In 1919 Leeds City FC was wound up…this might have happened.
Billy Cartwright moved down King Street, leaning heavily on the crutch so the cast barely touched the ground. After a week he had the hang of it and he could swing along easily, almost as quickly as someone walking.
At the Metropole Hotel he eased himself up the stairs. A sign with an arrow stood on an easel – Leeds City sale – and he followed along a heavily carpeted corridor to a large room already covered in a fug of smoke. Cups of tea stood on some of the tables, and men in good suits sat puffing on their pipes and talking as they looked through the list of items for sale.
He saw a hand go up and Fred Linfoot waved him over. All the players had gathered together at the back, crowded around three large tables. The auction hadn’t begun yet but the ashtrays were already full, cigarette butts crushed down together.
“How long before it’s off?” John Sampson asked.
“A week,” Billy answered. The broken leg was stretched out, the crutch lying on the floor, out of the way. He glanced around. There were men here from every club in the league, older and with serious faces. Prosperous men who sat straighter as the auctioneer approached his lectern. It was time for business and that was why they’d come to Leeds.
A Sale of Effects, the notice had read. Only four words. Billy had seen the advertisement in the Yorkshire Post, scarcely believing four words could take in so much. Metropole Hotel, 17th October, conducted by S. Whittam and Sons. He’d looked at it again and again before he’d pushed the paper across the table. Another hour or so and it would be as if Leeds City had never existed. Even the goal netting and the balls would be sold off. The players auctioned like they were slaves.
He knew who’d fetch the best price – Billy McLeod. He was the best player by far, the one everyone would want. He sat quietly, listening to the conversations around him.
It was all a stupid bloody mess and if it hadn’t been for Charlie Copeland they wouldn’t be here today. The way he understood it, if Charlie hadn’t reported the club to the FA for paying players during the war, none of this would have happened. Or if Leeds had been willing to produce its books when it was asked. Instead, the chairman had refused and they’d all paid the price. Kicked out of the League, wound up, everything must go.
There’d be more to it, Billy thought. There always was, wheels within wheels, and someone would have made something. They always did, although none of it would come down to them on the sharp end.
The auctioneer banged the gavel and the room was suddenly silent and alert. He was going to start with the players, the club’s most important asset, he said, some short speech about how sad this occasion was, the end of an era.
Billy’s mouth was dry. Everything rested on this. He’d be happy if someone offered two hundred pounds for him. Even a hundred or just fifty. Anything to keep him playing.
The problem was that he’d never run out for the club. He only turned eighteen during the summer and signed for the club in September. Then, during the second week of training there’d been the tackle. As soon as it happened, he knew. It was all he could do not to yell and start crying like a kid. A broken tibia, that was what the doctor said after they’d driven him to the Infirmary. Eight weeks in plaster. And after that it’d be a good three months before he’d be fit again, the muscle built back up and ready. By Christmas – if he was lucky.
They’d been the worst six weeks of his life. Cooped up at home every day, just his mam for company while his father and his brothers went off to work. No brass in his pocket. Just down to Elland Road for the home matches, wishing for time to pass until it could be him out there.
He was good enough. He had to believe he was. He’d played inside right for Leeds Schoolboys until he left when he was fourteen, and then he’d been in the works team at Blackburn’s, the Olympia Works up on Roundhay Road. Saturday mornings off, paid, to play up on Soldiers’ Field. It hadn’t been a bad life. The old factory that had once been a roller skating rink was fun, a good bunch to work with.
But he’d known he wasn’t going to stay. At fifteen he tried to join up, to follow his brother into the Leeds Pals. A worn-out sergeant told him to come back when he was old enough. He did, a year later, birth certificate tight in his fist. A week later he was in Catterick, learning what it meant to be a Tommy.
By December of ’17 he’d been in France for six weeks. He was already scared, sick and dirtier than he could have believed. Half of those he’d known in training were already dead, He was numb inside, just living from hour to hour. After a week in the trenches he’d wondered if he’d ever feel warm and dry again. After three weeks, he didn’t care, just as long as he lived to the end of this war and he could know some silence again.
Come Armistice Day he didn’t know where he was. It was simply another muddy hole in another muddy, lifeless landscape. It could have been in France, Belgium or Germany. He didn’t know and it didn’t matter. The important thing was they could put down their guns and not worry about being killed.
He could look forward to a hot bath, Billy thought, and going home. Looking around, he could see the same thought in every pair of eyes.
He ended up walking halfway to the coast. The transport never arrived and after waiting for three days the brigadier gave up and ordered them to start on foot. It was a slow march. They were all eager to be back in Blighty, but they were weary, half-fed creatures. The leather of Billy’s boots had rotted away in places, he had trench foot; each step took effort. The further they travelled from the front, the more they seemed to be walking into a dream of green fields and houses that hadn’t been demolished by shells. The type of places they’d almost forgotten.
He wasn’t home for Christmas. He’d spent that in hospital while they tended his feet. He hobbled home in January, his mother’s arms around him as soon as he was through the front door. Not his oldest brother, though. He’d never come back.
Billy was still thin, still weak. He wasn’t even eighteen yet and he’d seen enough death for seven lifetimes. His ma made him beef tea three times a day and forced as much food as he could manage down him. He started back at Blackburn’s and began training for the works team again. He ran after work and cut down on to ten Park Drive a week.
Before the end of the season he was the first choice for inside right again, more reckless now, as if he knew there was nothing in the game that could scare him. He tackled hard, he ran and he scored, three goals in five games.
The summer, with no matches, left him restless, too full of energy but with nothing to do until his birthday and his trial for Leeds City. He kept up the running, taking off after work for a circuit of Roundhay Park, along by the big lake, through the gorge and back before catching the bus home. Saturday afternoons, when Leeds were playing away, he’d try to cajole workmates into a kick around, something to keep his skills sharp.
Until the trial he’d been confident. For too long people had told him he was a good footballer. He was always the best in any team. But the others there were his equals. Some were better, he had no doubt about that. They made him sweat, made him play, made him think. And when it was over, for the first time he had to wonder if he was good enough.
For the next three days he was on edge, going straight home from work to see if there’d been any post for him. When it finally arrived he let it sit in his hand, as if its weight might tell him what was inside. It took courage to open the envelope, and he had to breathe hard before unfolding the letter.
Dear Mr, Cartwright…
He read it through twice to be certain he was right. They were taking him on at three pounds a week. For the rest of the evening he couldn’t stop smiling, then couldn’t rest in his bed although he had to work in the morning. He gave his notice, and before the end of September he was training every day at Elland Road, seeing the men he’d only cheered from the terraces. More than that, he was playing against them and just beginning to understand how much he had to learn. He wasn’t good; he’d barely even started.
The divot shouldn’t have been there. They all said that later. But he’d been chasing down a long pass, watching the ball, not the pitch. His studs caught and he went down awkwardly. Barely two weeks into his professional career and he’d broken his leg.
Each club offered a sealed bid for the players they wanted. Billy wasn’t surprised when McLeod went for £1,250. He outclassed everyone else in the side. Glancing over, he could see the mix of pride and relief on the man’s face. Then it was Harry Millership and John Hampson, a thousand each. And then it was down the line – eight hundred, six hundred, five – all the way to Frank Chipperfield, off to Wednesday for a hundred. That left seven of them looking worriedly at each other. The auctioneer coughed. Four had new clubs. No fee. No one for Mick Sutcliffe, Charlie Foley. Or for him.
By the time he was listening again, they were selling off the goal posts and the nets. He pushed himself up, leaning heavily on the crutch, and made his way out, threading through the tight spaces between tables. None of the men from other clubs bothered to look up at him.
Out in the corridor he stopped to light a cigarette. As he was about to move off again, he heard the man say,
He turned. The manager was there, Mr. Chapman, the one who’d picked him out from the trial. Just like Leeds City, he’d been banned from football, that was what Billy had heard, although the rumour was that he was going to appeal. He was growing heavy at the waist, the start of jowls on his face. He gave a sad smile.
“I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry, lad. I had a word with them, said you had potential. But they didn’t want to take a chance.” He shrugged slightly.
“Thank you, boss.”
“Don’t give up. You have talent. Keep trying, all right?”
“Yes, boss. Thank you.”
He turned and hobbled away.