The story of Neil Baldwin* is an astonishing and uplifting one. Born to devoted Stoke City supporters, Neil had learning difficulties and needed speech therapy. He has made light of this, and his lack of formal academic qualifications, to work tirelessly as a lay preacher, circus clown and for many years the Potters’ kit man. He has his own football team, Neil Baldwin FC, with players drawn from the student body of Keele University, of which he is an honorary graduate having given 50 years of voluntary service in welcoming new undergraduates. Football celebrities, notably Lou Macari but also including Kevin Keegan and Gary Lineker, have acclaimed or befriended him or both.
When Macari, then managing Stoke, made him the kit man, he said it was the best signing he had ever made, such was the positive effect of his humour on the squad. He played five minutes a sub in a testimonial for Gordon Cowans in 1993 and, most famously, inspired the film Marvellous, based on his life.
‘It says everything for Neil that Marvellous was ever made,’ wrote the Stoke Sentinel TV critic, John Woodhouse. ‘In times when TV is seduced by vacuity and celebrity, it doesn’t sound that promising a pitch. A drama, set in Newcastle [under-Lyme], about a man saddled with the tag of “learning difficulties” who reveals himself to be so much more? Good luck with that one. And yet here it is – primetime BBC2.’
The autobiography, Marvellous: Neil Baldwin – My Story, written with the help of Keele University alumni Malcolm Clarke (a recent Who are You? interviewee) and Francis Beckett, was published by John Blake in 2015.
Welcome to Salut! Sunderland, Neil …
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Guess the Score … in which the esteemed supporters of Sunderland and Stoke City, both sides acquainted with that most prestigious of colour schemes, red and white stripes, are warmly invited to predict the scoreline that history shall record …
Why is this week’s Guess the Score appearing early again this week? OK, the main reason is that no one has anything else they want to say beyond pointless reflections on transfers that may or may not happen.
Monsieur Salut writes: Genius in adversity or just Pete Sixsmith in tip-top form yet again? Read his terrific report from the Stoke City game and make up your own mind. And here’s another excellent piece, this time from Rob Hutchison, who argues passionately against yet more upheaval …
Malcolm Dawson writes……after another abject performance and the one result we didn’t want, it looks as if the writing is on the wall. Well let’s be honest, there were already a few daubings on the brickwork but now the whole thing is covered in graffiti and it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. Unlike Pete Sixsmith’s match report, which he manages to make a lot more entertaining than this match was for supporters of the team in pink and purple. Perhaps for Moyes and the boys it was fortunate that this game was at the ground formerly known as the Britannia, because I don’t think a home crowd would have produced the same reaction that Pete describes happening in this match.
STOKE CITY (a)
I am now of an age where I should be making better decisions. I should be spending Saturdays doing something positive – maybe leafleting for Greenpeace or Jeremy Corbyn, maybe putting together food parcels for those in need or maybe helping to organise a clean-up of the litter spattered roads around Shildon. I would be putting something back into the community, helping those less fortunate, trying to change the world for the better, just like any Guardian reader would.
Instead, I spent the neck end of six hours on a coach (admittedly in good company), two hours taking in the sights of Uttoxeter (where Dr Johnson made a public apology to his father for being a bad son) and finally, two and a half hours watching another benighted, bedraggled and plain bad performance from the current representatives of Sunderland AFC.
This was yet another stinker and one from which I may not recover. Should we continue to play like this, we will be cast adrift by Christmas and will do well to reach that magic 15 points that we “achieved” ten years ago as Mick McCarthy’s team slid away with a whimper.
We were beaten by a side that had one point more than we did prior to the start of the game, but who moved four points ahead of us by 3.07. Once Joe Allan, a man renowned the length and breadth of Wales for his heading prowess – a veritable John Charles is Joe , headed home from eight yards, the game was over. Any chance of a win had gone as we would need to score two and then not concede any more. There was more chance of Donald Trump being asked to present Woman’s Hour than either of those two things happening.
But we managed to stay in touch until the 45th minute when more awful defending allowed the Wee Welsh Wizard to seal the points for the Potters with a crisp shot from just inside the box. As our team and management left the field, there were boos and jeers aimed at both from the sold out visitors’ end.
And then, something miraculous happened. Not on the field – absolutely no chance of that, but off it. Sunderland supporters showed that, while the club may mean little to the players, it means everything to them. For the entire second half, there was non-stop noise in the hope that it may inspire the kind of fightback that we saw at Anfield at the beginning of the year. That it did not come was indicative of the weaknesses that are all too apparent in the present line up.
This is a very poor team indeed. Take Pickford and Defoe out of it and there is precious little to admire or even warm to. The defence always seems to be seconds away from a mistake and the midfield is the weakest and least creative in the division. Up front there is nobody to support Defoe.
There are players who clearly do not want to be at the club. Lamine Kone said in an interview how disappointed he was that his move to Everton had fallen through. He made it clear to this reader that he could not wait to get away from Sunderland, new contract or not. There was a suspicion that his hamstring injury, obtained while on World Cup duty, was convenient.
Both McNair and Manquillo look as if they would rather be anywhere but at Sunderland. For Manquillo, he can always go back to Atletico Madrid in January, but McNair is stuck with us and vice versa. The Irishman produced a couple of decent passes but appeared to have no idea of what he was supposed to do or what role he was supposed to have. He got in the way of Khazri and Ndong and was mercifully withdrawn just past the hour mark.
Not that the rest of the midfield was a great deal better. Khazri ran and ran but far too often either made a poor pass or gave the ball away. Ndong was busy and picked the ball up deep but there was no real end product and he ran out of puff long before the end. The transition from the far less intense game played in Ligue 1 to the hurly burley of the Premier League is difficult enough in a good team, so it must be well-nigh impossible when he is thrust in with this lot.
Rodwell continued his run – it is now 31 games that he has started for Sunderland and not a single win in the Premier League. There were some good touches, but he allowed Allan to get away from him for the opener. He is another player who has failed to offer anything in the two and a bit seasons he has spent at the club.
The body language from players and manager oozes negativity. At times Moyes looked as hapless as Steve McLaren did last year at Newcastle and he cut a disconsolate figure as he left the pitch at the end of the game. There is a growing swell of opinion against him and his tactics, which appear to be “kick the ball upfield in the general direction of Defoe.”
Stoke have not made a great start to the season but they have players like Arnautovic, Shaqiri and Allan who take responsibility and try to make things happen. None of those three have come cheaply but neither have Rodwell, Khazri and Ndong and I know which ones I would rather have in our red and white stripes.
We are a club with no discernible character about us other than a remarkable ability to avoid relegation. That will certainly come to an end this season. A triumvirate of Ferguson, Clough(B) and Wenger would not prevent us falling into the Championship – and staying there for more than one season.
There are many questions that need to be posed even at this early stage of the season, viz:
- Is David Moyes the man for the job? Has he done anything so far that inspires confidence in the support? Should he be encouraged to take the Scotland job when Gordon Strachan leaves after the England game?
- Is Ellis Short now coming to the end of his tenure as owner? If so, how on earth will he sell the club? Will the support heap the blame on him as they did on Bob Murray?
- Why is it that successive managers cannot attract the players that they want to Wearside? Those on Tyneside and Teesside don’t appear to have those difficulties.
Next Saturday we have to go and do it all over again at the Olympic Stadium. Twelve hours on a coach, numerous renditions of the most boring song in football and a probable hiding on and off the pitch.
As Peter Glaze said to Leslie Crowther on numerous occasions “I don’t know why I bother.”
To many of us who, one way or the other, saw the 2-0 defeat at Stoke City, this was a Sunderland display that insulted those occupying another sell-out away end and suggested the record for the lowest number of Premier League points, currently 11 and held by Derby County, will be returning to Wearside. For David Moyes, however, it was a game we ought to have taken a point from. Mmm. Consider his post-match e-mail to Monsieur Salut and a few others ..
He uses words sparingly, does our Rob Hutchison. After today’s woeful display against – let’s face it – a not-very-good side, he said: ‘Well that was wretched. Gone backwards since Sam departed. Should we play the long game?’ …
Monsieur Salut writes: I had a good stream and watched a poor Stoke side made to look efficient by as inept a display as I can recall (well at least since the last inept display). Pete Sixsmith had a tougher day, up early to travel to the Potteries and see yet another abysmal performance which, he said as the last seconds of stoppage time ticked away, suggested a team that will be adrift without a hope at the bottom come Christmas …
Malcolm Clarke* is the latest in a long line of amiable, forthcoming Stoke City supporters to grace these pages. He is realistic enough a supporter, as well as being a passionate representative of fans generally as chairman of the Football Supporters’ Federation, to recognise the the odds are probably against his beloved Stoke winning the Premier League title any time soon. But he does believe they’ll survive this season, and – perhaps no surprise here – that Sunderland won’t. He also tells us about his association with Neil Baldwin, Stoke’s ‘marvellous’ (read on) but most implausible media star …
We’ve had far too many must-wins and crunchers and season-deciders. They usually they turn out to be nothing of the sort.
So let us just say the Guess the Score for Stoke City v Sunderland is open to all, Stokies included, and carries a prize.
Around this time of every year, there are certainties we take for granted. The calendar will tell us it is October, trees shed leaves, shops advertise Christmas as if it’s only next week and Sunderland supporters still await a first win of the season.
We generally don’t draw too much comfort for we have actually won twice, because there is something distinctly hollow about beating lower league opposition in the League Cup when you can barely pick up a draw in the Premier League.