Heritage: An Interview with Town's Oldest Living Player
As part of the HTSA's Heritage Project, author Lee Morris tracked down Town's oldest living player, centenarian Graham Bailey, and spoke to him about his time at the club.
Graham Bailey was born in Shropshire on March 22nd, 1920 and by the time he was 16, he’d signed on the ground staff at Huddersfield Town on August 10th, 1936. The manager at the time was Clem Stephenson, a former Town player himself between 1920 and 1929 before becoming manager in 1929. Stephenson was assisted by another former Town player in Jack Foster, who was the Assistant Trainer.
Graham remembers those early days: “I was taken on the ground staff and we got 30 shillings a week for digs and then there were 10 shillings left for yourself.”
It wasn’t until he turned 17 that he signed pro forms, as you couldn’t sign pro until you were 17 in those days. He remembers getting his wages from Stephenson on the following Friday: “I’d been in the ‘A’ team and also played in the Central League and I was expecting £6 wages, because you got £1 for playing in the Central League and 10 bob for playing in the ‘A’ team.”
However, he was in for a shock when he saw what he’d been paid: “When I got the money, I only had £4 wages, and was expecting £6, so I went back in to see him and he was sitting there smoking his pipe. I asked him why I’d only got £4 and he said ‘Do you remember signing a contract for £4? If you’re retained next season make sure you read your contract next time’.”
The 1939-40 season got under way in August of that year, although another European-wide conflict was looming after Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. By September 3rd, Britain and France had declared war on the Germans and the Second World War commenced. The Football League was abandoned shortly afterwards, and the season declared null and void. As with so many Town players, and footballers in general, the war saw a lot of careers put on hold.
“When War broke out there were three of us in digs and we decided to join up but one of the directors at the club at that time was high up at Brook Motors so we ended up getting jobs there. We would go training after a 12-hour shift at Brook Motors and had to train in the dark.”
Graham has fond memories of his time working at Brook Motors and playing for Town in the Wartime League, which began on October 21st, 1939. Bailey fought his way into the team and made his Town debut on May 25th, 1940 in a 4-0 win against Darlington and played the last four games of the season at left-back. Town finished top of the North-East Division losing just one match all season and winning 15 out of 20.
Graham became more of a regular the following season, playing 15 games at left-back, although the previous season’s success wasn’t replicated, with Town finishing in a respectable 11th position in the North Regional League. By the 1941-42 season, he had become a regular in the side and played 31 out of 37 games in the Wartime League. Having played all his previous games at left-back, Bailey was now playing at right-back and would remain in the position until he left Leeds Road in 1948. At the end of that season, Clem Stephenson left the club and was replaced by coach Ted Magner.
After little over a season in charge, Magner left and former Town player David Steele became manager in 1943, continuing to pick Graham, who played 36 out of 39 games in the 1943-44 season.
Graham remembers that some of these games would reap financial rewards if they were won: “I remember when we’d be playing certain ‘important’ games during the war, we’d get bonuses, David Steele called them ‘treats’. We were on 30 bob for a game during the war. There was one marvellous outing at Newcastle where we were on a 10-shilling bonus if we won. We did win and I lost 8 shillings on the way back playing Brag.”
Towards the end of the War, Graham was called up: “I was called up towards the end and was stationed in Durham, where Bob Hesford was my senior officer. I carried on playing for Town and I used to leave Durham on the Friday and then stay in Crewe and make the rest of the journey to Huddersfield on the morning of the game if we were at home.”
He was ever-present in the side for the following season, playing all 45 games as Town won the Football League North Championship in 1944-45. Although the war came to an end in May 1945, the Football League continued with the Wartime League as they felt they didn’t have enough time to organise a proper season. Graham was almost ubiquitous once again, playing 41 out of 42 games as Town finished 15th in The Football League. He also played both games in the FA Cup, which returned for 1945-46.
Despite playing in the first team for the majority of the Second World War, Graham only featured for Town in The Football League for one season, playing 33 games during 1946-47. In December 1946, Town travelled to Copenhagen on a trip, as Graham remembers: “David Steele took us on a trip to Denmark. I had a wonderful time there, although I did lose a shoe. It was an education for me. We took this taxi to a racecourse and I was taught by some of the other players to never get out of the taxi last, as that was the person who ended up paying.”
Town played a game during their time in Denmark, against a Copenhagen Combination side, though their preparation left a lot to be desired: “We actually played a game in Copenhagen but they took us to a brewery beforehand. I remember saying to Ken Willingham ‘don’t breathe on me’. It was funny.” For anyone wondering, Town drew the game 2-2 with Jim Glazzard and Arnold Rodgers getting on the scoresheet.
After 12 years at Town, Bailey’s time at Leeds Road came to an end in 1948, when Sheffield United expressed interest in signing him. As was customary for long-serving players in those days, Bailey received a benefit from the club.
“I was a bit green in those days as most of it didn’t go to Graham Bailey. I remember, Harry Beever was the Secretary at the time. It should have been £750 and I think I only got about £450 at the end of it.”
Graham recalls his first time at Sheffield United in the office while he was signing the contract at his new club: “I ended up transferring to Sheffield United, with Albert Nightingale going the other way. I was in the office and the offer was £10 a week and £12 if we won. I said to the manager, Ted Davison, that I’d heard that there were usually backhanders paid when someone was transferred. I can still remember his face to this day, I must have shocked him as he said ‘Heh?! No we’re not that type of club’. It turned out he was a churchgoer. I ended up becoming very friendly with Ted but it was my first telling off. He said ‘You’re getting exactly what we’ve offered you’. In my very first game at Sheffield United we actually played Town and I remember giving Vic Metcalfe a bit of a hard time.”
In 1949, Graham retired from the game and went into a common profession for footballers at the time: “I had to retire as my father-in-law was ill and he was a newsagent. And it was a case of, if one of the family didn’t take it on, then it would have been sold. Back in those days footballers either became a newsagent or ran a pub. Later on, I learned I could have become an Assistant Trainer at Sheffield United.” He eventually retired from that profession and later moved to East Yorkshire in the late 1990s.
After research was done in 2018, it was thought that Albert Bateman, who was alive and well at the age of 94 in Thornton-Cleveleys, was the oldest living Town player. He had been a teammate of Graham’s and played at Leeds Road between 1943 and 1950 before an injury ended his playing career. However, in early February 2021, Graham Bailey was tracked down and found to be alive and well at 100 years old and living with his wife in East Yorkshire.
He is also Sheffield United’s oldest living player: “They did tell me I was the oldest one not long ago. I still think about all the lads at Town and until recently, didn’t realise I was the last one.”
He is also thought to be the oldest living Town player ever, with Joe Walter previously believed to hold the honour after he passed away aged 99 years and 281 days in May 1995. Graham confesses to still being a big Town fan, is in great health and will celebrate his 101st birthday next month.