On heroes…

I’d never really idolised anyone before Ray Clemence.

I was seven. Mad on football, mad on Liverpool FC and absolutely obsessed with goalkeeping. My fixation on Ray Clemence was thus assured.

Clemence was the lynchpin of the Liverpool side of the ’70s. Signed in 1967 from Scunthorpe United, he replaced Tommy Lawerence – the ‘flying pig’ – in the Reds’ nets three years later in 1970.

Clem was the polar opposite of the average, ultra-dependable goalie of the period. While the likes of his England rival Peter Shilton had honed their skills for years to become capable between the sticks (Shilton used to get his parents to stretch him off the landing to make him taller), Clemence was originally an outfield player, only becoming a goalie to get a game in a school representative side. For Clemence, being in goal was easy – or at least that’s how he made it look.

As I began playing competitively myself, it was Ray who was my inspiration (though I would never master kicking with my left foot as he did). I may have only been playing in the Ormskirk and District Cubs League, but every game gave me the chance to tip the ball round the post a la Clemence or keep a clean sheet like Ray did at Anfield, just a few miles from my house. And when things went wrong for Clem, they went wrong for me too. I couldn’t stand it when he’d make a mistake, and was distraught when his louche style led to a soft goal going in. Even though Clemence had the superior natural attributes, I always had the nagging feeling that Shilton was the better of the two England goalies, but only admitting this to myself, never at school, where the assembled throngs of Evertonians would be gleeful when he messed up. Thirty years on, I still find the soft through-the-legs goal he let in for England against Scotland in 1976 painful. He really was my hero.

And then one day I heard that he would be doing a signing at a sports shop in Ormskirk. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited about anything in my life. After school I went to the store, to be greeted by a huge queue snaking down the road. I took my place, petrified that the doors would shut and I’d miss out, but within half an hour I was inside, just a few yeards from the great man. I’d gone through this meeting in my head all afternoon. I would be polite. I would ask him about playing in Liverpool, he would quiz me about my sparkling form for the 37th Ormskirk Cubs and perhaps point me in the way of a trial at Anfield. Then came my turn. I walked up and began to speak, but Clem, wearing a dark blue V-neck jumper, just took my autograph book off me and signed his name without even looking up. I was moved on and out of the shop, another expendable part in the faceless production line of fame. Gutted.

My feelings for Ray Clemence were never the same after this. It was a wake up call, one that we all get eventually, that our heroes are every bit as mortal and prone to faults as the rest of us. Following Ray, came Adam Ant, after Adam, John Barnes, but each time the gap between the man and his actions got wider as I learnt that being good at something didn’t automatically make you a good person. And that goes for all of us.

There is a coda to this little story though. Last year, while entering my private London media club, I happened upon a middle aged man trying to get in. The lady with the clipboard, under strict instruction not to admit anyone but members and their guests, told him that he’d have to wait as his member friend wasn’t here yet. He turned around. It was Ray Clemence.

“It’s alright, Clem,“ I said, “if you’re stuck getting in, I’ll sort you out.”
“Cheers, mate,” he replied, hearing my accent, pleased that the Liverpool connection still bore fruit in the most unexpected of places.

And it’s funny, because even though I was tempted to tell him how shit he’d he made me feel 30 years ago, the fact that he was the first person I ever truly idolised counted for so much more than this – ultimately minor – disappointment. I might now have been a man in my 30s, but meeting him once again laid that ghost to rest. He was mortal alright, but he was still Liverpool goalkeeper when they were the greatest football team on the planet. And that counted for more than anything.

I just wish I’d asked him to sign my serviette – I lost the orginal autograph years before.


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