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How Bolton Wanderers favourite is helping older fans

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

The room is packed with Bolton Wanderers supporters who have witnessed every imaginable high and low a football club has to offer but their gaze is fixed firmly on one man holding court at the end of the table.

Out of a plastic bag he brings a teal blue cap, one in decent condition considering it is now 61 years old, bearing embroidered lettering which reads: World Cup 1958, England v USSR.

The item belongs to Tommy Banks. One of only half a dozen surviving members of Walter Winterbottom’s England squad who travelled to a tournament which contained all four home nations, saw France’s Just Fontaine score a record 13 goals, and would provide a platform for teenage Brazilian, Pele, as he announced himself as one of the best footballers the planet has ever seen.

What is even more remarkable is that, days shy of his 90th birthday, which is tomorrow, Banks is able to shift between anecdotes of the players he faced on the heavy pitches in post-war England – Tottenham’s rugged Dave Mackay, Preston’s Plumber Tom Finney or Manchester United’s tragically-fated inside forward Duncan Edwards – and a precis of why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a “lucky man” to be in the Manchester United job, or why Manchester City have changed the modern game for the better.

Those in attendance hang on every word, uttered in the broadest possible Farnworth brogue. Asked what he remembered of the Brazil team which trained at Wanderers, he said: “They were wonderful players but we didn’t talk much; they didn’t speak English, you see. But even if they had, I don’t think they would have understood me!”

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It seems impossible to think that in 60 years’ time, an England international would be wiling to sit around a table and talk in such friendly, amenable terms.

The stories Banks offers, recalling days where he chased Finney, or despatched untold less-talented wingers down the cinder embankments at Burnden Park with Roy Hartle, could command top fee and, quite frankly, deserve a bigger audience. But here they are offered up in the simple spirit of camaraderie.

For there is a higher purpose to the get together – and this isn’t exclusively the Tommy Banks show.

Around the room are many older Bolton Wanderers fans who are looking for companionship, for an opportunity to share tales of the terraces. Others, who have fallen into ill-health, use these sessions – put on by the club free of charge every month – as a familiar and comfortable touchstone.

The Sporting Memories Network links clubs around the country to help tackle dementia, depression and loneliness through the power of sports reminiscence.

Bolton’s sessions are run by the Community Trust and have grown significantly in the last two years of their operation, due mainly to the input of ex-players like Banks.

“The aim is two-fold,” says the Trust’s Strategic Lead (health and disability) Richard Slater. “We are looking to tackle isolation among older people who come to these sessions looking to meet people with similar interests, like Bolton Wanderers, and lots of the people who come here have supported the club all their lives.

“The second is reminiscence. We’re trying to help people with cognitive impairment, early stages of dementia. We have people who struggle to remember what they were doing last week – but can pick out a single game in the 1960s or 1970s and tell you every detail.

“These sessions spark those memories and help them remember. I look forward to them every month so I can see what people get out of them.

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“We started off with six or seven people in a corporate box at the stadium but now we’re getting 60-plus, we’ve had to move to a bigger room.

“When you get someone like Tommy Banks telling stories, a room on the edge of their seat, it’s just fantastic. People just love listening to what he has got to say.”

There are other former Bolton Wanderers players in the room – Syd Farrimond, the left-back who succeeded Banks in the team at the turn of the sixties and who is part of an exclusive club of players who have made more than 400 appearances for the club.

Another, Steve Elliott, is just 61 but is living with dementia and supports sessions at his former clubs Bolton and Preston North End with the help of his wife, Mags.

“I think it helps him to come along and talk about his playing days, listening to stories from other ex-Bolton players and meeting people who just want to talk about the game.” Slater said.

Tony Kelly, the affable Scouser who is rarely short of a wisecrack, and Norman Prince – the well-known local entertainer who continues his good work in the hospitality areas at Wanderers – keep the mood jovial and the laughter count high.

Other ex-Wanderers who have dropped by include John McGinlay, Freddie Hill and Wyn Davies, although current staff also donate their time.

The sessions are aimed at older Bolton Wanderers supporters but there are younger family members flecked among the crowd, some of school age, who accompany their relatives. Free tea, coffee and biscuits are provided in what is a wonderfully supportive and relaxed atmosphere.

And if nothing else, you get the chance to hear a bona fide Bolton legend talk about the days when he used to juggle duties at the World Cup with Johnny Haynes, Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright and defending the fortress Burnden with Wanderers at the top of the English game.

“Burnden Park was a proper home ground,” Banks said. “Teams used to turn up and know what they were in for. Wingers used to know if they ended up off that pitch they’d need a bandage or two.

“Especially with (Roy) Hartle – he’d kick them in. At least I’d tackle them. There was a good three foot drop down there on a good day.”

The session ended with Banks being presented with a cake in honour of his upcoming birthday. No airs or graces, he blew out the candles and wrapped up a slice to eat later.

The Sporting Memories sessions are held on the first Friday of every month from 11am to 12.30pm, with all invited to meet in the club’s reception beforehand.


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