The Forgotten Fifteen

How Bury triumphed in British football's worst year

Wilf McGuinness in Sale.

Wilf McGuinness

In his wonderful autobiography, Frank Skinner writes about the only criteria you need to satisfy when deciding which football club to support. He reasons that at about the age of seven or eight, you sit at the kitchen table with a map and a ruler, you find the closest club to where you live, you buy a scarf in their colours and that’s it, the deal’s done. In a roundabout way, I took this course of action too but I also had help from two external forces. One of them was my dad, the other was Wilf McGuinness.

By the summer of 1988, my old man had decided that the time was right for me to start going to the football with him. I hadn’t shown any particular interest in the sport, especially not after a dismal England performance at Euro 88, but with a junior season ticket for the old South Stand costing only £10 he decided to take a relatively inexpensive punt on it.

We walked down to the club on a blazing summer’s day in the close season to collect our tickets. The ground was feverish with anticipation for the new campaign that would begin against Wolves on the 27th August. While we were there, Wilf introduced himself to us. I don’t know if he could sense that football wasn’t especially important to me at that time, but he took me by the hand and gave me a guided tour of the ground. He showed me the corridors of power underneath the rickety old Main Stand and introduced a now-enraptured, seven-year-old me to the players.

This impromptu introduction to all things Gigg Lane may only have taken 15 minutes out of Wilf’s day job treating pulled hamstrings and sprained ankles in his capacity as physiotherapist, but it ensured that from that day on there’d never be any other club for me than Bury. Twenty four years later, when the same passion manifested itself in the idea for the Forgotten Fifteen, I was keen to speak to Wilf not only to find out his memories of the 1984/85 season, but to buy him a drink to say thank you.

Behind the jokes lies a modest man with an incredible gift for communicating his football philosophy.

As a frequent guest on BBC Radio Manchester, Wilf was easy to find through connections from the corporation that I’d kept after my time working there. We arranged to meet in a pub near his home in south Manchester and in a sunny beer garden I was able to gently push that pint that symbolised 24 years of gratitude towards him.

ince the testimonial that Bury granted him in 1990, Wilf had kept himself busy with a burgeoning and well-respected career on the after dinner circuit. In fact, many players said in my interviews with them how they often felt Wilf used them as a captive audience for his gags and anecdotes as they lay on the treatment table. It’s an understandable thought, as Wilf simply doesn’t turn off. The recording of our interview is full of brilliantly-told jokes and laughs from ten years’ worth of memories of life at Gigg Lane.

But behind the jokes lies a modest man with an incredible gift for communicating his football philosophy. Between the laughs, he told me about his role on the coaching staff of England’s victorious 1966 World Cup squad that I previously knew nothing about and how life after having to retire from playing so early affected him. As famously the last pre-Munich Busby Babe, McGuinness is obviously a man with Manchester United in his blood, but it’s a great source of pride that Bury sit comfortably next to the Reds in his heart.