Some boy, Bingham

The tributes to football manager Billy  Bingham, who has died at the age of 90, quite rightly highlight his great success as Northern Ireland manager, and mention his time at Everton, but, to me, his place in the pantheon of great managers is a far more personal matter.

Statistics will tell you that his most successful stint as coach, with a 43% win rate,  was in his first appointment, at Southport FC in the  old fourth and then third divisions.

However, as any true football follower would affirm, statistics won’t give you even half the story.

His time at Southport – from 1965-67 coincided with my moving from the age of 13 to 15 – perhaps the most formative years in anyone’s life, and the Southport team he forged  in that time –  Bingham’s Boys – remain heroes to me till this day almost sixty years later.

As a coach, he was  innovative and  ahead of his  time. Arriving at Haig Avenue in his first coaching appointment, at the young age of  35, he found a club which, if not exactly moribund, was fast going nowhere. He understood the need for impact, not only on the field and training pitch but also around a town which had long been famous for its indifference to football.

By the time he moved on, two years later, Southport had reached the last sixteen of the Cup and been promoted for the first time in their history, and were regarded as one of the fittest squads in the entire football league.  They had garnered more national headlines that in any previous era.

The point about Bingham’s flair for publicity was that all of his “stunts” had a positive impact on the club’s playing record.

Poor atmosphere in the  ground? How about flagpoles flying international flags along the open end of the ground – as seen contemporaneously at Fulham’s Craven Cottage? Along with the rocketing playing standard, this innovation improved the matchday experience.

Looking for coverage, and increased attendance, before a crucial cup tie? Here’s a picture of burly forward, Eric Redrobe in ballet tights. The press got their angle, but players were protected from cold weather muscle and sinew  injuries long before such an approach became general.

A must win game against high flying fellow promotion hopefuls,  derby neighbours, Stockport County? Here’s the players running out with strange numbers on their shirts – 11 for the right back, 8 for the centre half, 3 for the centre forward and so on. Before County’s man marking  players had worked out what was happening, Port were well on their way to a rousing 4-0 victory.

There was some comment that Bingham’s side was rather dour and defensive, and notable cup victories away at second division Ipswich and at Stockport might confirm that thought. However, he was also flexible as a manager and well able to switch systems to match the opposition or to surprise them with attacking intent. He was adept at changing players’ positions if he felt they had the skills to perform better elsewhere, and his organisation was such that, in the Stockport cup game, Les Barratt, signed hours before kick off and unknown to the support, was able to slot perfectly in to the system and even score the decisive goal.

Most of all, his side had resilience – frequently shown on the pitch, and even more so after the devastating Boxing Day fire in 1966, which destroyed the main stand  and all the club’s infrastructure, but couldn’t derail their run to promotion.

In two short years Bingham put Southport on the map. In the town’s newsagents on Monday mornings, little old ladies who had previously not known the town had a football team, could be heard asking “How did the lads get on?”

It was a remarkable impact, which left Bingham, in Southport’s terms, as associated with the club as Busby with United, Shankly with Liverpool, Nicholson with Spurs and Stein with Celtic. He was, in short, a force of nature.

There is little doubt that without the exploits of the Bingham Boys, Southport FC may well have fallen into terminal decline, or that, at the very least, their exit from the Football League could well have happened years before that eventuality in 1978.

For those of us who were there to witness those remarkable times, Billy Bingham remains an iconic figure, whom we were privileged to witness at the start of an impressive managerial career. His World Cup exploits may get the headlines, but, arguably, what he achieved on the West Lancashire coast, with another team not accustomed to glory,  was just as impressive.

These days, “influencers” are to be found and feted on social media, but, for this writer, as a teenager, the greatest influencer was Billy Bingham.

Which is why anyone caring to look at the old guy on an Edinburgh station last Friday, staring intently at the message on his phone, may have noticed a couple of tears running down his cheeks.

Thank you, Billy.

Thank you for the Bingham Boys.

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