‘One of the most incredible – and eventful – evenings I’ve ever had‘…..this was how I recently described the evening I spent in the company of some of the greatest names in the history of football.
It was March 1996 and I was excited to have been invited, in my capacity as Marketing Executive of The Football League, to the launch of an exciting new restaurant concept in the Haymarket in the heart of London’s West End.
‘Football, Football’ was the brainchild of former Fulham and QPR player, Bobby Keetch, who I had got to know quite well as he was a great friend of my former Football League colleague, Lee Walker. It was backed by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and brewing giants, Allied Domecq.
It sounded the perfect concept: the first of a chain of themed restaurants throughout Britain and abroad, packed with football memorabilia and showing replays of classic games. Sadly, it didn’t turn out that way.
The launch evening was absolutely incredible. As a former Bank Clerk from Plumstead and as my own playing career peaked when I played for Plumstead Casuals FC in the South East London and Kent Amateur League; I remember standing in the restaurant with a glass of wine in my hands talking to colleagues from The League and the Clubs and realising that I was also in the company of some of the biggest ever names in World football!
To the left of me George Best was chatting to Denis Law, behind me England’s 1966 World Cup heroes Gordon Banks, George Cohen, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst and Alan Ball were posing for a group photo, to my right Hungary’s legendary Ferenc Puskas was signing autographs and in the corner of my eye, the great Eusebio of Portugal and George Weah of Liberia were also in demand for their signatures.
In addition to the legends I’ve mentioned, along with many other dignitaries of the game, the evening was also attended by the likes of my former CAFC colleague Garth Crooks, commentator John Motson, Jimmy Hill, Paul Gascoigne, Terry Venables, Rodney Marsh, Bryan Robson, Ian Wright, Malcolm Allison and 1974 World Cup Final Referee Jack Taylor, who I worked with at The League.
Sadly, despite such a glittering opening night and the huge publicity around it, the venture wasn’t a success. On the eve of the Euro 96 final, the restaurant’s driving force and founder Bobby Keetch tragically died. This huge blow, plus the public never really getting behind the concept, meant that ‘Football, Football’ didn’t survive.
Sadly many of the legends I’ve mentioned are no longer with us, including my great friend Jack Taylor who passed away in 2012, but it was a special night and one that I will never ever forget…..although it ended slightly earlier that I expected. Here’s my Football League diary extract from that day:
Monday 25th March 1996
Jack was in the office today as he was at the PFA Award dinner last night. Jack is a past winner of a merit award and as such is invited every year.
I spent most of the day working on Auto Windscreens Shield issues in readiness for the Final at Wembley on April 14th.
In the evening, I had the pleasure of attending, along with our Head of Television Lee Walker and Jack, the opening of the new football theme restaurant in the Haymarket, ‘Football, Football’. What an occasion.
For someone like me who ten years ago was working in a bank, to be present at such a glittering gathering was mind-blowing. Everyone was there: Eusebio, Puskas, Banks, Ball, Hurst, Peters, Cohen, Crooks, Motson, Hill, Gascoigne, Venables, Law, Marsh, Allison, Robson, Wright, Best to name just a few, as well as other celebrities and dignitaries.
It was an incredible evening but unfortunately near the end of the evening Jack Taylor was taken ill. Jack started to feel faint and collapsed, probably due to the packed schedule Jack had worked over the past few days, the heat and, I think he won’t mind me saying, possibly also the champagne!
After the ambulance crew had checked him out, Jack’s son-in-law David and I left the launch party and got Jack back to the Metropole Hotel in Edgeware Road where we were all staying. My old boss at The Football League Trevor Phillips and Lee followed us back from ‘Football, Football’ as we were all concerned about Jack. After ensuring Jack was OK; Lee, Trevor and I then retired to the Metropole Bar.
What a night!
Photo by Getty Images. David M. Benett
A book featuring reminiscences from my 23 years in football will be published in Spring 2019