Ray and the boys on the bus…



The untimely death of soccer star Ray Wilkins last week reminded PAUL HEALY of how ‘football talk’ made mundane journeys on the school bus bearable back in the 1970s…


The school bus stopped right between two pubs – The Widow’s (Reynolds) and Tony Fallon’s – across the bridge in Rooskey, where Leitrim entwines with Longford. It was 1970s’ Ireland. Smartphone-less, we shuffled on to the bus every morning at around 8.15. It was miserable. In winter, it was particularly monotonous, a too-early start to a day of limited promise. In winter, our senses dulled by the cold, the mornings dreary and dark, as if night was refusing to leave, like a drunk who wants one more late drink from a sighing barman.

  The only thing that illuminated the journey towards Longford on the school bus was football talk. Roscommon’s emerging Gaelic Football heroes we would see in the flesh each summer; for most of the rest of the year, until the dreaded cricket (we didn’t understand it at the time) started, we lived for the exotic world of English soccer.

  On the school bus, those of us who weren’t fighting or messing ‘down the back’ whiled away the morning and afternoon journeys by talking football, exchanging football cards, probably daydreaming too, of goals and games…willing hostages to the beautiful game.

  These are my first memories of Ray Wilkins. Ray was on the bus with us, always on our minds, respected, admired, seen as a yardstick for top midfielders.

  My own favourite was Tony Currie, the immensely gifted, exciting Leeds playmaker, who, regrettably, was prone to laziness. My brother  Gerard, who wasn’t on the bus but who was my soccer mentor, loved the great Trevor Brooking, the graceful prince of Upton Park, where West Ham played their mostly doomed stylish football.

  Friends who were on the bus had an abundance of top Manchester United and Liverpool midfielders to choose from, and we were all drawn with Irish pride to the thrilling emergence at Arsenal of Liam ‘Chippy’ Brady.

  Although he wasn’t particularly exciting to watch, I know that we had immense respect for Ray ‘Butch’ Wilkins. Maybe he came to my attention because we had one very knowledgeable Chelsea fan on the bus (we had, and that was very unusual in the 1970s). Soon, we were all aware of Wilkins. If he wasn’t quite a flair player like Brady or Currie, he made up for it with his ability to orchestrate the flow of a game, his poise and style, not to mention the odd spectacular goal.

  I was saddened when he left this world last week, another hero of our youth, gone too soon at just 61. May he rest in peace. Forty years on, most of the other great players of our youth are still around, already in or rapidly drifting towards old age, but forever young in our memories, and on those old football cards that we used to collect.

  The boys on the bus spent a few years conversing almost solely in the language of football, as though nothing else mattered, which it probably didn’t. And then we went our separate ways, deeper into the world, away from the cold, dark mornings, away from Chippy and Currie and Gemmell and Wilkins…the heroes we’d never meet, but who bonded us together for five seasons or so when we were boys.