“Joe Baker Dies of Heart Attack” (October 06, 2003)
Those were the words that made my heart sink just two years ago when I discovered that a great hero of my childhood had passed on. I am sure that many can recount a similar feeling when I say that this man was something of a cornerstone of my younger days, hero-worshipping him, studying everything he did on the pitch and avidly reading every few words I could about the great centre-forward as I knew he was. There too were the stories from a Hibernian-supporting father. In truth there was never any possibility that he wouldn’t become my hero.
I’m sure there was something about Joe that transcended pure hero-worship though, judging by the effect he had on football supporters whoever had the blessing to call him the centre-forward of their team. Who can forget the homage paid to him back in Torino for all those years ago? The Baker Boy played but a mere single season in Italy with another young prodigal, Denis Law, yet still he is remembered with much fondness and not a little acclaim.
Much has been lovingly written about Joe, not least in the Mass Hibsteria fanzine and on this website. For an anecdotal history and a full account of his many achievements, please note the references at the foot of the page to two excellent articles.
My aim here is not to compete with those excellent words but to offer a different and personal slant on the Joe Baker story, for this man wove through my younger days, seemingly inextricably.
As a youngster living in Nottingham, though a firm Hibernian supporter, I was ironically able to watch a great Hibernian hero at something like his peak. This is not an opportunity that would have been afforded me in Edinburgh not being old enough to watch his exploits at Hibs the first time around. Although I was too young to understand everything that was happening on the pitch I was under no illusion that I was watching anything but a great and legendary player in Nottingham. Joe just had that special ‘aura’ about him which was very hard to explain and which belongs to the very few.
The football fans from the red side of Nottingham could hardly believe their good fortune when Joe, from Arsenal, signed on the dotted line at The City Ground. Joe had a stunning goal-scoring record at Highbury which at my last inspection was superior to Thierry Henry’s in goals per game – no mean feat. What was very noticeable was how well the Nottingham public took to Joe – like a favourite son. Still to this day the football fans of the city talk of the number nine in hushed and reverential tones. Similarly one can also still view the odd ‘Baker 9’ garibaldi red Forest jersey around the city. How I love to see that.
By my calculations it’s around thirty-eight years since Joe wowed the big, City Ground crowds with his surging forward play, how many players do you know with that kind of longevity of popularity – especially as Joe played for Forest for only a relatively short period of time?
Shortly after Joe died I met a friend, a friend who is a Nottingham Forest supporter of many years standing and one who has seen many wonderful internationalists play for his team winning a large quantity of silverware. His first words to me that evening were simply and sadly, “my one and only all-time hero died this week”. The words were almost unnecessary but the understanding between two lovers of the great game was implicit.
Those schoolboy images of him remain extremely vivid to me, the equal or more than any other player I can think of. I still see the low through ball hit between two defenders and Joe in a blur or acceleration racing onto the pass leaving his markers yards behind. Not only did he have blinding pace but the quickness of thought that made him almost unstoppable at times. Another strong image is of him turning a defender and shooting explosively with either foot equally. Add strong aerial ability, superb close control, and agility around the box and one has the master centre-forward which is what Joe was.
How pleased was I when he re-signed for the Hibees, passing by an unhappy period of injury at Forest and then Sunderland. Deep in my heart I knew it was all over though, we would never see the great forward in his pomp of the likes we had done before. For the Nottingham fans there was to be no gnashing of teeth at Joe’s unhappy departure as they knew he would never be the same as befitted his free transfer from the club, much as they loved him. One last fling at Easter Road seemed very appropriate to me as a Hibernian supporter though.
My one last poignant memory of Joe and me was after the news of his death. I received a message at home on the lunchtime before Hibs’ next game in which he would be honoured before the kick-off. The message simply asked me if I’d like to be a part of the minute’s silence for Joe which was going to happen at Easter Road and to stay by my mobile phone.
That afternoon shortly before 3pm I received a call from a very good friend and Hibby sitting in the Famous Five Stand. I wasn’t at home though as I wanted to share my last moments with Joe Baker somewhere special. In the locality where I live there lies forestry, part of what would have historically been ancient Sherwood Forest. I took my daily jog through those woodlands and sat on a bench at a clearing amongst the ancient oaks and birches on that sunny Saturday afternoon and took the call I had been awaiting. A brief announcement from my friend, and I listened in to the sound of silence and utter respect from my other home at Easter Road.
As I sat there in silence looking at the autumn sun glistening through the trees with just a pair of horses for company in the nearby field, I remembered what Joe had meant to me as a boy. I think Joe would have appreciated his one last day in the sun too – in the green fields of Nottinghamshire.