BERRY ME UNDER THE BOOTHEN

As one of those condemned kids left on that rail at the front of the Boothen during the late 1980’s, I did see George Berry play. But only a few memories are lodged securely at the back of my mind: the haircut, obviously; his stand-out commitment on those muddy pitches; the physical presence bursting out of that Cristal Tiles top; those shortest of shorts.

But the real legacy is that affectionate chant emerging from many a manly mouth – ‘Oohh Georgie Berry, Oooh Georgie Berry!’ Those miserable sods around us cursing Mick Mills, Dave Bamber, or life in general, even forced smiles for that one.

Nearly 30 years later, George Berry is a dream to interview. When he’s not making you laugh, he’s making you think. At other times, he leaves you marvelling at his love of the game which has defined his life.

Before all of that though, I tread carefully. It is his Friday night, after all.

“How long have you got George?”

“How long do you need?”

“Even half an hour would be great…”

“Fair enough, let’s get cracking then.”

Two hours later I leave the hotel car park, absolutely buzzing.

His enthusiasm is warming and his grounded honesty is more than just a romantic throwback – the man knows no other way.  Unlike many supporters, but like many ex-pros, his memory of games/goals/scores is hazy. What do survive though are the bonds and the memories.

It’s not often you meet a current or player or manager whose sees the world just like we do. There is a long list of those chosen to sport our red and white stripes, but of those, this man’s passion for football, for the city of Stoke-on-Trent and for Stoke City Football Club is possibly unrivalled. He even lives in lofty Penkhull – the perfect vantage point from which to cast a lovingly watchful eye on the place he’s called home since 1982.

His is quite a story.

He can talk for England. In theory, he could have played for them. He was also eligible for West Germany and Jamaica. He did play five times for Wales. More importantly, he appeared 237 times for us, until his 1990 departure. Many of his 27 Stoke goals came from the penalty spot, whenever he had the chance to take a break from all things centre-half.

Half-way through the interview, Berry’s son, Marcus, arrives. He’s clearly a big Stokie – his jacket displays the club badge and he is soon pestering his old man about tickets for the next day’s tussle with Aston Villa at the Brit. Senior Berry can’t make it and this irritates him, but duty calls – he’ll be at Accrington Stanley (working for the PFA), where he’ll be overseeing the award of League Two Player of the Month.

Marcus is a chip of the old block in the humour stakes. He has also clearly studied his father’s career closely – Wolves matches from the early 1980’s have been devoured via VHS video tapes. Within minutes, he recalls a favourite childhood memory, following his dad’s 1990 testimonial at the Victoria Ground, against Port Vale. “I was in the executive box, with my mum and other members of the family. We saw him get subbed before he decided to jump into the Boothen End. He was mobbed! It was like a swarm of flies homing in on him and we were really worried. After the game, he eventually came to find us. He turned up in his full kit, wearing a bowler hat and Stoke scarf, whilst holding a can of Bass! He didn’t even like Bass!”

Surely a future epigraph, that?

ou were born in Rostrup, West Germany – tell us a bit about those early days…

My Dad was stationed over there, serving in the British army. I remember as a 3 or 4 year old attending kindergarten – I spoke a bit of German but not much. I understand more when others are speaking it. And let’s face it I struggle speaking English, never mind German!

And then came the move to Wales…

We moved to Mountain Ash in south Wales – near a typical mining community.  At school, the new language issue took some getting used to.  My Welsh mother is from a huge family – 1 of 13 brothers/ sisters/cousins, so I was looked after down there. There was also a sizable black community in Cardiff, which was new to me and did help in terms of settling in and finding my feet. I felt more in tune there. My dad was a massive West Indies cricket fan and all of the Welsh folk down there were big into rugby, so my future football interest would disappointed them  – I think they just thought ‘oh – the poor lad!’

My own 2 brothers were athletic as well – they played sports to a decent standard at university.

Was playing for Wales a proud experience then?

Mike Smith (who also managed Hull I think) called me up first then Mike England took over. It was unbelievable for me. I was still a baby at 20, playing for Wolves. I received the letter – I was the first black player to be called up by Wales. It was all over the press.

My debut was against West Germany at Wrexham’s Racecourse ground – there were 30,000 there.  The place was full and we got beat 2 nil. They were a great team – Karl-Heinz Rummenigge played, amongst others.  We would lose 5-1 in the reverse game over there. These were Euro qualifiers – for the 1980 Championships.

You moved to Blackpool aged 8… good memories?

Hard times hit for dad and he said he would never work down the pit. Honestly – dad opened an atlas one day, his finger roamed around for a bit and then landed on Blackpool……..bang! So that was that! He was a master cabinet maker and French polisher – what he touched turned to gold in his workshop. Also, I was the only black child again, but by then it did feel isolating. There was bullying and you had to stand up for yourself.

Dad would see me crying at home after taking some stick and he would just tell me to toughen up – so I did. He was keen on boxing and the discipline that comes with it. I became ‘cock’ of the school and dealt with it that way. I could be a handful at school – I was quite bright and I wasn’t a bad lad but I could be hard work. I was a bit lairy and boisterous – not in the classroom as much because Dad wouldn’t stand for that. But outside of school, on the streets with mates…….I could be a lad.

How did you got into football?

Blackpool had their equivalent of the ‘Ladsandads’ we have in Stoke. It was all organised by a local policeman called Roy Parker- his own lad played. I played for Bispham Juniors and the whole scheme grew gradually with more and more teams over the years. The brother-in-law of Alun Evans (who was playing for Liverpool at the time) ran one of the under 10 teams and I was playing for the under 12’s then.

Evans popped down for a visit one Sunday morning and he was asked to check me out. He spotted me and said ‘he can play.’ He recommended me to Richie Barker, manager of Wolves. I think recommending me to Liverpool would have been more of a risk to his reputation!

Wolves were your first professional club – were there other options?

Dad was impressed with the way Wolves approached it all – they were straight down the line. Other clubs were interested and tried to charm us with promises of a colour television! He told them to take a hike!

Wolves invited me down for a trial and wanted to sign me straight away – they were a top team in those days. I was fairly good at tennis and boxing, having represented Lancashire but I obviously chose football. Dad wanted me to do A-levels and go on to university but it wasn’t for me. He was distraught when it came down to it. Aged 16, I took my last O-level at school on the Friday and then played for the Wolves 4th team the next day.

How tough was it for you when you first went to Wolves as an apprentice?

Oh God it as tough. I came from playing for Blackpool schools, which obviously meant every one of the team was the best from their own school, so I was walking around like this (George does a good impression of a tough-man walk at this point – think Liam Gallagher giving it the big one). But the move to a professional football club was unreal – I went from being a big fish in a little pond to being surrounded by big fish, just like me!

It was hard – no longer are you head and shoulders above your peers. Competition was fierce. There were three other good centre halves in my age group. As apprentices, we cleaned up: changing-rooms, terraces, boots….the lot. It was strict and a good grounding. It was all about looking up to the first teamers. You had to knock on the door if you needed to speak to one of them. You’d be nervous, then. Unlike nowadays with academies, there were 4 teams: two youth, the reserves and the first team.

If you ever got the chance to even train with the second string, it was amazing. If you were good enough and you really wanted it, your journey was mapped out for you, but boy, did you have to earn it and take some knocks along the way. It was all about making progress and making the next step up the natural path.

You made your professional debut at 18 – a special day?

It was at an end of season game at Molineux against Chelsea, in the old Second Division. Both teams had recently been relegated and we were top of the table, with them just behind. If it ended a draw, we’d go up as Champions and they would join us in second place. It did finish that way, but honestly it was a proper, competitive game! I got man of the match.

The pinnacle of your time at Wolves must have been beating European champions Forest to win the League Cup in 1980…

It was a huge shock – Forest were the top team in the country then. They had won the previous two finals as well. I remember three things. The biggest memory was the noise and the long tunnel at Wembley (he’s up out of his chair again, demonstrating the scene). From deep inside, it was deathly quiet – almost eerie. Then, seriously I took 1 or 2 small steps and bang!  Wow… it was absolutely deafening. The sound was horrific on the ears and the hairs on my neck shot up. There were nearly 100,000 there. (I inform him that Vinny Overson describes a similar memory before our Autoglass triumph in 1992 – George of course was there and remembers this well. Marcus then jumps in and tells how Wolves barely left their half in the second period and were absolutely battered but managed to hang on!)

Memory 2: I went into their dressing room after the match to swap shirts with their right-back Viv Anderson. I knocked on the door and who opens it……..Brian Clough! He said ‘Come in son, eh you lot (to his Forest team) – this was a centre half performance today. Well done son!’ He was great bearing in mind they’d just lost! It was a route one goal as well – Andy Gray beat Peter Shilton to grab the winner.  I sprinted on to the huge cinder track to celebrate with him. The lactic acid in my body was agony. I should have just waited until he got back and shook his hand – I was shattered from that moment!

Memory 3 was personal to me. It’s a sad one. My dad died on the day of the game, aged 58. He’d been ill when I left a few days before to prepare for the final but he went into hospital the day before the game and this information was kept from me. I would have gone home and not played if I’d known.

I look back on it all with mixed feelings – I didn’t even find out until the following Monday, after the open top bus tour, that we’d lost him. I had a major problem with guilt. I should have been with him. I was angry with my family for a long time. It was horrible.

It wasn’t until years after that I’d embraced the enormity of what I’d achieved – I even got man of the match in that final.

You left 2 years later after Wolves went down. Why come to Stoke and what do you remember of the transfer?

Wolves had built a new stand and I think they were in financial trouble. But Ian Greaves was then manager and he had bought another centre half – his knees had gone but he was given a 3 year contract! I was told I could leave.

They had had been my only club – it was tough to take. I’d won Player of the Year and I’d settled in the area – I thought I’d never leave the place. He just pulled me in one day and said he had to cut the wage bill – but he would give me a free transfer as thanks for my service. I was speechless. I was the fall guy.

Within days, Richie Barker the Stoke boss was in touch. He called me and asked me to visit him – it was all arranged within a couple of weeks. It was only a short distance away but that didn’t matter to me – which ever club I played for, I would have moved to the area – that was important to me. You need to understand the people you are playing for.

But I had reservations: the pitch at the Old Vic was awful, the river Trent stank and the fans were horrible to the opposition.  The crowd was close to the pitch and when they went for you, they went for you. They gave you a welcome and a half. At Wolves, when we knew we had Stoke away at the weekend, we’d all be moaning all week!!!!

I hated visiting the Vic until I was a Stokie – and then I loved it.

Scoring on your debut in a win against Arsenal isn’t a bad way to start?

Apparently, I missed out on scoring the fastest goal of the season by a few seconds. It was great. I blew kisses and the lot! I think the fans took to me from that moment on and I loved it. I felt I understood the mentality of Stoke-on-Trent people, having come from a similar background in South Wales. The people had to graft to earn an honest day’s pay.

Look at the Potteries back in the day – down the pit, in a pot bank or at a steelworks – there’s no easy option there is there? Therefore on the pitch, they would expect you to put in one hell of a shift. And if you did, they’d be on your side. Whether you played well or not, they’d have your back. But if you slacked, they’d kill you!

I always felt blessed – I knew damn well how lucky I was to be in that position. I made a point of explaining this to players who joined the club over the years. I would just say ‘Listen – I’ve had some terrible games here but they’ve always stuck by me because they know I will sweat blood for their club. Every single one of those fans would give an arm to play on that pitch so go out there and do your best for them. However badly you’re playing – it doesn’t stop you from running, tackling, closing down or wanting the ball.’

I knew the supporters would give anything to have the chance that I had.

It started well at Stoke but went a bit wrong when Richie Barker was sacked and Bill Asprey took over. Why did he make you train with the youth team?

I was captain at the time. I knew where I stood with Barker and that suited me. He told you as it was. Given my upbringing, that was fine for me. He’d tell you man to man what he wanted and what he thought about you. Some of the other players couldn’t handle that. Imagine in the pot bank answering back to the boss telling you to pull your weight – you have to take a rollocking.

There’s two ways to react to that – prove him wrong or walk away. He treated us all as grown men – none of the arm round the shoulder stuff. The press asked me what I thought about Barker’s sacking and as captain, the press asked for my view. I told them that the players had to take some responsibility but there are others who needed to take a look in the mirror as well. I think Bill Asprey might have taken this badly and sent me to the youth team for training.

You went out on loan to Doncaster – did that upset you?

We were in the First Division – I was on my way back from injury. Man City in the division below wanted me on loan but I wasn’t interested. After Bill Asprey got the job, he took the captaincy away from me and told me I wasn’t part of his plans. I said ok then, you’re the boss. I told him that I had 2 years left on my contract and that I bet I would be here longer than him! That didn’t endear me to him! The next day he called me in and said he wanted to send out on loan to Bury. I told him I wanted to stay at Stoke, so he said you can play with the kids.

My brother lived in Doncaster and in the end it was convenient to play a few games there.

At least you did end up missing some the horrific 1984-85 season though…

Yes, but not enough! It was horrible, believe me. The whole thing. We never left the house. I’d only ever go out if we’d won or drawn anyway. Why would I go out with my wife/family/mates if we’d lost – what was there to celebrate?

So for almost a whole year, we were housebound. My wife would be waiting to go out for a meal on a Saturday evening but I’d say no chance to that. What if fans paying good money to watch the team bumped into me- they’d be furious asking why they paid to watch that rubbish – and they’d be right.

Mick Mills came in and made you penalty taker and then Alan Ball followed – what are your memories?

I liked Millsy – he was quiet, but he was like a breath of fresh air. He was human and he made me captain again!

I made myself penalty taker actually – I just stepped up. When Bally came in, he was shocked and wondered why the hell I was on that duty! My Stoke career ended under him so the memories aren’t absolutely brilliant to be honest but we had some cracking times, too.

After Christmas he told me he’d soon be letting me go. He said if he used me, he used me – but just try and enjoy the rest of the season. I was gutted. A while later when I signed for Peterbrough, we bumped into the Stoke squad. Stoke had West Brom away and we were getting picked up by our team bus from the same hotel near the motorway in West Bromwich where Stoke were having their pre-match meal. I got talking to some of the old Stoke boys, and then Bally saw me as I was waiting for the coach. He said he regretted letting me go a year too soon!

Is it true the down-time for players was always fun under Bally?

Oh, let me tell you – Bally loved a trip to Jersey.  We had pre-season AND post-season tours down there! One night, he kept us in this fisherman’s pub right near the sea. He wouldn’t let us leave, so we were there drinking all night. I’ll never forget this – we were drinking Calvados – trust me it’s a hot taste. We were hammered and shattered but we couldn’t escape – he virtually locked us in, ha ha!

Eventually, when it reached about 5am, we found out why. He made us wait until the last of the night fishermen returned home, packing up their gear after a long night at sea. Then he said ‘Right lads – look at them – look at what they are having to do to earn a living. Never, ever will you lot have to work as hard as they do. Just you remember that!’

So we waited all that time to watch them sort their boats out and for him to say that! He wanted us to remember how lucky we were. It worked to be fair. It was quality from Bally!

You and Steve Bould used to scare attackers a bit when you teamed up. Did you enjoy being able to put a reducer on an attacker early in a game and not get a yellow card?

It was just standard procedure for me! Bouldy was different initially – he went away on loan to Torquay as a kid to toughen up and let’s just say it worked. He came back two months later – he left a boy and returned as a man! A proper bloke, and what a good player. A proper Stokie, is Bouldy.

Was playing at Stoke the most enjoyable time in your career?

I had some great times at Wolves – Player of the Year, League Cup win, and I made my international debut whist at Molineux. I’m grateful for all that and will never forget the part that club played in my life. But looking back now…..I was just a baby then. Just a kid. I went there aged just 16. For those two weeks before I signed for Stoke, I was confused and worried about my future.  But then Barker told me I would love it at the Vic – that I’d love the people.

The move made me grow up, to become a man. So from then on I appreciated every single day of my career. I enjoyed every aspect of my time at Stoke – the matches, training, having a beer in town, the community and charity work – all of it. When I look back at the clubs I played for after Stoke – I did the rounds – it was great and the fans were always good to me, but it was never the same elsewhere as that Boothen End.

Tell us about the red nose (against Sunderland, I think)……

It was Red Nose day. I played with it inside my shorts all game. I thought if we win or at least don’t lose, I’d put it on after the game for a laugh. As captain, if we’d just being beaten, imagine the scene with the skipper dancing away wearing a red nose – think about the reaction! We didn’t lose anyway!!!!!

Penalties: you were pretty good at them George….

Picture Jonny Wilkinson’s goal kicking technique – mine was similar! I knew where I was putting it every time before the run up. No keeper would save it if I hit it true. I practised and practiced with Peter Fox in training – I’d tell him which corner I was going for. He’d cheat and move a step or two towards that corner and he still wouldn’t save it. So I knew if I connected well, I’d always score.

Including one in that brilliant 3-1 win against Man City on Boxing Day?

I remember the inflatable pink panthers and bananas more. Where did they come from? Me and Chris Kamara had our picture taken holding those panthers by the fans. I don’t remember much about games and incidents – it’s all a blur. But I remember those pink panthers!

Why do you think you were a huge cult hero at Stoke?

I think they saw themselves in me.

Your song and your dance……great times?

Oohh Georgie Berry… shake the hips and jive a bit. That was that!

…and what do you remember of your Testimonial Game, especially coming into the Boothen?

We were playing against Port Vale and I really did not want to lose that game. I wanted to play the whole match but Bally dragged me off.

So I was off the pitch and there was only one place I wanted to be. On the Boothen. My god they’d always had my back – even when I was having a stinker. The beauty of it was… after the initial fuss – there was a surge and I was mobbed when I first went in – I just stood there and they virtually left me alone. I was just like one of them, watching the match. Bertie Biggins scored and I was on that huge terrace, watching.

I’d spent a lot of my life playing in front of those fans. I’d connected with them. It was emotional for me. I was singing the songs – I was one of the lads.

Could that still happen today?

I think Ryan Shawcross is another icon and the kids that watch him now will tell their kids about him. He personifies a Stokie on the pitch – do or die, through brick walls for the cause. Just like the generation before me spoke about Denis Smith.

Modern players can’t get as close to fans now though, unfortunately. Times have changed and I don’t blame the modern players for that.  In my day, you noticed the terrace culture more. I remember one game against Grimsby – it was absolutely freezing. I went out and warmed up in a sheepskin coat, honestly. I remember laughing with the other lads about a feller stood in shorts and t-shirt ready to watch the game – hilarious! His forearms were bright red. I thought…”he’s hard!”

Tell us a bit about life after football and what you do now…

I went to university and studied for a business degree. I think I owed that one to my dad – that was for him to prove I could do it. I now work for the PFA and I absolutely love my job. Why wouldn’t I? How lucky am I to have spent a life in football? My title is Commercial Director. It’s always busy.  I spend a lot of time with players still – so there is that element of dressing room banter. (Marcus confirms that spending time in the company of a bunch of ex-pros in their fifties is like watching a bunch of primary schoolchildren).

Do you have a message for Stoke fans?

Up the Potters. The mighty, mighty Potters.

They’re just great aren’t they? They say it about the club, but I say it about them. They can swing it either way. When they decide to have a grumble or they don’t like you – it has an impact.  But when they love you, it’s as good as it gets.

Potteries people are honest people. They say it as it is to your face – I’ve been told I was awful a few times over the years! But believe me, as captain, you want to be kicking towards that Boothen End second half.

And there we left it. George Berry is a Stoke City legend.  But a humble normality prevails. 

Berry’s most used word tonight is easily ‘Potters,’ used mainly when referring to supporters. He grins and beams every time he uses it. When he is not within earshot, his son recalls how as a kid he would be ‘freaked out’ by strangers constantly asking for their hero’s autograph. But to him, he was just ‘dad’. He would be calmed by the words, “It’s no problem, son. They are just the people I work for.”

Later that night, I was left with only one regret. And it wasn’t the £60 parking fine I picked up either at the hotel, either. One unasked question: why has George Berry never done an autobiography?