Graham Sullivan and Keith Scott met with John Bird to speak with him about his life in Rossington and his career in football as a player, a coach, and a manager. Graham’s family had been near neighbours of John’s family and they had grown up together along with a group of other Rossington youngsters on Gattison Lane.
John’s grandparents came to Rossington for the pits when his father, Jack, was about 3 years old. This would be about 1923 and they came from Bishop Auckland, from an area called Eldon Lane, the name of which John felt that those from Durham would recognise. Eldon Lane is the name of a place, and not a road. When they arrived in Rossington, they lived in one of the houses that was built for the miners at the time. John himself was born in Grange Lane at his grandparents’ home in June 1948 and that was where his parents were living at the time. The family lived in Ellis Crescent for a spell with his mother’s parents (the Needham family – his grandparents’ names were Chig (Charles) and Jessie). John’s middle name is Charles. The Needhams came from Barnby Dun and John’s mother was born in Rossington.
John’s father joined up and was captured at Singapore by the Japanese. He was imprisoned and became a prisoner of war in Thailand where he worked on the infamous Death Railway (as featured in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai), and later in Japan.
John’s early schooldays included a memory of being in a camp bed at infant school, and the symbol on his blanket was Noah’s Ark. He thought it funny that you were put to bed at school – this was in the school on West End Lane which later became Pheasant Bank. He remembered that the infants and juniors shared the same school, but his main memory of the junior school was playing football and recalled Roy Simpson, who John identified as a good player. He recalled the teacher who organised football was Mr Sadler, and he noted that he was still around, as he had visited John’s shop in Bawtry recently. Mr Sadler was also his form teacher, and Mr Horner was the headmaster of the Junior Boys.
He recalled working in a group that included Graham and they worked on a newspaper that was published under the name of The Daily Brain and John reported on sport. He remembered he did a lot of art and had many pictures put up on the walls. John’s first football team was in those years at junior school and they played on the Colliery field (the Welfare) .He recalled that Armthorpe was the team to beat, and Rossington did not win often. He had only good memories of his schooldays in Rossington.
On passing the 11 plus, John went to Doncaster Technical High School, which was renamed Danum Grammar in later years. He remembered Jack Cusworth, Philip Henderson and Graham McKenzie being at the school at the same time. The school is situated opposite the Wheatley golf course and near the rugby club on Armthorpe Road, so Rossington boys had to catch 2 buses to get there. John felt that passing the 11 plus was seen as offering better opportunities to those who passed and the exam was well thought of. He said it was the route to professions. His father worked at the pit, and did not want John to go there. Jack had been working on the face in the early days of his work there but latterly became a diesel fitter below ground. His uncles, Keith, Vin and Alwyn Needham, along with his uncle Ronnie Bird, and his grandfathers, all worked down the pit.
John recalled his days on Gattison Lane from 1952 when they were allocated a brand new house there. Graham lived a few doors from John there. Opposite the houses was a corn field which he remembered had to be cut. It was the route to school but it also was a good playing field. He remembered hawthorn bushes and an aged oak tree. When the corn was cut, the boys would gather it up and make a mound and play in it, jumping off the oak tree into it, and he said it was like living in the countryside. John and Graham remembered filling holes in the field so that they had a larger pitch for their football games.
His other main activity was train-spotting – at the station at the end of Gattison Lane. He remembered that trains that were new or being refurbished did a run from Doncaster to the sidings at Rossington and he and his pals would go to see them. He mentioned seeing Britannia, the Queen’s train, and even recalled its engine number – 7000. He saw Mallard and the Flying Scotsman too, and other iconic engines. At school, word went round that a new train was in the sidings and they would go after school to see them with bright paint. He remembered that the station was the point for day trips to Bridlington and Cleethorpes and he recollected droves of people heading to the station for the trips past their houses in Gattison Lane.
Both John and Graham remembered wearing out the green that was in front of their houses which made a great football field when the corn was growing. The houses were set back from the main road and the space in front had been lawned, but their constant playing wore out the grass! They got into trouble from one of the neighbours when a football went through a window. They used a lamp post for cricket games. Parents used to sit on the wall and watch the children playing, and most of them were roughly the same age. Graham and John could name all of the families around them – Grogan, Melvin, Appleby, Sutherill, Oliver and Armstrong all with children of roughly the same age and their families had all moved in about the same time as first tenants. Both girls and boys played cricket and after school until they went in for the night.
Graham reminded John of the football team – Gattison Gatts – and John formed this. They played against Lansbury Avenue Tigers for a New Estate Shield which John’s team always won, and he retained the shield at his home. Graham had been the goalkeeper, and John remembered that the team often won by 10 goals over Lansbury Avenue! He recalled a good centre forward with the Tigers and he couldn’t quite remember his name – possibly Smith, but he joined Gattison Gatts for a small fee and Graham was transferred for a penny and a halfpenny, which allowed Gattison to retain the cup! Graham complains that John owes him the transfer fee plus all of the interest…
John started the sixth form but left school to work at Bell Watson in Doncaster as a trainee valuation surveyor. He liked the idea of this because he had a cousin Michael who visited from London and he worked for an estate agent there as a surveyor. At that point, he had no intentions of playing football for a living. He had played for Don Valley Boys at 11 years old for 6 games at left back, although he had played centre half at Rossington. He remembered that Mick Bates also played for that team, but went to Leeds to play when he left school. John had stopped playing football but Eddie Beaglehole had been his PE teacher at school, and one day arrived at John’s home on a Saturday and invited him to play for Doncaster United Reserves as they were short of a player. If he had not done this, John would not have gone back to football. Doncaster United played on the airfield in town (where the Dome is now) and were in the Yorkshire League which was a well-established league for amateur football. Eddie had been a player in the first team, and then became a coach. John then went to play for them regularly and was the youngest member of the team at 16 years old. He had played in the Amateur Cup whilst with them.
Eddie was involved with Doncaster Rovers, and spoke to them about John, and they sent a scout to watch him. He then signed with them as a part-time player, training at night, after work. He signed up for £5 a week. He also earned £4 for a win and £2 for a draw – good money in those days. He was earning £8 a week in his job. He remembered getting home from work one night to find a Rolls Royce or Bentley outside his house and the registration plate was FJW1. The car belonged to Frank Wilson who was the Chairman of Rovers at the time, but also had a large tyre company in Doncaster. When John went in, Frank Wilson was talking to his father about signing John as a full time professional. His father was dead against John joining Rovers as a full-timer because he was training for a profession. John wanted to join, but his father said that he would on condition that Rovers paid for a correspondence course for John to continue his studies as a surveyor. They agreed to do this, and John was signed up. Years later, his mother reminded him that the books were still in the house – unopened! She had been the one who came across the corn field to tell the boys about the Munich Air Disaster in 1958. David Pegg was a player who had lost his life in that crash, and Doncaster Tech, John’s school then, had a service for him as he too had been a student there.
John did not go for trials, but he had played for Rovers’ reserves, and felt that he had been lucky to be signed up. He had been a supporter of the Rovers and Manchester United and was fanatical about football as a boy. He was a Doncaster Rovers supporter and like Graham watched every home game and many away games. He had also been on trips from Rossington to Sheffield United or Wednesday to watch them play too. He had been to an important cup game at Sheffield, possibly against Arsenal. His father had put him on the bus when he was about 11 years old, and asked his friends to take care of him. They could not get in to the ground because it was a sell out and so they had walked around it, listening to the sounds from inside.
He went to the Rovers and played 11 games for them in his first season – one short of a medal given for their promotion. His debut game was against Workington and they drew 2-2. Laurie McMenemy was the manager at the time. John was playing regularly at about 18 years old and the team got into the 3rd Division, but struggled there. Towards March of the year, on the transfer deadline, Laurie took John to meet with Alan Ball senior, to transfer him to Preston North End who were very successful in the 3rd Division. Alan Ball senior was the father of the player of the same name who played for Arsenal, Everton and England. They managed to get to the FA Headquarters Lytham St Annes, 10 miles from Preston, for the transfer, with just 5 minutes to spare for the deadline. His parents did not know until he got home and told them he was leaving home to live at Preston! His new wage had increased by £5 to £25 a week with Preston.
At Doncaster Rovers, his team mates thought he had been foolish to sign for Preston as they were a successful team, and John had just been made regular at Doncaster. They felt he would not get picked for the first team at Preston. When he went to Preston, they had dipped in the league table, but he played 11 games for them, being in the team every time until the end of the season, and they never lost a game. The Press and the fans had assumed that John’s inclusion in the Preston team had changed their luck as they were promoted to the 2nd division that year as Champions. Again, John saw this as a lucky break, as in the same season, Doncaster had fallen to the 4th division. He said that in 4 weeks his life had changed completely, playing every game the following season, with up to 200 games for them, and then becoming club captain over the coming years.
Bobby Charlton became the manager at that time, with Nobby Stiles as the deputy manager. Behind Charlton’s back Newcastle made an approach for John. Their manager Gordon Lee previously at Blackburn had tried a couple of times to sign John, without any luck, but when he became manager at Newcastle he tried approaching Preston again. Preston decided to sell and Charlton had only heard about it from journalists. He had called in John and tried to persuade him to stay with a new contract. John had been happy to stay, but the Board sold him. Bobby Charlton resigned at that time over this. Newcastle then pulled out of the deal because of the bad press, but eventually John did move to them and stayed for 5 years, playing about 100 games. John could have played at Wembley in the League Cup Final with Newcastle who got to the Final, but he had played in the League Cup with Preston in his very last game there which made him ‘cup tied’ for that season. John said that Bobby Charlton had never spoken about the Munich disaster to him.
He said that Newcastle fans were hard to win round, and when he had joined the team, he was seen as not being a big signing as he came from the 3rd division. Eventually, he had been able to win them round, and he felt that Gordon Lee had never got the recognition as a manager that he deserved as Newcastle finished high in the division in Gordon’s first year. The fans did not like the fact that he had sold Malcolm Macdonald who was a talented player. John played in a European competition in Ireland against Dublin’s Bohemians FC whilst the troubles were there. They had to have protection. They also played in Corsica against Bastia who were in the French league and he recalled famous European players in that game, but whilst Newcastle were successful, the Geordie fans did not like Gordon because he had sold who they considered to be top players.
When John was 32, he moved to Hartlepool as a player and did some coaching, eventually becoming player/coach. The manager, Billy Horner, was sacked after a poor run, and the Board asked John to take over. They won 6 matches on the trot and John won Manager of the Month. The Board then offered John a 2 year contract as manager, which he took. Whilst playing at Newcastle, John had also had an art shop, but when at Hartlepool, he lost all interest in art, and threw himself into coaching and managing for the next 10 years. He was approached by York City and went there because he saw them being potentially more successful than Hartlepool could be, but was sacked after 3 years after a bad start to the season. He was out of work and was asked by Steve Beaglehole, on recommendation from his father Eddie, to assist him at Doncaster Rovers whilst looking for other work. Steve Beaglehole was the youngest manager in football at the time and John stayed and became first team coach there. Things had come full circle, helped again by his school PE teacher.
Halifax then approached John to manage them as they had dropped out of the league into the Vauxhall Conference and needed some support to succeed. He had a good season there, but then the Receivers were called in and everybody had to go. He was saddened by this.
John enjoyed Preston but said his best time was as a manager at Hartlepool as he had good players and colleagues there, and got good results, against the odds and with no funding. There was good overall team spirit there, including office and ground staff. He was at Hartlepool for 7 years and recalled playing against nearby Sunderland and winning and beating Manchester United 6-0 in a pre- season friendly. He remembers Alex Ferguson, who had left by car after the game, phoning him to tell their players that they were in for training early the following morning after such a shocking display.
After Halifax, Doncaster now again approached John to take on a new role as a Commercial Manager, but he did not enjoy his time and left there, feeling he had had enough of football. He had felt destroyed personally when he was sacked from York, where he had helped set up a good youth team, with people who went on to have good careers in football. He reflected now that he ought to have tried for new roles elsewhere and he has not set up any other teams, even local ones, since, because he felt 3 things had soured his feelings for the game – the sacking at York, the financial problems at Halifax and a poor experience in his last role with Doncaster Rovers.
In the last 5 or 6 years, he has gained an interest again, and does not attend matches, but enjoys watching top flight games, and considers that there is excellence in the teams. However, when playing as England, he cannot understand why the players do not succeed. He feels the standards are high currently and particularly named Messi as the best player.
John recalled playing against goalkeeper Malc Webster at Cambridge United, and Malc had been originally at Arsenal. (Malc is also a Rossington man, who has family still living in the village). Amongst famous names that John has played against or with, he mentioned George Best, Kenny Dalglish, Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Dennis Law, Alan Kennedy and Malcolm Macdonald. When playing at Preston in a Cup game, a Preston player called Dave Connor had marked Best closely and managed to contain him in front of a record crowd of 37,500. At 89 minutes, it was a goalless draw, but then Dennis Law and Alan Gowling scored and put Preston out of the cup .Recently, Manchester United had played again at Preston in a Cup game, and John noted that the Guardian newspaper had recalled that he was the captain the last time they had played against each other 20 years previously. The Guardian did a long piece about him and noted that Best had been well contained. The Yorkshire Post also had picked up on the story and they too did a piece about John, including showing some early art work.
Very recently, a couple had visited John’s art shop in Bawtry, purely because their name was Bird too, and they found that they were related, and had also come from Bishop Auckland where John’s father had originally come from. Strangely enough, they were in Bawtry with friends from Rossington whom they had met on holiday. This was a coincidence but the North East has always seemed to crop up. John had visited his aunty Joan in North Shields on a regular basis over the years. His uncle was a Geordie from there, and she had met him when he was stationed at Rossington Hall during the war. She had moved to live there after a spell in Rossington after they married. Her family loved to visit Rossington and John loved going to North Shields and Tynemouth to visit them.
When he went to play at Newcastle, he felt he already knew the area, and chose to live at Whitley Bay where he opened his first art gallery and ran it there for 8 years. At Preston, he had lived in a hostel run by the club, with his own room, and there was a couple who looked after the young team members there, and he was 22 at the time. He felt that Preston had been forward-thinking and well set up for their team, with the hostel, training schemes and ground.
Whilst John was at Rovers in his teens, Graham managed a Rossington under-15’s football team – Rossington Tornados – and he, John and John’s Uncle Keith saw success with the team. They played on the All Stars pitch which was at the back of Attlee Avenue on Waddy Lane. Some of their opponents were doing well in the Sunday League in which they played, but the Tornados managed to hold them or won over them. Teams Graham recalled playing against were South Kirby Reds, Minsthorpe United, the All Stars, Armthorpe Boemans, and Goldthorpe United. John was able to introduce some Doncaster Boys’ players to the team. The team lasted into the late 60s.
John and Graham recalled when they had built a trolley from a 3 wheeler bike and a draining board, but it had gone only for a few gates, with one of them pedalling, before it fell to pieces and never worked again! Happy times. No computers in those days.
John currently has his own art gallery John Bird Studio in Bawtry in Dower Square and a website johnbirdstudio.co.uk
Visit the following link to another website to read of John’s cousins recalling their visits to Rossington:
www.Francisfrith.com/rossington/memories Look for New Rossington Photos in that site