The Last of the Great Caretakers

All sportsmen – be they amateur or professional – are essentially flat-pack players. They only come to life when loaded up with cam dowels, wood dowels and the beast of screws, cam locks. Without the assistance of this prudent army in the form of ball boys, caretakers, tea ladies, dietitians and the like sportsmen are merely floating apparitions.

My first experience of such a person – posited in the background, ready to tidy up, fix things or prepare the groundwork – was in 1974. He worked at the primary school I attended (Harwood Meadows) and went under the majestic and somewhat burlesque name of Mr Mann.

I cannot completely picture his face in my head given the forty years that have since elapsed, but his granite features tinged with an immeasurable kindness remain in a distant corner of my brain.

To me he was ‘The Sacred Retriever’ – a suitably attired grafter, in caretaker coat, whose awareness and personality differed from the teachers around us. He would retrieve footballs from the one-story roof, stride up his wooden ladder with the efficient air of a 1500m runner.

When the ball again landed on the raised playground at the side of the school building, the cries of the children would intensify given their focus for nothing other than this soft, round missile of fun. Mr Mann – a Second World War P.o.W. – thus represented a continuing of the status quo, a bridge from glumness to elatedness.

Known as ‘Bill’ to the kitchen staff (and his wife), but always ‘Mr Mann’ to the teachers in a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs mimicry – the TV series running from 1971 to 1975 – William Mann had his own room within the school; an eight feet by six feet store room rather than office with neither radio nor chair.

Inside this Gentleman Jim ‘manor’ of sorts stood the requisite hardware and paraphernalia needed for the job: “A sluice sink, a built-in bench along one wall with shelves above it, cleaning materials, the odd few tools for those little ‘tightening up’ jobs, cleaning cloths, toilet rolls and paper towels. The floor space was taken up with buckets, mops and the rotary polisher/cleaner for the hall floor – a very important tool in his armoury!”

It is the rotary polisher that leads us to the heart of this story. Mr Mann’s “pride was the beautiful parquet flooring in the school hall,” ex-teacher Brian Smith – a man who commanded my attention and whom I was once fearful of – tells me. “[It] was not just swept but regularly ‘spray-polished’. The result was a floor that was a delight to see.”

So delightful that conflict and an early form of protectionism were inevitable. Reacting to the plimsoll scuff marks that resulted from Smith’s Friday 5-A-Side football sessions – only hours after the weekly polish – Mann protested. “He wasn’t at all pleased and told me so!”

A compromise was duly reached and ‘barefoot football’ was born. It is one of my abiding memories; a rare, giant of a game up there with table tennis and surely England’s (and India’s) equivalent to South American futsal and beach soccer.

The Mann/Smith Pact of 1975, through its hardening of players, is emblematic of what can happen when two very different people meet.

 

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