Friday, 25 March 2011

Leslie Green

Part One of a two part appreciation of a former Dulwich Hamlet inside forward.

Chance Meeting
Of the handful of folks that turned up at a Hastings crematorium to pay their last respects to Ernie Toser in April 2002, three were associated with Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. Toser was one of the Hamlet’s celebrated players of the nineteen thirties, and later returned in a coaching role following the Second World War. Leslie Green, a youngster at Dulwich in the early post-war years, was in attendance. Quite a number of his former Dulwich team-mates and club-men have passed away in recent times and he’s hardly missed a funeral over the years.

Les tapped me on the shoulder and introduced himself having overheard a conversation between David Toser (Ernie’s son) and myself. As I turned, I realised immediately that this was the elderly chap in the pinstripe suit I noticed at the railway station a little earlier. Attaching his black tie and adjusting his trilby hat in his refection in the station window, I should have put two and two together, and asked him if he we were heading in the same direction, we could have shared a cab. I reminded him that we had spoken on the telephone way back in 1996, and he remembered me.

After the funeral, Brian Shears (the DHFC Vice Chairman) offered Les and me a lift to Tonbridge. Brian was passing that way in his car, and I could pick the train up there. Our recollections of Ernie continued on the twenty five mile drive along the A21 from the East Sussex coast to Les’s home. The journey was a pleasant one, in the company of two men who have Dulwich Hamlet in their hearts, and it was quite clear that Les was a very interesting character with his own story to tell. On arrival at his home Les promptly invited us both inside. Well, who could refuse his kind offer of a cup of tea and some cake?

He proudly showed us his collection of medals, caps and badges, and the volumes of press cuttings his doting father collected in scrapbooks. A wonderful record of his achievements, but he was more proud of the pictures of his girls that sit on the mantlepiece. One of his two daughters once won the Fifteen to One television show. He will get out the video if we’d like to see it. This kind offer we did decline. And as for his granddaughters, when they were born he took to inviting passers-by in “to look at the most beautiful babies in the UK.”

His continual sprightliness and exuberance belie the fact that he is now in his mid-seventies. And he has vivid recollection of his life’s events, some of which (like us all) are tinged with a deal of pain. He has been a widower for the last three decades. His dear wife Jean died tragically of a cerebral haemorrhage thirty years ago while the family were living in Cyprus. He was stationed there with the Ministry of Defence at the time, and returned to Britain six months after the Turks invaded the island. Left to bring up two young children alone, Les has remained unmarried and lived in the same three bedroom house in Tonbridge ever since. In that time he has also had the same car – a Volkswagon Variant, still in tip-top condition sitting in his garage.

We stayed for over an hour poring over a sportsman’s treasures, before it was time to leave. Les loaned me two of the scrapbooks (the earliest ones) with the charge, “Don’t let them out of your sight. Sleep with them. Take them to the toilet with you.” I understood what he meant, there is nothing worse than seeing your property mistreated or neglected by others. In fact, around the time that the late Pat Connett had his leg amputated, Les loaned the scrapbooks to his old friend. But somehow they went missing for a while, and although they were eventually found, it made Les rather reluctant to lend them out again. And fair enough, it is the lasting bond between father and son.

The scrapbooks take in the years 1946 – 1957. His father collected the programmes of the games Les played in, and all the cuttings from the South London Press and the South London Observer and some national papers. The period covered was a good time to be at the club, and the friendship the players enjoyed continues to this day. During recent years they met up in the warmer weather and watch Surrey at the Oval. Not for the cricket so much, but for the great companionship the lads enjoyed. These days Les tries to get up to Champion Hill for at least one game a season. He loves the camaraderie with his old team-mates, now a reducing number of elderly gentlemen with that plucky English character we all once knew but which is also in rapid decline. Invariably a few of the old programmes and fading photographs get an airing and the old timers recount the same old timeless stories yet again.

The next time I met Les was at one of those very get-togethers. He introduced me to John Gornall and Claude Whitworth, two more Hamlet stalwarts from the 1940s/50s, and Club President Tommy Jover. They were laughing over a story from their playing days when, at an after-match meal the salt and pepper pots and cups were being used to show a well-worked goal. “And Pat Connett said,” remembered Les, “Why don’t you tilt the table to get the slope of the pitch!” The anecdotes came thick and fast. In another game, Tommy Jover apparently ran the length of the pitch with the ball before shooting way over the bar. Pat further said, “Why didn’t you keep going and climb into the stand and put a scarf on and mingle with the supporters?”

When I told Les I was doing a piece on him for the Hamlet Historian, he had mixed feelings. On the one hand, chuffed, but on the other, slightly concerned about the ribbing he was going to receive from his geriatric friends when they next meet up in the Hamlet boardroom. The very amiable Les is more than satisfied with his association with Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. He still thinks he can do the business out on the pitch. What, for Martin Eede’s current Hamlet team? No. “I’m still waiting for Sven to call.” He jokes. “My boots are up in the loft. It’ll only take me a minute to get them.”

Green, adj. vigorous, young, new.

The only child of William and Elizabeth, Leslie Green was born in St Thomas’ Hospital on 12 June 1929. As a boy he watched with his mother as the Battle of Britain took place in the skies overhead. After staring in amazement at the formation of the planes in the sky, and witnessing a piece of great British history they went back indoors. “Let’s have a cup of tea.” said his mum. The war progressed and Les was evacuated to Stirling in Scotland for a couple of years, where he enjoyed what he considers the best education one can have. On his return to the south he was again evacuated to East Grinstead in Sussex and Taunton in Somerset. Back in London he joined Clapham Catholic College and studied Latin. And on the football pitch the gifted teenager developed another of his talents.

Either side of the Second World War Dulwich Hamlet boasted a wonderful youth academy. Many of the youngsters made the higher grade into the Hamlet’s first team and some went on to win international honours. One or two local schoolmasters made up the Dulwich Hamlet Committee and were thus able to gobble up the best of the local talent. The fresh faced Leslie Green however, played his football slightly further afield, for a team in Vauxhall, where he was making quite a name for himself. “Eight goals for Vauxhall forward.” began one newspaper clipping from his scrapbook. “St Anne’s 9 Streatham 3. In a match with Streatham Hill Y.C. at Clapham Common on Sunday, Les Green, St Anne’s Vauxhall centre forward, scored eight of his side’s nine goals, making his total for the last three matches 27.” Some feat even for a junior player.

Les Green for St Anne's, Vauxhall, 1945.

He was then spotted whilst playing for a side in Bermondsey in August 1946. At the end of an impressive performance in Southwark Park the referee asked him if he would like a trial for Dulwich Hamlet. Dulwich Hamlet! It was such an unusual name for a football team, and although his home in Camberwell was only a mile from Champion Hill he admits he didn’t know a thing about one of the country’s leading amateur clubs. Before long the free scoring forward received a card in the post inviting him to turn out for the Dulwich Hamlet Junior side. It was here that he began to earn even more praises.

Junior - Senior
In his first game: “Green led his forwards in masterful style. In a 5-1 victory over Wilson’s Grammar School he bagged a brace” and in another clip, “…the irresistible Green”, and elsewhere, “The outstanding feature of the game was unquestionably the deadly shooting of Green” By midseason (January 1947), Green had played for Surrey Minors in a County game, and had over 30 goals in the bag for Dulwich Hamlet Juniors. He acknowledged that his success was due in large measure to the consistent support of his colleagues, but such was his outstanding talent that he was soon chosen for the Hamlet’s Reserve team against Leytonstone, and proved his worth by scoring a hat-trick on his debut. And then, for his home debut at Champion Hill in February, he netted six times in the Reserves 15-1 thrashing of Tufnell Park.

Towards the end of the 1946-47 season things got even better as Leslie Green made three appearances for Dulwich Hamlet’s first team. Following an injury to Hamlet striker Brian Beglan who suffered a nasty gash above his eye, the verdant youth was given the opportunity to lead the attack against Tufnell Park. And size didn’t matter, at only five feet six, he was tiny compared to the average centre forward, but what he lacked in brawn he certainly made up for in brain. In the space of a few short months he had risen from the Junior side to the First Eleven via the Reserves, and each of the respective debuts he marked with goals. This time he netted twice in the 4-2 win, missing a hat-trick by a hair’s breadth on two occasions in the second half.

A few days before the match, as the programme notes were being prepared, the boy’s mother was asked for Leslie’s particulars. But Mrs Bet Green was slightly hard of hearing, and gave dad’s name by mistake. Thus, in the records of his first Hamlet fixture Leslie is down as “W. Green”.

The name was corrected for the following two games (v Oxford City 26 April and Kingstonian 30 April) when he was picked again, bagging another brace in a 3-2 victory over Oxford City. The win put Dulwich at the top of the Isthmian League table. Further notes read, “It is not our general policy to hurry youngsters along but this lad of seventeen has recently shown very good form with the Reserves and fully warranted his inclusion. His first goal was a fine piece of opportunism that caught the goalkeeper napping and his second was taken in a very cool manner.” Dulwich eventually finished the season as runners-up to Leytonstone, and four of the strikers amassed a staggering 110 goals between them! No wonder the little fellow could not keep his place.

With Brian Beglan back in the side, Les Green returned to the Reserves, making just one more outing for the first team that year. However, he gained valuable experience in the second string and was played in most forward positions, and no matter whether he was located at inside or outside forward he was always found among the goals.

At eighteen, Les began his two years national service and joined the Royal Air Force. Originally stationed in Compton Bassett in Swindon, he was moved about a bit, finding himself based in Scotland for six months, West Kirby in the Wirrel and in the groundbreaking Code and Cipher Department at Bletchley Park. Whilst serving his country in the RAF Les had as his colleagues two professional footballers, Ronnie Allen, then of Port Vale and Roy Swinbourne, soon to gain fame at Wolverhampton Wanderers. That RAF XI must have been some team. It was during this time that Les picked up his first medal, in the Inter Command Cup, one he still cherishes today. He also added lightweight boxing to his sporting repertoire, toning up his 9 stone 9 lb frame.

No Thanks Newcastle!

At the start of the 1947-48 season Ernie Toser returned to Dulwich Hamlet as trainer. Toser won his second Amateur Cup medal for Dulwich ten years earlier and was a welcome addition to the coaching staff, having gained valuable Football League experience in Millwall’s Division Three South championship winning side in 1938, and lately with Notts County. [Note: in an earlier edition of the Hamlet Historian we mistakenly put Nottingham Forest] But the training did not affect Green, who turned up in his civvies on match days only.

The following January Les Green was again selected, this time on the right wing, and in one match shared six goals with Tommy Jover (on the opposite wing) in a 7-1 win over Romford. The younger man emulated his elder, and was described in one report as being “so nimble, that even on the Dulwich quagmire he dribbled and dodged so cleverly that it took three opponents to dispossess him.” He was just as nimble off the field, and each week he competed with a myriad of supporters for a seat on the tram from Coldharbour Lane, near his home, to Dog Kennel Hill.

In those early months of 1948 Dulwich enjoyed a good run in the FA Amateur Cup. On a bumpy Clapton pitch in the first round, Green and Beglan scored in the 2-1 win. Tilbury were then beaten 6-1 at home, with Henry Ball scoring three, and Tommy Jover, Les Green and Claude Whitworth adding further goals. Round three meant a trip to Leeds to take on Yorkshire Amateurs. In this match Green pulled a hamstring just after half time, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the middle of the park doing little more than returning wall passes and distracting the opposition. The injury kept him out for the remainder of the season. Still, one reporter later described the game in Yorkshire as the Hamlet’s “most brilliant victory of the decade”. Finding themselves 2-0 down within twenty minutes of the kick off, Dulwich had to pull out all the stops to get back into the match. And they did just that. With goals from Ball (1) and Beglan (2), they won the tie in the second period of extra time. But they came unstuck away to Barnet to exit the competition in the fourth round.

Whilst posted in Scotland, Green still enjoyed his football, and played a good number of times for RAF sides, but these games were nothing compared to turning out in pink and blue in front of thousands of adoring fans. What he would have made of the St James’s Park roar we will never know, but Newcastle United approached Dulwich Hamlet with a view of turning the young amateur into a professional. Eddie Rengger, the Dulwich Secretary, replied in typical fashion, “No thanks, he’s got a job.” Green was understandably a little peeved.

Off Leave

As much as the popular teenager missed the Dulwich crowd, they missed him. Especially when first choice strikers Pat Connett, Sid Gray and Tommy Jover were all sidelined through injury. The Dulwich Hamlet Committee urged Rengger, to find out if the RAF would grant Les Green some leave. A couple of persuasive telephone calls later and arrangements were being made for the lad to board a rail sleeper back to London.

In October 1948 on-leave from his base in Inverness, Aircraftman Green was enlisted into the Hamlet side to take on Walthamstow Avenue at Champion Hill. Although Dulwich were defeated, and despite spending the whole match out of his favoured position, Green did enough to impress the RAF Football Secretary, who was present at the game, and was granted extra leave. This enabled him to play in the next two matches. Two days later Dulwich Hamlet took on Fulham in the second round of the London Challenge Cup, having disposed of Leyton Orient in the earlier round. Dulwich won the match 2-1, with both goals coming from Les Green. His first, on the hour, came after he chased what seemed a lost cause, and then beat four players before slotting home. The winner came just before the ninety-minute mark and caused quite a stir. The Fulham players surrounded the referee expecting another Hamlet player to be called offside, but after consultation with his linesman Mr Burr stuck to his guns. The commotion so unsettled the official that he forgot the time and played an extra ten minutes. But Dulwich held on and entered the semi-final of the competition for the first time in the club’s history. (They were beaten by West Ham United in the next round.)

Next up were the mighty Leytonstone. Still on fire after the Fulham result, Dulwich hammered the East Londoners 6-1 in a league match, with Les Green recording a magnificent hat-trick. “That, if anything,” says Les today, “was the Hamlet’s match of the decade.” Leytonstone were double ‘double winners’: the FA Amateur Cup holders and Isthmian League champions for successive years. But that didn’t bother Green, who, it was reported, was an inspiration to the entire team and produced some of the game’s outstanding movements. And then he was gone, back to Scotland and ‘off-leave’.

Whether the Hamlet’s famous boardroom hospitality helped or not, we don’t know, but remarkably within weeks Leslie Green was transferred from Scotland to the RAF station in Uxbridge as a Wireless Operator. And this ‘transfer’ he discovered by chance through reading the evening newspaper. “Leslie Green is chosen to play for the Royal Air Force and will then be posted to Uxbridge.” it read. Perfect timing. The Hamlet were about to do battle with Division 3 South’s Northampton Town in the FA Cup.

By all accounts, Dulwich played the finest football that day anybody could remember seeing at Northampton. The Town supporters were of the view that Dulwich were unfortunate to lose 2-1, with the home goal having some very narrow escapes. The most historical thing about the game, however, was that it was the last time Dulwich would play in the first round of the FA Cup for fifty years.

Blessing in Disguise
Before Christmas Les Green picked up an injury that kept him out of the side for a few weeks. He made his return in the reserve team where he scored twice in an easy 5-2 win over Woking. They could have done with him in the senior team, for the same day Dulwich were dismissed from the Amateur Cup in the first round. However, the shock defeat, to Walton & Hersham, may have been very disappointing at the time, but it proved to be a blessing in disguise. Too often over the previous two decades the Hamlet’s cup runs left them with a fixture backlog at the end of the season that invariably removed them from the championship race. For a change, they were now out of the premier cup competition, and could concentrate their efforts on winning the Isthmian League title, which had eluded them since 1933.

This was easier said than done, mind. In the second half of the season the leading position changed hands several times. Ilford were strongest at one point, then Dulwich spent a short time in the top spot, only to be overtaken by Walthamstow Avenue and then Ilford again. Dulwich continued to be in the chasing pack throughout, and even when they slipped to fourth recorded a great 5-3 win over leaders Ilford to put them back in it. Leslie Green, during this spell, was switching between first and second elevens, and was called upon to take part in the Isthmian League Reserves XI v Athenian League Reserves XI; a game in which he scored a brace.

For the Club’s Easter tour, once again to the Channel Islands, the party travelled on the ferry with friendly rivals Clapton FC who were also on tour. The Hamlet won the Victory Cup on this occasion, and in one game had 24 corners without scoring, whilst Jersey scored with their first corner! At the dinner held in Guernsey at the end of the tour, Dick Longdon the Hamlet Press Secretary, and the other members of the committee, ‘discovered’ what the players already knew, that Leslie Green and Dave Davies were “two really good comedians.” Maybe they also discovered that Green’s qualities were not just confined to the pitch, but also brought a pleasant atmosphere to the dressing room. For soon after, Green was no more back and forth in the reserves, but spent the next five years as an almost permanent addition in the Hamlet first team.

In the remaining league matches of the season, Dulwich struggled to pick up vital points, managing only draws against Clapton, Romford and Corinthian Casuals. Everything now depended on the final match of the season, Dulwich versus Wimbledon at Champion Hill. Both teams were poised on 34 points, two points behind leaders Walthamstow Avenue, which had already completed its fixtures. Either team could win the championship on goal average, a draw would see the title stay put in East London. Les Green had already been involved in two high-scoring games against the Dons: a 3-3 draw in a Surrey Senior Cup tie three months earlier and 4-4 when the reserves met. It was no different this time, except Dulwich scored four goals to no reply. An early Pat Connett strike was followed by an inspired six-minute spell just after half time. Green, Beglan and Davies netted and the game was over as a contest. The Isthmian League was won.

Not to be outdone, the Reserves also wrapped up their season as champions of the Isthmian League Reserves Section. It was a wonderful day for the Dulwich Hamlet Football Club and brought back memories of the great pre-war years. For the young Leslie Green, who could look back on the 1948-49 season with another stack of goals including a handsome 13 in just 19 first team games, it was just the start.

Original article from HH12. Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2004