Friday, 5 December 2014

A MARINERS LEGEND: CLARRIE WILLIAMS


THE article below was published in the Cleethorpes Chronicle newspaper in June, 2012.


WHENEVER he watches football on TV, one Cleethorpes man makes a point of keeping a particular close eye on the performance of the goalkeepers.

That is because Clarrie Williams, of Penshurst Road, was once a professional ‘keeper himself - indeed, one of the finest stoppers of his generation.

He enjoyed an illustrious eight-year playing career with Grimsby Town during which spell he was an England triallist.

Had his path not been blocked by the likes of Frank Swift (Bolton), Bert Williams (Wolves) and Gil Merrick (Birmingham), he might well himself have achieved international honours.

To this day, his achievement of only conceding 29 goals in the 46 matches of the 1955-56 season, when the Mariners won promotion from the Third Division North, stands as a Blundell Park record. Playing in every match that season, he kept no fewer than 25 clean sheets.

On his 21st birthday, he played against Fulham whose stars included Johnny Haynes and Jimmy Hill, the latter later  to enjoy fame as a TV pundit. Other notable opponents in a career that spanned the 'Fifties included Billy Wright and Ron Flowers, both of Wolves and England.

Now 79 and as genial and good-humoured as ever, Clarrie was born in Wardley, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the middle of one girl and four boys (all still alive) to Clarence and Alice Williams.

However, aged five, he left the North-east when his father, a coal miner, decided to move to South Yorkshire where prospects were better than the pit where he worked at Gateshead.

Soon afterwards, war broke out, and Doncaster was the target of frequent bombing raids as the enemy sought out to knock out the Harvester plant - home to the manufacture of tractors and other heavy machinery.

"We had to dash to the air raid shelter on more than one occasion,"he recalls. "One bomb landed just a couple of fields away from our home."
  
As a boy, Clarrie was an enthusiastic about all sports and played as a centre forward and winger for Doncaster YMCA.

However, YMCA were  taking such severe hammerings - on one occasion losing 10-0 - that he was persuaded that instead of scoring goals, his new role would be to stop his team from leaking them.

That move transformed his life. He proved to be such a natural between the goalposts that he was soon signed, as an amateur, to play for the reserves with Doncaster Rovers, then managed by Peter Docherty. 

Also at Rovers at that time was Charlie Williams, a skilful player and engaging personality who later earned a top reputation as a club comedian.

By this time, Clarrie had become an apprentice at Harvester, but his outstanding  performances with Rovers drew the attention of Grimsby Town, then managed by Bill Shankly, who duly signed him on professional terms.

His first wage was £10 per week during the season, reduced to £8 a week in summer - he made up his money by working as a labourer at the building firm, Would's, notably on construction of Dudley Street in Grimsby.

What are Clarrie's memories of Shankly? "He was a great manager.He was football-mad and a big disciplinarian - too much so for one or two of the players who soon left.

"There were very strict restrictions on when and how often we could see a film at a picture house or go dancing."

Training sessions were intensely physical - typically lots of running, variously on the streets, on Cleethorpes sands or up and down the terraces at Blundell Park.

There was very little ball work for any of the players, and Clarrie pretty well had to learn the techniques of improving as a goalkeeper by himself. 
  
He can still recall his first game away Crewe Alexandra which the Mariners won 2-1. As he remembers, any slight pre-match dressing room nerves nerves disappeared as soon he was out on the pitch.

"That is how it is with most players,"he says. "When you're out there playing, you just get on with the match."

Clarrie played in front of large crowds - invariably more than 16,000 at Blundell Park and sometimes more than 20,000.

Many of the home fans would arrive by bicycle, most leaving their machines on Harrington Street - though some canny householders used to charge sixpence (2.5p) for parking rights during the course of the match.

Ironically, the players had a clause written into their contracts forbidding them from cycling because of concerns that pedalling activity would strengthen the wrongs sets of leg muscles. 

Clarrie recalls playing all over the country - often at grounds where the crowds were almost on top of the pitch.

The Den at Millwall was an unwelcoming environment, but it seems football fans then were never as hostile as they sometimes are today.

Inevitably, the visiting goalkeeper would receive plenty of stick, but Clarrie remembers it more as "cheeky banter" than as abuse.

"It was all part and parcel of the game,"he says."If you couldn't take it in your stride, you shouldn't have been playing ."

One of his worst experiences came in a match against Liverpool at Anfield where he had to be carried off on a stretcher after a particularly bloody injury - ironically sustained in a collision with a team mate, Dick Connor.

Clarrie is  5ft 11in - relatively short for a 'keeper - but an advantage when it came to dealing with  low shots.

He was also unbelievably agile and had lightning reflexes which enabled him to pull off many breathtaking saves.

In these days, balls were much heavier, particularly in rain, but it least they did not swerve like their modern replacements.

Clarrie was also adept at claiming high crosses and corners - which often meant clattering into the beefy attackers and fellow-defenders lined up in front of him like a herd of buffaloes.

He describes effective punching of the ball as "a matter of timing" - always hoping that his fist did not make contact with the ball's  lace-up point which could result in a painful graze.

In those days, keepers' gloves were flimsy, hand-knitted string affairs - nothing like the sturdy and substantial, padded counterparts of today.

Also unlike today, games would seldom be postponed just because a pitch was frozen. Clarrie remembers one particularly icy match at Leyton Orient - the only time he played in tracksuit trousers.

"There was no question of calling the match off because the crowd was already in the ground,"he says.

In those days, the laws were far less protective of keepers and frequent bodily (or head) contact with the opposition's  burly centre forward (or the studs of his steel-like boots) was an inevitable feature of the 90 minutes.

But Clarrie could more than look after himself. If he felt an opponent had deliberately tried to hurt him or injure him, he made sure it did not happen again by offering a whispered warning: "Don't worry - I'll get you on the way back!"

Although the Cleethorpes man never played for his country, he did have the honour of representing a British Army XI. That came during his National Service when, after  basic training at  camps at Bovington, then Catterick, he spent an enjoyable 15 months as a tank driver in Hongkong.
  
Clarrie pays tribute to his wife of 54 years, Pat, for her support.  A Grimsby lass, educated at St John's Church School, then Carr Lane School (now the Havelock Academy), she used to work at Marks and Spencer's Freeman Street store  where she was star of the menswear department.

A sports enthusiast herself, Pat played both netball and badminton in her younger days.

The couple's first date was at the old Gaiety dance hall on Wintringham Road which used to attract many top bands.

Clarrie had to get permission from the club, while Pat borrowed sixpence from a friend for the admission.

Pat seldom saw her husband in action because she worked on Saturdays - with her free time being during Thursday half-day closing.

However, she became used to seeing her husband arriving home with all manners of gashes and bruises - and, on one occasion, a broken arm - because of the physicality of his profession.
   
"I recall one occasion when he was pretty well dragged to our  front draw by a couple of colleagues with his trousers covered in blood,"she says. "I never knew if he would still all be in one piece when he returned home!"

Following a transfer from Grimsby, Clarrie ended his playing days with two seasons at Barnsley before returning to Blundell Park for seven years where he was assistant trainer to George Higgins, bringing on a host of players, including legendary striker Matt Tees, plus goalkeepers such as Charlie Wright and Harry Wainman, the latter of whom he sometime still sees on the golf course. 

His younger brother, Derek, also played for Town, as did two cousins - Jimmy Thompson and Dick Young.

However, his football days ended on an abrupt note when, for financial reasons, Town decided to release him and the physiotherapist, Jimmy McCoy.

"We learnt the news not from the club but when we read it in  the newspaper,"says Pat with an understandable sense of indignation.

However, there was a silver lining to the end of  Clarrie's life in football because he  soon doubled his wages after landing a job as a process operative at Courtaulds where he worked for the next 28 years.

He played cricket - both batsman and bowler - for the works team and also took up golf. Both he and Pat are past captains at Cleethorpes Golf Club.

They both enjoy watching golf on TV, with Englishman Lee Westwood being  a favourite. (They used to admire Tiger Woods, but not so much now because he has somehow seemed incapable of shedding  his arrogant demeanour). 

The couple have two sons, Stephen, assistant manager for ABP  at Immingham Dock, and Michael who is a manager with Sainsbury's, currently working at heir Newark store. They, too, both played football, representing the Hartwell Ford works team.
  
The couple have six grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Because of the cumulative effect of wear and tear during his playing days, Clarrie has had several operations - including three on his hips and one on his spine. Even as player, he had to have a cartilage removed after overdoing a running stint at Wonderland.

"I am afraid it is the lot of many professional footballers to end up crippled to some extent or other,"he says wryly.

To get out and about, Clarrie now requires two sticks but he still enjoys being in the fresh air - particularly on the seafront where a walk sometimes ends with a bacon buttie at one of the local cafes.

What does he think of Joe Hart, England’s current first-choice man between the sticks?

“He's a very good goalkeeper,"comes back the knowledgeable response.

"He is confident, courageous, technically very gifted and has an excellent temperament."

The very characteristics that Clarrie displayed when he was a Mariners hero back in the Fifties.

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