The little door behind the main stand
- Credit: Roger Mann
This year is the 70th anniversary of my first visit to Plainmoor, and now, as I limp along, on an arthritic ankle, down the lane behind the main stand - I just can’t get used to calling it Bristow’s Bench! - the memories come flooding back.
Halfway down the lane was the little door which, for years, was my destination every Saturday lunchtime.
This was the players’ entrance, where we stood for hours, autograph books in hand, waiting for both teams to arrive.
Even though I was only nine years old when I first waited outside that door, I can remember it as though it all happened yesterday.
Always first to arrive was our manager, and centre-half, Eric Webber.
He was a big, strongly-built, man who came to matches in a blazer and tie.
We thought of him as the boss, and we all looked up to him.
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As lads, we liked him because he used to say things like: “They won’t be long boys!” which increased our anticipation tenfold.
On the pitch, Eric was the rock of our defence.
It seemed to me that nobody ever got past Eric!
At school, we would pick him in our 'England Eleven' which we scribbled down on the back of our jotters, and passed under our desks.
Next to arrive might be full back, Ralph Calland, the eldest of three brothers, who all played for United.
Ralph was your typical 'old pro' who didn’t suffer twinkle-toed wingers gladly!
In his mid-30s now, Ralph had a wrinkled, 'lived-in' face, and although he never talked to us much, he would always sign our books.
On the field, Ralph never bothered with the pretty stuff.
'Playing out from the back' would never have suited Ralph, he much preferred to 'put his boot through it' and often sent the ball high over our heads, into Marnham Road.
In those days, we never really knew Torquay’s team until just before the kick-off, but, as long as Ronnie Shaw was playing, we knew we had a decent chance of winning.
When we saw Ronnie arriving, we all got excited.
“Ronnie’s playing!” was the sign for us all to surround him.
Even though we had his autograph 20 times, we always wanted another one.
He was so patient that he would sign your book this week, right underneath the signature he gave you last week! He said little, but signed with a kindly smile.
Ronnie was balding, and very short, but he dribbled a football better than anyone else in Third Division (South).
He had a low centre of gravity, so could ride the tackles, and cross the ball with wonderful accuracy.
'Give it to Ronnie' would echo all around the ground, and Ronnie rarely let us down.
He spent his whole career at Plainmoor, and scored over 100 goals.
As we gathered around Ronnie, we had to keep our eyes open for a shy, quiet man who would try to slip through the door before we noticed him.
Sam Collins was just under medium height, slim, and, whatever the weather, usually wore a raincoat.
Hollywood heroes have strong chins and look you in the eye, whereas Sammy had almost no chin, sunken cheeks, and was always happier looking down at the pavement!
But, just like Superman, once he put on United’s black and white cloak, he transformed into a hero figure, and, usually, our match winner.
Between 1948 and 1958, Sammy scored 204 goals for United, and almost every one of them from inside the penalty area, and most with the side of his foot.
I can never remember him missing a penalty, and, although he was no threat from corner kicks, he was lethal with his head.
When Sammy headed the ball, you could see his neck muscles expand, and, in a flash of the forehead, we were one goal up!
In 70 years, I have rarely missed a match at Plainmoor, but, in all that time, I have never seen a goal poacher to rival the one and only Sam Collins!
Next week, I get a few more signatures in that autograph book.