The story of Harry Potts – ‘Margaret's Story'

Last updated : 24 July 2006 By Dave Thomas
He had spent months recording interviews, transcribing them and then sorting chronologically all the boxes and boxes of Potts memorabilia. That in itself was a monumental task. When Ray willingly agreed to hand over the results of all his groundwork, and Sportsbooks expressed a tentative interest, it didn't take long to decide to go ahead.

Then there was the first meeting with Margaret. First impressions count. We hit it off from the start and it helped that she knew I'd already written Burnley books.

Source material is the key to the writing of any biography. So all Margaret's memorabilia, plus the three dozen scrapbooks containing seemingly everything ever written about Burnley from 1960 to 1980, that were bequeathed to me by lifelong Claret Alan Bailey, and I was all set and ready to go. I went through every folder that I brought home, pulling out yet more press cuttings, old letters, documents, old programmes and picture after picture. One letter was from Leeds United in the fifties when Harry was at the end of his Everton career. It invited him to join the Leeds coaching staff. If he had accepted, just think how the course of Leeds United and BFC history might have been changed. I read through everything relevant to Harry Potts the man and the Harry Potts years already on my shelves – the Ray Simpson books and the Tim Quelch, Forever and Ever, surely worth a reprint by some kind sponsor.

But where do you begin? At the beginning is the obvious enough answer, but publishing is a precarious business and Sportsbooks wanted an ‘angle.' A publisher wants to know that his books have at least a sporting chance of selling well. Randall Northam and I therefore met Margaret in late March 2005. Randall wanted to test the water, talk to her, see her marvellous collection of pictures, and see if his instincts came up with anything. Randall used to be a journalist; he has a nose for the things that make the heart of a story. After an afternoon of talks we came up with the basic idea that this was a love story, a love story involving Harry, Margaret, and Burnley Football Club. The sub plots were there as well – Harry's mother, Bob Lord and Jimmy Adamson. And underlying it all there is the story of a small town club defeating the giants until at last they are no longer able. So many Burnley games in the sixties were the story of David and Goliath, and there's the beauty, David won not just once but over and over again.

The title was obvious from the start. Unlike the Willie Irvine book where we didn't come up with a title until the very last minute, the Harry book was easy. This would be Margaret's story as well as Harry's story, and it would be her story because she has such a phenomenal memory, and even in her eighties a pin sharp mind, plus her diaries.

The one problem was that Harry rarely talked football with her. He would come home and by and large leave Burnley FC behind him. He brought his disappointments and moods home on occasions but rarely told Margaret anything about his day job.

So the two of us tell the story together, Margaret tells of Harry the man at home, the way the football affected her daily life, Margaret the mother and then Harry the family man. I tell the story of Harry the manager, a man without an ounce of deviousness in his body, a man in love with football. Between us we try to get to the heart of the man.

So the writing of it took 13 months before it was handed over to Sportsbooks. Then, when a book goes to the publisher the editing begins and a book becomes a partnership between writer and editor. An editor sees things, spots things, repetition, a paragraph that can be moved, an error with a date or a name, spelling inconsistencies, he does the fine tuning, and when an author waxes lyrical and uses ten words where five will do, some pruning as well. And then that's not counting the proof reading, where a total stranger, an expert, corrects your punctuation and grammar, a salutary experience. Your work comes back with errors marked and annotated in red. Now I know what children felt like years ago when I marked their work.

But there's trust involved. I know that Randall won't take out whole pages, but I do know he will make suggestions, improve the flow, focus things, tighten it, smooth the edges, basically ‘cut the waffle' and add his own little bits of knowledge.

For thirteen months I made the trip to Read initially every week and then once a fortnight as I visited ex players and colleagues of Harry in between. And on top of all those visits were the dozens of phone calls. Margaret talked, I wrote, sometimes she wrote, letters, her own notes, sometimes writing things that could just be worked straight in. Much of the time I wrote for her, trying to be her, writing what she might have thought. I had my fingers smacked several times. “Oh no, that doesn't sound like me at all,” she would say.

The draft pieces went back and forth to be corrected; changed and re written, shredded would be a fair word on some occasions, sometimes more than once. A chapter would be drafted, Margaret would read it, correct it, alter and annotate it. Her notes filled the margins. Back they would come either on a Tuesday when I visited her or in the post. Painstakingly, the completed chapters, which satisfied us both mounted up. She had the most amazing things in her collection of memorabilia – an essay written when she was a small schoolgirl about a trip in a charabanc to Hardcastle Crags a few miles away. Hardly a day out to make the mouth water today when you can jet off to hot beaches ands warm seas anywhere in the world, but then, a real adventure.

Only the final chapters became difficult. Just when I thought we were winning, quite amazingly she sent me in the post another 24 pages of handwritten notes, 12,000 words to go through. What I thought would be the final chapter became three final chapters and all ending with the most difficult of all… the postscript… a mother writing about roots and wings, the way in which we give our children their roots and then we must be strong enough to give them their wings and freedom so that we can let them go and they must make their own way in the world.

At this point I don't think Margaret will mind me saying she was tired and weary, don't forget she and Ray had first mooted this book as long ago as 2000. I was tired too. This was the point I realised we had spent thirteen months on it. We couldn't get the Roots and Wings right. I used to be a head teacher in my other life, I've torn a strip off people once or twice, now this was Margaret the headmistress, demolishing the chapter, telling me in no uncertain terms to do it again, and again, and get it right. And I did (I think) and we're both smiling again. And at last the thing was done and we think t'jobs a good un. With a bit of luck it will sell outside of Burnley and the publisher will be happy. We're just happy it's done, or at least our bit is done.

The publisher says writing a book is like giving birth. I partially agree, but I'd say it's more like a journey with obstacles and landmarks all along the way.

For me this was a journey where I met so many great people, heard so many great stories, drove 40 miles each way back and forth to Burnley, through the bottleneck that is Colne, more times than I care to remember, met other people in Bolton and as far away as Dave Thomas in Sussex. Even when I'd sent the finished article off to the publisher somebody sent me the address for Harold Rudman who had played in the 46/47 team with Harry, and then Dave Hickson the legendary Everton player who had been a colleague of Harry at Goodison There was the pleasure of having enormously long telephone calls to Ralph Coates on three different Sunday mornings. I thought one trip to Brian Miller would be enough. It took three visits. I trumped up reasons to visit Jimmy Mac three times; he's such a pleasure to listen to. The most entertaining meeting was with Steve Kindon. We met at 5 o clock in The Kettledrum. I asked the first question and never got another word in. He finished talking at 6. I didn't hear a full stop; it was just one long sentence. When he starts you just sit back and listen and laugh. I was spellbound as Dave Thomas told me the story of how he chose Harry the man, in preference to Revie and the holdall of money he put on the carpet in his living room. I smiled to hear that Harry was as skilled and frequent a ‘diver' in the penalty area as any modern player. The difference was there weren't endless TV replays and Andy Gray analysis. The list of people I talked to is a who's who of Burnley Football Club history. Sadly the ones I didn't get to see were Jimmy Adamson and then Jimmy Holland passed away before I got to see him. Jimmy Adamson deserves a book of his own. Broken Dreams would be an apt title.

Harry Potts fulfilled his dreams until Lord and Adamson had no further use for him. Jimmy Adamson had his own dreams broken for him. Bob Lord had begun the process of his own self-destruction and then turned to Harry once again to rescue him in the late seventies. Harry had a damned good try, but it was a forlorn attempt and then after the last harvest of young players under Brian Miller and a promotion, the real wilderness years began.

So many stories at this eventful football club, so much drama, so many events. There can't be a club with a history quite like it.