This is the story about how a terrifying, flat-footed centre forward called Alfie ‘Lofty’ Legge and my 12-year old self became legends of lowly Newbury Town FC.
I had been a ball boy at the Town Ground in 1951, recovering footballs kicked into touch with 5 other lads from my school, dressed in what you might call tracksuits now, all thick, sweaty and itchy. Clothes rationing may have ended 2 years before, but we still had to make do. The chairman’s wife had made them out of old woollen horse blankets, and had embroidered ‘NTFC’ on the backs. All but one that is, where she had absentmindedly sewn ‘NFTC’, meaning there was always a battle between us lads to make sure we weren’t the last to get to the changing hut and be left with it. They were also enormous, you could have fit two of us boys in each suit, and when it rained they absorbed water and got so heavy, that with such loosely elasticated waistbands, the fear of letting go of the trousers to pick up an errant football was fraught with potential embarrassment.
But this was a small price to pay for the sheer excitement of being pitch-side, standing in front of the crowds and playing our part for Lofty and the other players. That year Lofty, and our FA Cup run, was to capture my imagination as a school boy, leaving me with stories I still tell some 65 years later. If being 6 foot 6 tall and as angry as wasps didn’t make Lofty enough of an inspiration, it was the metal plate behind his heavily scarred forehead which made him a legend, but also a scary sight to ball boys and opposing players alike. As well as holding his head together from a terrible injury incurred in a hand grenade blast in the advance on Sword Beach in 1944, the plate also gave him phenomenal ability in heading a football, though to be honest, he was pretty useless with his feet.
In our first round, Newbury were drawn away to Stockport County of the Third Division North. I could not go of course, as train fares were prohibitively expensive, but I remember Mum showing me the result in the Sunday People the next day: Town had won 1-0, and Lofty had scored the only goal. I remember cutting out the report of the game printed in the Newbury Weekly News later that week, but it has long since been lost or thrown away.
The next round we were at home to Brentford, of the Second Division. There was a much bigger crowd than usual, and I remember being scared on the touchline looking back at kids younger than me being passed over the heads of the adults so they could sit at the side of the pitch behind me to get a better view. Lofty scored both goals that day, both bullet headers, the crowd erupting both times.
Then we were drawn to play local rivals, Reading, at their Elm Park ground. The winners were to go through to the semi-final. Dad took me on the train, full of singing Newbury fans, rattling their rattles and carrying cardboard models of the cup. They made so much noise I felt we were unbeatable.
The game itself wasn’t that easy. It had rained pretty much non-stop in the days leading up to the game, and soon became a battle in the mud. Newbury clung on desperately as Reading attacked again and again, Lofty in particular having a bad game, his high centre of gravity not suiting the conditions, and I remember Dad shouting at him to ‘Get off your arse, Legge,’ as he slipped over for the umpteenth time. Nil – Nil with 10 minutes left, and Reading had yet another corner. Every Town player was back to defend. The ball was kicked in to the near post where several players jumped but it came off the top of the head of our centre half and looped back towards his own net. Behind the goal we all held our breath as our goalie scrambled backwards but didn’t look like being able to get to prevent a horrendous own goal. But then seemingly from nowhere, Lofty charged, flat-footed, out of the melee of players and despite his big feet slipping, he leapt, all teeth clenched and sinews stretched, towards the dropping ball. But for possibly the only time in his Newbury career, he jumped too early and arrived before the ball. His forehead smacked the middle of the wooden crossbar. The impact was so fierce, it knocked the crossbar off the top of the posts, sending it and the concussed Lofty to hit the ground and the ball bounced harmlessly into the terrace behind the remains of the goal.
There was a huge gasp of confusion around the ground. The Reading fans thought they had scored. To be honest, us Newbury fans thought they had too, but all eyes were on the unmoving Lofty, flat on his back and covered by a heap of fallen goal net. The trainer ran on with a bucket of water and magic sponge, as did the groundsmen with a ladder to fix the crossbar back up. Chaos ensued. Players ran to the referee asking for a decision. He would not give one, until the goal and Lofty had been attended to. The net was dragged from Lofty and we applauded him in fear as he was carried off, down the players’ tunnel and presumably to the nearby Battle Hospital.
The referee, having seen order and the crossbar restored, blew his whistle – and pointed for a goal kick. We could see him mouth ‘No goal,’ to the disbelief of all supporters and players, no matter where their loyalties lay. The final few minutes were played-out in a half-hearted way, the teams and crowd stunned by what they had seen and deeply concerned about poor Lofty. To end with a creditable 0-0 draw and the prospect of a replay back at Newbury to come seemed of little importance.
Of course there was no TV or Twitter back in ’51, so after the game we went home and could do nothing but listen to the BBC on the radio, hoping for something to be said on the news.
The next day’s People, had a match report and a photo of Lofty being carried off, but still nothing about his condition.
The replay was the following week, and as I was putting on my ball boy kit, the talk was that Lofty was not only still alive, but had released himself from hospital to play. We were so relieved and sensed it was going to be our night as the excitement bubbled around us.
The ground was packed with many locked outside, some climbing trees on the nearby canal bank to gain a view. Us ball boys moved to the tunnel, and waited for the cue to lead out the teams. I felt so proud as I marched to the centre circle, desperate to look at the teams as they followed us from out of the changing rooms to see if the rumours were true. The crowd cheered, and as I reached my position, I turned to see that the last man in the line-up was Lofty, with two mighty black eyes and his head wrapped in the biggest, whitest bandage you ever saw. He was playing!
It was a tense start, a typical cup tie, edgy and with fierce commitment. Then after 20 minutes or so, Bill Bates, one of our centre halves, went to tackle their inside right and there was an awful crack which echoed around the stands, and had two crows on one of the floodlights flying for cover. Bill was stretchered off in agony with a broken leg, and with no substitutes in those days, Lofty had to drop back as a makeshift defender. Reading, now a man up and sensing an opportunity, came at us, launching cross after cross into our box.
Lofty was incredible. He got his head to everything, bravely heading clear time and time again. And remember, this wasn’t one of the light plastic balls of today, this was a heavy leather one, the type of ball that if it stuck you playing in the park, would bring a perfect round bruise for days after, even showing where the laces had hit you. The distance Lofty got on his headers went was astonishing. Most players did well to head a ball 10 yards or so, but his could soar 30 or more, one even flying out of the ground and lost in the adjacent Kennet & Avon canal. In the second half the rain started. The ball, and my ball boy kit, started to absorb water and got heavier and heavier. I was fielding to the side of the Reading keeper’s goal, and didn’t touch the ball once, as all the action was at the other end, where Lofty and the defenders somehow kept our goal intact.
Then it happened. The ball broke on the edge of our area to whippet Ronnie, our winger. He ran with it as hard and fast as he could towards the half way line, and with Reading players in pursuit snapping at his heels and with us all roaring him on, He paced through the mud of midfield, onwards towards the Reading penalty area, desperately trying to keep control of the ball and keep half a stride ahead of the chasing defenders. With the ball sticking and Whippet’s strength fading, it looked like the goalie would simply come charging out and kick the ball away, but before he could, one of Reading’s pursuers made a desperate lunge for the ball, missed and kicked Whippet up in the air.
Penalty! We screamed at the top of our voices.
We all stared at the referee, surely he would agree.
The crowd held its breath as the referee caught up with play. Anticipation hung in the air as he blew his whistle – then pointed to the penalty spot!
Gordon Mullins, the normal penalty taker, who had not missed a penalty in three seasons, took the ball but Lofty grabbed it out of his hands and pushed him out of the way. With his mud-soaked body and bloodied head, he looked every part the warrior, and Gordon seemed too scared to disagree with him. Lofty put the ball on the spot and gave the goalie, jumping on his line, a fierce stare, before pacing out an enormous twelve steps back. Boy, this was going to be the run-up of all time. There was no way he was going to miss, and from where I stood, I would have the perfect view of the net bulging as Lofty sent us through to the FA Cup semi-final for the first time ever.
The crowd hushed. Lofty shuffled his feet and began his run, coming in like a West Indian fast bowler. After 3 paces he was gathering speed nicely, but at 5 his right foot seemed to knock against the left. By 8 steps he was toppling and where steps 11 and 12 should have been he was flying horizontally. His bandaged head made contact with the ball. For any mere mortal, a static ball struck in this way would have resulted in it rolling just a couple of feet to the hilarity of the crowd, but then Lofty was no mere mortal.
The ball flew through the air and past the astounded goalie and hit the top corner of the net so hard, that it nearly broke it. ‘What a goal!’ I shouted, and jumped so high that my sodden loose-waisted bottoms failed to make the journey up with me, exposing my pants for an eternal half-second before I thrust my hands down and managed to yank them up. The crowd behind me roared, at the goal of course, but in my traumatised teenage shame, I felt they were all hooting at me.
Lofty lay face-down and still on the ground, his head having piled up quite a divot in front of him. The other Newbury players ran to him, wanting to pick him up and congratulate him, but sensed something was wrong. Even the crowd hushed as the trainers from both sides sprinted on and peeled him up from the mire. It was going to take more than magic sponges to raise him from this one. I watched my hero being carried off again through tears of joy for the goal and concern for Lofty as I grasped those horrid running bottoms.
Somehow, we hung on until the final whistle with 9-men for an improbable and famous win. We were through!
Lofty never played again. That he’d broken his nose and swallowed several pints of mud in his swallow-dive were the least of his problems. We found out a few days later that his metal plate had shifted, probably the culmination of all those headers, and so under medical advice he retired there and then, at the height of his career.
Newbury Town, now without their talisman, were easily beaten in the semi-final by Newcastle United, who went on to win the cup that year. Dad and I didn’t go; it might as well have been played at Timbuktu.
“I love that story Grandad,” says 11-year old Josh, “especially that bit when your trousers fell down. Oh, and when you said ‘arse’.” He looks up at me with the wide eyes that I once had, looking for clues as to whether he should believe my tale or not.
“People who went to that game still shout ‘show us yer pants’ across the street at me, you know.”
I wink at him.
“And what ever happened to Lofty, you know, after he’d retired?”
“Ah, it’s a sad story. I’m not sure I should tell you.”
“ Please, Grandad, please.”
“ Well, they unscrewed Lofty’s plate and had to glue it back on as they found that the screw holes were damaged. He started his own scrap yard, though he had to take care not to walk under the giant magnet that picks up the old cars. He must be about 85 now, and is still not allowed out in the rain in case he gets it rusty.”
“Oh Grandad, you’re making it up.”
Soon enough he will find out for himself that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist, Newbury Town never even qualified for the first round proper of the FA Cup, let alone the semi-final, and that Barry ‘Lofty’ Legge is as made up as Father Christmas. But for now, let the magic of the FA Cup remain.
I smile. “Would your Grandad lie to you?”