On Tuesday evening, we heard of the sad passing of former Pompey player Pat Neil. As well as playing for Pompey, he played for England at schoolboy and youth level, in addition to England and Great Britain as an amateur.
I got to know him in 2009 when he helped organise a successful Pompey legends evening which raised several thousand pounds for Asthma UK in memory of my daughter. This is an interview we did together on that occasion. Here is Pat’s story in his own words.
“I was born on 24th October 1937 almost next to the Royal Navy baths, sadly now demolished, in Clarence Street, Landport Portsmouth, an area which was to suffer extensive bombing in the coming war.
I was to learn many years later that Reg Flewin’s family lived in the same street, and Reg captained the same St Agatha’s school team in which my uncle played. The school building in Clarence Street, opposite our house, later became St Luke’s School, but was demolished along with the Royal Hospital behind it to make way for the (Sainsbury’s) supermarket.
Pleasingly, the school façade and the actual entrance gate – up which I remember climbing as a small child, was spared and I still wander down what is left of the street to look at it from time to time.
I started playing football professionally at a comparatively late age. Having passed for the Northern Grammar School at 11years of age, which meant staying on at school until at least 16, then staying on in the 6th form to complete A levels, playing as a professional was never an option.
However, the age of the amateur had still some years to run, and there were always amateurs playing in the top-flight football. Choosing to go to university having completed my national service, it was not until 1962, and coming up to my 25th birthday, that I signed pro forms for Pompey, managed by George Smith who had brought the club back into the (then) second division. However, a great deal happened before then.
Having been born in Pompey, watched my first game at Fratton Park on Boxing Day 1944, taken by my father, on leave from the army, then having the good fortune to be a schoolboy when Pompey were the best club in the country, not surprisingly my ambition grew naturally to wear royal blue!
My saddest moment supporting Pompey is no contest – when Leicester beat us in the FA Cup semi-final, March 26th, 1949. I can remember walking down our street on Sunday morning and seeing a Football Mail on the pavement. Seeing the headline, I cried all the way home.
With organised school football back on stream on the cessation of hostilities, I made my first competitive appearance as a 10-year-old for my Binsteed Road Junior School, and went on to gain selection for the City Schools Representative teams at both Primary and Secondary levels. Thus, in a sense, I donned the blue jersey of Pompey at an early age.
Honours at both county and national level followed – I played my first game at Wembley for England schoolboys, aged 15, alongside Bobby Charlton and Wilf McGuinness – my other three appearances were for Cambridge University against Oxford, in the days when university football had a standing in the football calendar.
By the time I had completed my O Levels, I was already beginning to play in the Pompey Youth team with and against youths two years older than me. As it happened the teacher who ran the Pompey Schools Representative team, Mr. Mark Brooks, also managed the Pompey Youth team, so once these lads left school, moving on to the youth team was a natural transition.
Remember that the manager at Fratton Park at the time was a former school teacher Eddie Lever – so there was common ground there, and consequently the Youth team that played in the SE Counties League and Cup competitions as well as the FA Youth Cup, comprised of mainly local lads.
There were some lads from outside the area who were signed on, and they were sometimes found jobs in local businesses. (Sparshatts were one of these), or did menial ground staff jobs and were paid wages. So, this system defined how I became a Pompey player.
However, if the question of how I became a first division Pompey player – that’s another story.
As a schoolboy international, I – or rather my parents – had been pursued by scouts from several big clubs at the time, hoping to secure the signatures of the best young players in the country. My father was adamant that I should finish my education as a priority, and turned down offers from Matt Busby and Stan Cullis, both of whom he met when their respective clubs visited Fratton Park.
Thus, I was still at school studying A levels as a 17-year-old, and during the summer holidays of 1955, Mr Mark Brooks arranged with Mr Lever for me to work in the office at Fratton Park, where I answered the phone, sold tickets at the window, and made coffee as a general all round ‘gofer’.
This tiny room run by Mrs Lever and her assistant Julie – who went on to marry goalkeeper Alan Barnett – had little more than a telephone and a couple of typewriters, and dealt with all the usual office type chores.
Reg Flewin would pop in and out making travel arrangements for the reserve teams, and would pull me in to correct his grammar and spelling as he put together the programme notes for the next home match.
Since all pre-season training took place at the ground, I was sometimes allowed to join in the morning sessions – in addition to the Tuesday and Thursday evening sessions attended by the part timers and youth team.
I was then included in the first public trial match which gave a number of local hopefuls a chance to shine, before being put in the ‘reds’ to play in the public practice match against the ‘blues’ the following Saturday.
I must have made a good impression, because when Peter Harris was declared unfit for the opening fixture of the season at Huddersfield, I was chosen to replace him, even though I had not yet played a game in the reserves.
Peter was fit for the following mid-week match against Wolves, a match in which Gordon Dale was injured, and to my surprise, I was chosen to replace him – this time on the left wing.
Before I knew it, I was standing next to Stanley Matthews in the tunnel thinking this can’t be real. It all happened so quickly but I had a fantastic game, there was a goalmouth scramble and the ball came to me. I just hit the bloody thing and it nearly burst the net!
Pat made his Fratton Park debut vs Blackpool, whose team included the legendary Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen, the game finished 3-3 with Pat getting on the score sheet Peter Harris and Jackie Henderson getting the other two, the usually reliable Duggie Reid missing a penalty for Pompey.
The fact that a 17 year old amateur grammar school boy continued to keep the pro Dale out of the team caught the imagination of both the local and national press. Dale happened to be the most expensive purchase Pompey had ever made £20,000 from Chesterfield.
With the new term starting at school and the pressure to study and travel beginning to tell, I dropped out of the first team and made my first appearance for the reserves just before Christmas.
During the autumn term, I had scored my first goal for Pompey – the youngest ever to do so at the time – met and played against Stanley Matthews, been awarded my first amateur International cap, and represented Great Britain in an Olympic qualifying game against Bulgaria in Sofia. It had been quite a baptism.
My all-time favourite Pompey goal, not surprisingly, was my first – against Blackpool. However, of the three I scored in my relatively short first team career, the one against Bolton a few weeks later was technically more satisfying – a right foot volley from a cross from the right.
As an amateur, I wasn’t getting paid – these gentlemen professionals were playing their game and I was butting in on it. ‘I wasn’t ever quite sure how these hardened pros were looking at this sproggy teenager keeping them out! ‘It was unreal, even for its time.
I would love to be able to revisit the match that I played on September 3rd, 1955 at Stamford Bridge against reining League Champions Chelsea. We won 5-1 and Peter Harris was on fire that day.”
Following making nine first team appearances in the 1955/56 season scoring three goals you would think things were looking up for a long and successful Pompey career, however this is Pompey, Pat explains.
“How I came to leave the club is sometimes difficult to explain, but in fairness there were probably misunderstandings on both sides. Having agreed with Mr Lever that it would be in my best interests, with exams approaching, to take a break from playing, the closed season came, and went, without any contact from Fratton Park.
As an amateur I expected a call to sign the usual yearly forms, and meanwhile I was approached by Stan Cullis who persuaded me to sign for Wolves, even though it would mean me travelling to the Midlands each week, and training by myself.
I talked it over with my headmaster, who was not too keen on the idea, fearing it would interfere too much with my studies – essential to confirm my place at Cambridge University.
The thought of playing alongside some of the best players in the country, such as Billy Wright, Bert Williams, and Jimmy Mullen was difficult to resist, so off I went to spend my summer holidays getting to know my new team mates.
Of course, Mr Lever and the directors at Fratton Park were outraged, and lodged a complaint against Wolves, all of which hit the headlines. Once the season got underway, I would do much studying on the train, but I had a couple of memorable games.
I was called in to play against the touring Hungarian team Red Banner, and scored the equalising goal that saved Wolves’ unbeaten record against continental teams, but when national service and a posting to Cyprus took over, it was difficult to continue to play for Wolves.”
I asked Pat who was his all-time favourite Pompey player.
“Being a winger who had some pace, I may well have modelled my play on Peter Harris. I watched him as a boy and was always thrilled when his pace and control of the ball took him past his hapless marker on the way to scoring yet again.
To have played in the same team as him was indeed the stuff of ‘Boys Own’. It was indeed a great privilege to have been asked by his wife Sylvia to deliver the eulogy to him at his funeral. Of course, being of an age that I am, brought up in the halcyon post war championship years, I could include quite a few from that squad.
For me the magic of football, and of Pompey, kicked in as I sat on the wall behind the Milton goal on November 27, 1948 when Arsenal came and were comprehensively conquered. What a jubilee occasion that was. I can still see in my mind’s eye Reg Flewin flapping his arms to the north terrace encouraging them to keep up the volume. The entire 1939 FA Cup winning team was on parade before the game – I wonder where our more recent winners will be in ten years’ time?
Having lived and worked in the city for practically all my life, and played for the team I worshipped as a boy, it’s impossible not to be affected by what goes on at the Park – which we all regarded as our Mecca when we were young. When the team does well, the city flourishes. When they don’t, the mood changes accordingly.
If evidence were needed, look no further than the crowds that thronged to Southsea Common to welcome back the team from Wembley in May 2008. When Sol went up to lift the FA Cup I was there! What a day that was.”