What The Dickens: England’s great expectations

Tim Sturtridge

englands great expectations 300x236 What The Dickens: Englands great expectationsIn the first instalment of this updated Dickens classic our hero starts out as the general dogsbody to a Sunday League outfit. Just a normal match day down at The Marshes takes a twist when a beer sodden stranger makes an even stranger request…

My father’s family name being Quay, and my christian name Donald, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or explicit than Donkey. So I called myself Donkey, and came to be called Donkey.

I give Quay as my father’s name with a certain pride on account of the wooden plaque bearing the Westwood League’s top goal scorers in chronological order. Due to my father’s untimely death I never saw him rustle the onion bag, this does not stop me though from taking great pleasure in the marker pen on MDF scribble displayed in The Marshes’ clubhouse, ‘1978/79 Alan Quay – Warren’s Blacking Factory Second XI – 43 Goals’.

I was studying the plaque and imagining each of the 43 goals in turn when the stench of stale alcohol wafted up my nose. Before I had chance to quiz the aroma a sweaty hand clamped down on my left shoulder. I made out the reflection in the plaque’s veneer of a befrazzled bar fly who had recently taken a few too many lungfuls of the barmaid’s apron.

Before I could rouse a scream my oppressor tightened his hold on my shoulder and covered my mouth with his other hand.

“Hold your noise!” warned the beer monster with a voice scarred with a million Regal King Size. “I’ve a favour to ask of you. Refuse me and I’ll snap them puny knees so you never kick a ball on these ‘ere marshes.”

I nodded to indicate I understood the terms he was offering and was released from his vice-like grip. Turning to face this character in all his glory I saw that although he was decked out in the colours of the Hulks he looked in no state to play in their cup final against Crusaders, due to kick off in 20 minutes on pitch number three.

Although he wore the shirt and shorts those were his only parts to match the honour of playing for the locally renowned Hulks. Hen-pecked hair was scraped across his bloodshot eyes but more alarming than his face was the bottom half of his legs. That’s where I came into the equation.

“What I want from you young’un is simple enough, steal me a pair of shinnies and size eleven Adidas Predators. My gaffer reckons if I turn up without me kit once more he’s gonna give me the boot.”

The conviction in those scarlet eyes enclosed by black circles compelled me to take on my mission without a second thought. Something about the words “size eleven” left me in no doubt where I could fetch the required items.

I bolted out of the clubhouse and back to pitch number 13 where my employers Big Joe and Little Joe were stood on the touchline cajoling the Landport Juniors.

“Where you been Donkey you stupid ass.” Was the greeting from Big Joe. “I needed you here 10 minutes ago to rub liniment on our boys.”

Applying balm to the thighs of the Landport Juniors team, including subs, was just one of the tasks I did to earn my £1.50 on Sundays. Another job was washing the kits and boots after the game, that is why I knew Little Joe’s size eleven Puma Kings would not be too far away.

I felt no guilt about poaching a spare pair of shin pads out of the kit bag but I did not like the thought of half inching Little Joe’s beloved Pumas. The long suffering assistant to Big Joe took his boots along every weekend in the hope that he would get a run out but it never was. At least this meant there was always one less pair of boots for me to clean.

Taking the opportunity while both Joes were badgering the lino about an offside call I gathered up the items and scuttled off to meet my Hulk.

“Pumas! I broke me second metatarsal last time I wore them ‘uns, these shinnies have seen better days n’all. Not to worry scamp, recalled to life!” Even as he ran off his gait visibly evolved from brothel creeper to one more befitting the number nine stitched into his shirt.

I made my way back to pitch number 13 that day to cut the half-time oranges with little expectation of ever playing in a cup final or scoring 40 plus in a single season.

In the second instalment of this updated Dickens classic our hero finds himself invited to a trial with a League club. Young Donkey must do enough to be offered YTS forms if he is to enjoy the trappings of professional football…

With a severe bout of tuberculosis gripping the entire Landport Juniors midfield I finally made my debut for Big Joe’s outfit after four years of chopping the half-time oranges. Of course after I broke into the team I was still charged with prepping the citrus snacks at the interval.

All I can recall of those first matches was playing one half as a headless chicken and the other half like a rabbit caught in the lamps of a chaise-cart.

My performances certainly never brought any joy to Big Joe who constantly berated me for not tracking back and always being out of position when we attacked. Little Joe always had a word of encouragement for me though, despite me being selected to play ahead of him.

“I say, Donkey, old chap! You got an oncommon touch. Ain’t you?” Was the avuncular figure’s latest attempt to stave off my disillusionment as he coached me though trapping the ball late one night on The Marshes. Just as we were moving onto my left peg Big Joe came rampaging out the Clubhouse.

“Mr Havisham of The Brewers is after youth and pace. Lord knows you have little else going for you Donkey but youth and pace are on your side. Prove that pace by getting to the Manor Ground by half past ten this very night.”

My legs vanquished the two hours training I had just put in with Little Joe and I flew towards the floodlights beyond the bush which stopped stray balls entering the river.

The Brewers were the local Football League team and although even then they were housed in the basement division they had once been Kings of Europe.

I boomed into the reception of the once glorious stadium and seeing the clock behind the desk showing ten fifty-three I ploughed straight down the corridor and through a door marked “Manager’s Office.”

Again a timepiece on the wall told me it was ten fifty-three but with no Mr Havisham to be found I found myself alone, well almost alone.

The only light in the room was generated by a golden statue standing at somewhere between 14 and 15 inches high. It was the most exotic thing I had ever seen, and have ever seen. Such was the relic’s magnificence that I felt ashamed to share its presence. With head bowed I made my way to leave the room only to come toe-to-toe with Mr Havisham in the door-frame.

“Going so soon child, you could at least have the decency to let me turn you down first.” It looked as though Mr Havisham had come directly from an audition for the part of the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. His suit was coming apart at the seems and although I was no Gok Wan I knew the two-piece was at least a decade removed from the fashion of the time.

“You like it don’t you?” I did not have to follow his gaze to the trophy to know of what he spoke. “Well we had our chance and we blew it in Turin. 4th July 1990, ten fifty-three, local time.”

I had expected nothing more from football than to play for Landport so had never really considered how things worked further up the pyramid. If I had of questioned the inner workings of a professional football club I doubt it would have appeared to me as Mr Havisham did now.

“I’m going to throw you the ball and see how you trap it.” I motioned to leave the office and head towards the training ground but the look Mr Havisham’s fired at me demanded the drill was done right here in his office.

“There, there, there! It seems you are quite unwilling to play.” The Brewers gaffer delighted in saying after I scuffed the ball off my right shin. “Do you think that’s how Andreas Brehme got it under his spell?”

I was sent packing from Mr Havisham’s office having seen something I had previously never known but now treasured above all else.

While traipsing back across The Marshes I cursed Little Joe for telling me to take a bouncing ball on my laces rather than teaching me the sidefoot method favoured by Buchwald, Berthold and Thon.


In the third instalment of this updated Dickens classic our hero grows accustom to life on The Marshes. Although Donkey’s mind drifts back to the treasure he saw in Mr Havisham’s office he seems set to play out his days as a Sunday League footballer. That’s until an agent tables a life changing deal…

Although Big Joe gave me the Tickler on my return from The Brewers she still delighted in telling all and sundry at the Westwood League’s AGM that a League club was monitoring her boys.

With little in the way of achievement coming the way of Landport Juniors during her tenure it seemed she had stored a reservoir of pride and used the annual meeting at The Marshes’ clubhouse to flush it out.

“She really is a marvel our gaffer Donkey, a-fine-figure-of-a-women!” Little Joe knew I disagreed but seemed happy enough to have made his point.

That great meeting of minds remains Big Joe’s finest moment on The Marshes. She awoke the next day to find herself crippled by shin splints, wheelchair bound she moved upstairs and became Director of Football at Landport Juniors.

With Little Joe in the hot seat another season approached down on The Marshes. With Big Joe unable to attend training we veered away from her antiquated W-M formation which had cost us so dear.

I was also gifted a new strike-partner whose game I already knew inside and out for it was Little Joe himself who began donning the number ten shirt. It brought me a terrific fright when I first witnessed his name on the team sheet for I was sure he would finally discover the misdemeanour of my past.

How is was that he was able to stride onto the pitch for our curtain raiser with The Three Jolly Bargemen in the very same size eleven Puma Kings I had stolen from him five years previously I chose not to question.

Playing Little Joe’s fluid 3-5-2 we kicked off that season with five wins on the bounce. I had notched half a dozen in that quintet of games and found myself once again studying the wooden plaque in The Marshes’ clubhouse which bore my father’s name.

So what if I had missed the grade with Mr Havisham and that I would never get my palms on that gold statue? I would undertake becoming the second Quay to be emblazoned by marker pen on MDF as my revised mission.I would ask Little Joe to take away the penalty taking responsibilities from Orlick and give them to me.

It was fine conditions for our sixth game of the season, The Myrmidons providing opposition. I gathered the nerve to approach Little Joe with my spot-kick request but found him in animated counsel with some fellow who presumably wanted directions to the bushes by the river.

Dressed in a purple leotard which disappeared under striped slacks the man wagged one finger of his right hand in Little Joe’s face at all times. The other hand was on his left hip, teapot style. He pirouetted seamlessly to face me, at which point I found his finger on my dial.

“Alwight, yeah! You must be Donkey, okay man?” The dandy was clearly not from round these parts. “Name’s Mr Rollinga, alwight, yeah! Okay people, here’s the thing.”

What a thing it was. Mr Rollinga informed us he was a super-agent acting on behalf of City, a well established member of the Big Four. Apparently I had been recommended to City by a top scout and this prancing pointer was to broker the deal.

“You gonna want some compensation for City snatching your kid, yeah?” Mr Rollinga’s digit was on Little Joe once again. “Yeah, you know, Bosmans, tribunals, all that jazz.”

Viewing the two men side-by-side was to look upon a solar eclipse, so rare would it be for their orbits to align more than once in a lifetime.

“Compensation for what!” Burst Little Joe, this time it was he who did the gesticulating. “Donkey is welcome to go free and leave here. But if you think money can make compensation to me for the loss of the little child and ever the best of friends!-”

“Easy man, we don’t need no scaffold jive, okay?” The super-agent seemed keen to wrap up proceedings on the spot. “Alwight, I’ve got some gear in the Jag for Donkey?”

I made my way back from Mr Rollinga’s car weighed down not only by the freshly pressed navy blue kit but also with a guilt that I should soon be leaving Little Joe and The Marshes forever.

During the game with The Myrmidons my mind constantly drifted back to the auriferous sculpture in Mr Havisham’s office. I failed to add to my tally that day but we did continue our winning streak, Orlick bagging the game’s only goal from 12 yards.


In the fourth instalment of this updated Dickens classic our hero makes his mark at one of England’s top clubs. Donkey’s career takes a twist however when a forgotten friend turns the league table upside down…

Half expecting to find gold plated grass at City’s training facilities I was taken aback to find their greasy top akin to the surfaces down at The Marshes.

I was introduced to three other youngsters who, along with myself, the City manager was hoping to mould into his very own Alan Hanson generation. There was Startop, who seemed to spend more time on the treatment table than in training and Del Drummilo, an illusive Italian who had been blessed with god given ability but complimented it with a lacklustre attitude.

The other member of our quartet was Pocket. It was with the aforementioned Pocket that I spent most of my time due to the pair of us sharing digs at Mrs Barnard’s maisonette.

One night after supper Pocket filled me in on the time he came down my way on loan to The Brewers.

“Mr Havisham sent for me to see if I could do a job for him but it didn’t work out.” Pocket revealed with the assured air of someone who has since moved onto something better. “What bad taste he has, after a month’s loan I was sent back to City.”

I could not help but ask my new friend if he had chanced upon the gold trinket in Mr Havisham’s office.

“What that thing, ha! It’s just a fake you know. Yes indeed Donkey my friend, the real thing is, let me see, in Brazil! Courtesy of a Ronaldo brace no less.” My expression betrayed how unable I was to comprehend that a thing of such beauty could be a replica of anything. “He had it made after the previous manager at The Brewers ran off with some minibus fund that Mr Havisham collected in order to take the youth team to the 1990 World Cup final.”

I spent the next three and a half season doing everything in my power to play in the next edition of the World Cup and, despite the odd paparazzi snap of me tumbling out of Finches of the Grove at four in the morning, things were on track.

After scoring the winner in City’s Boxing Day win over United I spied Mr Rollinga taking his fill of sherry in the Players’ Lounge. The agent came over to me rooster style while sucking hard on a harmonica.

“Alwight yeah! Good gig today Donkey.” I was unable to disagree with him on that. “Thing is though brother, sometimes you gotta go back to your roots yeah? The cat who first dug you needs your help, alwight?”

Mr Rollinga put it to me that I was indebted to Provis Campbell, the same man who seemed to bring the English game into disrepute everytime he drew breath. So it was that on the Feast of St. Stephen I learnt that the scourge of Soho Square was the very man I had stole for on The Marshes many moons before. My agent said that only now had Campbell asked to be revealed as the puppeteer who pulled the strings on my move to City.

Under UEFA law I was able to buy out the last year of my contract with City and move to Campbell’s Millers FC as a free agent. Despite Millers sitting 20 points from safety, having been docked nine points for entering administration, I managed to convince Startop and Pocket to join me. I could do nothing however to persuade Del Drummilo to make the January transfer window switch.

On my second meeting with Campbell I noticed that he still enjoyed a drink and smoke, perhaps more so now that he had quit playing (by way of a drugs ban) and become a manager. He thanked me for signing up, especially as I must have known that none of his players would ever have a chance of making England’s World Cup squad due to his reputation at The FA.

A string of good results in the second half of the season took our Great Escape down to the last day, one more win at the Chink’s Basin stadium would see us stay up. In the week leading up to the game Campbell shared with Pocket and I that the weekend’s opposition was managed by the very man who ran off from The Brewers with Mr. Havisham’s minibus cash, spending the proceeds on a fortnight in Tuscany.

I got about this foul Compeyson’s team as best I could but we seemed to be playing against more than just 11. Startop and Pocket were both given straight reds in the first half for innocuous challenges and I had a hat-trick of goals ruled off by dubious offside calls.

Just like my last game on The Marshes the match was settled by a single penalty, although this time it was the opposition who scored and Provis Campbell’s Millers were duly relegated.

In the final instalment of this updated Dickens classic our hero leaves England to ply his trade abroad. Returning home Donkey finds the object of all his desires may finally be within his reach…

The Millers’ relegation was followed in turn by liquidation and so I found myself a free agent for the second time in six months. Provis Campbell took the winding-up order as a hint that he should leave the game once and for all and dedicate himself fully to alcohol.

Another of that close season’s managerial casualties was Magwich, despite winning at Chink’s Basin on the final day a three point deduction for fielding an registered player (some Arthur or something) saw his side also drop to The Championship.

Having missed out on England’s World Cup squad by way of my association with Campbell I took the opportunity to undergo a knee surgery I had previously delayed. I knew that there would be no better man to aid me back to full fitness than my first friend in football.

After nearly half a decade away from The Marshes I reacquainted myself with the old plot. I remained highly apprehensive about approaching Little Joe after leaving so many of his ticket requests unanswered during my days as a ‘big time Charlie’ at City. These nerves turned to shame as he flung open his healing hands at the idea of aiding my recuperation.

“Dear old Donkey, old chap,” said Little Joe, “you and me was ever the best of friends. And when you’re ‘undred per cent again we’ll have us such larks on these old Marshes.”

It turned out I had returned to The Marshes in time to see Little Joe lead out Landport Juniors in their first ever cup final. I got the strangest of looks from the opposition who could swear that a former City striker was cutting the half-time oranges for Landport.

Even more satisfying for me than witnessing the player/manager hoist the cup was to see him inducted at The Marshes clubhouse after the match, “‘2005/06 Joseph Gargery – Landport Juniors – 44 Goals’.

It must be said however that it was not all a bed of rose during my rehabilitation, there was more than one trophy being held aloft around that time. I sat alone in my old bedroom and watched Del Drummilo and his Italian chums slobbering over the shiny bookstop I had once prized above all else.

A summer of training runs across The Marshes with Little Joe had me feeling ready to kick-off a new campaign. With no Prem clubs tabling deals I welcomed a call from Pocket who passed on an invitation from his new gaffer in Istanbul.

I passed out four happy seasons in Turkey and sent cuttings back to Little Joe every week, my mentor was even able to watch me play on Al-Jazeera TV in The Marshes’ clubhouse.

After Pocket and I had both bagged in the Europa League final and I returned home to The Marshes to stay in shape with Little Joe, as I had done every year since leaving for Turkey. Due to flooding in the area my taxi was forced to make a detour and I found myself back in the shadow of the Manor Ground.

After telling the cabbie to stop I passed over the threshold of the now condemned stadium, then once again through the door marked ‘Manager’s Office’.

I noticed the room a little brighter than last time I was here, the flickers of light coming from a television on Mr Havisham’s desk. Mr Havisham himself, still in his tatty suit, sat less than a foot from the screen as Sky Sports News gave a run down of speedway results.

“And what wind?,” said Mr Havisham, “Blows you here, Donkey?”

I explained that I was passing and had been drawn in by a curiosity, a morbid one at that, to which Mr Havisham recoiled in his perch.

“You think I was cruel to you in our previous tête à tête? With my history in the game why I should be at pains to be kind to others? You made your own choices kid, I never made them.”

He then got up and laid hands on his replica World Cup trophy, taking a great pause while staring upon it. So long did he stay in that position that my concentration drifted to the television set and the impending disclosure of England’s squad for the World Cup.

“Hold it Donkey,” said Mr Havisham as he pointed the rounded top of the statue at me. I myself turned statuesque at this turn of events so The Brewers’ gaffer had to take one step towards me in order to pass on the prize. On taking that step Mr Havisham rolled his ankle as he stepped on a size four practice ball. He and his immaculate fake connected first with Georgie Thompson’s face and secondly with the National Grid.

The next moment the office was plunged into the same darkness which engulfed it on my first visit, the difference this time being the corpse on the ground and the smell of burnt hair in the air.

Walking across The Marshes after exiting the scene of Mr Havisham’s last breath my Nokia gave notice of a text message.


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