Retro Sport with Roger Mann
In 1976, I was playing my soccer for Torbay Gentlemen, and had been the club’s hon. secretary since its formation three years earlier.
During lunch breaks at work, I would often read the ‘Football News’, and one day a headline caught my attention - ‘Maltese government devastated by Brian Clough’s refusal’.
The article explained that Malta had invited Clough to bring out his Notts Forest team to play against the Maltese international team, at the national stadium, to raise money for a ‘Workers’ Monument’ at Msida.
The Minister of Sport had arranged three matches, receptions, island tours, and a celebration dinner for a team led by a man whom he regarded as a suitable ‘working class’ hero. The article went on to explain that Clough had agreed to visit Malta at first, but had now found that the planned October date was inconvenient.
As I sat there among the fruit and vegetables, a thought occurred to me, and then more thoughts. ‘I wonder if’, ‘Don’t be silly!’ ‘They won’t even consider it!’, and finally ‘Go on, try it!’
I phoned our chairman, Ray Haydock, who said: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”.
That was enough for me, so I rang the Malta High Commission in London. “Would you be kind enough to ask the Minister of Sport to contact me, please? It’s to do with his arrangement with Brian Clough”.
This was enough to persuade the minister, Lory Sant, to, personally, return the call two days later.
Although he must have been disappointed at not hearing a Geordie accent, he listened to my proposal that the Torbay Gentlemen might replace Clough’s team!
Our conversation ended with his suggestion that I put my case, in writing, to a Joe de Battista who had organised the Notts. Forest visit.
That night, I composed a long letter (no emails in those days!) explaining that we had ex-professional players (we had four), and wore Victorian kit (fun for TV). We had played in three other European countries, and would bring supporters in period costume, whereas Notts. Forest would only send a second team in October, and bring no support.
Finally, I added that we would be pleased to pay for our own accommodation, if the money saved was donated to the General Workers’ Union and its monument.
The wait for a reply seemed endless, and nearly a month passed before a letter dropped on my mat. Stamped with a Maltese emblem, it contained an official invitation from the Maltese government.
The Torbay Gentlemen were invited to visit the island for eight days.
During this time, they would be the guests of the Minister of Sport, and play a match in the national stadium against ‘The Maltese Gentlemen’ selected from former Maltese internationals who were now over 30 years old.
I read it, and re-read it, then kissed the envelope!
The news was greeted with great excitement by the club members, and that summer buzzed with activity. Costumes were updated, the hotel booked, and, one by one, the players negotiated ‘time off’ from work.
Maltese newspapers were requesting photos for pre-match features, and one even thought we were over-60s, and asked to share our fitness secrets!
In September, our South Devon League season started once again, and early results were disappointing.
Very few of us seemed prepared to risk our ageing limbs in a tackle that might spell the end of our dreams of a soccer swansong! This was a goal that really mattered to us!
Because it would be so difficult to lock up a double-decker, we decided not to use the club bus for the journey to London and, instead, booked train tickets.
On October 27, 30 ageing Torbay footballers, and their wives/girlfriends, flew out of Gatwick Airport to raise money for a monument to workers who lived 1,300 miles away!
Anything Brian Clough could do, we could do better!
As our plane taxied down the runway of Luqa Airport, I was peering through a cabin window when someone shouted: “Do you see what I see?”
I looked again and my heart missed a beat. There on the Tarmac was a reception committee and a television crew!
• Don’t miss the conclusion of the story next week!