As part of his ongoing look back at the 1978-79 First Division campaign, STEVE MITCHELL caught up with former Wrexham, Middlesbrough, FC Twente and Tranmere Rovers striker Billy Ashcroft as he reminisced about his life as a professional footballer both at home and abroad.
SM: So Billy, is it true you were actually a centre-half who was converted into a striker?
BA: Well, at school I was actually a swimmer and a triple jumper but in the winter months, one of my school teachers made me train with the “B” team and within six months I was actually playing for Blackpool as a centre-half at just 14 years of age.
I’m a season ticket holder at Everton and not long ago a guy behind me asked how long I’d been sitting in my current seat, I told him about ten years and he turned round to me and said “Do you remember Alan Mosson your old PE teacher?”, I said I did and he replied, “Well, that’s me!” Incredible that I’d been sat just two rows in front of him at Goodison Park for ten years and never recognised him.
SM: Who would you say was the biggest influence on your career in the early days?
BA: Travelling to Blackpool was a bit far for me and there was a guy who lived up the road called Jack Daniels who saw me playing and asked if I’d go for a trial at South Liverpool. When I got there I met a guy called Dave Hughes who asked me where I played so I told him I was a centre-half. He said, don’t play there, anyone can be a defender, get yourself up front and play centre-forward.
We played a couple of practice games against Wrexham and within a couple of weeks I was asked to go to the Racecourse Ground for a trial. I was just 15 at the time but it was good grounding for me playing against some really physical blokes.
SM: So how did the move to Middlesbrough come about?
BA: John Neal was my manager at Wrexham and he basically took me with him to Middlesbrough. He was like a second father to me and he looked after me during my time at Ayresome Park. He actually tried to sign me when he went to Chelsea so he must have thought I had a bit of quality.
SM: Looking back on that Middlesbrough side of the late 70’s who would you say were the players who stood out?
BA: Well, we’d had Graeme Souness there of course and he left for Liverpool not long after I arrived. Despite this, we still had a lot of quality players but unfortunately we started selling them. Craig Johnston had come into the team and of course he eventually went to Liverpool as did David Hodgson. There was also Mark Proctor who left to go to Nottingham Forest and of course, we had David Armstrong who I reckon played around 2,000 games on the trot; the guy never got injured, he was a quality player.
I have to single out a defender called Tony McAndrew too. If any young players needed a role model then he was the right man for the job. He was immaculate in everything he did both on and off the pitch. We also signed Yugoslav forward Bosko Jankovic so we had a huge cross section of players in the squad and with the likes of Stan Cummins coming through, we had a good side. I think if we had managed to keep hold of them for a couple more years, we could have gone on to win something.
SM: Going back to 1978-79, are there any games that stand out for you?
BA: Well, we beat Chelsea 7-2 at Ayresome Park in the December of ‘78 but I didn’t play in that game because that’s when the rotation system started (or as we knew it, being dropped!). There was one game that sticks in the memory, however; we drew Crystal Palace in the cup but John Neal told me that I wouldn’t be playing which was good news for me as a mate of mine was getting married.
The boss told me just to come to watch the game so before kick-off I was in a pub just around the corner from the ground when one of the apprentices came in looking for me. He told me the gaffer needed to see me and by this time I’d had a couple of pints. When I got to the ground John Neal told me he was short of players due to injury and told me I’d have to go on the bench.
I remember that it was a freezing cold night (we called it summer in the North East!) and with 20 minutes left we were losing and the gaffer told me to start warming up. I thought to myself that he was never going to put me on as he knew I’d been drinking but he told me I was going on and I remember Kenny Sansom who was playing for Palace coming up to me and asking if I’d been drinking. He couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe that minutes later I smashed a left footer right into the top corner to get us a replay. It was a crazy night for sure.
SM: Where you ever close to getting an international call-up?
BA: I do remember a game at Birmingham City early on in the season when Trevor Francis had just come back from playing in the USA. We beat them 3-1 and I reckon it was one of my best performances for Boro during my time there. The next day I was reading the newspapers and the minister for sport, Dennis Howells, commented that he’d been to watch our match at St. Andrews and that he thought the front two on either side (me and Trevor) should be the spearhead for the next England team. Whether it’s true or not I don’t know but I do remember Ron Greenwood coming to watch me at The Dell against Southampton a few weeks later.
SM: So after five years on Teesside you left to go to Holland to play for FC Twente
BA: That was forced on me to be fair. We got relegated in my final season at Boro and I wasn’t getting much game time which I have to say was my fault. I was told that FC Twente were looking for a striker for the following season so I made contact and before I knew it I was on my way to Holland. To be honest, it rejuvenated my career. I went there on a free transfer and after I’d been there a couple of seasons, Charlton Athletic said they were interested in me but Twente told them that they would have to pay a fee for me. When I asked the club how they could ask for money they said that I was a much better player than when I arrived.
SM: Good memories of your time in Holland then?
BA: The first year was difficult because of the language barrier and stuff and we got relegated but the second year we got a new coach who wanted more aggression from me. I took his advice and finished top goalscorer in the second division and second overall in the whole country as we got back into the top-flight.
That was when I played against the likes of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten and other legends such as Johan Cruyff and Johnny Rep. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.
SM: So you must have a great collection of shirts then?
BA: Not really, all the shirts I collected I gave to charities such as Adult Learning for people with Down’s Syndrome so they could raise funds, that kind of thing.
SM: You returned to Merseyside to play for Tranmere Rovers
BA: That’s right, but we don’t talk about that. I had a nightmare time there. Frank Worthington was in charge and he asked me to come and play just to do him a favour; let’s just say that I didn’t do him any favours at all.
SM: So you had no desire to go into coaching?
BA: No I did want to get into it and that’s why I went to Tranmere. I’d just arrived back from Holland and I’d got all these new ideas I’d picked up from the training sessions at Twente. Unfortunately, Frank had got his own coaching team in place and wasn’t interested in what I had to offer. Also, I don’t think I’d ever have the heart to tell someone at the end of the season that they were not good enough. Honestly, if I’d been a manager I would have had a squad of 300 players!
SM: Finally, are you glad you played football when you did rather than in the modern era?
BA: Look, everyone from my generation will tell you the same thing, but it’s true, we didn’t play football for the money. I never knew what any of my team-mates were earning and that’s the truth. It was all about securing your next contract, not about which expensive car you were going to buy. There was no negotiation back then, you went in to see the gaffer and he’d say this is what you’re getting and that was that.
I say good luck to these lads that are now making pots of money but I don’t think I could play in today’s game for sure as most players are soft. I see it week in week out at Goodison and its so frustrating to see the players diving around and not only the lads from overseas either.
You can follow Billy Ashcroft on Twitter @billyashcroft9
FOLLOW THE WHOLE 1978-79 SEASON IN THE ENGLISH FIRST DIVISION WITH STEVE MITCHELL HERE ON THE FOOTBALL PINK. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @barafundler