A tribute to 'Big Bob Ledger', the '£1.40 a week striker', who died earlier this week.This article was first printed in 'The Stag', the club's official match programme, on 26 April 2014.
It was Monday 09 December 1968, well over 45 years ago, and I was paying my first ever visit to a Chinese restaurant,writes lifelong Stags' fan Jon Griffin.
The occasion was to celebrate my 13th birthday, and joining me for my first ever sampling of Chop Suey at the restaurant in Woodhouse Lane was my great friend at the time, Simon Chamberlain, who is still all these years later a Stags’ fanatic. My late mother was also in attendance, but she declined to join the pair of us for the second part of the evening, a mouth-watering FA Cup Second Round replay at Field Mill against Rotherham United. The game was a cracker, nail-biting end-to-end stuff, but it was settled in the Stags’ favour with a first half strike by big Bob Ledger, a balding, bustling predator with a keen eye for goal, and a key figure in that amazing cup run of all those years ago.
I thought instantly of that replay against the Millers and the Chinese meal when club historian Paul Taylor, the world authority on all things Mansfield Town, kindly sent me an item from the Doncaster Free Press which was published just over a year ago. It was an interview with Bob, who in my estimation will be 77 years old later this year. Bob was always a handful for opposing defenders, including England's World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore, and is now well into his eighth decade.
However, time waits for no man. I came across a modern day photograph of Bob's fellow strike-partner, Nick Sharkey, on a Sunderland website the other day and reflected on how so much time had passed since those heady days at Field Mill back in the late 1960s, days which will stay with me, and any other Stags’ fan lucky enough to witness it all at first hand, forever. So many thanks to Paul Taylor for once again allowing me to relive my early adolescence with a fascinating glimpse into the past, this time through Bob’s words and memories.
Bob now lives in a residential home in Carcroft, near Doncaster, another sign of the passing years. Whilst he may not have quite the same rugged physical presence he once had as the Stags' main strike threat in the 1968/69 campaign, Bob's mind is as alert as ever, judging by the Doncaster Free Press article. He said: “I started on £1 per week and had to scrub all the mud off the players' football boots. It was a horrible job but you learnt the game from the bottom upwards.”
Bob was just six days old when his parents moved from Chester-Le-Street to Doncaster to enable his father to work at Brodsworth Colliery, then one of the largest mines in Yorkshire. “I grew up kicking around an old tennis ball, because kids didn't have footballs back then. My dad was football-mad, a Newcastle United supporter, but when he moved here he'd take me to watch Doncaster Rovers. Once I was bitten by the bug that was it.”
Ledger's raw talent was spotted by a scout when he was 15-years-old and captain of Doncaster Boys. Bob was signed six months later by Huddersfield Town, but two years later, he had to take an enforced break from football in order to carry out his National Service at Catterick. Whilst doing so, he met fellow footballers Peter Swan of Sheffield Wednesday, Jimmy Melia of Liverpool, and Manchester United ‘Busby Babes’ Eddie Colman and Duncan Edwards, both later tragic victims of the Munich Air disaster. Once back at Huddersfield, the young forward served his Leeds Road apprenticeship alongside two men who later became household names in English football – the legendary Denis Law, and Ray Wilson, the left-back in England's 1966 World Cup winning team.
“Once I was asked by Bill Shankly (the Terriers’ manager at the time) to find Denis, because his mum was on the phone,” continued Ledger. “When I did, he was surrounded by smoke and he'd been having a crafty fag behind the boss's back.” The duo also went on Huddersfield’s tour to South Africa in the late 1950s, during which a guide told them not to discard any food. “Denis chucked away part of a sandwich and before we knew it, we were surrounded by baboons. I had to scale a 7ft wall just to escape.”
Bob also recalls meeting George Best at a nightclub in Manchester. “He was drinking with Bobby Charlton and a few of the other lads. Bobby had a pint of orange juice, but George had a pint of bitter and spirits too. He was a great guy and one of the best footballers I'd ever seen.”
He continued: “Once I was asked to judge a Miss World contest. I started dating one of the winners and stayed in the hotel for a week. By the end of it, I was brassy broke - she'd put everything on my tab."
Ledger later met and married Sonia Pickles, who was to be his wife for 47 years. The couple had two boys, Nicholas and John. Sadly, Sonia passed away eight years ago after a battle with cancer.
Unsurprisingly, Bob finds it hard to believe the wages earned by today's professional footballers. “As a full-time professional, I drew £1.40 a week. If we won then we'd get £4. It was an extra £2 for a draw. Nowadays, they get enough to buy six cars. I loved the old days, but I do wish I was a footballer now, because I'd be a millionaire.”
It's somehow poignant, on the occasion of the last home game of yet another season here at Mansfield Town [against Torquay United on 26 April 2014], to reflect on the Doncaster Free Press interview with Bob, proof if anybody needed it, that time marches remorselessly on for all of us. Bob may now be nearer 80 than 70, but to me he will always be that bustling striker for the ‘Heroes of 69’ – the man who scored the winner against Rotherham under the Field Mill floodlights, just an hour or so after I’d eaten my very first Chinese meal.
Ledger was at Field Mill for less than two years, after joining the club for £6,000 from Oldham Athletic in December 1967. He signed for Barrow in October 1969, just over six months after we’d been only two games away from the FA Cup Final. But, for some of us with long memories, big bald Bob remains a timeless fixture in a Stags’ shirt, even now, almost half-a-century later.