Celebrity footballers with big hearts

The Torbay Gents and the Showbiz Team together before the match

The Torbay Gents and the Showbiz Team together before the match - Credit: Archant

In 1973, a local lad had broken his leg while playing in a South Devon League football match near Torquay. Complications had set in, and his leg was amputated.

Whitley Court is a stylish development specifically designed to cater for the very best in retirement

Whitley Court is a stylish development specifically designed to cater for the very best in retirement - Credit: Archant

Now, a year later, a story appeared in the local paper explaining that his dearest ambition was to raise £1,000 to afford a special artificial limb which would allow him to kick a ball properly, once again.

At that time, I was playing my soccer for Torbay Gentlemen, and the story hit home to a group of veterans with lots to be thankful for.

We set our minds on arranging a special match to raise the cash.

Our first call hit the jackpot!

The National Showbiz Team agreed to come down to Torbay the following August, free of charge, if we paid for their accommodation. Torbay Round Table agreed to promote the fixture, and I.T.T. offered its ground in Paignton as a venue.

Together, we now had a year to tackle all the details. Car stickers and hand bills were printed, and Torbay was awash with adverts for the match.

Most Read

In the week prior to the game, Torbay Round Table constructed a float for the carnival, and a giant ‘yokel’ told everyone to be at ITT on Sunday!

On the Saturday, the Showbiz team arrived at Torquay station, and we met Ken McDonald (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum), Frazer Hines (Emmerdale), Robin Asquith (Confessions of a Window Cleaner), the actors Robert Powell, Ben Howard, Harry Fowler, and Ray Davies from the Kinks... all famous names of the day.

Two of the team had missed the train, so, later, my wife and I collected Anthony Booth (‘Till Death Do Us Part), and the team manager, Jim Keen, and they spent the weekend at home with us.

That night we had arranged a Celebrity Ball, in the team’s honour, and every ticket was sold. We were now, already, half way to our financial target.

The sun greeted us on the day of the match, and at three o’clock, there were over 2,000 people at ITT for the kick-off.

Lester Shapter, our local celebrity referee, blew his whistle and the mayhem commenced. The Wombles, a guest attraction, kept straying on to the pitch, and rugby tackles, and last-minute trip-ups, were the order of the day.

Lester awarded penalties to whichever side was losing, and the game ended in a popular 5-4 victory for the Showbiz Eleven.

After the final whistle, the crowd invaded the pitch to get the autographs of its favourite TV stars, and our treasurer announced that the £1,000 target had been easily reached.

In those days, you weren’t allowed to charge an entrance fee on a Sunday, so the money was raised, solely, by donations to a cause which had touched the crowd’s heart.

If the football match had been forgettable, the evening in the pub, which followed it, will be etched in my mind for ever!

Being their hosts, we sat with Tony Booth and Jim Keen, and after Jim had recounted how he had become involved with the Showbiz team, Tony took over! He explained how his youth had been a puddle of misfortune, until he turned to acting during his National Service.

He told us about his time on Coronation Street in the 1960s, and then about his 21-year-old daughter, Cherie, who was studying to be a barrister - she later became Tony Blair’s wife, of course.

As pint followed pint, the stories became more and more hair-raising, as befits those of a man who ended up having eight daughters by five different women!

Then, just as we thought such a movement might put him in danger, he stood up. Looking around the room, he announced to all those present: “Lads, today, 2,000 people donated to a young man who will never play soccer again, and all we did was to kick a football to help him! So let’s have your cheques, eh?”

With that, he took a customer’s cap from the hat stand, and passed it round until it was overflowing.

Before he left on the following day, he wrote a note to accompany the gift. It said: “You may see us on your screen, but this lets you know that we see you too! Your friend till death do us part, Tony Booth.”

Sadly, Tony’s death did part them in 2017, but I will always remember an amazing weekend, and a very warm-hearted gesture.