Sailor and the stuff of legend

A DEATH always prompts a bout of nostalgia, and of late we of the older generation in the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston area have been engaged in much reflection on the footballing career of the revered Bert “Sailor” Brown who has died at the age of 93.

A DEATH always prompts a bout of nostalgia, and of late we of the older generation in the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston area have been engaged in much reflection on the footballing career of the revered Bert “Sailor” Brown who has died at the age of 93.

Mention the name of this local lad hereabouts, and many folk of my age will immediately respond with memories of his Gorleston Football Club's epic FA Cup first round proper tie in 1951 against Leyton Orient, a League Division Three side. Or, to be precise, ties, because the Greens twice held their professional opponents to a draw before narrowly succumbing in a nine-goal thriller at the neutral territory of one of the greatest venues in the football, Arsenal's Highbury Stadium, in front of 11,796 spectators.

Despite their defeat, and failure to become giant-killers, Gorleston were praised by national and local sports writers (this was long before television, of course) for their combination of dogged determination and soccer skills in that decider that took them from 5-2 down to 5-4 with two minutes left, resulting in Orient players booting the ball far into touch for safety as their amateur opponents strove desperately for the equaliser.

Orient went 2-0 up, but ace centre-forward Jack Hunter added to his prolific tally by pulling one back before the league side restored their two-goal advantage. Harry Chapman made it 3-2 but the professional side added another brace and were cruising at 5-2 up with 15 minutes left.

But Gorleston refused to roll over, and when Jimmy Guy netted a penalty and Hunter nabbed a fourth, a tense final couple of minutes ensued, the Greens striving for a deserved equaliser against a side desperate to cling on.

The dream was over.

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Some of those national scribes missed the brave Greens' fight-back, according to informed rumour. With the score at 5-2, and the outcome looking predictable, they vacated the press box seats in search of a lemonade shandy for refreshment while they enjoyed a cigarette, only to scramble back when the cheers of the crowd alerted them to exciting happenings out on the pitch. Colleagues had to describe for their benefit the two Gorleston goals scored during their absence.

Gorleston had surprised their opposition in the first game, at Brisbane Road, not only forcing a 2-2 draw but also presenting home directors, players and match officials with boxes of bloaters and kippers! There might have been a different result had the referee (despite the fishy gift) allowed Hunter a goal and not ruled that the ball failed to cross the line before a defender cleared it.

Decades later Sailor Brown told me: “A policeman standing behind the goal said the ball easily went over the line, but it didn't matter.” Hunter did give the Greens the lead but Orient equalised and then went ahead, but Chapman's goal earned the replay.

Sailor took the blame for the Orient equaliser - “The ball was going out, Ellis was going to head it, but I called out for him to leave it. The ball hit his hand and we conceded a penalty.”

I was among the 7000 crowd at Gorleston Recreation Ground for the first replay; the attendance was limited because many men could not take the time off work on a Thursday afternoon although two timber yards and several workshops closed on the understanding that employees made up the lost time. My school's fourth form of 16 and 17-year-olds was allowed to attend “an educational football visit” (to avoid truancy?), and we stood on makeshift terraces formed from upturned fish boxes bolted together.

It was a goalless draw, albeit exciting, but earned the Greens the Highbury fixture.

According to the Mercury: “Gorleston refused to be overawed and drew immense inspiration from Sailor Brown who positively revelled in the atmosphere of the occasion.” The player-manager, truly a “local boy made good”, was familiar with the big stage although it had been some years since he had experienced it.

Despite interest from Norwich City and Nottingham Forest when he was playing for Gorleston, he joined Charlton Athletic in 1933-34. The war interrupted his career, but he was inside-right in the Charlton side beaten 4-1 by Derby in the first postwar FA Cup final. He also played for Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest, but retired from major soccer after breaking his jaw in a Villa-Portsmouth match.

He considered going into partnership in his old Villa Park team-mate Leslie Smith's radio and electrical business in the Midlands, but instead accepted an invitation to return to Gorleston as player-manager and coach, steering them to success in Eastern Counties League and cup competitions. Also, he organised soccer and cricket games for visitors to the long-gone Gorleston Super Holiday Camp.

In his top-flight career, where his amazing dribbling left defenders bemused, he played with or against stars whose pictures and histories were featured on the cigarette cards lads like me used to collect - Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Stan Mortenson, Raich Carter, Sam Bartram, Tom Finney, Frank Swift, Jackie Milburn...

He won eight England caps and an enduring memory was the international against Scotland in 1945 when he scored in the 6-1 rout in front of 140,000 fervent home fans at Hampden Park whose famed awesome roar caused the ground to tremble; he hit another against “the old enemy” in England's 3-2 victory at Villa Park that same year.

Another highlight was being in the Forest team that beat Matt Busby's Manchester United 2-0 in the FA Cup in 1947, resulting in Busby inviting him into the Old Trafford boardroom to tell him that his was the best display of inside forward play he had ever witnessed - “which had everyone clapping and cheering like hell.”

Sailor Brown, who played in four consecutive Wembley finals, was unexcited by modern soccer. Back-passing to goalkeepers irked him - “I can't see how you can win matches doing that.”

His first job after leaving school in Gorleston was as an apprentice sewing machine mechanic with Johnson and Sons. When he returned to his home town after that distinguished footballing career, he and his wife Daisy lived on Middleton Road opposite the parish church. After retiring from Gorleston FC in 1956, Mr Brown ran a sports shop in Gorleston High Street and worked as bookmaker and timber merchant as well as scouting for Arsenal.

In the Nineties the couple moved to Scotland to be near their daughter, Julie, who calls her dad “a Gorleston legend”. His arrival in Forres led to the local newspaper writing a profile about the footballer who helped to beat the Scots despite that daunting Hampden roar.

Sailor Brown, a widower, died in a care home in Scotland and is survived by a son and two daughters.