The Greatest Team Ever…That I Played (a Bit) For

Amidst all the pre-Covid journalistic and internet chatter about whether the all-conquering Liverpool team’s season was the greatest ever, various alternative candidates were put forward. These ranged from Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ 2003-4 season to treble-winning Man United (1998-9), or early Mourinho Chelsea (2004-5) to late Guardiola Man City (2017-18). Contenders from the pre-PL antediluvian era included the original Prestonian ‘Invincibles’ 1888-9 season, Spurs’ Double-winning side (1960-61), and any number of incarnations of Arsenal in the Thirties or Liverpool in the late Seventies and early Eighties. However, there was one significant and inexcusable omission from these lists: the treble-winning Willerby Carr Lane County Primary School’s ‘A’ Team of 1960-61. 

My attempt to address this unforgivable oversight begins with a favourite photo:

Willerby Carr Lane County Primary School’s ‘A’ Team of 1960-61 John Sanders England Football WWII

It was taken at the end of the East Riding Junior Schools Cup Final in April 1961 at Anlaby CP School, after we had just vanquished the hosts 3-1 in the final. We were unbeaten all season winning the Beverley and Haltemprice Junior Football Association Division 1, the Beverley and Haltemprice Junior Football Association Knock-out Cup and the East Riding Junior Schools Cup. A unique treble: something that Real Madrid, the only contemporary team that even came close, could never match.

The photo shows me in a (navy blue) tracksuit on the extreme left, next to my ‘big brother’ Dave, then along the bottom row, Glen Appleyard, Mike Love, Richard Camp, Tom Lumley, Richard Clark, Roger DeVries and Ian Seddon. Peering above the fray in the centre is Pete DeVries, the team’s captain. The heads of John Carrick and Barry White also appear right of centre above the celebratory throng. We are wearing our distinctive blue shirts with yellow sleeves (think, Leeds United before the Revie era), black shorts, and blue and yellow hooped socks.

My recollection of this team is of precocious skill and awesome attacking power: Barry White, a free-scoring centre-forward, alongside inside forwards Richard Clark and Roger DeVries, who scored goals for fun with his powerful left foot. Width was provided by Glenn Appleyard on the left and John Carrick on the right. Pete DeVries and Ian Seddon’s guile and graft from wing-half was coupled with a rock-solid defence marshalled by my brother Dave from centre-half. He recalls practising a pivoting back three with full-backs Richard Love and Tom Lumley, but still having the opportunity and talent to score 10 goals. Goalie Richard Camp, though not the team’s best custodian – that accolade went to Barry White – was rarely troubled, as testified by consecutive 11-0 wins and a 3-0 semi-final triumph on the way to the East Riding final.

Although notionally playing a traditional WM formation, in reality we pioneered a version of total football, with a back three and a fluid style relying on instinctive positional interchanges. Indeed, some suspect that the Ajax team of the late 60s and early 70s took their inspiration from the Willerby Carr Lane team of the early 60s, and why not? There is a story (apocryphal maybe) that Rembrandt, escaping from his Amsterdam creditors in 1661, spent some time in Hull, so why not an Ajax coach or former player like Vic Buckingham or Rinus Michels exactly three centuries later? After all, this part of the East Riding is full of market gardens, New Holland is just across the Humber in Lincolnshire and the very names of our star players, the DeVries twins, confirm a strong Dutch connection. Case closed.

Willerby Carr Lane County Primary School’s ‘A’ Team England Football WWII Childhood Hull
Art by Charbak Dipta

I was just 9 years old when the photo was taken and a mere 8 years old when first selected in September 1960. Presumably, my displays on the playground and in PE, my nascent skills and aggressive style (think Duncan Edwards without the Dudley accent) forced the hand of the manager, Deputy Head Mr Wilkinson. Actually, I must have been pretty good. I was playing with boys two years older than me, but that’s no surprise.

These were my best friends, the kids that my brother and I played with all the time: in the playground at school, occasionally in the ‘ten-foot’ alley behind ‘Big Ed’ Parker’s house but more usually at Willerby ‘Rec,’ our local park. Rarely in the streets –– we’re talking about the reasonably affluent, edge of Hull suburbs here. Just around the corner from our house and across an unbuilt space, Hull City provided clubhouses for some of their players.  We would cycle by, hoping to catch a glimpse of ex-England international Jackie Sewell, big signing Roy Shiner (cue the ‘Shiner is a shiner’ Saturday Green Mail headline) or stalwarts like Andy ‘Jock’ Davidson and Brian Garvey.

In my memory, we seemed to play football all the time: 2 v 2 (with one goal and a goalie) in one of the real goals at Willerby Rec or larger ‘jumpers for goalposts’ games in the area behind the goal.  It was here that we learned the basics of ball control, the importance of ‘off the ball’ runs and the fundamentals of teamwork. When people say that they miss playing football it is not just the physical exertion and endeavour, the winning and the losing. It’s also the metaphysical aspects: the aesthetic beauty of a well-executed one-two, the uplifting sense of losing yourself in play and the simple joy of being with others, doing something you love –– basically, the bits that confirmed ‘soccerphobes’ simply don’t get.

And when we were not playing, we were watching Hull City games at Boothferry Park. My first game was a Second Round FA Cup game against Stockport County on 15 November 1958, a part of my brother’s birthday treat. We lost 1-0: a good grounding in the repeated disappointments and the dashing of unfulfilled hopes for which football provides valuable psychological preparation.

Looking back now, we were allowed to go by ourselves to Tigers’ games at a ridiculously early age. My Dad, a devout rugby league fan and former Hull FC player with little time for ‘soccer,’ would sometimes drop us off within walking distance. Or we’d just get the bus to Priory Road and walk the rest, calling on the way for an ice pop from Billy Bly’s shop, run by Hull City’s legendary, recently retired keeper. I recall joining up with our mates one balmy late end-of-season evening with the distinctive aroma of the St Andrew’s Fish Dock permeating the still air and bunking into the main stand seats (where the DeVries twins had a season ticket) from the pen below to see wing-half Les Collinson hit a ‘scorching Collie whizz-bang’ into the North Stand goal. Or is this merely a conflation of distinct, unrelated memories?

But football watching was not confined to the professional game. At the tail end of the post-war boom, local amateur football was exceptionally strong. The Hull and District Sunday league boasted a dozen divisions in the early 60s. At the local Rec, we watched some star local players like Jeff Barmby (father of Nicky) a prolific, natural goal-scorer who became a legend in local non-league football, most notably for Scarborough in the early 70s. To our eyes, he seemed an incredible player, even if he was ancient. Maybe just 18.

Or there was another of my early heroes: Keith Sanderson, a former pupil at my secondary school, Cambridge ‘blue’ and (probably) guesting star of Willerby Old Boys when I must have watched him. He was a classy and energetic, though not particularly pacey, midfielder who was signed from Bath City by Malcolm Allison for Plymouth Argyle in 1964. Next season he moved on to QPR, where he was a vital part of the successful QPR 1966–67 team managed by Alec Stock that won both the Third Division Championship and the Football League Cup Final beating WBA 3–2.

Sanderson stayed four seasons with the Hoops, doing the running for some of the team’s more flamboyant stars. The prototype ‘brainy footballer’ before the Heighway, Hall and Coppell era, he only ever signed part-time contracts presumably because he was earning good money from his day job in computers. After leaving Loftus Road in 1969, he returned in early September to play a friendly for his old team’s successor club, Westella and Willerby FC. I know because I played against him for the newly-formed Beverley GS Old Boys team in a 2-2 draw. An account of the game in a romantic letter to my future wife recalls, perceptively and without a hint of cliché, that “you could tell that he was a class player”. The football pyramid – from the local park to a professional contract – seemed a lot flatter then.

My greatest-ever team, Willerby Carr Lane, included two members who themselves went on to play professional football. Barry White transformed himself from a schoolboy striker into a goalkeeper who played 23 games for Halifax Town between 1971 and ‘75. His old outfield capabilities came in handy in 1974, when an injury-decimated ‘Town’ were down to 12 fit players. One was reserve keeper White who played 4 of his 23 games as a sweeper.  The original sweeper-keeper perhaps? Fellow Carr Lane forward Roger DeVries enjoyed a successful career as a left-back with Hull City (then Blackburn Rovers and Scunthorpe United), playing 362 games for the Tigers between 1970 and 1980. A primary school contemporary recalls “watching [Roger and his brother Pete] playing football in the school playground with a tennis ball. Roger had the most amazing dribbling skills for a boy aged 10, and his younger brother was equally as good.” The team had talent to spare and many of us played to a ‘decent’ standard in the years that followed.  

However, we rarely hit the heights of that glorious season. In an echo of current preoccupations, Willerby Carr Lane, now captained by my brother, was unable to defend the East Riding Cup next year, having to forfeit its first tie with Brough on account of the Hull Polio epidemic of autumn 1961. The following season 1962-63, when I was joint captain, football at all levels was decimated by the Big Freeze. So 1960-61 was particularly memorable and remains one of the highlights of my sporting life.

And yet, in reality, I hardly played for the team. I was selected for the first three fixtures and played up front, possibly outside right. In my now hazy recollection of those early games I’m never quite getting there, always chasing the game; though I might be being harsh on myself.

And then suddenly I was dropped. I can still recall the precise location and the dank autumnal atmosphere of the room where Mr Wilkinson called me in and told me that I was going to be ‘rested’ – for the rest of the season as it turned out. I don’t recall crying there and then (maybe later at home); but, even as an 8-year-old, I instinctively recognised a euphemism when it smacked me in the face.

The axing was brutal; though in the last year my brother has suggested an alternative, more humane narrative. Less than a couple of years before I had been bed-ridden with the dreaded combination of Scarlet Fever followed by Rheumatic Fever. The fear, then as now, was that the combined illness weakened the heart, making vigorous exercise dangerous, something that my mother constantly reminded me of. It was possible that my ‘rest’ was for health reasons, a convenient compromise forged between Mr Wilkinson and my anxious Mum, a fellow teacher at the school.

Whatever the true backstory, I spent the entire rest of the season as a travelling, but never playing, reserve, wearing my favourite tracksuit and my precious boots. No substitutes in those days. Watching in every weather as the inexorable A team demolished every side in their path, I was loyal: unflinching, undaunted, and unused.

And yet this remains the defining team of my football life. I’ve spent nearly sixty years trying to figure out why a team I hardly played for carries such emotional heft for me. A starting point has been to re-visit that informal photograph after we had won the East Riding Cup: it reveals pure joy, togetherness, unreserved affection, and an umbilical bond between friends.  And there’s also the strong connection with my beloved brother Dave, 14 months older than me, who played throughout the season and who was similarly playing with kids older than himself.

I recently compiled a list of all the teams that I’d played for in my footballing life (1960 -1995): Willerby Carr Lane; Beverley Grammar School (BGS) (under 13s to under 15s; First XI); the wonderfully named (and all-conquering) Hull Fish Trades Boys Club; Hessle White Star; East Riding Schoolboys; Chiltern Amateurs; Hull Brunswick; BGS Old Boys; Hulme Hall, General Arts, History Society (all University of Manchester); the University of Manchester 1st Team; Whalley Range AFC; Failsworth School Old Boys; Walshaw Sports Club; Pittsburgh Dynamo; and Old Bedians, Manchester.

And only two come close. One was the giant-killing Failsworth School Old Boys team of 1979-80. Founded by a couple of teacher friends in a football-mad area on the disputed borders between Manchester and Oldham, the team had an abundance of skill and some excellent young players with killer pace. One, winger Phil Derbyshire, went on to play for the England semi-professional international team in 1982-3; another, our goalkeeper Alan Zelem, father of WSL star Katie Zelem, had a long professional career with Macclesfield Town (1984-90). We reached the semi-final of the prestigious Lancashire Amateur Cup whilst still in the second tier of the Lancashire Amateur League, knocking out giants like Broughton Amateurs and Aintree Villa, before losing 4-1 to holders Flixton.

The other was my school team in the mid-sixties which went three years (from under-13s to under-15s) losing only one game in 55. That loss by a single goal to Hull Grammar School still haunts me: the Almost Invincibles. This was a team put together (by Religious Education teacher and maestro manager, Ken King) from an intake of less than 70 boys. It was so good that it dared to challenge the Hull Schools representative eleven (containing the Man United-bound Kevin Lewis) in 1967 and only lose 6-3 in the ensuing fixture.

The team’s later incarnation in the late sixties – wearing a stylish Inter Milan-inspired kit – as the school 1st XI, with the addition of my brother, was also pretty good. Its record against other local school sides read: P22 W18 D3 L1 F75 A11. It reached the semi-final of the Yorkshire section of the English National Schools Cup before losing out to a Mexborough GS XI that contained three Yorkshire School boys and an England Schools representative. It also won both of the local cups that it entered. At the end of the second triumph, I wrote of the sadness that, after seven years together, this “was probably the last time we’ll ever play together as a team”. The fellowship and strong collective will to win of that team have provided the bedrock of friendships that have lasted over fifty years. 

So why does Willerby Carr Lane, a team I hardly played for, hold sway? Perhaps it’s because it is almost untouchable – and the fact that I soon lost touch with its members. It belongs to an era of post-war innocence and hope, of long hot summers and Orange Jubblies. Although Hull town centre was still pocked-marked with bomb damage and I personally constructed an impressive array of Airfix weaponry, it was hard as a 8 or 9-year-old to appreciate just how recent the Second World War had been. Only in retrospect is it possible to understand how our parents perhaps simply wanted to get on with their lives in a post-rationing world and to cope as best they could with their memories of the traumas and the joys, the constraints and the freedoms of wartime.    

This was pre-Beatles: when Bobby Rydell, Del Shannon and Bobby Vee provided simple teen romance narratives crafted in American song factories and the only sources of pop music were the BBC Light Programme and Radio Luxemburg. TV Entertainment was in the hands of Billy Cotton rather than Monty Python. It was just before the Cuban missile crisis, when the Vulcan nuclear bombers that occasionally flew over Willerby Carr Lane School took on extra resonance. I vaguely remember the consternation when one crashed not far from the school in July 1959. 

Secondly, the photograph evokes a time when football and society were on the cusp of change. The era-defining election of John F Kennedy as US President happened shortly after I was dropped from the team (I don’t think the two events were connected); and according to local poet Philip Larkin, sex was about to be invented. Football-wise the maximum wage had only recently been abolished and the servile world sketched out by Gary Imlach in My Father and Other Working-class Heroes was beginning to unravel. We witnessed this on our doorstep as the fortunes of the players in their brand-new clubhouses improved. Hull City during the 1960s rivalled Jimmy Hill’s Coventry as a forward-thinking, aspiring, high-spending lower-division club. It had a 40,000-plus capacity stadium with its own designated train station, and the tallest floodlight pylons in the country. It built a state-of-the-art training gym and a progressive free-scoring team.

Hull City were also early pioneers in the commercialisation of football, anticipating the massification of football that came the with advent of Match of the Day in 1964 and England’s World Cup triumph in 1966. I’m sure that it’s not simply hindsight: I can remember as a young child being baffled by the fact that it was seemingly impossible to buy a replica Hull City kit. I had to make do with a vague lookalike yellow shirt from Asbestos. Now, that’s a proper name for a sports shop!

The other barely discernible trend was the globalisation (or at least Europeanisation) of football. I still remember the game that we played in the school playground the day after Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960, all of us seeking to emulate Puskas, Di Stefano or Gento. Within a couple of years, I had been given the most influential football book of my childhood: a history of European football printed on thick, rough-cut grey paper recounting the exploits of Real Madrid, Stade de Reims and Benfica, and checking out seemingly exotic teams like Inter Milan, Honved or Dukla Prague.

And yet, as well as a nostalgic glow, there is also a shaft of piercing sadness when I look at the picture: at what might have been had not the bonds of friendship been torn apart shortly afterwards by the 11-plus exam. Of the twelve players, only Richard Camp, and later Dave, Tom Lumley and myself, were destined for Beverley Grammar School. Everyone else went to the new local Willerby County Secondary School. After the summer of 1961, our lives (actual and football) followed different paths. The sheer random and virtually immediate re-wiring of friendship circuits and connections that that iniquitous system facilitated still makes me angry and regretful. It has inarguably informed both my career path and my worldview.

The exploits of this great team did not go unrecognised. As well as the obligatory, elegantly calligraphed certificates, its record-breaking feats were marked by Pete and Roger DeVries’ dad commissioning a set of commemorative medals for the team. He worked in the local fishing industry renowned for its ‘3-day millionaires’ culture, when trawlermen would spend freely and generously on their short shore leave. As a trawler skipper, Mr DeVries was well remunerated and he didn’t hold back with the medals. Produced by a local jeweller and silversmith in an era before identikit and often kitsch trophies and medals, they were beautifully fashioned with a bronze half-ball as the centrepiece set on a white gold background. On the reverse side was an inscription logging the treble triumphs of 1960-61.  Although I only played three games, my first football medal is the one that I treasure above all others.

Dr. John Sanders

John Sanders, a former adult educator, lives in Manchester but disconcertingly supports Liverpool FC. Since retiring he has returned to historical research and writing about his other love: football. The game, for all its faults and frustrations, continues to fascinate him.