He wore the number one shirt in every game of the 1984/85 season, but goalkeeper David Brown was the last of the surviving Forgotten Fifteen to sit in front of me with a voice recorder on the table picking up our every word. I pledged every interview would be face-to-face – and for this one, the project had to go continental.
The same newspaper article that gave me the briefest outline of Gary Buckley’s movements after retiring from playing also provided the skeleton of the quest to find David Brown mentioning, as it did, that he was now living in Italy. Let’s not underestimate that Italy is a big place where the name ‘David Brown’ presumably wouldn’t be all that common in amongst the Marios and Guiseppes and Robertos, but I still didn’t have a clue where to start.
Bury was the club at which Brown spent the longest time in his career, but with there being no record of his current address in the club’s archives, never mind a telephone number, the search had to begin from scratch. In the absence of a Wikipedia page for him, a website compiled by a Newcastle United fan told me that Brown began his career with Horden Colliery Welfare AFC in his native North East. It was a club Bury had dealings with before, when Colin Bell signed from them in the 1960s, but in the case of David Brown nobody from there knew how to get hold of him. Neither did anyone from Middlesbrough, his first professional club, or Oxford United, from where he signed for Bury.
A common thread of small talk with former players is to ask which of their former team-mates they’re still in contact with. It’s only natural as they’re essentially people you have in common, despite the fact that their former colleague knows much more about them than the fan in the Manchester Road End ever would. As the number of confirmed interview requests from former players rose, so I asked each time "I don’t suppose you know the whereabouts of David Brown, do you?" John Bramhall said that, having gone to the goalkeeper’s wedding in Italy in the summer immediately following promotion, he did.
As the former defender pored over match reports and chuckled to himself during the interview in his office at the PFA’s headquarters in Manchester, he handed me his Blackberry which had David’s number highlighted. It was a colossal string of numbers that I took great care to note down correctly; one wrong digit could be a catastrophic mistake. As I left the discreetly upmarket office block behind Manchester’s bustling Oxford Street that afternoon, there wasn’t just a spring in my step from another completed interview. There was also the added bounce of having written in my notebook the last phone number I needed. If I’d copied it correctly, of course.
Just hours after I left Bramhall behind, England began their Euro 2012 campaign. At half-time, as I imagined the ex-pat would still take enough of an interest in the game to be watching, I punched the long number into the phone. It began ringing that long monotone which meant I had connected with mainland Europe and was picked up. A female voice said what I can only imagine was the Italian for "Hello?" and I suddenly became the cartoon definition of an Englishman abroad who steadfastly refuses to learn the native tongue.
"HELLO," I said loudly, clearly and possibly patronisingly, "CAN... I... SPEAK... TO... DAVID... BROWN... PLEASE?" The recipient said something else in Italian but rested the phone on a hard surface as opposed to putting it back on the receiver. It was a promising sign and sure enough an Englishman picked up the phone and asked "Hello?" in an accent that still had the merest trace of its North Eastern origins.
David, like most of the players, sounded flattered to be asked to talk about an achievement that happened so long ago in his life. But he explained that unlike Winston White, the other squad member now living abroad, he didn’t travel back to the UK very much and so interviewing him in this country might not be workable. After taking David’s email address to give a degree of permanence to our contact, and after noting that the nearest airport to him was Federico Fellini in Rimini, the plan of a summer holiday in Italy began forming in my head.
Making a small village by the Adriatic a nice spot to get some sunlight on my face for a few days was an easy decision, so I went online to book the break. Various travel websites led to the charming little hamlet of Verruchio and the Oste del Castello hotel, while Ryanair did their best to fleece me with the dozens of add-ons to their so-called budget fare. The holiday wasn’t to be for another few weeks, which allowed for remaining players, management staff and fans to be interviewed in the interim. All the while, I excitedly knew that every player had now committed to the project and that the concluding factor of the interviewing process was waiting for me in the Italian sun.
David was one of the few players who was there for the whole story and in the fascinating two hours... he spoke candidly and brutally honestly about how both the playing and management teams... changed around him.
The bulky weight of my research, made up of a lever arch file containing copies of contemporary newspaper reports and photographs, meant that I’d have to take it abroad as hand luggage rather than sacrificing suitcase weight. At least it would provide something to read and re-read in departures at Stansted, where I worried to myself that the process of finding and arranging to meet David Brown had all gone far too smoothly and that something simply had to go wrong.
But on arrival at the hotel, and after calling him again to confirm the time and the place of the interview, there was no need to worry at all. At 12 noon on Saturday, August 11th, as Bury would be gearing up to play Brown’s first professional team Middlesbrough in the first round of the League Cup back home, it was agreed that David and his wife would make the short trip to Verruchio for the interview.
The holiday took the usual form of eating, drinking and being merry in the run-up to the interview, until the day itself when the nerves kicked in. As I sat in a delightful pavement cafe on a cobbled piazza drenched in sunlight, I was fidgety and couldn’t relax. I must have looked like an excitable dog when the postman comes to the door at the rumble of every car into the square, as I was sure it heralded the arrival of my interviewee.
Eventually, a car drove past us that I felt convinced belonged to the former keeper. I cautiously walked in the direction of the car park it had pulled into and was greeted by a gentle, kind man accompanied by his wife, who told me that he knew who I was and that he could tell an Englishman from 50 paces. I shook David Brown’s hand that had grasped so many Mitre Delta balls in the promotion season and we went back to the cafe for the interview.
The story of Bury’s triumph in British football’s worst year is not a clean-cut affair; it does not simply begin in the 1984 close season and end with promotion achieved with games still to spare in April 1985. To my mind, it begins on the last day of the 1982/83 season when Bury went into the final game knowing that a win against already-promoted Wimbledon would see them promoted too. A catastrophic 3-1 defeat was played out in front of Granada’s television cameras and preceded a wretched hangover of a season that would follow. It was a campaign which included a savagely demoralising 10-0 defeat to West Ham in the League Cup and Gigg Lane crowds plummeting to 1200. David was one of the few players who was there for the whole story. In the fascinating two hours that followed, he spoke candidly and brutally honestly about how both the playing and management teams that changed around him had plumbed the depths before they hit the heights.
After a commemorative picture of us together in the town square, (the emphasis on it being similar to the photograph with Winston White - to prove to myself that the encounter had actually happened after much chasing) , the Browns headed back to the English language college that they run. I ate the chocolates that my guests had brought and that night joined the throng in the same piazza for the Calici di Stelle ("Goblet of Stars") wine festival. Sipping my sparkling rosé as a swing band’s heavy bass reverberated around the square, the relief at the interviewing process being over and the excitement of the task lying ahead made me woozily giddy. Having spoken to all of them that it was possible to, the Forgotten Fifteen were finally going to get the recognition they deserved.