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the square ball week: jailhouse john

the square ball week: jailhouse john

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Outside the West Stand, during pre-season in 1956, three Leeds United players — Grenville Hair, Royden Wood and Jacky Overfield — stop to sign the autograph books of two young Leeds United fans: Mac Brown, in the middle, and on the right, John Cave, who died last week.

That summer Leeds United were getting ready for the First Division, after winning promotion the season before. Between them, Hair, Wood and Overfield played 840 times for Leeds; Hair accounted for 474 of those himself. Not many people remember them now, though, although John Cave — better known in these pages as Jailhouse John — certainly did.

In his articles for The Square Ball magazine over the past few seasons, John remembered players like Hair, Overfield and Wood with the same enthusiasm he had when getting his scrapbooks signed by them as a fifteen year old boy. He would sometimes claim that his memory was going, but the 29 goals John Charles scored to fire Leeds to promotion in 1955/56 seemed as fresh in his descriptions as if he’d seen them scored yesterday; and as if he’d had the benefit of countless action replays of them all since.

He hadn’t. Among the many things that were different about Leeds United when John was growing up — there was no all-white kit, still blue and yellow; Don Revie was just a Manchester City striker; Jack Charlton had a full head of hair — cameras didn’t record the team’s every move. Those goals don’t exist on film; they exist only in the memory of those who saw them, and we have to rely on people like John to tell us about them.

John was always reliable when it came to The Square Ball, if reluctant. Since John died, there has been an outpouring of sadness, affection, and most of all appreciation for what he brought to the magazine; and if he’s been aware of it where he is, I hope the bugger now accepts I was right. Yes, people were interested in your memories! Yes, people enjoyed reading your articles!

John seemed to think sometimes he was out of place in TSB; that nobody reading would care about a match against Hull in the Second Division in the 1950s; that he didn’t have the writing skills or style some of the other writers had. He would send me a list of two or three possible article ideas, and ask which ones I thought people might be interested in. ‘All of them,’ I’d tell him, and they would duly arrive, always well ahead of the deadline. I’d email back: ‘Now, what else do you have?’

I would try to make him understand — and I think I eventually got through — that I didn’t care about his writing style, and that I would happily check the right spelling of Grenville (not Granville) Hair for him, because he had something none of our other writers had: a vivid recollection of an era at our football club that was both historic — the two spells of one of our greatest ever players, John Charles; the arrival of Don Revie as manager, Bobby Collins as captain, and the debuts of Bremner, Gray, Lorimer, Hunter and the rest — and nearly forgotten.

Football clubs are built on their histories and their communities of fans. I hope and I believe that John’s articles helped a younger generation of Leeds fans feel a little bit prouder, and a little bit more connected, at a time when pride and connections to the club have been in short supply.

John was as much a part of the modern, poorer era of the club as he was of its glory and pre-glory days. As chairman of Leeds United Supporters’ Trust he was proactive in the battle to rid the club of Ken Bates, presenting it as a business case to businesses and individuals he thought might have the interest or clout to takeover; he continued to advise LUST, and advocate for proper ownership and supporter involvement, latterly as part of the Leeds Fans United initiative. His one wish for Leeds United was that the club be as proud and self-respecting as it was in its greatest days; and he knew that, as time was not on his side, standing by and waiting for something to happen was not an option.

Who knows how long we’ll have to wait for our football club to be worthy of someone like John Cave again? And how much poorer it will be for us not to have him by our sides, in the John Charles Stand named after his hero, should the glory days come back.

Jailhouse John was many things to many people, but many of those people knew him best as a Leeds United fan, and that’s how many of us will remember him. It’s with great sadness that we say goodbye. But I’ve been thinking about something he told me about when he sent us this photo. He’d often referred to his scrapbooks and press cuttings as his teenage pride and joy, and the collection of programmes he kept after selling them before a game (he got in free that way, and to walk down the players’ tunnel), and I asked if he still had them all; what a treasure trove that would be.

No, was the answer: when John had come of age and moved to London, his mother had taken all his precious Leeds United memorabilia into the garden and burnt the lot. I was stunned by this news, as I think John must have been at the time, but it was soon clear that, with time, he’d got over the loss. After all, he might not have the signatures anymore, but he still had the memories. Plus, he said, his mum had needed the space.

I only hope we can take losing John as bravely, and be as grateful for the memories he shared. John, from all of us at The Square Ball, thank you.

••

Originally published in The Square Ball volume 26, issue 3.


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