Retro Sport: Tracking Plainmoor heroes of the 1950s

The elusive Bert Head

The elusive Bert Head - Credit: Roger Mann

It is a Saturday lunchtime in 1952, I am ten years old, and just one of a crowd of lads waiting outside a little door behind the main stand at Plainmoor.  

I have an exercise book in my hand, while others have smaller autograph books, or rolled up copies of the new Charlie Buchan’s Football Monthly, for the players to sign.

Eric Webber, Sam Collins, Ralph Calland, and Ron Shaw have already signed our books, and now, strolling down the lane towards us is the stocky figure of Tommy Northcott.

“Sign here, where I’ve written 'centre forward', please Tom,” I whisper.

Two podgy fingers grasp my pen, and I’m hoping it doesn’t smudge.

“There you are, lad, and enjoy the match!” he says as he hands my book back.  

We all wanted to be like Tommy Northcott!

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He was a Torquay boy, like we were, and had joined United from Hele Spurs. 

He was a tough, skilful, centre-forward who scored plenty of goals. 

In the 1950s, centre halves in the Third Division (South) were grim faced, and mean.

Almost all were giants who kicked man and ball whenever they could.

But, they met their match with Tom, and we cheered him to the roof tops! 

Next to arrive was United’s Mr Reliable, Dennis Lewis. 

To us, Dennis had always looked old, even though he was now only 27.

He was thinning on top, and had an older man’s bushy eyebrows.

But looks are deceiving, and Dennis played every week without fail.

He never seemed to miss a match, nor a sliding tackle!

These days you might class him as 'slow' but in the gentler pace of 1950s football, Dennis was the king of the heavy tackle, followed by the short pass.

He was a kindly, patient man, but had one pet hate... he didn’t like 20 autograph books pushed under his nose at once!

“That’s it!” he would say, “Unless you get into an orderly line” - and, of course, we obeyed straightaway.

Soon after Dennis disappeared through the door, we started to speculate just which players had still not arrived.

“Bert’s not come yet!” said one of the older boys, “and he’s getting a transfer!”

My heart missed a beat. I had only been collecting autographs since just before   Christmas, and I hadn’t got Bert Head’s autograph yet!

“When is he going?” I asked.

“Dunno! But that’s what my dad says!” was the reply.

In my book, I had written all the positions out in order, and I had no signature in the centre half space.

I decided that I would wait until he turned up, however long that took.

George Webber, was next to arrive, and he filled up the 'goalkeeper' space in my book, and defenders, Bill Towers and Dave Topping, soon followed him.

There was just ten minutes until kick-off now, and all the other boys had gone to the turnstiles, but my 'centre half' space was still empty.

As I stood there, on my own, a tall young man tapped me on the shoulder. 

“Who are you waiting for?” he said in a lovely soft Scottish brogue.

“Bert Head” I replied.

“You’ll be here a long time, son, he went to Bury last week” said the stranger.

Wondering how he knew, I asked him if he was a player, and he replied: “Yes! And I’m hoping to be good enough to take Bert’s place one day!”

I handed him my book, and in the 'centre half' space he signed 'Henry McGuinness – hoping to be good enough!'

Fourteen years later, I was running my own business, and had advertised for written applications for the position of storeman/driver.

As I opened the replies, there was an application from a Henry McGuinness.

I interviewed him, and, of course, I didn’t remind him of our meeting in 1952.

The soft Scottish accent was unchanged, and I promised to let him know if he had been successful.

When I signed his appointment letter, I added 'Hoping you’ll be good enough!' and enclosed a copy of the autograph he had given me all those years before.

We laughed about it, later, and he worked with me for many years, and ended up as my foreman... he had proved to be a wonderful substitute for Bert Head!

Tommy Northcott as he appeared in an early edition of "Charlie Buchan's Football Monthly"

Tommy Northcott as he appeared in an early edition of 'Charlie Buchan's Football Monthly' - Credit: Roger Mann

Some Torquay United players of the 1950s

Some Torquay United players of the 1950s - Credit: Roger Mann