It's taken 45 years but I'm back at Sheepy Road and this time it's for good
By Nick Hudson
8th Feb 2020 | Opinion
With notebook in hand and Castella cigar welded to my lips, I bounced through the turnstiles at Sheepy Road on a Saturday to fulfil a dream – reporting on the fortunes of a football team.
My credentials for achieving such a lofted status were pretty threadbare.
The footballing cv read: Went to a rugby-playing school where football was only allowed in the playground at lunchtime, although I did manage with help of those friends to form Manor FC – a team that tasted some success in the Nuneaton & District Sunday League.
And I turned out occasionally for the Evening Tribune team (the picture with this article includes five of my colleagues who went on to edit newspapers throughout the UK and beyond).
Thanks to Mike Wilson, sports editor of the now defunct Evening Tribune and a decision by his brother Roland 'Wigger' Wilson moving to the sub-editors' table on the newspaper and with much encouragement from mercurial Boro correspondent Mort Birch, I was given the chance to cover one of non-league football's sporting heroes – the boys of Atherstone Town.
I was genuinely starstruck as the Adders were managed by none other than ex-England goalkeeper Gil Merrick. He was without question the real definition of a sporting legend.
Considered among the best keepers in the 1950s, he began his career at the outbreak of World War II. He played more than 700 times for Birmingham City between 1939 and 1960 and went on to manage them.
All of Merrick's 23 England caps were gained when Birmingham City were a Second Division club and he found himself the last line of defence against a true great – Ferenc Puskás – when the Magnificent Magyars of Hungary stormed the Wembley citadel to register a 6-3 win in 1953 and a 7-1 humiliation at the Nepstadion a year later.
Merrick in management at the Adders was a pure joy. He oozed class and introduced young talent on the way up – in the shape of 18-year-old keeper prodigy Gerry Peyton who went on play for the Republic of Ireland – and persuaded football stars heading in the other direction to have one last hurrah at Sheepy Road.
The pick of those was surely Ernie Hunt – the cheeky, talented Sky Blues forward who entered footballing's hall of fame with his famous 'donkey kick' goal exactly 50 years ago.
Hunt, who died from Alzheimer's in June 2018, scored from an outrageous set piece free-kick from the edge of the box against Everton after Willie Carr gripped the ball between his heels and flicked it up for him.
It won the BBC's Goal of the Season award, but the 'donkey kick' was banned.
At Atherstone he jinked and jostled his way through defences – lighting up the terraces and bringing a smile to the faces of the Sheepy Road fans.
And when the average wage of a British worker was £40 a week – Ernie got £75 just for turning up in the dressing room. But he was worth it.
Merrick stayed three years as manager of Atherstone and took them up from the old Southern League Division One North into the promised land of the Southern League Premier among teams that have long since graced the Football League – Kettering, Cambridge, Telford and The Dons.
Hopefully a pointer for today, in the 1973-74 season Atherstone finished 11th on 41 points (four behind the Boro) and FA Vase opponents Worcester City were relegated in 19th place on 36 points – just a draw away from safety.
I left the Evening Tribune in November 1974 and went to the birthplace of Merrick as the Birmingham Evening Mail's youngest reporter in the week of the terrible Birmingham Pub Bombings which have still not seen resolution for the families of the 21 victims.
Fast forward to today – and more than 45 years on I'll be walking back through those hallowed gates at Sheepy Road for the first time since 1974 to cover the game for the Atherstone Nub News.
My pencil has been replaced with a lap top, although I doubt my eyesight will be as sharp as a 20-year-old.
And on this occasion, I've no need to be impartial. I, like the rest of Atherstone and district, will be cheering the Adders on to win.
Wembley is round the corner and history – in the shape of a last eight place in the FA Vase as Atherstone Town – beckons.
This afternoon cry God for Henney, Rickards and Fowler.
Hats off to the boys . . . win, lose or draw.