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Old 28th March 2012, 16:25   #1
Join Date: Oct 2004
Location: Houston Texas
Posts: 1,537
Default The Magic Sponge

This piece is appearing in the latest issue of Red News.

“The Magic Sponge”

I suppose that when they come to update the written history of football, one of the most significant events of the past twenty years or so, will be the evolvement of the ‘Trainer’s’ terms of reference regarding their job.

The ‘trainer’ has all but disappeared – and rightly so in my opinion. In my younger days he was always referred to as; ‘The man with the magic sponge.’ If a player went down injured during a game, it was the ‘trainer’s’ remit to dash out onto the field and to tend to the said player. It was a sight for sore eyes because the guy running out there was more akin to a window cleaner (and probably was from Monday to Friday) than a football trainer. He would surface from the dug-out wearing his track suit, sprint onto the field as though the injured player’s life depended upon it. With one hand he would carry an enamel white bucket which contained cold water, and with the other, a pig’s bladder which contained ice cubes and a sponge. In his pocket he would have a bottle of the strongest type of smelling salts. Towels would be hanging out from his pockets, and he wore the inevitable white one around his neck. It was a sight to see, and all that was missing was the proverbial push bike, and a set of ladders hanging from his shoulders and he was a dead ringer for that window cleaner.

For the watching crowd it was a scene that produced much merriment, and many a funny riposte. Unfortunately, for the injured player, the site of this demented demon racing towards him was one which nine times out of ten, sent fear coursing through his body. You see, the majority of the guys that filled these posts may well have been knowledgeable about the game of football, but most of them only had a basic St. John’s Ambulance First Aid Certificate when it came to the diagnosis and treatment of injuries. The honest truth was, that most of them knew absolutely nothing about serious injury – they passed their basic certificate exam, and then promptly forgot all that they had been taught! . One guy who I actually know, was the ‘trainer’ at Oldham Athletic for a few years, but he was also a full-time pub landlord, and he did the ‘Latics job on the side, just attending for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon!

Today it is so professional with qualified doctors and certified physio’s doing the business where diagnosis and treatment of injuries are concerned. The players trust them. They know that they know exactly what they are doing. But back then, the ‘trainers’ were clueless most of the time. For a player who would be writhing around in agony, it was nothing to be greeted by the ‘trainer’ with the following;

“Get up, it’s only ******* pain – don’t let them see that you’re hurt.”

It was so common to see these fellows treating injuries with nothing more than that cold sponge and water. It did not matter where the injury was; the first thing applied to the injury was the sponge full of ice cold water.

It is interesting when you look at some of the ‘YouTube’ clips of matches from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Especially the clips which show ‘trainers’ treating the players on the pitch. Bert Trautmann in the 1956 FA Cup Final, broke his neck, but there was the City trainer slapping the cold sponge on his neck and trying to get him to turn his head from side to side! Even dear old Tom Curry, who died at Munich, was guilty in the 1957 Final against Villa. Ray Wood’s cheekbone had been shattered, but there he was pulling and tugging at Wood’s jersey, trying to get it over his face, in an effort to hand the jersey over to Jackie Blanchflower. Wood’s face was being pulled all over the place as this was happening.

Billy Inglis, God bless him, used to look after United’s Reserve team, and he never wore a tracksuit. His attire was a long white doctor’s type coat, and when he ran out onto the field he looked like the local ice-cream man! When these guys were stumped, and saw that the injury was untreatable by them, they would summon to the St. John’s Ambulance crew to run on and attend. This was also such fun to see as you could bet your last penny that one of them would be a rather large, rotund, red-faced female who would be puffing and panting, trying to keep up with her crew, and who always seemed to have my arse upon her chest!

I laugh at some of the antics back in those days. In the lower leagues, Managers and Trainers were ‘Jacks of all trades’ and some were real characters. They not only ran the team, but were expected to do all sorts of other meaningless tasks like helping the groundsman mark and line the pitch; pick out weeds from around the terracing; make sure that balls were blown up; take the kits to the local launderette etc. etc. I actually know of one ‘trainer’ who achieved fame, glamour, and a certain amount of notoriety, at one of the Greater Manchester Area’s local clubs.

During his daily routine, he took a shine to one of the tea ladies who worked at the ground. When she should have been making teas, and he should have been helping to weed the pitch, they were servicing each other in the Director’s toilet – the perfect place to meet as it was empty every day of the week, apart from a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, somebody carelessly locked the door one afternoon and they couldn’t get out, and late into the evening they had to be rescued by the local fire brigade. His excuse was that he had lost his cuff links and that the tea lady had been in there helping him look for them. The local ‘rag’ got hold of the story and lo and behold! … The following Saturday the club was 2000 up on their average gate, with most of the extras trying to work out which tea lady it was!!!

There was a semi-pro team from the Burnley area who played in the old Lancashire Combination League when I was a young lad turning out for Glossop. I don’t know what it is about the East Lancashire area, but for some reason I have never liked it. Bad things have always happened up there. This team had the only (and I believe at the time, the very first) woman trainer in football. She was a feisty bit of stuff and had a face as ugly as a robber’s dog. Ugly? - She abused it, and not only that, she was as frightening as any Regimental Sergeant Major, and could curse just the same. From what I heard, she had only taken the job on because her son was playing centre-forward in the first-team. She had a nickname of ‘Back-Entry Bertha’ – apparently she carried an old mattress around with her in case she met somebody she knew when it was dark!

In this particular match in which I was playing in, one of the opposing team’s wingers got a kick in the area around his married tackle. He went down as though he had suffered a gun-shot wound, and he started to turn a rather whiter shade of white. Enter onto the pitch Bertha - bucket, pig’s bladder, and all the paraphernalia in hand. The winger, by the time she got to him had been helped up by two team mates, and he was held in between them with his arms draped around their shoulders for support. Without much ceremony, Bertha took out the cold sponge, stuck her hand down the winger’s shorts, and applied the ‘magic potion’ to his nether region. It was interesting to watch the goings on, because the winger’s colour began to return again. First a nice shade of pink, then a more ruddy colour. It was then that we noticed that the sponge was lying on the turf after it had slipped out of his shorts, and there was a gentle manipulation going on inside his shorts which seemed to bring a wry smile to his face!

Now back in those days, goalkeepers were fair game for big barnstorming centre-forwards, and if you wore the green woolen jersey, then you had to be able to look after yourself – if not, your tenure in the game amounted to very little. These guys would knock you all over the place in an attempt to dislodge the ball from your hands, so as you gained a little experience, and listened to some of the more mature ‘keepers in the ‘Goalie’s Union’, you worked out how to deal with them, and hold your own. This particular afternoon, Bertha’s son had fancied his chances with me and had put me on the deck more times than I cared for – a situation which I did not for one minute like. Retribution had to be called for if I was going to put an end to this moron trying to inflict grievous bodily harm upon me.
At half-time we devised a plan. It worked a treat. The first corner which our opponents got, our centre-half and our left back stood in front and behind this young ruffian. Now I used to carry one of the old flat-caps back then to keep the sun out of my eyes if I needed to. The ‘neb’ (peak) was quite stiff and rigid, and was a handy tool to have. When this corner had been won, I quickly picked up the cap from the back of the net, and tucked into the back of my shorts. We waited for our moment; the referee was unsighted; our centre-half stood on this guy’s toes so that he couldn’t move, and like lightning I took the cap from my shorts and twatted him across the bridge of his nose with the ‘neb’. There was a loud ‘crack’ and his nose seemed to bend somewhat, and a large amount of claret ensued. Mayhem broke out. The centre-forward lay down on the ground clutching his face, moaning, and groaning.

The poor referee didn’t understand what had happened, nor had he seen anything, but Bertha was not having any of it. She had not seen what had actually happened from the dug-out, but nobody was going to hurt her little ‘Sunny Jim’ and she wanted revenge. Like an enraged bull, she charged onto the field, the white enamel bucket in hand. Her face was blood red, and contorted with rage, as she finally charged into our penalty area. Both sets of players realized the imminent danger that they were in, and like a starburst, scattered in all different directions of the ground; me included. The only persons who did not move was the poor Referee, and Bertha’s son who was still writhing about on the ground. I never realized how much damage the human skull could inflict upon a white enamel bucket. Bertha vented her anger on the poor Referee, and she bent the bucket out of shape such was the ferocity of her blows. The poor man was comatose, and this wild woman had to be restrained by a horde of spectators.

The game was obviously abandoned, and before the matter was brought up with the Lancashire County FA, and the FA in London, Bertha was sacked by the club, and also brought before the local Magistrates Court on a charge of Common Assault. She was fined a princely sum, and also had to do 250 hours of Community Service, working those said hours as ‘Bouncer’ and ‘Minder’ at the local Trades and Labour Club!

Yes, ‘trainers’ have all but disappeared from the professional game these days and the set-up is much safer with the many numbers of well qualified medical staff in attendance. However, I do believe that they do not have as much fun these days as we had in my day!

NB: This piece was written just days before the sad and tragic event which almost cost Bolton Wanderer’s player, Patrice Muamba, his life. It brought it home to everybody, just how important it is to have the many well trained medical and support staff in attendance, at every game.
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