Football boots for Christmas (Revised Version) – Part Seven

BEAST of BURDEN

Bob’s shovel seemed to have a mind of its own, working off a good pavement with shale that was reasonably small, and so pliant on the blade. The back of his right hand was tight to the inside of his right thigh in the pushing movement, ready for the follow through without pause that took the loaded shovel over his dipped left shoulder and the rim of the hutch, and unloaded with a flick, then without pause back down again and into the next cycle. The most basic of skills inside a rhythm he had been honing for more years than he cared to remember. An ability all labourers were quietly proud of when comparing themselves with machines and agreeing with the auld adage, ‘all wealth came from the point of the pick’.

His mind was full of all the things he would have to be attending to over the next few days; running round in circles; getting nowhere fast. Then there was all them dirty pots and pans clogging up the scullery sink.

What a mess the branch was in, plus all the stupid arguments he had to thole this while. His return-forms were well overdue. That constituency secretary had been onto him twice already, and their own Winchburgh branch minute secretary could hardly write his own name, never mind anybody else’s, or fill in forms.

One meeting a month was more than enough for what little news he got out of it. This whole local Labour Party thing was a waste of his precious time. Time he reviewed his whole strategy. Was no nearer getting out of this hole in the ground that he had ever been in near enough the last 25 year.

Getting himself adopted as a council candidate for the village was fast losing any appeal it might have once had. Then again, with Isa keen to bring her mother and father through to live with them, had better keep on for a while longer until these new houses they were building in Niddry Road were allocated. As branch secretary, with a long memory, would be more or less able to take his pick. Leaving Hopetoun Place would be an awfy wrench, but it made sense.

Were already overcrowded as it was; must have been near top of the council list and councillor Jimmy Buchanan had been less than discreet this last while. Maybe settle for that semi-detached in line with the halfway line of the football field

Would expose them all, root and branch, if he ever made full-time. Snorted then grimaced with a sigh; nothing but a damn hypocrite. Then there was that Lea-Rig meeting on Thursday. The Burns Federation were looking for overdue returns as well. Was him that was needing a secretary. Then there was the Albion having just drawn Airth Castle Rovers away in the next round of the Scottish, then went back yet again to ponder the weakness of his half-back line.

“Ay Bob.” Jim Sinclair, the electrician had emerged out of the gloom and was tapping him on the bare shoulder. Bob shuddered visibly at the touch. Didn’t look the nervous type and would have strenuously denied the very thought, but he had been, certainly from the time he had been abandoned as a bairn. Was even feart for the dark.

“Ay”, Bob replied, straightening up then bending forward a bit peering into the dancing shadows through his own dust cloud towards the voice from under its own carbide lamp.

“Oh, you Jim, see yer laddie’s team won last week.” A bead of sweat dropped off Bob’s fleshy, slightly crooked nose. His bleary eyes were red rimmed and he was breathing heavily through his slack mouth. Must have been a good two stone heavier than he should have been, and badly needing to give up that damn smoking. Them who had been super fit in their youth seem to go to flab easier than all the rest. Had a wheen more hutches to fill before he would again see the light of day.

“Ay 2-1, Bob. That yin of mine scored the winner, but must admit, were lucky.”

“An that laddie Stein?”

“Played a binder.”

“Did, did he?”

“Best young left sided player I’ve seen this season.”

“That right?”

“ Awfy comfortable on the ball, Bob, and built like a shite house wall.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Nothing great in the air an a wee bit wan-fitted, bit works hard, takes responsibility.”

“What we need.”

“Guid positional sense. Can read the game.”

“So they say.”

“They tell me he’s provisional with Broxburn Athletic, Bob. That right?” (Provisional – already attached to a team in a higher league but not registered and so able to continue playing in the minor grades. The Albion were in the grade between the Under 18’s and the Athletic who were junior)

“Ay, bit Broxburn might be prepared to farm him out to us.”

“Could be right, Bob, now that my laddie’s crowd have put Broughton out the Lord Weir.”

“That’s how it works Jim.”

“You’ll know.”

“I’ll be across to Broxburn this week. See if they’ll give him tae us fur the rest of the season. Might well be interested in a swap of some kind.”

“Been sniffin aboot efter some of yours?”

“Always are, Jim, always are.”

“Oniewey, dae a job for you Bob. Definitely will.”

“Ay, an guid left sided players are hard to come by.”

“Certainly are!

“An whit did you think aboot Cowan, their centre, an wee Bothwick, their inside man?” Bob was leaning heavily on his shovel. If there was one thing he enjoyed more than writing about football it was talking about it, and watching them who could play the game, now that he was past it himself.

Very few good memories of life to date didn’t involve him competing either on the football field or on the running track .A picture of Granny Findlay standing at some stadium rail or other, beaming across at him winning some big sprint, flashed into his mind. She had been so proud of him. Why couldn’t her son have followed suit. His eyes had glassed over.

“How the Hell dae ye ken as much aboot the Edinbury Under 18’s, Bob?” Jim was looking at him keenly and shaking his head.

At this Bob clamped his mouth shut and was again exhaling heavily through his nose, in obvious annoyance. Didn’t like being interrogated; he was the reporter, no Jim Sinclair. Folk knew far too much of Bob Findlay’s business as it was. Glowering had become second nature.

Jim hurriedly carried on – “Ay, both guid laddies, Bob. Do a job our ye next season, bit Stein’s ready now.”

“Good!”

“Picked anither winner there, so you have.”

“Hope so Jim.”

“Still wantin ma laddie fur next season?”

“Course!”

“Geordie Betram’s been at him for Brigend Rovers.”

“Tell him to hud off.”

“Will do.”

“See they get Edina next week.”

“In the league.”

“Could mibbe have a guid look at Hunter, their centre-half an Gillies the left back.”

“Gillies and Hunter, right Bob, no bother.”

“Ye think they’ve got it, an get the chance, mibbe have a wee word in their ear, oot the road of the committee mind.”

“Tell them the Albion’s interested, like?”

“See if you can get their addresses. Full expenses an a new pair of boots at the start of the season.”

“Nae bother, Bob.”

“An they dinnae have tae sell raffle tickets, right?”

“Nae kiddin Bob, how dae you ken as bloody much?” Jim was shaking his head again in bewilderment, desperate to get an inkling of how he managed it, regardless of Bob’s surly manner.

“Contacts Jim, includin yersel.”

“Ay, fair enough Bob, bit how is it possible, you knowing near enough every guid laddie in travelling distance, yet out with the Albion every Setturday in life without fail, an for how long now?”

“Since Wullie Thornton took ower from me as centre.”

Fifteen year at least. How the hell do ye do it?”

“Contacts includin yersel.” Bob was glancing round about the gloom as if checking the walls for other ears.

“Must be mair to it than that!”

“That an the sports papers on Setturday nights. Jist something Ahm good at.”

“Nane of the teams in the higher leagues been a you to manage them?”

“Back an furrit.”

“Winnin the Scottish your holy grail?”

“An it gies me somethin to think aboot stuck doun here in the gloom.”

“An keeping everyb’dy else in the dark?”

“Jist keep tabs on them as they come up the grades.” Bob had already bent back down to his work to signal the end of the conversation; just didn’t believe in making best pals with the fathers of laddies who just didn’t have what it took. Geordie Bertram was welcome to Jim’s son, but not until Jim had done a bit more scouting for the Albion.

Had to be cruel to kind at times; Bob nodded in agreement with himself as he got back into his hutch filling routine. Jim’s laddie would be a regular for Geordie, but only a reserve for the Albion and Bob Findlay only had time for the best; the secret of success was success.

His only problem was that wooden committee of his. Didn’t know a football player from a bull’s foot – should content themselves selling Scout Double tickets and leave the running of the club to him. Wasn’t a bloody charity he was running, and never had been.

Jim had been with the Albion afore the war in their best team ever, afore the war and could tell a player, except when it came to his own; a hellish common affliction in Scottish football.

What he hadn’t told Jim, or any other living soul, was how he really managed to keep his finger on the pulse. Was so simple he often wondered at others not tumbling to it. The young and new referees who officiated in youth football all trained together a couple of times a week on some junior park or other. That was the key.

He never criticised a referee in the Courier, to their face or even behind their back, regardless of how bad they had been. Always made the referees for the Albion games feel really important, asking them about the latest games they’d handled and what players impressed them. All the regular referees knew this and appreciate his concern and many came to Albion games prepared with notes about promising laddies from the other referees they trained with.

Refereeing football had got to be about the loneliest, most reviled pastime ever invented in Scotland, but he was their friend and comforter and he had them eating out his hand. If he wanted second opinions he just had a word with big Jimmy Mitchell, the referee’s supervisor from across in Midhope Place. Bob Findlay had a better scouting system that Baden Powell.

If the Courier, or any national paper for that matter, just gave him the chance he could do just as good a job for them, covering the game and giving their readers points to ponder. If they did, he was sure within himself, would make Sports Editor at least. Could cover any sport, once he knew the rules. Folk just needed to look at his record.

Snorted to himself and wondered what time it would be. Would nick along to Philipston tonight and see about that young Stein and his father Davie, who hadn’t been a bad player himself, when with Lithga Rose afore the war. Football was in the blood, or maybe it was the brain.

The great thing about being a natural born shoveller was it left your mind free for other more important things. Have to inquire about that stolen railway for his Courier column and the stone coffins they had discovered up at Niddry Works. Young Stein sounded just what the Albion needed with the winter and the heavy going coming in.

A life-long pal along the face line there, Dick Pritchard, was leaving the mine at the end of the week to take over the family smallholding down at Blackness. Another pal, ’Dough’ Quate, had almost made up his mind to go full-time as a bookie.

Bob snorted long and hard. Nobody had talked about leaving the mine over the years as much as he had done and yet it was his pals who were doing something about it, leaving him down here in a hole with all his big ideas, alongside the rest of the aimless beasts of burden.

Stabbed viciously at the shale from too steep an angle in his frustration and hit the pavement, so painfully jarring his wrist – let go off the shovel, lashed out at it with his foot and so lost his footing on the scree of shale he had been perched on.

Only just saved himself by wildly clutching the edge of the hutch he had been filling. A searing pain was shooting up his arm as he slumped against the hutch getting his breath back.

The same arm he had broken almost twenty year earlier as a player – a corner kick and he had leapt like a salmon and thundered the ball into the rigging before colliding heavily with the post. Gingerly run his left hand up his forearm.

‘Ay, it’s a’right I’ll play on’, he repeated to himself with a lop-sided grimace, as he vividly recalled himself getting to his feet that day at the Sports Park across in Broxburn. Had been playing the Swifts and he got a hat trick. That same arm had still been in splints when he attended the Edinburgh City Police examinations a couple of weeks later.

Eased himself carefully back off the hutch and the pile of slippery glinting shale, some as sharp as flint. Groped about tentatively in the deep shadow of the hutch for his shovel. Was panting for breath, his head weighed a ton and he could feel grit behind his eyes.

Would have to go down to Broxburn some Saturday morning and get himself tested for spectacles. Hard lines he hadn’t done it earlier when they were still free on prescription.

Since it was the right arm he had broken the examiner brought a constable in on overtime to take his dictation for the written paper – a big coarse ploughman, as thick as two short planks, who couldn’t even hold the pen up without splaying the nib. Splattering ink all over the place.

Sighed at the memory of the fiasco as he retrieved his shovel and got back into his rhythm. Him and his drawer, Shug Henry, had another ten hutches to fill afore the end of the shift. Had always been top of his class and one of Scotland’s leading sprinters at the time, yet they had turned him down for being half an inch short – snorted and jarred his wrist yet again.

Jimmy Anderson, an Australian runner he had been friendly with, suggested emigrating. Had written from back home with the promise of a job in an open cast mine along with his brothers, but how could he have left Granny Findlay all on her own? Been much the same with that clerical job in South Shields he had been offered when he had been down there for a week, running at a couple of big race meetings.

Was no way he could have left her on her own, even though she still had two sons still in the village and two daughters to fall back on. No, was her and him against the world.

Wasn’t a game on Saturday because of the Albion Social; had better away along to have a look at Airth Castle Rovers afore they met them in the Scottish. Ay, that was a must! The pain in his arm had eased. His thoughts turned to that damn drinking session along in the Tally Ho with Jimmy McPhee. His drinking was getting out of hand. Couldn’t even mind what they had been talking about