Winston White provided one of my first ever footballing memories, despite the fact he’d long since left Bury when I attended my first game in 1988. Although I didn’t know the mechanics of what was involved, I knew that my dad went to a mythical place called ‘football’ on Saturday afternoons and that when he came home he’d either be happy or disappointed. On the occasions that he came back pleased with what he’d seen at this place whose description was entirely in my imagination, he’d sometimes sing "Winston White, dynamite."
As such, the right winger from Bury’s 1984/85 promotion season has always had a mystique about him. This was heightened further when he re-signed on loan in 1992. At the time when Gigg Lane was undergoing its biggest facelift since the 1920s, there was a distinct excitement in the air when Winston took his place on the bench for the match versus York in the chilly autumn half-light, but this short spell would disappointingly not prove as fruitful as his first.
White’s movements since retiring from the game had been lost since and he became one of the hardest players to find. His Wikipedia entry was the natural first port of call. It told me that he was working for a fitness equipment company, so, after finding their website, I called them to ask if they knew of his whereabouts.
They didn’t. In fact, I was told, Winston hadn’t worked for the company since the latter portion of the previous decade. Undeterred, my next step was the one that really should have been my first; I called Burnley Football Club, where Winston is also fondly remembered, and asked to speak to Veronica, their receptionist who also sits on the board of their former player association. After getting the numbers for former assistant manager Frank Casper and full back Terry Pashley off her, which I also needed, I dropped the Winnie request in with what I hoped was casual insouciance but which possibly came across as wild-eyed desperation.
It was a desperation that would still be going unfulfilled as Veronica didn’t have any contact details for him either. The press officer at Colchester United, another of Winston’s former clubs, was similarly in the dark.
Social media may have mobilised the protestors who rose up in the Arab Spring but it proved sadly lacking when trying to find Bury’s ever-present right winger from the 1984/85 promotion side.
Social media may have mobilised the protestors who rose up in the Arab Spring but it proved sadly lacking when trying to find Bury’s ever-present right winger from the 1984/85 promotion side. I tweeted pleas to football journalists on the Guardian and the Independent, asking them for help in finding Winston via the wonder of the Retweet button. Both did, but without any success.
I felt I had little option left but to unfurl the electoral roll. I asked a couple of former colleagues with access to www.192.com to have a look for Winston Whites in the east Midlands, where the man I was looking for was born and where I’d been told he’d moved back to. Manna from heaven, two positive results landed in my Facebook inbox the following day.
I dialled the first number confidently and full of expectation. It was an expectation that was soon to evaporate as I spent the next minute-and-a-half listening to the droning two-tone of a telephone not being answered. After deciding that if the number belonged to the Winston I wanted then he wasn’t in, I hung up feeling more than a little put out.
I regained the necessary effervescence and dialled the second number. It rang three times before being picked up. My stomach turned a quick backflip before the gruff voice at the end of the line asked "Hello?"
"Hello, is that Mr White?" I asked in my best matey voice, developed whilst working as a cold caller for Complete Kitchens at the bottom of Walmersley Road in the summer of 1998.
"Oh piss off," sighed my new best friend wearily, putting the phone down before I had the chance to explain that I wasn’t calling to tell him he could have thousands of pounds in PPI claims waiting for him or that our salesmen were in his area and ready to give him a free, no obligation quote on double glazing his entire house. Slightly shaken, I didn’t call back for fear of the Second Time Around Bollocking - another remnant from Complete Kitchens that had just reawakened itself from somewhere deep in my psyche.
Instead, I emailed Becky, who I studied Journalism alongside at the University of Central Lancashire and who used to work for the Press Association (PA). A few years ago, Winston had been covering games for the organisation; it’s their information that then goes to the BBC as live text commentary, which those of us who can’t get to the game or tune into a local radio station fall onto like a parched man onto a jug of water in a desert. Becky passed me on to Rory who then set to work in contacting the players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA.) A few days later, Chris Joslin from the PFA sent me an email with the tantalising news that Winston was living overseas but that if I sent him a message, he’d ensure that Winston White, dynamite, would receive it. So Mr Angry on the phone wasn’t him? Thank goodness.
I possibly laid it on a bit thick in the message but the sentiment shone through, I hoped. It was successful: on checking my email on my phone whilst having coffee on a drab Wednesday afternoon at work, my phone pushed through a message with the subject "Winston White here." Clenched fists, scrunched eyes, gritted teeth and plenty of mouthing of the word "YES!" followed.
Winston made it clear that he would help in any way he could, which was a huge relief. Having pledged to do each interview face-to-face in order to show the players contemporary reports of the matches they played in that season as well as other artefacts, I sent a message back asking where he was based and if it was do-able from Manchester. However exciting it may have seemed at first glance, it was with a sad inevitability that when he replied he was in Antigua, I knew I would have to wait until he was next in the UK to meet him. Winston agreed and told me he’d be in touch when he knew when that was. He asked me to pass his best wishes on to his team-mates from the season as one-by-one I met them and recorded their memories.
Three months later, after I sent him the occasional email just to keep me and the project in his consciousness, Winston came back to me with a time and place when he’d be in the UK. I immediately booked the whole week off work to maximise my chances of meeting him. His location was still yet to be confirmed but the cost of a train ticket didn’t matter now. This was actually going to happen.
After the sodden squib that was the pageant down the Thames and a baffling concert featuring Grace Jones hula-hooping in front of the gates to Buckingham Palace, I spent the early evening of the extra Bank Holiday given to us by the Queen to celebrate her diamond jubilee doing what many of my fellow countrymen did – I went to the pub with my mates. Three pints in and with the pleasant sense of wellbeing that’s so familiar to Guinness drinkers now coursing through my veins, I checked my email as I waited at the crowded bar to order and pay for my round. The Apple iPhone, that little black wonder that contains more computing power in the palm of my hand than that which sent man to the moon, downloaded and then opened a new message from Winston. It contained a mobile phone number.
Drinks didn’t matter now. I pushed my way past the other thirsty patrons of the Help Me Thro’ who were waiting to be served and into the quieter smoking area at the back of the pub. I rang the number and spoke to Winston, with more than a touch of effusiveness. After the short chat I stood in the drizzle for a moment, the chase now over. If I’d stretched my arms out, it could have been almost Shawshank-like but I didn’t. I serenely made my way back to the bar, figuratively floating, and bought drinks for my friends in celebration of a job well done.
We had arranged to meet the following Wednesday in Birmingham, where Winston would be staying in his time back in the UK. New Street station was the place, 11am the time. Given I could get a train that arrived just minutes before, it was perfect. Or it would have been if New Street wasn’t undergoing a long overdue refurbishment that took me through a warren of scaffolding to an unfamiliar exit. I doubted Winston would find me here so started tracing the perimeter of the station in an effort to find him. There was no way I was coming this close then letting the interviewee slip from my grasp.
As I was walking towards a man with the physique of a sportsman I was hoping was him, fifteen minutes after the time we’d agreed to meet, my phone alerted me of a text from him saying that he was by the heavily-hidden entrance of the station and he was wearing a blue top and tracksuit bottoms. I could now say with pretty much certainty that the sportsman’s physique that I was walking towards, covered by a blue top and tracksuit bottoms, was Winston.
It was the start of an interview with an enthralling, kind-natured man who loved Bury and the club’s fans.
Relieved, I shook his hand before we made our way to the Mailbox, the office block that houses the BBC’s midlands base, for a coffee. It was the start of an interview with an enthralling, kind-natured man who loved Bury and the club’s fans. Winston recalled the season in detail over coffee, lunch, more coffee and lastly a pint as five hours whizzed by. I got my picture taken with him, one of only two I had taken with the squad members, just to prove that after the long quest, the interview happened.
We said our goodbyes at the slightly down-at-heel pub where we had that pint and where I was due to meet a couple of former colleagues for a quick beer before heading home. After the door shut behind Winston, the landlord asked in a distinct Brummie twang "Was he a footballer?"
"Yeah, he was," I replied simply. I don’t think the publican would have cared much for the addition "He was one of the best for Bury in 1985," so I stayed silent. But he was.