The Beckham of the Cobbles

Harry Potts – Margaret’s Story, by Margaret Potts and Dave Thomas, Sports Books, Cheltenham, 2006, pp. x + 310, and 64 pages of photographs/documents

Review by Alan Tomlinson

[This review is a longer version of a review that appears in When Saturday Comes]

Harry Potts played for and managed Burnley Football Club in some of its most successful periods from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, and managed the club again in some less successful times in the 1970s. This book combines the memoir of his wife Margaret with the broader context portrayed by football writer Dave Thomas. It is an engaging book, a richly illustrated portrait of a time and culture a million miles away from the economies and excesses of the post-1992 English football élite. As a boy growing up in Burnley in the 1950s and the 1960s, for me the success of Burnley Football Club was a taken-for-granted fact of life (I delivered the morning papers to the modest semi-detached residence of England internationals; the Potts’s daughter Linda was in the Girl Guides with my sister at the local church). Harry’s and Margaret’s stories just seemed normal. Margaret’s story as related in this book brings the time and the culture alive, though, locating biography in history, and conveying the excitement and adventure of the success of the small-town club and its national success and European adventures.

Harry left his home of Hetton in North-East England, playing for Burnley before and after war service as a Physical Training instructor in the RAF, where he met boxer Freddie Mills and cricket legend, Brylcreem Boy Denis Compton. He played for Everton after his Burnley playing career was over, and coached, managed and consulted at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Shrewsbury Town, Blackpool and Bury, as well as Burnley. The North-East Lancashire club and Turf Moor were his base, though, to which he continually returned with local girl Margaret. Harry died in 1996, after suffering from Parkinson’s Dementia. Even up to his death, he would relive games and goals and memories, replaying them in his nursing home with a boyishness that he never seemed to have lost. This is a gracious book, in which few have a bad word to say about Harry: he may have exuded boyhood charm, but he also generated loyalty from generations of players who saw in him an ideal combination of surrogate father and gentlemanly dignity.

Which isn’t to say that Harry was a soft touch. A lifetime at or near the top in professional football takes survival skills and a tough hide, and Margaret’s Story reveals the complex contradictions behind the gentlemanly courtesies of Mr Potts the manager. Harry was enraged, as a manager, when he thought that his players and teams had been cheated, or got a raw deal from some referee (a routine injustice, it seems, on the European trail); but as a player Harry was the diver of his day, tumbling forward unlikely yardages to claim to have been felled in the penalty box. Harry was the charming and supportive family man, but rarely at home; his love was the training ground, the talent-spotting journeys, the deals to be struck. Harry was a trained sports professional, with his RAF pedigree, his well-earned coaching qualifications, and Burnley’s pioneering training facilities and practice drills; but in his later days he lampooned sports science-based analyses of the lack of physical conditioning of professional footballers. Harry was the glamour boy of his day, all blond hair, smiling good looks and public charm; but the personification of the Protestant Ethic at work, and ascetic at home. Toasted crumpets, Dick Barton on the radio, Ovaltine or cocoa and bed at 9 o’clock was a typical evening in for Harry and Margaret in their early days: ‘he needed a lot of sleep, his mother said. If there was a match on Saturday there was no sex after Thursday’. Margaret’s apparently innocent but acidic asides are targeted at a considerable rogue’s gallery: her battleaxe mother-in-law, Burnley’s infamous chairman Bob Lord (and his wife), Potts’s captain of the 1959-60 championship team Jimmy Adamson (who was to usurp Harry as Burnley manager). But the book never slides into sentimentality or hagiography. Harry was also the nearly-man, hitting the bar at Wembley in the Cup Final of 1947, managing Burnley to the championship too soon in season 1959-60 Burnley, and then to the ‘lost’ League title and FA Cup double of 1961-62 when ‘homespun’ Burnley lost the Wembley final to glamorous Tottenham Hotspur. But on the whole he was a winner. The road outside Turf Moor was renamed ‘Harry Potts Way’ five years after his death. Harry Potts – Margaret’s Story documents the changing football culture in England and the UK. Once ‘little’ (a widely used adjective in the book) Burnley could still compete with the metropolitan powers: the domestic and familial stability of Margaret, born and raised in the town, widow of Burnley’s ‘Beckhamesque figure amongst the cobbles’ (p.7), is testimony to a culture of locality and loyalty that is increasingly rare in the money-ridden culture of celebrity that characterises the modern, globalised game.