Shropshire Star

Johnny Phillips: Steak and Vermouth... tales of an old school footballer!

Mark Patterson’s new autobiography, Old School, might resonate with supporters who enjoy a more colourful brand of footballer than can be found today.


Patterson was just 15 when he was given a chance by then Second Division Blackburn Rovers, called up for a friendly in 1981.

“I was playing in the Darwen Men’s Amateur League on pitches that cows had been out to graze on the day before,” Patterson recalls.

“If you were old enough to play, you were old enough to get kicked so it toughened me up. Blackburn took me on as an apprentice and I had to work as a cleaner at the club, mopping the dressing rooms and sweeping the corridors. We could only go home after training when all the jobs had been done and inspected. I do think it stood us in good stead for life.”

Football in the 1980s was often about playing the hand you were dealt.

Patterson recalls the day Rovers manager Bobby Saxton had a brush with death when trying to save some of the club’s valuable equipment.

“We had about a dozen council pitches in a local park, where we used to train, and the River Darwen ran right through it,” Patterson explains.

“We only had 20 or so balls in those days and they had to last the whole season. One winter’s day a ball rolled in to the river, Bobby leaned in to grab it, ended up falling in and getting swept down in the current for about a hundred yards. He eventually grabbed a branch and hauled himself up coughing and spluttering. We couldn’t believe it, we thought he’d gone. All for the sake of a Mitre Multiplex.”

Pre-season tour destinations were never the foreign jaunts of today, but they were memorable all the same. “We went on a pre-season tour to the Isle of Man and they had a famous nightclub there called Whispers,” Patterson continues.

“One night Tony Christie was in there, and he was going through his routine. He started off on Is This The Way To Amarillo.

“We all started joining in with the song at the back. He didn’t like us getting involved so he just stopped the whole show and called for security.

“They kicked the whole squad out of the place, I’ll never forget it. We used to go out there 80 per cent ready for the season and come back 60 per cent in those days.”

Several of the players would be smokers and Friday night traditions like fish and chips were part of the footballers’ diet.

Mark Patterson's new autobiography

“Just before I turned pro, we used to have steaks as a pre-match meal at midday on Saturday ahead of youth team games. I mean, it just wouldn’t digest, especially so close to kick-off at 3pm. There was just no guidance on nutrition. Whenever we played away games we’d get up at the hotel and have a full English breakfast before a game.”

Despite all this, Patterson managed to forge a successful career. After dropping down to the third tier with Bolton Wanderers he was part of their double promotion under Bruce Rioch, achieving his dream of playing in the top division after Bolton beat Reading 4-3 in an extraordinary play-off final in May, 1995.

The Nineties heralded a new age of professionalism with the birth of the Premier League, but old habits die hard. In January, 1996, now at Sheffield United, Patterson was part of the team preparing to face Villa in FA Cup fourth round.

“We drove over to Sheffield on the Saturday and it was five or six inches deep in snow, we couldn’t do anything at the training ground so we just went to the hotel,” Patterson adds.

“I was with Gordon Cowans, David White and Don Hutchison and we had a bite to eat and the snow was just getting worse and worse, so then we had a few pints. Don then starts ordering double Vermouths. I had no idea what they were, but we just kept cracking on and it all got a bit lively.

“We were in double figures by now so called it a night, and packed Hutch off home as he was in a bit of a state.

“We woke up the next morning and somehow the game was on.

“We got down to the ground and Howard Kendall was checking us over. Ten minutes into the game Hutch was dead on his legs so at half-time Howard subs him off and says, ‘I want to know why you look like you’ve been out all night.’

“On Monday morning Howard called all of us into his office and demands to know what happened.

“We were a bit sheepish and then he just opened his desk drawer and produced the entire hotel bar bill from Saturday night. One of the club’s directors had been in the bar and seen it all unfold. Howard was great, he just fined us £350 each and asked, ‘What the effing hell is a Vermouth?’”

Patterson now runs a landscaping business, a trade he learnt while still playing professional football.

“From a financial point of view it would be fantastic to be playing now but the 20 years I had, with the camaraderie, I wouldn’t swap it at all” he concludes.

“I do feel for the lads playing now, I know they’ve got all the money but they can’t have the same camaraderie and memories of the times of the pitch.

“We were allowed to live our lives and get on without anyone paying any attention to us.”

Old School, indeed.