BY DAVID MARPLES
There’s no getting around this – essentially, it’s a footballer’s autobiography from the 1970s. In a golden age of football writing in which the genre has flourished and diversified, one could be forgiven for dismissing Conroy’s tale and at best, thinking that perhaps it might be worth picking up in a few years time on the occasion of seeing a copy staring out from behind the window display of a high street charity shop, all lonesome and rescuing it for a couple of quid.
Such an outlook would be harsh and undeserved since it is a warm and engaging read with just enough to maintain the interest of the football fan that does not happen to be a diehard Stoke City fan with an unexplainable penchant for oatcake and wasn’t around in the 70s. Of course, if one does happen to hail from the Potteries area, fill your boots full of the good stuff, especially if you were lucky enough to witness Conroy and his exciting team in action.
The book adopts a traditional structure – after a warm foreword from Tony Pulis, Conroy starts with the day he suffered an Abnormal Aortic Aneurism (AAA) in March 2011 and from there, wanders firmly back onto the beaten track of a chronological retelling of the major evens in his life. For the most part, Conroy’s story hangs on being part of the team that won Stoke City’s first major trophy – the League Cup in 1972 against the Cavaliers of the King’s Road, Chelsea, in which Conroy opened the scoring goal – and the consecutive 5th place finishes in the top division in the mid 70s; the 74-75 season being a particularly good one for Stoke City as they were genuine title contenders.
Conroy’s story is perhaps lacking the sensationalism and tales of booze, women and excess one might expect from such a halcyon time, but what it does contain in buckets is warmth for the game and his beloved Stoke City. His reverence for Stanley Matthews understandably leaps from the page but he also tells of other interesting characters from City folklore: the coach and physio from his era, Frank Mountford whose bucket of cold water was enough to get even the most heavily clattered Stoke players up and running again in no time, the tragic tale of Paul Shardlow and the steady and loyal manager of this exciting team, Tony Waddington. Throughout, glamorous names like Gordon Banks, Alan Hudson and George Eastham walk in and out of his story, sprinkling enough stardust to maintain interest while also making you pine for a time when pitches were bogs, football kits were minimalist cool and the game was an exciting fusion of maverick talent and blood n’ thunder challenges.
His tales of how street football in Ireland in the 1950s developed his silky skills are as evocative as a Lowry painting and it is surprising that he was with Glentoran until he was 20 years old, at which time he made the big jump over the Irish Sea to Stoke City. Rather than the boisterous ‘when men were men’ voice one might expect, instead we are presented with a determined and focused young man, desperate to succeed in the game he loves, so much so that he rejected booze and even an early girlfriend in ensuring that he would give his opportunity of making a living from the game his very best shot.
The book is not without its minor scandals though. A pre-season tour of America with Stoke and talk of deals done in bars raises an eyebrow, as do his views on Gordon Banks’ replacement at Stoke, Peter Shilton. Shilton’s style was so contrary to his predecessor’s that communication with his defence broke down, resulting rather predictably in a lack of confidence and the ‘goals conceded’ column increasing like the rack of a Connect 4 champion. As the legendary Stoke City team started to dismantle after coming within touching distance of true greatness, Shilton was sold to Nottingham Forest and went on to lift the European Cup as Stoke sank into the second tier – as neat a symmetry of conflicting fortunes you would struggle to find elsewhere.
Conroy’s story of this beloved team’s fall from grace is just an engaging as its rise and he pinpoints the demise to a storm that blew off the roof of the Butler Street Stand in January 1976, leading to financial problems and as sure as mud is mud, players being sold. Eventually, Conroy realised his time was up and after a downright bizarre stint in Hong Kong and a brief reunion with his old pal Waddington at Crewe Alexandra, he retired into odd jobs and perhaps inevitably for the retired 70s footballer, selling insurance packages until Stoke’s move to the Britannia Stadium and the desire to maximize hospitality led to him securing a role in match day hospitality – one which he clearly adores.
His tone is not without the odd opinionated rant and occasionally lapses into a ‘Back in our day…’ tone that might be expected from such a tale. Indeed, numerous things frustrate him about the modern game and he reserves particular scorn for ‘Monsieur Wenger and his men’. Arsenal are not the only targets though and his grumblings regarding the lack of organisational skills of the IFA would rival Roy Keane’s – most notably a chaotic friendly against Italy in 1985. Conroy played an integral role in utilising the granny rule to recruit players for Ireland. Sadly for him, his role was terminated and some bitterness lingers.
In amongst the occasional rants and nostalgia-tinted tone, there are some beautiful turns of phrases. On the realisation that his football career was at an end and at a particularly low ebb, Conroy captures the ennui: “I suppose there comes a point in every life story that the protagonist is down on their luck. It gives the hero time to reflect on the fortune he has enjoyed in life to that point and reassess his future before emerging from the dark times into the light.” He is also precise in his description of how Waddington’s successor, Alan Durban, did what was necessary to start the Stoke City recovery as he “…shook us out of our mordant introspection.” Conroy and his collaborator, Simon Lowe, deserve credit for varying the idiolect throughout.
Anyone with a mere passing interest in Stoke City simply requires this book. Furthermore, the brash, beautiful world of 1970s English football is also captured within and there’s enough here to pique the interest of anyone who saw their team come up against Conroy, Eastham, Gordon Banks and Jimmy Greenhoff.