From Barnsley to Manchester United and Leeds. Memories of Brian Greenhoff aged 11

 Ken Gambles: remembering the Greenhoff boys
Ken Gambles: remembering the Greenhoff boys

The sad, early death of Brian Greenhoff took Ken Gambles back half a century to the makeshift pitch on South Yorkshire wasteland where the future star paraded his precocious skills. Greenhoff went on to play more than 290 times for Manchester United and Leeds United and 18 times for England. He ended his career as player-coach at Rochdale. Ken’s game was restricted to university, local and finally veterans football. And, of course, following Sunderland. For Ken, reflecting on boyhood pals who did make the grade and those who did not, the phrase that comes to mind is ‘they also serve who only stand and watch’ …


One of the more unusual side-effects of growing old is that whenever you read an obituary,the first focus seems to be on how old the deceased was

Older than you and it is only natural; younger than you and it becomes a bit disturbing. When I therefore read that Brian Greenhoff had died on May 22 having barely reached 60, it was a double cause for reflection.

I was taken back to the 1960s with the realisation just how powerful early memories can be. I began Barnsley Grammar School in 1960 and one of the highlights of my first week was being given a French book, Whitmarsh book 1, which had three years earlier been used by Jimmy Greenhoff.

Jimmy was already famous in Barnsley for being a hugely promising footballer aand a current member of the Barnsley Boys side who won the English Schools Trophy beating Liverpool Boys in the 1961 Final.

Of course he later went on to have a fine career with Leeds (despite his atrocious dive for a last minute penalty in our 5th Round second replay versus Leeds at Hull), Manchester united and Stoke, being tagged as “the best footballer never to play for England”.

In late spring 1964, when I was 14, a local smallholder allowed us to construct a small football pitch in one of his fields next to where I lived. We built “proper” goals with crossbars, had wire netting for the nets, sawdust markings, corner flags, the lot.

We arranged with mates at school from various parts of Barnsley, on what memory suggests was a Sunday but it might have been in a holiday period, to come for a six-a-side tournament. Teams from Monk Bretton, Kendray, Lundwood, Cudworth and Klondyke duly appeared and we had a competitive afternoon.

On that bit of wasteland, however, trod three footballers destined to make top-class careers out of the game.

Brian Greenhoff, then just 11, played for Kendray. We knew he was Jimmy’s brother and was also said to be a real talent. So it proved as mainly against much older players he showed composure calmness and a huge amount of skill for one so young.

From Cudworth came Steve Daley, who again only just 11. We had had regular kickabouts with him and several others in Cudworth park and I knew him fairly well.

He went on to play for Wolves, later being transferred in 1979 to Manchester City for a then record fee of £2m. He was an England B international, played in the States and is now a regular on the after dinner circuit.

Finally there was Stewart Barrowclough, then 14 and playing for Monk Bretton.

He was a popular lad and went on to make an impressive 424 League appearances although unfortunately 221 of them were for the Mags.

Of course what time had in store for any of us we’d no idea and had I been offered then, in some sort of Faustian pact, the chance to be a professional footballer yet die young, I’m sure I would have taken it.

As it was I played a decent level of University then local football until I finished at 35 followed by a couple of seasons of veterans football in my forties.

Other than the three players I’ve mentioned I’m sure none of the other 30 of us played at any significant level and none provided even a footnote in the history of the game.

Two aspects of this recollection,other than the fact 49 years have passed, struck me most forcefully.

The first is the respect and adulation we give to those footballers who have made it, especially our heroes, who in some marvellous way remain forever young and untainted by time.

When our 1973 Cup-winners took to the field at half-time during the recent Stoke home match, I suspect I wasn’t the only one who really saw a black moustachioed Bobby Kerr, a lithe Dennis Tueart and an agile Monty rather than the procession of ageing stars who took the pitch.

That is how I remember them and always will along with SuperKev, Quinny and Marco. It’s a sort of immortality that fans of all clubs subscribe to and I can genuinely empathise when Boro fans grow misty-eyed about “cowboy” Hickton or Wednesdayites drool over David Hirst.

In the excellent football retro magazine Backpass it doesn’t matter whether it’s an article on Liverpool or Hartlepool, Bradford or Banbury, supporters recall their favourite players with real affection and it must be marvellous to be so remembered as the years pass.

The second aspect is just how much I have loved, and still do, the game of football which, despite its inherent disappointments and at present the predominance of money, can still enthral and excite.

So many of my closest friends are such because of football, primarily though not all through Sunderland. My daughter has been a season ticket holder at Sunderland for the past 20 years and is just as daft as me about the club (this is totally her own choice and hasn’t directly been my doing). I have met and enjoyed the company of so many good people in pubs, at away matches and in the North Yorkshire Supporters’ Branch.

To a lesser extent even on Salut! Sunderland I am able to share a passion for Sunderland and the wider game with other committed, enthusiastic and intelligent contributors such as Pete, Goldy, Sobs and Jeremy for example.

When you think about it, 40,000 players and 18 fans wouldn’t make much sense so ultimately supporters are a massive and necessary part of what makes the game what it is, which is something the authorities ignore at their peril.

The chance to have played professionally, particularly at the standard of Brian Greenhoff, Steve Daley and Stewart Barrowclough, would have been wonderful. Yet with age I’m glad I never had the chance to make that devil’s pact for I am more than satisfied with my life and involvement with the game.

In the words of Jim Riordan, “Football has taught me much and has given me some of the happiest memories of my life”. As for ageing or deceased footballers, once people have hero-worshipped them, they don’t become mortal again but seem like otherworldly beings who never grow old.

I will always remember from that sunlit Barnsley afternoon of nearly 50 years ago, a slight, blond 11-year-old with the world at his feet.

May he rest in Peace.

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15 thoughts on “From Barnsley to Manchester United and Leeds. Memories of Brian Greenhoff aged 11”

  1. Stewart was a fine player who didn’t let success spoil him.Still the same lad he had always been.His son Carl turned professional too.

  2. I remember Barrowclough very well Ken, especially his time with the Mags but also recall the last time I saw him play. It was at Darlington (the old Feethams) towards the end of his career for Bristol Rovers. This must have been in the early 80s if I recall correctly. He was still a class act then,

  3. Jeremy,this was the only time I met Brian Greenhoff.I knew the other two much better as they lived locally and even when I was living in London I used to see Stewart when I was back at holiday-time and ask him about life in the top division with Malcolm McDonald etc. I followed closely the careers of all three and they all more than fulfilled that early promise.As late as the early eighties Stewart,then at Bristol Rovers, sent me some tickets for a student of mine who was a big Rovers’ fan.

  4. Great article and I empathise completely with what Ken says about the way we mortals held the young immortals in awe. I remember being 10 years old and going to watch Chester-le-Street Modern School winning the Londonderry Cup in 1962, because they had this amazing 13 year-old playing in the Under-15 side. His name was Colin Todd and he was playing centre-forward and scoring goals! Nobody knows what will happen in the future, but football people know when other footballers are special. Two years later, I went to watch them again (it wasn’t even my school) when they played Washington Grammar. Todd was now 15, a strong and powerful right-half, and the Washington team contained a lad called Colin Suggett who played inside-forward wearing baseball boots. We knew all about these lads, even though they were only schoolboys at different schools and different ages from ourselves.

    And Jake… old colleague of mine from our Belfast office played in the same school team as George Best. He says the same as you did about Rostron. No matter who they played, nobody could get the ball off George, so everybody just passed it to him and stood back and watched.

  5. A couple of the lads have mentioned Wilf Rostron. Wilf was a real favourite of mine back in the 70s. As others have said he went on to become a mainstay of the Watford team under Graham Taylor and is a legend at Vicarage Road.

    So sad that he never spent the remainder of his career with us because he was a very good player in my view (and perhaps as his subsequent career showed).

    Possibly my favourite game of all time saw Wilf score a hat trick on a late season game on a Wednesday night against Sheffield Utd (April 1979 or thereabouts), when we won 6-2. Wilf got a great hat trick that night. I remember someone on blackcats several years ago telling us that it was their first game. The best advice anyone could have given them was “stop going now son.” It’s really got no better than that in the last thirty odd years.

    Meant to ask you Ken.Did you see much of Brian in the years after your kickabouts on the farmer’s field?

  6. A great read. Sad passing of Brian Greenhoff and your great memories brought a tear to my eye. I saw Jimmy Greenhoff play for Leeds at Middlesborough, I remember it as his debut but not sure if it was. He took Billy Bremners’ place that day and played right half. He was magnificent and a favourite of mine ever since. I was at Boothferry Park for that FA Cup replay and fondly remember a Leeds win. Great days for you when you got revenge, classic FA Cup Final. Days that won’t ever return. The new era is the new era. All things must pass. All the best.

  7. I’m not in the least surprised Salut. Ken’s piece is worthy of a much broader circulation than our own little world of Salut and to the broader football community.

    Amidst the comments responding to Ken’s piece I regrettably forgot to add that my thoughts are with the Greenhoff family of course and Brian’s friends in football and beyond. Rest in peace.

  8. I am delighted to say that members of the Greenhoff family, Brian Greenhoff’s biographer and Chris Makin have all, unsolicited, retweeted my reference to Ken’s piece.

  9. Lovely memories Ken. Sunderland fans of my age and older will probably remember Wilf Rostron, he played 76 times for us between 77 and 79. Well I went to school with Wilf, in the same class as him from 5 years old right through to leaving at 16. Amongst us mere mortals he was a fantastic footballer, not just a cut above but several dozen cuts above! If he wanted to, he could ruin a P.E. football session or lunchtime kickabout by keeping the ball from the whole class, we ran after him like demented Jack Russells trying in vain to tackle him. Now the point I’m making is this, Wilf went on to have a very decent league career, almost 500 appearances for Sunderland, Watford & Brentford amongst others. (He is still idolised by Watford fans, he was there 10 years).But he never made it to the very top of the tree like the Greenhoffs. To us kids he looked like the best player in the world, and it always makes me appreciate just how good the Peles, Bests and Messis of this world must be.

    • Yeah my dad went to school with him (and you) as well. I know his son quite well, had many of drunken sessions with him over the years.

    • Jake, I really rated Wilf Rostron. He became an absolutely key player in Watford’s rise in the early 1980s under Graham Taylor. Their system depended on getting the ball out of defence quickly and accurately, and Rostron was Hoddle-like in his ability to pick out forward players with 30/40 yard passes.

      It’s important to acknowledge the importance of the hours spent honing those skills in school playgrounds. I suspect that the absence of them these days is part of the reason we have fewer and fewer young british players coming through.

    • A few years back I did a series of pieces for A Love Supreme which built up a team of players who were never considered superstars, but who were favourites of mine. Wilf was in it, and not just because he was a local lad the same age as me, but because he was a player greatly under-rated and under-used by the club – proven by his achievements at Watford.
      “Wonder-Wilf” and “It’s the Willuf” were our favourite cries

  10. Smashing piece Ken. I was very sad when I saw that Brian Greenhoff had passes away as he was player that I hugely admired as a child. What you said about looking at the age of someone who has departed as you get older, resonated with me. I was shocked to see that he was only 60. When you watched players as a youngster they seemed to be mature men, compared to yourself as a boy,. The gap gets closer as we get older of course. There have been a few players passed away at too early an age in recent times. I was shocked to see Tony Grealish had also died in recent time and he was only in his mid 50s. Good solid professionals in their day, the likes of which are harder to find in the modern game.

  11. No one is compelled to agree but I think this is among the finest pieces Salut! Sunderland has published. Thanks, Ken, and yes, RIP Brian Greenhoff.

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