The rain was belting down as I reversed off my drive. Checking the rear window for any traffic I noticed a very well-dressed, suited gentleman emerge from the house across the road.
It was a split-second thing. I was drawn to this figure as he got into his car.
Where on earth had I seen him before?
It was 1987 and I was living in Doncaster, not that far from the racecourse and Belle Vue, the home of the local ‘legends’ Donny Rovers.
I’d agreed to uproot my family for a year from the beautiful Scottish Borders to come and work in a pioneering nurse education programme. We were missing our hills, rivers and glens and, to add to that, the Lads had been relegated to the Third Division for the first time in their history. The acrid taste of tragic defeat in the two play-off games against Gillingham (both of which I had witnessed live) was still fresh in my throat.
The traffic jam that constituted my journey to work was calling and off I went.
To placate me after our relegation, I had negotiated a green light to go to any away games within an hour or so’s travelling time of Doncaster. Little did the Queen of Logic realise that our new home was and hour or so from a plethora of grounds, a lot of which I’d never been to, despite being a regular away traveller.
That season I saw 10 away games and never saw us get beat, a sharp contrast to the previous season where I never saw us even take a point. Shangri La... despite the yearning for the hill’s rivers and glens of ‘home’.
Twice more I spotted the besuited older gent in my rear window as I was leaving home over the next few months, and on every occasion I had that same nagging feeling... Where had I seen him before?
An enjoyable season in the Third Division
The 1987-88 season was drawing to a close. It had been a sticky start, but Denis Smith had raided his former club York for a relatively unknown forward we all came to know as ‘Ole Ole Ole Ole, Marco, Marco’ and injuries had seen him paired with the ageing Eric Gates, who had been a disappointment since his arrival from Ipswich in the Lawrie Mac era.
The ‘G Force’ was born almost by default and things kind of took off in the second half of the season. As a partnership they were prolific that season, scoring 40 goals between them.
Interestingly our third highest goalscorer that season was John MacPhail, another Smith recruit, who netted 16 goals – 11 of which were penalties. Not a bad haul for a centre half. (Oh, for that kind of return today!).
Coming toward the end of the season, a rescheduled midweek game against Mansfield Town beckoned – and Field Mill was another ground I had never been to.
A tough day at work and persistent rain was dampening my enthusiasm, but I donned my scarf and jumped into the car for the hour’s drive.
As I was pulling away, I once again saw the well-dressed gent in my rear window.
He moved with military precision, but as I took a second glance I noticed that this time there was two of them.
They looked like brothers. They looked like Mafia Dons. Suited, upright, purposeful.
I could not shake that feeling I had seen one of them before. They were very alike and of similar stature... but ‘come on Kelvin man, you have a game to get to!’
The delights of a ‘real’ football ground
Field Mill was a delight, but not because of its corporate hospitality, neon lights and flashy scoreboard. Field Mill was one of the oldest grounds in the Football League and the game had been played there since 1850. Incidentally, from 1984 to 1986 the short-lived Mansfield Marksman rugby league outfit had also played there.
Field Mill’s charm, even beauty, that night is a picture I would paint, if I had one iota of artistic vent.
Despite being churned up by rugby league players for two years, and the deluge of rain, the playing surface looked not too bad.
Mansfield were in danger of relegation and their experienced manager Ian Greaves was applying all his nouse to keep them up.
They also had a player called George Foster, a centre back who I had always thought might have been worth a gamble for our squad. Foster distinguished himself as a scout upon retiring from playing, working for Wolves, Stoke and Coventry before taking the role of Swansea’s European scout, where he unearthed a number of gems for the Swans.
Despite Mansfield’s perilous position, they played a very open attacking game.
They fashioned a couple of good chances, and I recall a John Kay clearance and a good save by Iain Hesford.
However, at that time we had a team that seemed more than happy to join in an open, attacking game, and a manager that was happy to facilitate.
We went in front within the first 10 minutes, Marco setting up Gatesy after a bit of a faux pas between two Stags defenders. Colin Pascoe, who played well on the night, set up Marco for the second goal before half time. A typical Marco goal – a clever pass into space, and the youngster sped away to lob the keeper.
The second half resumed, and Sunderland were kicking towards their massed ranks in the open end behind the goal.
Marco was red hot that night, a bundle of pace. strength, clever running and sharp passing.
Frankie Gray was another cultured performer, a skilled attacker and defender who quietly got on with his ‘knitting’ to good effect.
Gordon Armstrong set up Pascoe for the third. Armstrong looked a mile offside, but Pascoe deserved his goal. Mansfield kept plugging away and could have had at least a goal or two to their credit.
Just toward the end of the game John MacPhail found Gatesy with one of his cracking long balls which was despatched for Eric’s second goal of the night. A cracking team performance with the G Force at the fore.
Plucky Mansfield did mange to stay up that season and, of course, we went on to win the title with a record haul of points.
For the record the team that night was Hesford, Kay, Gray, Bennett, MacPhail, Doyle, Lemon, Pascoe, Armstrong, Gates, Gabbiadini. Subs Cornforth, Atkinson.
Just who is the fella over the road?
A good night, good football, two teams at it and great good-natured banter and noise from the travelling support – and with the loyal home support, who stuck with their team to the finish.
A quick beer with some mates who had travelled across from Manchester, into the car and off home in the calm of a moonlit but foggy night.
I pulled up on my drive about an hour later around midnight and was just gathering my wallet, coat etc, when my rear window filled with light.
It was the gentleman from across the road… the Mafia Don.
His lights go out and he steps out of his car, just as I do.
We look at each other and again I get that now eerie feeling. ‘I know you’.
“Good Evening,” says he; I detect a Scottish brogue. “Hi there” says I, distracted by my frustration… Who the hell are you?
Two weeks later, I’m heading to Rotherham, a short trip for me.
With scarf on, I am caught on my driveway by the gentleman.
“Good luck” says he, followed by “Ha’way The Lads”.
Off I go again, looking through the rear window as frustrated as ever with that nagging feeling of recognition, but not naming this intriguing character.
I resolved to knock his door if I did not bump into him as soon as I could. This was driving me bonkers!
The next day, Don Vito Corleone is mowing his front lawn.
Armed with a fictitious task, out I go. I introduce myself and ask how long he has lived in the neighbourhood.
He tells me, but quickly cuts to the chase, “I thought you had come to ask about my brother. He still follows the Lads you know.”
I stammer like a boy at the headmaster’s door. Don Vito realises I do not, in fact, know who his brother is.
Revealed: the identity of my mysterious neighbour!
Like the gentleman he was, Mr Watters (as I always subsequently always called him) put me completely at ease.
We enjoyed a gently humorous relationship over the next few months I was there.
He delighted me with some humble, funny stories about his brother Johnny – of whom he was clearly proud.
Johnny had played for Celtic as a young man. The war interrupted his career as active service in the Royal Navy called.
A highly-rated schoolboy forward, the war possibly stole his best playing years. Serving six and a half years as a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy, he returned home to qualify as a physiotherapist.
In 1955 he joined Sunderland, where he served with skill and as a recognised ‘character’ throughout the club for 30 years.
Jimmy Montgomery recounts the story as a 15-year-old of being courted by Burnley who had invited him across to Turf Moor five weekends in a row.
Having returned from the fifth weekend, there’s a knock on the family home door, and there stands Johnny Watters with Monty’s former schoolteacher Alfie Lavender.
They had come to persuade Monty to sign for Sunderland.
The next day Monty went down and signed.
Monty also acknowledges that the whole of his Sunderland career, which spanned 19 years and 623 appearances, Johnny Watters, the lab-coated pipe-smoking physio looked after him.
Mr Watters told me that Johnny, not content with getting him a ticket for the 73 Cup Final, had come and sought him out after the game and taken him into the hub of the team’s celebrations. Seems like it was mutual respect for the Watters brothers.
Johnny Watters died aged 92 in 2012.
I was sorry to miss this announcement at the time of his death. I missed the opportunity to pay my respects.
I think of Johnny Watters every Remembrance Sunday.
He very probably sacrificed his best playing days to the war and service in the Royal Navy.
His Celtic career was short lived, his 30 years’ service to Sunderland unprecedented.
The next time you are watching your 73 FA Cup final video and they pan to the bench, keep your eyes peeled for Johnny Watters, the Mafia Don lookalike.
He’ll probably be smoking his pipe and scouring the field for any sign that his Lads might need him.
And, always remember to check your rear window before pulling away.
You just never know what or who you might see...