WISTFUL SEVENTIES SATURDAY AFTERNOONS spent in the surroundings of Notts County’s County Road Stand were happily brought to mind whilst attending Billy Ivory’s Diary of a Football Nobody at Nottingham Playhouse last week. The production – eagerly awaited by myself – is based on former Notts County player Dave McVay’s diary-turned-book of 1970s provincial football life, Steak… Diana Ross: Diary of a Football Nobody.
I was at senior school at the time Dave McVay – a local Clifton lad – made his debut in Jimmy Sirrel’s Magpies side and watched Notts through the entirety of the young defender/midfielder’s stuttering career in the old Second Division of the Football League. Whilst Dave’s football career never met the heights of early expectations, his true vocation was found after leaving the game at relatively young age and signing on as a football writer and later features writer for the Nottingham Evening Post. He later became Midlands correspondent for The Times and finally a freelance journalist forThe Daily Telegraph.
David has a wry turn of phrase and a dry humour that I particularly enjoy. Reading Steak… Diana Ross was a great pleasure for me as it chronicled a period in football and an age for me in which I really enjoyed the game and attended matches regularly. It was in that context that I attended a performance of Diary of a Football Nobody at Nottingham Playhouse.
The production sprang to life to a backdrop of excellent and nostalgia-rending black and white slides of mid-1970s Nottingham. Places I remembered well, many now lost to us. A great opening and mood builder. Throughout the play, original, striking and comedic cartoon backdrop displays enhanced proceedings, adding support to some excellent performances. Particular credit should be given to Perry Fitzpatrick as Dave McVay who spent the majority of the evening on stage – a huge undertaking. Narrating the story, his character was likeable, funny and portrayed almost word-perfect. Equally impressive was Eric (Sgt Cryer from The Bill) Richard’s portrayal of ‘the Gaffer’ Scot, Jimmy Sirrel, the eccentric and knowledgeable Manager of Notts County, charged with whipping a team of largely journeyman footballers into a semblance of shape – something he did with unequalled success at Meadow Lane. Richard caught the man perfectly, the thick Glaswegian accent, the idiosyncrasies and all. I can say this clearly after meeting and chatting with ‘Sir Jimmy’ for a couple of hours one afternoon a few years ago.
Notts County – seventies style, with McVay back row, third from left.
The play as well as documenting the boozing and womanising of a section of local seventies footballers also contained many poignant moments, chiefly revolving around Dave’s family life and his Grandad’s deteriorating health and passing away at his old Clifton family home. The author claimed that many of his memoirs were not necessarily for public consumption, thankfully Ivory’s persistence in featuring them as a counterpoint to the show’s stream of humour was an unqualified success. Intriguing too were McVay’s reflections on his decision to embark upon a football career instead of going to university, an option which was certainly rarer in those days. His agonising over his seemingly unfulfilling life choice was interesting when noted against a similar choice to be made in the current day of millionaire footballers.
Diary of a Football Nobody was an enjoyable race through two football seasons in the middle seventies with some familiar and hilarious tales. From McVay’s leaving home to share a house with fellow player Geoff Collier in ‘the village of the damned’ – Bingham, Notts – and the boisterous, laddish behaviour that ensued, to the regular egg delivery round that the leading character shared with full-back and journeyman pro, Billy Brindley. Particularly funny was the enactment of the infamous Meadow Lane game versus Manchester United and the rioting that ensued after plucky Notts pulled two goals back for a 2-2 draw. The plot relating Jimmy Sirrel’s celebrated potential attack on the Mancunian hoards with trainer Jack Wheeler’s bunion scalpel!
Jimmy Sirrel hails the Notts fans on the pitch after promotion to Division Two in 1973 with his captain, Don Masson
Knowing these players so well, I was particularly interested to see how they would be portrayed in 2012. During those days I semi-hero worshipped Notts captain, the mercurial Scottish maestro, Don Masson. Sirrel’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’ could do little wrong on the pitch, playing several levels below his true station at Notts County but his then persona was given a pantomime villain’s role by McVay as a particularly sour, obnoxious and hard-to-please character. Masson later went on to play at the highest level and although an extremely clever and highly skilled midfield schemer his personality had been partly confirmed to me by Sirrel in our chat when he mentioned that ‘The Don’ often had to be reigned in in the way he treated and talked to his team. Here, I would offer a minor criticism of the production in that while suspension of belief has to be carried out a little in these things, the visual portrayal of Masson was nothing like the player. I felt the actor could have easily been made to look more like the Masson I remember. A similar criticism would be of the way trainer, Jack Wheeler was depicted with the thin and wiry Wheeler being played by a much larger-built man. These and an occasional early difficulty in hearing some of the dialogue would be my only slight criticisms though from a hugely enjoyable evening feel a little churlish it should be said.
I left the Nottingham Playhouse wishing I could go back and revisit those heady days. The seventies are often a much-maligned decade but hold some great memories for me personally. I could almost taste the beer in Nottingham’s historic old watering hole, the Flying Horse, feel myself raking through the shelves of records in Selectadisc or casting an envious eye in Paul Smith’s original shop window. There are so many memories. Thank you Dave – you brought them all back beautifully. I might just head back to the Playhouse for a second helping.