone numbers.
“I don’t know if he realises that inviting Neil to call in the next time he’s in Cambridge means he’ll probably turn up with the full team after they’ve played down there,” Clarke said.
Radio 5 live covered NBFC’s first game of the season, after a record 124 players signed up for the club in freshers’ week. It must be due to the publicity about the film, Baldwin admits. The man himself has also been made Freeman of the City of Stoke-on-Trent and there are those who believe it should not stop there and are campaigning behind the scenes for him to be given a knighthood. He would settle for a BAFTA.
The acclaim which has come his way does not stop at the boundaries of the Six Towns. He recently had a standing ovation as he took his place in the stand from Newcastle fans – and that’s Upon Tyne as opposed to Under-Lyme.
On the day of our meeting, a lady in town who is with her son to support Southampton against Stoke in the League Cup, comes over to us.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “but I couldn’t help overhearing. I just wanted to tell you that I saw the film and I was in tears.” She doesn’t actually ask for an autograph, but Neil painstakingly writes one out for her anyway. Malcolm then takes the three of them to the match. Like many people who have come across Neil Baldwin, they will go home with a tale to tell.
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