The group of men were sitting waiting for me. A man was coming to talk about football. They gathered round the table and quickly started examining the old photos I had brought. Names of players were enthusiastically shouted out and soon the stories about games, players, goals and incidents were told with great fondness. The recall was impressive, by any standards. All of these men had dementia.
One well-dressed man sat contentedly reading his paper. “Come on, Bill” said one of the helpers, “you like football, don’t you?” Somewhat reluctantly, Bill joined the group. I hadn’t seen anything yet. Bill took me back to the 1930s and 1940s as if it was yesterday. Along with his boyhood pal, Jimmy, they rattled off scores, line-ups and goals and spoke of legendary figures. All I had to do was produce the images. As the session was ending, Jimmy leaned across to me and whispered,”Bill was a grand player, I saw him play for Celtic.”
Armed with this information, I looked up my books to see if this modest old man was in fact a former professional player. I discovered that Bill was in fact William Corbett, formerly of Celtic, Preston, Leicester, Dunfermline and Scotland. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to build up a picture of the man and his career. And what a career.
October 1942. England 0 Scotland 0, at Wembley. The match reports all said that Bill was the man of the match. “I have never seen a Scottish centre-half play [Tommy] Lawton as well as young Corbett did this afternoon” said one. All of them sang the praises of the young 20-year-old and predicted a bright future for him in the navy blue of Scotland.
By a sheer fluke, I was able to bid for a programme of the match which became available on e-Bay and I looked at the line-ups. I looked and I looked. This young man had faced the might of English football: Hapgood, Britton, Cullis, Mercer, Matthews, Lawton and Compton, all in their prime. A crowd of 75,000 had seen a tremendous struggle and young Corbett was the star man.
Bill was ever so proud when I showed him the programme. Pointing to the Scotland line-up, he showed me the names: Shankly, Corbett and Busby. “Not a bad half-back line, eh son?” I had to smile.
He became an amazing source of stories about war-time football, when he played for various clubs as a guest. He had a twinkle in his eye when he recounted arriving at Upton Park. “My brother Norman played for West Ham. Their manager was a right Cockney and he told me anytime I was near London, just come along and I’ll get you a game.”
By then Bill was in the Navy and he never knew where his travels would take him. I had a mental picture of some poor guy stripped ready to play, when a bright young naval man would come in and take his place. When I asked Bill how he thought the West Ham player would have felt, he answered with a lovely smile: “Ah suppose he wisnae best pleased”.
Bill came along to the Football Reminiscence sessions, even after he went to a care home, and he loved the talk about the old days, “when we were young,” as he would say. He was an absolute joy to be with and I learned more from him than in any football history book.
I last saw Bill alive three weeks before he passed away. We had a great session, laughing and joking and recalling the great players he had played with and against. As his carer wheeled him out of the room to the waiting transport, he turned to me and said, “Son, that was the best day of my life”. I struggled to keep my emotions in check as he went away. Little did I realise that we would never meet again.
Whenever anyone asks me if the Football Reminiscence Project is effective, I think of Bill’s comment to a university researcher who was assessing the effectiveness of the programme. “See this,” he said, pointing to his handkerchief, “it’s soaking wet with tears. Tears of joy.” Bill said it all.
His journey to the end of his illness was difficult, but for these few hours, Bill was back at his brilliant best. He loved football and he loved reminiscing. And we all loved Bill.