Johnny Haynes: Portrait of a football genius – book review

by Dan on August 29, 2017

I am one of the younger generation of supporters unfortunate enough never to have seen Johnny Haynes play. A family friend, who is sadly no longer with us, used to make the journey down to Craven Cottage solely to see Haynes such was his quality, even as a teenager. When, as a schoolboy, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to interview Pele in a promotional event for Children In Need, the Brazilian legend found out I was a Fulham fan. He spent half an hour before filming excitedly informing us about Haynes as player (‘he was the finest passer of a football there’s ever been’) and a man before giving me a hug for good measure. That’s how I knew Fulham’s finest-ever player was special without having the privilege of watching him in the flesh myself.

Lifelong Fulham fan and author James Gardner wrote a new biography of the man whose statue now stands proudly on Stevenage Road earlier this month. There have been books devoted to Haynes’ magnificence before, most notably the excellent The Maestro, published by Ashwater Press, and Gardner’s doesn’t seek to cover the ground covered in them. As he writes in his note at the beginning of his book, Gardner has a clear aim – ‘Through those who knew him well, it seeks to know the man and to show the impact of his achievements’. It is a tribute to the author’s meticulousness research and attention to detail that this biography not only succeeds, but transports you back to a time when football feels like a different game and Haynes, a quiet and assuming man, seems to have a special connection with his supporters.

Throughout its chapters, the words of Haynes’ team-mates – like Tosh Chamberlain, George Cohen, Les Barrett, Alan Mullery and Rodney Marsh – as well as his peers, such as Johnny Giles and Cliff Jones – give you a genuine insight into the character of the man and the depth of his talent. There’s a foreword by Sir Michael Parkinson, which recognises Haynes as one of his favourite footballers, and touches on how he would be ‘cajoling, and more than often than not, bollocking his team-mates into a performance they didn’t know they had in them’. These insights give a new dimension to the book offering a first-hand description of what it was like to be on the receiving end of a precise Haynes pass from Sir Bobby Charlton and, in the words of the doyen of football writers, Hugh McIlvanney, why ‘the Maestro’ was quite so special.

The reader hears in painstaking detail how that close that car crash in Blackpool came to robbing the England captain of his career and just how had he had to work to play professional football again as well as the pain of missing out on the 1966 World Cup – and just why Sir Alf Ramsay did it. There’s plenty of background on how the original ‘Brylcreem boy’ enjoyed his stardom in the Sixties whilst remaining grounded and close to the Fulham fans that paid his wages. The moment when Haynes nearly sparked a Roman riot after inspiring a famous England win in Italy uncovers his unique humour, whilst there’s an earnest discussion of how it came to be that one of the finest talents of his generation was never honoured by Buckingham Palace unlike so many other England greats.

The book contains so many gems it is well worth purchasing whether you’re a fan of Fulham, football, or neither. As a work of social history, it is immensely valuable – with insights into the sport when it retained its place as the people’s game and the heroes were humble, assuming men. Haynes, when asked if he would play a prominent role in the Back to the Cottage campaign of the early 2000s, insisted he didn’t want any special treatment and was genuinely surprised that modern Fulham fans had such affection for him. He wrote passionate letters of support from his Edinburgh, signing them simply ‘John,’ and his membership fee arrived with a handwritten message each year until his sad death.

By reading this book, I feel like I watched Haynes play his 594 senior games for Fulham and can truly appreciate how he, the first recipient of £100 a week, changed football forever. That’s the tribute I have to pay James Gardner for his remarkable work.

Johnny Haynes: Portrait of a Football Genius by James Gardner is published by Pitch Publishing and is available in hardback for £18.99.

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