It’s Sunday 7th March 1954. Around the middle of the morning, my father and I walk down the hill from Plumstead Common to my uncle’s newsagents shop in Lakedale Road. Our ostensible objective is to collect the Sunday papers for ourselves and some neighbours, together with a week’s supply of the Daily Mirror and the Racing and Football Outlook for my grandmother so that she can work on her continuing analysis of promotion and relegation prospects.
A less formal purpose is to chat about football. The other main topic was politics and this often amounted to speculation about the sexual conduct of prominent politicians. Of course, at the age of seven I didn’t realise what, for example, references to MP and newspaper columnist Tom Driberg’s preferences (he was gay) meant. But as I leafed through the football pages, my uncle would advise me to always read ‘between the lines’ of any news story. What was left unsaid was as important as what was said. I shouldn’t take anything at face value, but develop an ability to criticise, some of the best advice I ever had.
Lakedale Road was then a bustling shopping centre, but it is relatively quiet by around 11 am on a Sunday in my uncle’s shop, so much so that you can hear the hissing of the gas lamps, perhaps interrupted by the passage of the Salvation Army band. With no social media, Charlton fans knew that they could drop by for a few minutes chat. Apart from the preceding day’s game, a favourite topic was the tensions between manager Jimmy Seed and trainer or coach Jimmy Trotter.
However, this was a rather unusual day in terms of Charlton coverage in the Sunday papers, or at least that is how I remembered it. Memory can play tricks and when I searched the British Library newspaper archive online, the coverage was much more perfunctory than I recalled through a sepia glow. However, the Daily Mirror did comment with some surprise on the Saturday that they had met a man who did not know what was happening that day at The Valley.
On the preceding day we had been at The Valley for Sam Bartram’s 500th match for Charlton which was estimated to boost the normal gate by 10,000 (including Sam’s mother who travelled from County Durham). Arguably it was actually his 497th because the three matches at the start of the 1939-40 season before the outbreak of war had been expunged from the official record. But let’s not allow a technicality to stand in the way of a celebration.
Charlton had played Portsmouth that day, winning 3-1 and their skipper Jimmy Dickinson had helped Bartram to cut a giant cake (30 inches by 18 inches) supplied by Pompey on the pitch after the game. They also gave him a silver tankard while Charlton gave him a silver tea service. On the way home we bought at least one of the then three London evening papers which brought out a late football edition and I cut out and the photograph of Bartram and Dickinson and pasted it on cardboard. It was a treasured memento for many years. Looking back at the photographs that some papers printed, Bartram’s principal look is one of embarrassment and he is referred to in one report as a ‘modest’ individual.
For me, Sam Bartram was a childhood hero and led to a lifelong fascination with the role of goalkeepers in the game (more of that in a subsequent post). In the 21st century heroes and heroines are regarded with a justified scepticism and I will come back to Bartram’s flaws later.
In addition to the Sunday papers, I would collect some comics. A favourite was the Eagle in which Dan Dare regularly battled against the Venusian evil genius, the Mekon, who appeared to bathe in green pea soup. However, I would also collect a new comic which started publication in 1954, the Tiger, and which featured Roy of the Rovers, the rovers being Melchester Rovers.
Football-themed stories were a staple of British comics for boys from the 1950s onwards, and Roy of the Rovers was the most popular. The strip usually saw Rovers competing for honours at the top of the English and European game, although in some years the storylines would see the club struggle for form, including relegation from the top flight in the early 1980s. Roy’s playing career came to an end in 1993 when he lost his left foot in a helicopter crash.
The Tiger pioneered one innovation in the form of football ‘league ladders’. You had to press out pieces of card for each team which contained some basic information on a tab such as the name of the ground and the team colours. You then placed these in slots on a cardboard sheet for all four divisions (I can’t remember for sure how Scotland was treated, but I think just the top division was at the bottom of the sheet). They have a retro appeal and reproduction versions can be bought online, the marketing blurb stating: ‘When I was a lad, there were only three channels on the telly, and when you weren't outside playing with your Raleigh Chopper bike or your Wembley Trophy football, you were indoors doing your League Ladders.’ The idea was that you could make adjustments after each week’s matches, but for me it provided the basis for a game which was a crude early form of Football Manager using a dice or playing cards in which Charlton somehow won the first division title.
Bartram, of course, never received significant international honours, other than three wartime internationals, touring Australia with an England XI in 1951 and played for the England B team (the international equivalent of the reserves). Why was that? In part it was because Frank Swift (Manchester City) and Ted Ditchburn (Tottenham Hotspur) were also available. Even then Spurs and City were seen as ‘big’ clubs. Bartram did play for the Possibles versus the Probables in a pre-war trial and at one time was seen as a more likely selection than Swift, but the war intervened. Hence he got the unwanted title of the ‘the finest goalkeeper never to play for England.’
A friend in later life who was a Portsmouth fan argued that Bartram was a ‘showman’. In Peter Chapman’s book The Goalkeeper’s History of Britain he states that Bartram was condemned as ‘playing for the gallery’ and called ‘a danger to football.’ Admittedly, Swift was also seen as something of a showman for throwing the ball out, something then seen as unorthodox (Swift had learnt it from water polo). ‘To have sanctioned a second showman would have risked established tradition. Protective of the nation’s sterner values, Bartram was where [the selectors] drew the line.’
From a 21st century viewpoint, it is possible to argue for a more positive perspective on his style of play. He did take risks and ventured out of his goal area more than was common in those days when the keeper was usually seen as a shot stopper on the line and one who was given less protection from referees than is the case today. These days Sam might be called a sweeper keeper, a popular formula with some managers who consider that having a player standing about for most of the match represents an under-utilised asset. Hence, a sweeper keeper is a goalkeeper who pushes himself up the pitch and stays close to the last line of defence. Johan Cruyff once said: ‘In my team, the goalkeeper is the first attacker and the striker is the first defender’.
Over sixty years later, I had an insight into Bartram’s role watching my non-league team Leamington. For some years the keeper was one Tony Breeden, a somewhat volatile individual who had to leave after what was reported to be a vigorous exchange of views with the team captain. Known to some opposing teams as the ‘barmy binman’, his chant at Leamington was ‘Tony Breeden, on the wing, on the wing.’
Breeden had a fierce and accurate shot and was often the penalty taker, indeed I saw him score against Wolves at Molineux in a penalty shoot out to win the Birmingham Senior Cup. (He had less luck with his current team, Nuneaton Borough, where a video of him taking out the stadium lights from a penalty went viral). However, on occasion he would burst out of his goal and race up the wing with the ball, completely confounding the opposition, before delivering an assist to a player near the goal. I also saw him score from a free kick in his own half. Admittedly, he did not ever score in open play, although I did see him hit the crossbar from the halfway line.
It has to be said that his conduct alarmed some fans, and it was something one could only get away with in non-league football. Bartram did not do anything anywhere near as reckless. However, the insight I gained was that part of Bartram’s play book was to unsettle the opposition by playing in a way that was then unconventional for a keeper at that time.
Bartram left Charlton to join York City as manager in 1956. This meant that he had to sell off his sports business round the corner from The Valley. This was a shrewd investment, promoted through photos of excited young fans with Bartram. My father thought that it was a clever but misleading ploy. Fans would go round there expecting to meet Bartram and instead see the manager he had put in to run the shop. My father also took the view that the goods on sale were over-priced. He bought me some excellent football boots when I was seven, not realising that I had not inherited any of his talent as a non-league footballer. They didn’t come from Sam Bartram & Co.
Bartram was released by York City in 1960 with two years to run on his contract so that he could join Luton Town. He was let go by them in the summer of 1962 ‘by mutual agreement’ which no doubt meant that he was sacked with some kind of pay off.