From ball boy to part-time player, youth coach to kit man, John Fleet knows The Alex inside out. Associated with the club for over half a century, he has played against Brian Clough, made two trips to Wembley and broken the Cheshire Senior Cup! There have been fall-outs, but he still loves the banter with the players…
“The old Cook’s garage was home in the early days, a flat above the showroom off Nantwich Road. I spent most of my time with a mate called Glynn Morris, knocking around the streets near to the Crewe Alex ground. Everything we did involved football, and there was a rough pitch behind the wooden stand that served as our playground. Lads from Gresty Road, Catherine Street, Bedford Street and Claughton Avenue all played there, often with Frank Blunstone and other members of his family. He was a proper Crewe man and loved this club. Even when he became famous he still came to visit, and he always said hello to us. We were a couple of ruffians, and we’d sneak through the fencing to see The Alex games. When they had officials on the lookout, we’d wait until 20 minutes from time when they’d open the gates. When we were ten we became ball boys, and we also earned a few pennies for collecting the teacups at half time. You get bits of plastic these days, but back then it was a decent piece of pottery!”
Modern football stadia are clean and safe, but it was very different in the early 1960s, especially in the lower leagues. “The visit of Tottenham Hotspur in January 1960 was a magic occasion. There were 20,000 people in the ground that day – officially! You couldn’t move. Looking back it wasn’t safe, but that didn’t matter to us. We just retrieved the balls that went over the stands or got stuck on the Gresty Road roof. The club only had two or three match balls in those days, so if one went out of the ground you had to get it back. Some got stuck behind the advertising boards that were bolted to the front of the roof. So we’d shin up the drainpipes, not a care for health and safety, and we could have fallen through that corrugated roof! We just did as we were told, and the crowd always shouted at you as you threw the ball back. It was brilliant. Then we started doing other jobs, like sweeping up, collecting kits for home and reserve games and pushing the wicker baskets of kit, towels and balls down to the train station when the team played away. We had to roll a massive container down the platform and load it on the carriage for the players and staff. They didn’t use coaches in those days, and always caught the train. Crewe was perfect for that. We even had to lock up when we got back to the ground, despite being just twelve years old. We got paid two shillings each week for two or three sessions of hard work. They were the best, carefree times of my life.”
Football was in John’s blood, and at fifteen he joined his lifelong friend Glynn and signed professional forms for his hometown club. “We started in the ‘A’ team that ran in those days, competing in the Cheshire League and later the North Regional League. My claim to fame was playing against Brian Clough. He’d been injured and was trying to get back to fitness for Middlesbrough, before he left to join Sunderland. It was a Tuesday night, up at the old Ayresome Park ground. He was a great player – tough but fair. Even then, still recovering from an operation, he stood out as a class player. He was the kind of man that inspired you, and I gained good experience from games like that. I also played in the Cheshire Bowl, a competition for The Alex, Stockport County, Tranmere Rovers and Chester. It was a tournament played at the end of the season, and clubs used those games to blood the younger players. So we got some competitive action and played in front of some decent crowds.”
Some bad news then halted any professional ambitions, but ensured that John earned a living. “I played football for the club until my early twenties, but they told me I wasn’t going to make the first team. The manager, Harry Ware, was good enough to be honest with us. My dad had always wanted me to get a trade, so I’d already started in the printing trade, working at McCorquodale’s down Catherine Street. So things worked out well for me, earning a decent wage and a few extra quid still playing part-time for The Alex. You could do that in those days, as the regulations were not as tight. You didn’t need to be signed on to get a game. If they needed you, then you could play. Soon after that I tried my luck at Port Vale. I didn’t make it, but you had to give it a go, as there was a real hunger to be a player. These days, I think a lot of that determination has gone. So as I got older I started to play in the local leagues. I had a lot of success but I always missed the better standard with The Alex.”
The desire to be involved never diminished and it wasn’t long before a role cropped up at the club. “I started working with Pat Slack in 1979, helping to run the ‘A’ team and an emerging youth team. The young lads were the better players from the town, ones that hadn’t been picked up by anyone. There wasn’t a big scouting network then, so keeping the local lads was easier. So I started to develop a youth team on Tuesday and Thursday nights. One of those lads was Clive Jackson, now the Nantwich Town director. He was a decent player, but his temperament let him down. Let’s just say he was in the referee’s book more than not! When Dario Gradi came in 1983 we started to structure things more. There was no magic wand, but everyone realised that progress was being made. There was a good atmosphere around the place for the first time in years. We could tell something positive was happening.”
The transformation was beyond all expectations, with high-profile player sales, promotions and trips to Wembley over the next decade. “By 1993 I was full time, and I took over from Horace Massey managing the kits and running some of the matchday preparations. We seemed to progress each year, and every season was exciting. Wembley ’97 has to be the highlight, as I’m sure many people say. Standing on the edge of that historic pitch, glorious sunshine, watching the final minutes tick by before the referee blew his whistle and we all ran on to celebrate with the players. It meant so much to them, especially lads like Steve Macauley and the goal scorer Shaun Smith. They were real pros that battled for a place from the non-league, so I could relate to them. They never gave in. A few years later they were worthy of their testimonials, and it was a real privilege working with them. Others were a great laugh, like Colin Cramb who was possibly the funniest man in football. Once, in the dressing room before a league game away at Grimsby, he got a piece of white sticky tape and changed one of the letters on Kenny Lunt’s shirt. I don’t have to spell it out! So Lunty played 90 minutes with that on his back and went berserk after the match. Cramby was just wetting himself as usual. Sometimes, I made them laugh. After we won the Cheshire Senior Cup final at Northwich in 2003, one of the officials handed me the beautiful silver trophy to carry back to the coach. It was like the European Cup, massive. I stumbled, dropped the lid, and the player that was fixed to the top snapped off. They were doubled up while I hastily got some Super Glue to fix it. Nobody ever noticed, so no harm done!”
Sadly no longer with us, John’s story first appeared in printed format back in 2009.
There will be a follow-up to the Crewe And Its People book later this year. Sign up HERE for monthly newsletters about forthcoming Crewe and Cheshire book projects, especially Crewe And Its People (volume II) scheduled for late 2016.