Life takes us to some odd places at times as the world changes around us. Who would have thought, as the clock struck midnight to ring in the new millennium on January 1st, 2000, that in ten years the future wouldn’t be heralded by flying cars but by 140-character stories written by your favourite celebrities called, bafflingly, Tweets?
That’s how it felt as I waited in the pre-arranged place for Leighton James. As the Forgotten Fifteen project had gathered momentum, I’d not expected to be sitting in the smoking shelter of a working mens’ club in Timperley. I’d not banked on summer rain hammering onto its corrugated roof as I waited for the club itself to open, so that the classy left winger and I could have a conversation about his only season at Bury over a beer. Instead, I’d fully imagined the exchange taking place in Swansea, where the inspiration for the Cardiff City fan ditty "Leighton James Don’t Like Us," now lived.
Leighton was another player whose number remained in my phone from a quick interview with the matchday programme. But on the couple of occasions that I tried to ring it to enquire after his availability for this project, my phone cut out before connecting. I took this to mean that he’d changed his number or that my provider was unable to reach the wilds of the Welsh valleys where I pictured him living, so I turned to social media for help.
Burnley’s former player association retweeted my plea for news on his whereabouts, which was ultimately replied to by his daughter Jemma who lived just a few miles from me in Little Lever. There’s Twitter in action for you, eh? It’s not just about finding out what DVD Wayne and Coleen Rooney are watching.
It turned out that the contact number I had was still correct but it was always better to try the landline, which Jemma subsequently gave me. I did so, got through first time, and promised Leighton I’d call back with a suitable time for us to meet. I’d need to factor in the purchase of early bird tickets for the arse-numbing train journey to Swansea and the possibility of a night in a Premier Inn too.
Leighton, however, had a plan. He told me he was due to fly off on his holidays in a couple of weeks from Manchester and that the night before his departure he’d be staying at his mother-in-law’s house in leafy Cheshire. Why not, he reckoned, do the interview then? I readily agreed, even though part of me fancied the longer fact-finding mission.
It had been raining all day when the time came to get on a tram, straight after work, to near enough the end of the line. The idea would be that I’d get to Timperley first, find a place to conduct the interview, call Leighton at his mother-in-law’s and then he’d come and find me and we’d have a chat. How could it fail?
The answer to that question is that it could fail quite spectacularly if you don’t know Timperley very well and you don’t realise that there are no pubs immediately in view of the station. I tried turning left at the top of the drenched steps from the platform first, but after a solid ten minutes trekking couldn’t find anywhere. I went back on myself, past the occupants of a bus queue I’d just walked past and who must have thought I really, really enjoyed walking in the rain, and headed in the opposite direction. There was still nothing, barring a small, squat building that had the look of a Scout hut. But inspection of the building’s sign, partially obscured by overgrown, dripping branches, revealed it was a club, albeit one not due to open for another twenty minutes. Beggars most certainly couldn’t be choosers on such a rotten night, so I took a seat undercover and called to let the ever-present winger know that I was in the area.
If there’s an image of Leighton James that I’ll take from that evening... it’s of him looking at a picture of Wayne Entwistle... [and] elongating the final syllable of his mucker’s nickname... "Ahh, Ent-eeeee!
The second part of our best laid plan had gone awry when it turned out that even though I was in town, Leighton wasn’t. The wretched weather had caused an accident on the M6 and my interviewee’s mother-in-law told me that he was stuck in the tailbacks caused by it. My heart sank a little, but there was no way I was going anywhere. I’d got so close to him without having to travel for five hours that this was a mere inconvenience rather than a reason to thrown in the towel.
I don’t think the steward of the club was expecting to find someone in the smoking shelter before he opened up that night. The Ladies Bridge evening had probably never caused queues before. After I explained my predicament, he ushered me in and even waived the non-members’ fee before pouring me a pint of Guinness. I settled down and went through my folders and books, as well as taking periodic glances at the battery meter on my smartphone as it gradually worked its way to 20% remaining. I resisted from mobile internet browsing whilst waiting for Leighton to call; it would have been just my luck to be without enough juice to take a call from him, having wasted all vestiges of battery power on Facebook and Twitter.
After three quarters of an hour spent watching two members play out an interminable game of darts and taking minute sips at the pint, he called to say he was on his way and that he’d meet me outside. After ending the call, I leapt from my seat in a manner more accustomed to someone who’d found a golden ticket in their chocolate bar wrapper and dashed through the rain outside to meet him.
I was sodden by the time he pulled up, which possibly gave me the appearance of something of a madman. However, in making obligatory small talk on the scurry back to the club and mentioning that he played in the same QPR team as my uncle, Brian Williams, we were firmly onside. We settled for a chat that uncovered some fascinating aspects of how such a renowned player – who’d been playing in the old First Division before signing for Bury – came to be starting the promotion season in front of 1400 people at Darlington.
The pictures of his team-mates stirred some terrific tales too. If there’s an image of Leighton James that I’ll take from that evening, it’s not him looking at the bedraggled interviewer who presented himself outside the working mens’ club. It’s of him looking at a picture of Wayne Entwistle, the Bury-born striker who had perhaps his greatest ever season in 1984/85 thanks in no small part to ‘Taffy’s’ crosses. My subject’s Welsh accent simply elongated the final syllable of his mucker’s nickname as he sighed and drifted off into his memories. "Ahh, Ent-eeeee!"