A Lost Season?
By Tom Robson.
The Autumn of 1926 began disastrously for Fred.
September. A change of season. For some the climatic transition is less significant than that other seasonal change. They can ignore the Autumn colors as the trees display their reds, oranges and yellows. Cooling temperatures are to their liking, though they don’t enjoy too much rain or the threat of an early winter. Good weather for football should last through till December. Autumn welcomed English football. The gulf stream might encourage an Indian summer which could bring good, dry weather well into November. Winter was months away, with time to acclimatize for new year winter football games. The climatic season was unfolding as it should. but the prospect of football for Fred was fading fast
Fred was now in his fifteenth year. It was no longer an Autumn necessity to find those particular trees, a tramcar ride away in Oakwood. There, for years, he and his sisters had collected the chestnuts which their mother roasted over the open hearth of their dining room in the ensuing colder evenings. He was long past finding that other chestnut tree, the one that yielded conkers, Horse Chestnuts. He no longer cared about the ritual and competition of that childhood game. Yet it didn’t seem too long ago that he gloried in having a “ two hundred and twenty sevener conker,” best on the school playground that October, as the conker season gave way to marbles.
September wasn’t ‘back-to-school’ any more for Fred. He was finished with that. September didn’t initiate school or Autumn for him. September was the end of the cricket season. More significantly football had re -commenced, and football was the most important thing in Fred’s life.
He lived for football. Why couldn’t his father understand that? Why had he banned any football for Fred, except on Saturday afternoons? Didn’t he know that wasn’t enough? You had to practise in the week, between games, to stay on a team. Fred’s football season was lost.
Last year, his father had been so proud when his youngest son had been selected as right back in the all-city schools’ team that had beaten Huddersfield and then won again in Bradford. But that was back in the Spring when Fred was too young to see beyond the sheer enjoyment of a game he loved and succeeded in. Autumn marked the start of a new season and he needed a team. He was fourteen and out of school. Already six feet tall and beginning to fill out, skillful and a redoubtable defender, he needed to go for try outs. A couple of scouts for teams in the Yorkshire Football league had talked to him about that. One had approached his father, saying that Fred had a possible future as a professional.
“ I showed him the door, young Fred.” pronounced his father next morning at breakfast. “There’s that apprenticeship waiting for you at Tyndale’s as soon as you’re sixteen. That’s your future. A trade’s better than playing a game. There’s no future in that, lad! You’re washed up at 30.”
“But nothing!” interjected Tom Robson. “You can play Saturday afternoons, but that’s it!”
Fred knew better than to argue with his father. He might be the ‘baby’ of the family and, as his siblings frequently proclaimed away from their parents’ hearing, “spoiled rotten,” but father’s word was law. Fred’s season was gone. Fred’s football future was kickabouts on a Saturday with those who weren’t good enough to make any team.
All this had happened in late summer; weeks ago. Fred had since met up with his footballing friends who urged him to sneak away to play. Some even suggested he try out for some of the better teams like the Amateurs or Farsley Celtic. If he made it then his father would have to change his mind, wouldn’t he? What else was Fred going to do until he was sixteen and could start at Tyndale’s? There was no paid work to be had in Leeds, in 1926
“Father wants me to do some work on the properties he owns. He wants me to help out at home. You don’t know him. He’ll never change his mind.” was Fred’s response.
But last Wednesday, when he was supposed to be cleaning up one of the Albion Place houses before it was rented out, he had sneaked his boots and the rest of his kit into his toolbag. He’d worked like crazy all morning, then taken the tram, past his Harehills stop, up to the Soldiers’ Fields at Oakwood. . It was afternoon, open try outs for Yorkshire Amateurs. Fred changed, signed in, was put on a team and felt he did well.
He wanted to get home before his father. He got off the tramcar near home but, as luck would have it, his father saw him step down, coming from the wrong direction, still wearing his football shirt. They marched together up Harehills Lane to home where Tom Robson took his son’s precious football boots out of the toolbag and deposited them in the dustbin. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to.
Jane Robson tried to console her youngest, but her message was “father knows best.”
It was Fred’s much older brother Harry,visiting the next day, who gave Fred some hope. When Fred arrived home, from a full day cleaning and painting at Albion Place, he was surprised to see his brother.
After greeting Harry, who was home on leave from the navy , Fred had to share his distress. “Did you hear what dad did?” he asked.
“I did, Young Fred! Mother told me. I’ll see what I can do. I’ll talk to him.” consoled Harry.
“But will father listen to you? Does he ever change his mind?” Fred wondered aloud, actually smiling at the older brother he so looked up to.
“I can try, our Fred. Now go and look behind the mangle in the kitchen. I think that’s the safest hiding place. Father never goes out there.”
Fred walked through the door and down the couple of steps to look behind the machine whose rollers squeezed the water from the wet clothes on laundry day. There were his boots, rescued by Harry from the trash.
“Thanks Harry! But are you sure? Can we get away with this?” questioned Fred, seeing his football season possibly returning.
“Nay, lad. But I can ask. Better I argue your case than you. Father might just listen to another grown up.”
Fred went up to his room right after supper. His mother asked if he was unwell. He wasn’t, but he needed to give Harry a chance to talk to their father.
He was deep into his book when his father’s voice came up the stairs. “Fred! Get down here a minute. We need to talk.”
The tone was not very positive, but it was the same tone he used whenever he talked to his youngest. Fred hurried down. Harry and his father were sat either side of the fireplace, sipping tea. Fred’s mother poured one for Fred and turned towards her kitchen.
“No, mother. Will you stay a minute to listen to this.” requested her husband.
Mother and her youngest son sat. Tom Robson, checked his pocket watch; an excuse while he searched for the right words. Fred fidgeted in the chair, not knowing where to put his too long legs or restless hands.
“Our Harry has told me a few things I hadn’t realized about you and football, our Fred.” began his father.
Fred glanced in Harry’s direction, catching a hint of a smile on his brother’s face.
Choosing his words carefully, their father continued, “I think, mother, as long as Fred here does the work that you and I set him, he can play football on Saturdays and in the week, as long as it not too often and he asks first. What do you think?”
Fred turned to look at his mother, a pleading look etched on his face.
“Whatever you say, dear, as long as he doesn’t take advantage.”
Fred could contain himself no longer. “I won’t mum! Honest! I’ll always ask first if I need to play in the week – or practice. And if there’s too much work to do then I’ll do it.. I’ll even miss football if you say so.”
“Whoa our Fred! I’ve not finished yet” said his father, interrupting Fred’s outburst. “That’s this year, but once you start at Tyndale’s, when you’re sixteen, then football comes third. First there’s your responsibilities here. Next is Tyndales. Third comes football. “ He paused before asking, “Now what do you think?”
Fred’s fifteenth birthday was still seven month’s away. He had two football seasons before he reached sixteen and the start of his apprenticeship. That was ages away. He didn’t need to think.
“Thank you for tthis, father. And you mum!” Fred was almost lost for words he was so excited.
“First Chore, Fred.” said his father. “Go rescue those football boots from the dustbin.”
Fred looked over at his brother. He realised what Harry must have done to change their father’s mind. He held out his hand to Harry, who grasped it and pulled him into a bear hug, whispering, “I put the boots back. Go find them! ”
“ Thanks for what you did, Harry.” was Fred’s afterthought, as he hurried to retrieve his football boots from the dustbin.
Fred’s lost September season had been saved.
For the next ten seasons, until he married and work commitments interfered, Fred played for various Farsley Celtic’s teams, always at right back. Early on he was approached to become an apprentice professional with Leeds United. He didn’t need to discuss it with his father. Tyndale’s offered a better future.
When his apprenticeship finished, Tyndale’s fired him rather than pay him full wages as a millwright. It was the depression.
Overseas, as a soldier in the second world war, Fred sometimes wondered if his life would be different had he become a professional football apprentice in the Autumn season he was sixteen.
Almost ninety years later, Fred’s son and his grandsons across the ocean, still see the Fall as the change of sports seasons.