REVIEW BY MARK GODFREY – EDITOR
Tell people of a certain age that Southampton were once yearly contenders for honours in English football and you’re likely to be laughed out of town. Cup semi-finals, First Division runners-up, European qualification, Lawrie McMenemy’s Saints were one the hottest tickets around in the early to mid-1980s. The silver-tongued Geordie somehow persuaded some of the game’s most glamorous names to mosey on down to the south coast to express themselves in front of that quirkiest and most intimidating of sporting arenas, The Dell; Kevin Keegan, Alan Ball, Frank Worthington and Peter Shilton to name but a few. They were augmented by a host of homegrown talent as Southampton, in their iconic Patrick kits, constantly threatened the established hierarchy.
One man who was just as important to that excellent team as any other signing was the easily recognisable but vastly underappreciated midfielder David Armstrong. His autobiography, The Bald Facts – written with the help of Pat Symes – tell his story, from County Durham schoolboy dreaming of life as a professional sportsmen, to realising his ambitions in the upper echelons of English league football.
Armstrong, a boyhood Sunderland fan, made his name at their North East rivals Middlesbrough in the 1970s, most notably under the management of Big Jack Charlton who made the Teesside club one of the most feared in the land during a spell which coincided with the emergence of a certain Graeme Souness at Ayresome Park. Even here, barely out of school, he became a vital cog in his team’s wheel, playing and scoring on a regular basis. He even holds the remarkable record of 358 consecutive league and cup appearances while playing for Boro between 1972 and 1980. It is this ability and willingness to play, regardless of physical condition and potential damage that comes to bite Armstrong hard in later life…
Eventually, bigger clubs come sniffing around him but he opts for the excitement of McMenemy’s Southampton project to continue his development in the game. There, just like at Middlesbrough, Armstrong became a firm terrace favourite and a manager’s dream; reliable, dependable and loyal.
His feats earned him fleeting interest from England but the late Bobby Robson seemed to have very little interest in Armstrong, perhaps not knowing exactly how to fit him into his preferred system and perhaps feeling safer picking the more headline names like Glenn Hoddle and Ray Wilkins.
By the time Armstrong reached his early 30s, his career was effectively finished, a culmination of injuries which rendered him virtually immobile and a regular under the surgeon’s care to this day.
Away from the insights into the footballing side of Armstrong’s life, he is remarkably candid about his private life and the breakdown of his first marriage and the estrangement from his daughter. Such lurid gossip would have made the tabloids and social media in a heartbeat in this day and age but was a well kept secret back when Armstrong was at his peak as a goalscoring midfielder.
Sadly, he has – like so many ex-pros – fallen on difficult times financially, something else he is unashamed to point out. Understandably, he is envious without too much bitterness, of the money even the most average of Premier League player can now squeeze out of their careers compared to 30 years ago.
You don’t have to be a Boro or Southampton fan to appreciate this book. You don’t even have to have remembered Armstrong in his heyday, although it would probably help especially when you remember just how good a player he was without ever getting the recognition he perhaps deserved.
This book offers a rarely seen view into both the public and private life of a sporting hero whose life was not all champagne and racehorses, but missing mortgage payments, custody hearings and medical mishaps.