Home Oral History Interview - Johnnie Walker

Oral History Interview - Johnnie Walker


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An interview with Johnnie Walker, interviewed by Sweet Patootee August 18 2010

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Walker, Johnnie (Subject of)
Goldstone, Rebecca (Created by)
Blakelock, Keith (PC) (Subject of)
Walker, Johnnie

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Hackney Marshes (Place)
Kurdistan (Place)
Turkey (Place)
Wood Green (Place)


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Photograph - copyright Arnau Oriel

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Interview summary:

[00:01:02] Johnnie’s widely sought out for his opinions on grass-roots football, and how it’s going.

[00:01:10] How the 2012 Olympic development causes problems to base-level football already under serious threat.

[00:01:40] Good explanation of his passion for base-level football on the Marshes and complaints about the 2012 development: “The Olympics has lost it’s idealism, and become an elitist function for top athletes. It really ain’t about participation like the great amateur idealism, which it used to be. And so that’s why I don’t really go overboard about it. I’m interested in it of course. And I shall watch some of it but I’m afraid it’s infringed upon us something terrible. Closing our pitches down has caused major disruption, and they put up new dressing rooms that don’t satisfy us – it’s all inadequate for our needs. And we didn’t ask for it, we didn’t ask for posh dressing rooms. These boys play every week. And they pay to play the game it ain’t as if they don’t pay. They’re working class kids mostly from the local community. It’s not just for Hackney. The Hackney marshes is a facility that serves the whole are – the whole of East London… The marshes is a wonderful facility, and it serves Tower Hamlets, Newham, obviously Hackney, Leyton – we have teams coming from South London to join our league.”

[00:04:14] Good explanation of how the Hackney and Leyton Football League’s website serves London football the teams who play on the Marshes and the league’s management committee. [00:04: 23] “The clubs seem to respond to it and they all enjoy it. I think it’s a great PR move for us. It also puts across my complaints about the infringement of the Olympics onto our football, the interruption of a couple of years – I think it’ll be more than that, I can’t believe it’ll only be a couple of years. Finances are bound to come into it somewhere along the line, that’s almost a certainty… it’s already effecting some grass roots sports – which are taking a backward step.” [00:04:59] Good explanation of how website has allowed Johnnie and his committee to get UK and international media publicity for their concerns about the 2012 development.

[00:05:16] Good description of the Hackney and Leyton League: Biggest in East/north London. Other leagues folding. FA not fully aware of hardships.

[00:06:18] Make up of grass roots football league: “Grass roots football at our level – park football – is run for community clubs, social clubs, pub teams, street teams. The likes of that, you know, that’s what it’s been for years.

[00:06:35] Pub closures are important cause of hard times for grass roots football: loss of important source of sponsorship.

[00:07:24] Good explanation of what Johnnie means by grass roots football: Most basic level – but still containing good standards and application. [00:07:41] Johnnie’s experience of by-gone grass roots football in his playing days when Isthmian League players played in local teams – eg. Walthamstow Avenue. [00:08:13] More description of by-gone make of grass roots football teams: Pubs. Clubs. Youth Clubs. Working Men’s clubs…

[00:08:29] Good story of growing up in Clerkenwell’s Italian quarter. And how this was an introduction to local football for Johnnie and his brothers.

[00:09:00] Johnnie graduated to a team named after the Queen’s Public house when he moved to Islington.

[00:09:29 Good honest expression of Johnnie’s bewilderment – Local league’s struggle for teams, but there’s still the same passion for grass roots football: “It’s just vanished. I can’t put a finger on it because the kids are still keen to play – you know, they’re out there, they’re buying the football shirts from the clubs…”

[00:09:50] Good explanation of how 40% of national sports facilities have been taken away in 25-30 years: “National playing fields or sports grounds have vanished. And that’s under Tory administration Labour administration call it what you like – you know they’ve all allowed it to happen. And various councils of different denomination have allowed schools to sell their sports pitches off. And what have you got there: A Tesco’s, or a Sainsbury’s, or something like that, a B & Q you know – I mean that’s not going to encourage sport is it?

[00:10:36] Good explanation of Johnnie’s worries for outdoor football at local level, despite national bodies’ and government boasts of priority support: “It’s all indoor sport. Everything that you see is in leisure centres and stuff like that. 5-a-side football you know, well that’s great, not being personal, but that’s great for office boys who just want to come out, have a game an then have a show and rush off home. But it’s not encouraging the real game. The real game won’t survive unless the 11-a-side outdoor game is looked after. That’s my opinion.

[00:11:20] Good explanation of Johnnie’s concerns for outdoor 11-a-side football on Hackney Marches: “Well my concern about the marshes is first of all the major disruption that the Olympics has caused and that. I mean leading up to it at present, the last couple of years we’ve had pitches vanishing. You know not enough pitches. Poorer quality. The changing facilities we never complain about. All we really worried about is our surfaces - you know what sort of standard the fields were, the playing surfaces, the drainage. And it’s all been perfect over the years. Can’t complain. The staff have been wonderful, the Ranger’s looked after us. That aspect of it, you can’t really have a word to say against it. And it’s helped us as a League to carry on. We haven’t recruited a lot more teams, but we’ve maintained the status quo. Which in this world today, you now, with as I say, the facilities and outlets for players to join clubs vanishing, I think it’s a remarkable achievement for all my committee. I think they work very hard to keep us going. The website’s helped. But this next two years is going to be a real test for us. Because when them 12 pitches go over the Marshes – over the East Marsh. We’re going to be having less pitches. The facilities - the changing rooms, I think although they’re a great improvement on what we had, because we had leaky roofs and everything but that didn’t seem to worry us. The showers was fairly in good order, working all the time so we got by there. And these new facilities obviously an improvement. But if they’re inadequate and you get people standing around… They expect us to stagger kick off times. So as one team goes in, changes, takes their stuff out and put’s them in lockers in the giant hall that runs the full length of the complex. Well that’s all very well, but if you get a late kick off – say if a team turns up late – I mean I’ve been told by the council at several meetings, ‘oh well you know you’ve got to insist that the teams turn up on time’. I said, ‘well you’ve got no knowledge of Sunday football’, I said. ‘What you going to do? If they turn up late you going to say no game?’ I said. ‘The other team’s turning up. They’re waiting there for the other players to turn up. There’s circumstances like traffic and that kind of paraphernalia going on…’ The Blackwall tunnel ain’t no help at times, especially if the other team’s coming from that area. And, you know it’s not fair to say ‘that’s it, you’re late, no game!’ We always allow teams 20 minutes and we have done for years, because we want to see people play football. We don’t want to see people claiming games and say ‘you’re late we’re claiming the points’. That’s not in the spirit of the game, and it never has been and it never will be as far as we’re concerned… But it doesn’t end there. What about cup games and you’ve got extra time? So, everything has a knock-on effect. See they haven’t thought it out. That’s alright on a smaller complex like where there’s 2 grounds something like that – like up the road where there’ 2 pitches where you got no conflict. But in a complex like the Marshes, it’s a massive complex, how you going to manage that. And we’re supposed to manage – you know we’re supposed to sort all these problems out. And I don’t think it’s fair to put that sort of burden on us. You know because me and my committee, we’re 3 of us are over 70. And me and the treasurer we’re approaching, we’re both 77. And so, you know it’s putting an increased burden on us”.

[00:15:44] Good expression of Johnnie’s concern to see more younger committee members taking over the role of running the league. “Everybody’s quite satisfied every year when we have our AGM and I have an election. I go ‘well we’re willing to stand again’. And they can’t wait to put their hands up for us to stand again. You know, there’s never any opposition. So it’s just getting harder for us every year – we’re having more burdens put on us by councils, the FA…”

[00:16:28] Good explanation of Johnnie’s work as a London FA Councilor: His difficulties with the new demand for CRB checks for all people dealing with youth football teams. “So you’re getting all these impositions put upon it at that level. And as it moves on it invariably will come to affect the outside game for adults…”

[00:19:00] Concerns about bad influence of culture of professional game: Bad behavior and disrespect creeping into youth football – “They pick up all the bad habits, they don’t pick up the good habits… it’s very hard keeping a lid on it at youth level”

[00:19:51] Good explanation how Johnny sees Hackney Marshes grass roots football League as a balanced and fair representation of society’s behavior and attitudes. “So when we’re out there on a Sunday morning. I don’t expect them to act any different and any better than society as a whole is acting”.

[00:20:07] More on how the FA make running the league difficult: Referees too tough on tackling, too ready to give yellow cards in grass roots game (costing a £10 fine). Clubs having problems with finances – suspended till fines paid. Johnnie feels a lone voice for the players’ point of view. Too many ex referees on FA council.

[00:24:22] Good explanation of value of grass roots league football to racial inegration: “Speaking from experience over the years… I mean, I remember when the first all Black teams played. There was racist comments and god knows what. You know, people resent it. And to be fair, the Black teams their selves didn’t like heavy tackling at one time, you know, they frowned on it. They thought they was being persecuted because they was all Black teams. And stuff like that. We had all that in the early days. Now everyone’s completely integrated. Everyone gets on. And the Black teams are acting no differently than the White teams. They’re putting the heavy tackling about just the same. So everything worked out.

[00:25:13] Good story of how Johnnie experienced racism when he was playing – and how he dealt with it on the pitch.

[00:26:51] Good explanation of the teams from diverse cultural backgrounds, who have been helped to integrate through membership of Hackney Marshes grass roots football league: “To be honest you do get a bit of racism at the outset. But sooner or later, everyone’s friends. And that’s what I like about football it brings the whole community together. We all get on great. We’re all friends. And everyone respects one another on there. And I don’t think – authority - they realize the value of it.”

[00:28:04] Good visual description of Hackney Marshes, especially on Sunday when football matches are being played: “Oh it’s a marvelous sight especially on a great day. You anticipate the beginning of the season with so much eagerness. When you look out at that vast... To be honest it’s messed up at the moment. You look at the East Marsh with all the construction going on over there. And they’ve desecrated our pitches and put hoardings round it. But, if you have the South Marsh you will have an [unlimited sic] view of the whole area. And it’s a wonderful sight, especially with the greenery on a fine day it’s nice, nice blue sky, you see all these people enjoying football. It’s a great sight”.

[00:28:54] Good description of pitches now and previously: “At the moment I think we’re down to about 60-65 – on and off, you know, because some are taken out of the equation. So there’s not as many as there used to be obviously. There used to be 110. But they wasn’t very good quality. The surface was good. But they was on top of one another. You had a little gap like that so that if you were taking a throw-in you was on the next pitch. But things have improved so much over there, especially the East Marsh, which is the prime. See our league has had the East Marsh for the last 10 years - we paid for it up front. And they’re the best pitches on the Marshes. Kept beautifully. We know the grounds-man. Any time we want a moan, we have a go at Danny the grounds-man. And he takes it in good heart. It helps that he’s an Arsenal fanatic, so… So we all get on. And when you go out there even in the cold weather when it’s freezing cold on a nice day, it’s still a pleasure to be out there. And that’s what the outdoor game does - It attracts…”

[00:30:13] How Johnnie has no time for the various forms of indoor football: “I call it Mickey Mouse football”

[00:36:36] Good explanation how and why Johnnie feels the FA have missed out on stemming the crisis in the grass roots outdoor game – especially in London.

[00:31:48] Johnnie’s experiences in football on from his playing days onwards – on Hackney Marshes and other locations: Went to Hugh Myddleton School. First played on Hackney Marshes aged 14 – “That’s when you started to take it serious”. Played in street teams and local youth leagues around Islington. [00:35:10] Played for Islington Queens in Hackney & Leyton junior league League on Hackney Marshes, and at Leyton FC on Lea Bridge Road. [00:36:08] Good geographical description of how there were many more local pitches than now – in addition to Hackney marshes… [00:37:09] Good story of being called up for National Service, being posted to Scotland and spending his whole service playing football for the army – and cricket in the summer. [00:39:45] De-mobbed, and so returns to Hackney & Leyton League. [00:39:57] 10 years with club in London Sunday Premier division – against English amateur internal level players – until age of 35. [00:41:15] Return to Hackney & Leyton League with last club until he stopped aged 49 because of a heart attack – “Had heart attack so I had to stop playing football, which slaughtered me really. I never envisaged, I thought I’d go on forever, because there was plenty of football available even if you was older. And at that time the Marshes, it was full up all the time…”

[00:42:14] Lovely description of changes in playing and changing facilities from his playing days to now: “It’s sad really to see it change. But it changed in some respects for the better. The changing rooms were appalling back in the early days. They used to be little dark huts – little more than sheds. And the two teams had… there was no light in there, so on a gloomy morning it was dull as anything. And then after the game, all there was to wash in was cow troughs… great big long these aluminum troughs. You washed your boots in them, washed your face, everything in them. And that was the facilities but as I say, everyone enjoyed it, they didn’t expect no more. And you used to get top quality players - because there was a lot of boot money put in. And some teams over there Sunday, I know this for a fact because they used to play in the premier on Sunday mornings, they used to give them boot money. So these amateur teams paid their players – and good quality players. And they used to play over there with no qualms. Everyone got on with it. You didn’t expect no more. No one had cars for a start – I mean very few had cars. Us personally when we played for ‘Islington Queens’, we used to get the bus up the Angel, the ‘30’. And it used to come to Victoria Pub there, just up there, ‘The Vic’ which is Cost Cutters now. That’s another one that’s vanished. We all used to drink in there waiting for the bus. But we used to get off there and walk to our pitches. And there was 100s of them. It was like on London Bridge on a workday morning when people alight from London Bridge and walk over to the city. This was exactly what it looked like in them days. We used to throngs of you just walking towards the Marshes. It was so different. We didn’t have sports bags. We all had little attaché cases if I remember, like little brown attaché cases with our kit in. It was very different…”

[00:45:01] Lovely description of traveling to his London Sunday Premier League club’s pitch at Shepperton – near Kempton Park racecourse.

[00:45:55] Lovely story of how no one minded the travel because it was a day out with a good post-match drink in the days before breathalyzers.

[00:48:11] Another great anecdote about the dressing rooms on Hackney Marshes in Johnnie’s playing days: “Well the great thing about where these dressing rooms was and the cow shed – the cow troughs I mean. There was a slope. As you come out of them it was all down in a dip. And as you come out of them, you had to go up this slippery slope. And if it had been raining heavy it was like an assault course. And you can imagine all these footballers all changing at the same time and all getting out on the pitches the same time scrambling up this slop – because it was rather steep. There was a steps if I remember just somewhere along the line somewhere, but course you was too lazy to walk round (to sic) the steps.

[00:49:01] How a novice riot allowed Johnnie to start a near riot by kicking a penalty kick off the line - in the days before goals had nets.

[00:49:55] How football on Hackney Marshes has seen many incidents caused by fluctuating standards and experience of referees.

[00:51:08] Good description how Johnnie’s sees little change for better in football facilities on Hackney Marshes’ apart from better pitches, markings, posts etc. The biggest impact has come from new FA guidelines, registration requirements… “Even my own League has become bureaucratic, in spite of me trying to cut everything down to the bone and say ‘get on with it’. “None of it’s helpful. In my days we just got out there with a ball and that’s it”.

[00:54:39] Good story of how Hackney Marshes’ dressing rooms in Johnnie’s playing days deteriorated: “They got worse as time went on. Doors become gaps in them where the wind used to hale through. There was no glass in the window in the back, so you was wide open to the elements. And the two teams used to change in there. They used to sit one side, so if there was any conflict during the game, you can imagine the banter. It got a bit nasty at times. You used to sit one side on some wooden form, and they used to sit… bare hooks, well half the hooks were missing so you had to dump the stuff on the bench. Oh it was really poor. But, as I say, we all got on with it. No one complained.

[00:55:23] Good comparison between the higher standard of dressing rooms on the South Marsh and the North Marsh, and the poor standard of dressing rooms on the East Marsh.

[00:55:45] How Hackney Council have kept up the quality of the playing fields over the years despite being ‘cash strapped’.

[00:56:24] Good explanation how the excellent drainage of the East Marsh pitches is because they’re laid over half of the rubble from the London Blitz “That drainage is wonderful, and it’s all down to Hitler’s bombing.

[00:56:51] Johnnie has wide experience of giving (international) media interviews on Hackney Marshes/football – particularly on issue of the 2012 Olympic development using East Marshes pitches for car parks.

[00:57:53] Good description of why ‘pitch 10’ now dug up for the car park was special: “Pitch 10 over the East Marsh… We went to the council a number of years back now – I’d say about 5 or 6 years back. And we asked them to give us two exceptional pitches. Not of quality because the quality was already there. We asked for two full size pitches. You know - Wider. The length was always good on the pitches, it’s the width that... They had plenty of room to do it so we asked for it. And the council, you know, they conceded to our request and they done it. And they was wonderful pitches. So I’ve been attending regular meetings – myself and Alec Pretlove, our Treasurer and Vice Chairman. He goes with me, and we’ve been to the meetings. They wasn’t supposed to interfere with any of the pitches until May 11, the end of May 11, which is the end of next season. So, fair enough we knew it was coming, we knew we couldn’t turn back the clock and stop it all together, because so much money has been ploughed into it. And of course it’s got Government approval with the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Development Agency. So we can’t fight them – I expected the FA to do it, but they’ve been toothless to be honest. So this pitch ‘10’. We finished our playing season They’ve already taken pitch ‘8’ and ‘9’ which were two really good pitches on the East Marsh, and dumped spoil on them. And then they put a hoarding round them which… you was talking earlier about the view, looking out on the view. You know, coming out on the East Marsh Sunday morning was an un-spoilt view of it. You could see all the games going on. You could access walk through to them, all the pitches – we used to walk round all the pitches. Then all of a sudden they took these two pitches half way through the season, and dumped this spoil on them which they called spoil. So you had these two great big mounds of earth on the pitches – it spoiled the whole outlook. I mean I know it might sound a bit picky, but it’s our life they’ve interfered with. So I was really wound up about that. They’ve asked me what I thought of it in the first place, said ‘we’ll give you the pitches over the back which were the rugby pitches’ they said ‘we’ll convert them to football pitches’, thinking that’d appease me. I said ‘well that’s not the same I said, they’re rugby pitches’. Anyway, they’ve went ahead and done it. John Wade who’s the Head of Green Spaces, phoned me up and said ‘it’s going ahead John’. I said ‘well not with my backing’ I said, ‘we’re totally against it’. So he said ‘well we’ll do these pitches up as the best we can’. The rugby pitches then were transferred to the South Marsh, which in turn took up 3 pitches. So you’re loosing pitches anyway! So they ain’t giving you nothing! So they replaced the pitches on the East Marsh – football pitches - they give us 3 pitches there because the rugby pitches being bigger. But every team that played on them come up to me and complained, said ‘John them pitches ain’t… they’re bumpy, they’re not up to standard’. Because a rugby pitch takes a battering for some reason or other, and it’s got much more ways of breaking the ground up. I don’t know why but apparently it is so. So I went back and he said ‘well sorry about that’, And he tried to do his best he can with the pitches, and bring them up to standard, but they were still complaining at the end of the season. So anyway, I thought ‘oh well you know, we’ve still got the 12 pitches over there. Next minute I know, the season’s ended, someone drove past there. John – phoned me up, I mean I get a call on me mobile – you see what they’ve done to pitch ’10?’ I said ‘No’. Bearing in mind I’d been to a meeting with them on the Tuesday prior to this, prior to me getting this phone call which is on the Monday. I went over and looked, and there’s all stuff over the pitch, dug up and everything - this beautiful pitch. I immediately got onto the Head of Parks again, John Wade, who I’ve got a good rapport with. I said ‘What’s going on on pitch 10 John?’ He said ‘I don’t know’. He actually said to me he don’t know! And he said ‘Leave it with me’, he said, ‘I’ll find out’. And he got back to me later in the day and said, ‘well yes, they’ve given permission to dump stuff on it and dig it up, use it for their equipment and that so… I said ‘You didn’t say nothing about that’. I said ‘Did you know about it?’ He said ‘No’. So he’s Head of Green Spaces, he don’t know so he ain’t told us at the meeting. I said ‘Well it’s appalling’ and I done my nut. I really felt like going round the council and smashing the place up to be honest with you. I’m not a violent man but that’s how it took me, they slunk in there like snakes in the grass.

[01:03:29] Good explanation of how John’s initial complaint about the loss of pitch 10 was followed by his official complaint - which has become a local, national and internal media campaign/story – eg. his now famous appearance on London Today filmed at the East Marshes 2012 construction site “A Tory councilor from the London Assembly, he come on afterwards, after me interview, and he said about it, it was an appalling decision that they disturb such an iconic place such as the Marshes, which is totally right”.

[01:06:30] Detailed explanation how through his role as an FA Councilor, Johnnie has carried his complaint about problems for the Hackney Marshes grass roots football and grass roots football in general to FA’s Director of Football Development (man with a specific brief to support basic level football) Trevor Brooking. “I said if you can’t use your influence as Director of Football Development to prevent our pitches being taken as a car park, I said, I think it’s a pretty poor show…”

[01:08:25] Good explanation of how Johnnie is continuing to speak out and voice his concerns for football on Hackney Marshes, and grass roots (football in general) because the players and clubs he represents look to him to speak on their behalf.

[01:08:47] Good explanation of other senior figures in FA Johnnie’s met regarding his concerns about the impact of the 2012 development on football at Hackney Marshes, and legacy – eg, Jonathen Hall Director of Football Services, Acting Chairman Roger Burden… “I thought they’d have a lot of political clout and put a stop to this, but obviously not”

[01:10:32] Good explanation of how pitch ‘10’ was used: Full sized for finals and semi-finals. All premier (top) games. Favorite pitch for the older spectators like John.

[01:12:58] Good explanation how 2012 development has created additional problems over the coming football seasons, by knocking down the East Marsh dressing rooms and taking their car parking away.

[01:15:23] Johnnie’s concerns that Hackney Council has handed the running of it’s sports complex on Hackney Marshes to an outside company - ‘Greenwich Leisure Ltd’

[01:16:26] How secretaries of the clubs are very concerned, but the players won’t show much interest until they feel the changes bite – eg. long walk from parking place to changing room and the to pitches which must be completed in new allotted time structures – or risk forfeiting the match and the points. “I’m expecting a flood of complaints”

[01:18:04] Good visual explanation of what the marshes mean to their local users like John, and what is being threatened: “It’s a way of life. It’s been a way of life. I can’t envisage a change. I can’t envisage this change that’s suddenly put upon us, that’s going to change our lives so completely”.

[01:22:13] Good explanation of Johnnie’s concern that in future local footballers might not be able to afford to use the pitches on Hackney Marshes – in the way that local people are priced out of leisure centres.

[01:24:24] Women’s league football on Hackney Marshes: They matches are played I the afternoons (after the men have finished)

[01:25:43] Johnnie’s concern that if everyone wants to play football at the same time, the new changing facilities can’t cater for the needs of women, youth and vulnerable groups as well as the men - According to the CRB stipulation, youth football can’t take place at the same time as adult football. “I read a directive from the FA development group that more youth football is going to be encouraged over the South Marsh. Well fair enough, but when’s it going to take place? It can’t take place when the adult football’s on. It can’t take place when women are there, so when’s it going to take place?”

[01:30:56] Good explanation how digging up the East Marsh pitches may have desecrated a war grave – as blitz rubble forms their foundations.

[01:31:43] Good explanation of how Johnnie made the FA squash the idea of footballers sharing Hackney Marshes with a giant camp-site-like event during the Olympics.

[01:33:30] Good explanation of how since 2002, Johnnie has lobbied on behalf of East Hackney Marshes’ grass roots footballers – facing problems because of the 2012 development. “The only one thing I’ve got out of it so far is that the East Marsh will be returned to pitches… And my latest fight is that I want changing rooms returned back on there”

[01:35:55] Lesney’s: a big employer locally – their workers also played football on Hackney Marshes.

[01:36:29] Good explanation of how the loss of pubs like the Queen Victoria pub is the loss of important local focal points.

[01:38:45] Memories of Hackney Wick having been around the local scene for years: Local firms, Tower Blacks, community shops, Pubs…

[01:40:42] Occasional need to expel a players from the Hackney & Leyton Sunday League.

[01:43:03] Hackney & Leyton Sunday League are an open league – they don’t turn away any foreign teams who wants to join. [01:43:18] Pride in their under-rated influence on good race relations.

[01:44:15] Difficult times in Hackney society at large does surface on the football pitch: “But after a while, after a few months, that all calms down. They’re all mates, they all shake hands, they’re all talking about football… They might have differences outside football. You know, a lot of them won’t all get on outside football. But within football, we find no problem with them at all”

[01:46:27] Introduces himself, his Anglo-Italian family background, and his life in grass roots football.

Copy Material Location: WAV copies held at Hackney Museum:
1 copy stored on a portable hard drive
1 copy stored on a DVD-R (Gold Archive Standard)