A schoolboy’s hero

Heald tells how Denis Compton (in pic, with his family), son of Harry, a self-employed painter and decorator, was born in Hendon, the London suburb. Going to a local elementary school, he was lucky enough to find two excellent and supportive teacher-coaches, one for cricket, one for soccer.

Tim Heald’s revised and updated biography of Denis Compton (Aurum Books) elicits for me a mass of memories. For, Denis was my schoolboy’s hero; I would go anywhere to see him play outside-left for Arsenal or scamper daringly down the wicket to score runs for Middlesex, occasionally taking wickets with his left-arm “Chinaman.” And Denis, of course, as an Army physical training instructor, spent happy time in India during World War II, always ready to give those battle-hardened troops who came under his command an easy option; to simulate fatigue after the merest stroll.

Denis played in the first professional match I ever saw, and a memorable match it was. England v Scotland at Wembley in January 1947, played on a frosty pitch. Mrs. Winston Churchill inspected the teams, then departed for the airport to greet her husband, just back from seeing Stalin in Moscow. Little could a 10-year-old or almost anybody else, for that matter, envisage that the wing halves in a Scotland team well-beaten 3-0, Bill Shankly and Matt Busby, would in time become two of the most famous club managers seen in football.

England had a dazzling attack, led by the burly young Tommy Lawton with the incomparable Stanley Matthews, Wizard of Dribble, on the right-wing, the fast, skilled, elusive, splendidly left-footed Denis as the outside-left.

A few months later at Lord’s, my first cricket match, I watched him sprint to the boundary, playing for Middlesex and Essex against Kent and Surrey, just in time to catch a lofted shot by Godfrey Evans, due to gain fame as an England wicketkeeper.

On Denis’ side, the wicketkeeper was his tall elder brother, Leslie. The one lacuna of Heald’s otherwise comprehensive book is that he never spoke to the engaging Leslie, who so ironically would gain two full English soccer caps while Denis, so much the more gifted footballer as indeed he was the more gifted cricketer, played 12 times for England but never won a full cap. Why? Because 11 of his England appearances were made in wartime internationals and one on his somewhat portly return from India in April 1946 against Scotland in a so-called Victory International. No official caps were awarded for these games; yet arguably England in the War had one of the strongest, most talented teams of its history, with the formidable Britton-Cullis-Mercer half-back line and all that dazzling ability — Mannion, Carter, Hagan — up front.

Sometimes on the football field the brothers would memorably combine. Never to greater purpose than in the FA Cup 1950 semifinal at Tottenham against Chelsea; who’d run rings round the Gunners in the first-half. Roy Bentley, irresistible, had scored twice. Arsenal got back into the game just before half-time through what was probably the most freakish goal ever seen at White Hart Lane. Freddie Cox, outside-right and an ex-Spurs player, took a corner from the right with the outside of his right boot. Somehow or other, it got caught in the wind and blew bizarrely into the near top corner of the Chelsea goal.

But with time running out, the Gunners were still a goal behind when they forced a left-wing corner. As Denis prepared to take it, centre-half Leslie — Big Head, to the admiring Highbury fans — came trotting upfield. Joe Mercer, left-half and renowned captain, yelled at him to stay put. After all, the brothers had never worked a goal between so far. But Les ignored him, kept on coming and when the corner kick curled over, got his head to it; and equalised. He then fell over and initially didn’t realise he had scored! 2-2, the Gunners won the replay and proceeded to beat Liverpool 2-0 in the Final. When, at half time, it is said a wearied Denis was revived by a drink of brandy offered to him by Alex James, Arsenal’s pre-War unrivalled playmaker.

Leslie himself got several wartime caps, initially of all things as a centre-forward, later at full-back. His two full caps came in the space of a November week in 1950 at centre-half against Wales and Yugoslavia. Many years later, Walter Winterbottom, then England’s manager, told me it was absurd to pick the 38-year-old Leslie but it had been forced on him by the selection committee.

Heald tells how Denis, son of Harry, a self-employed painter and decorator, was born in Hendon, the London suburb. Going to a local elementary school where he was lucky enough to find two excellent and supportive teacher-coaches, one for cricket, one for soccer, he showed precocious abilities and in those remote days boys could play street cricket. As a 12-year-old he was already making runs, not least for Elementary Schools versus a public school team in 1932.

Lord’s took him on the ground staff the next year where he was urged to play off the back-foot, but he mastered the sweep for himself. In 1936 he just missed the MCC tour of Australia, considered too young. But as an 18-year-old he was already beginning to impress in Arsenal’s first team; so much so that Glasgow Rangers, when he had shone against them, wanted to buy him. But Denis was a committed Londoner. 1937 saw him make his Test debut and in 1938 he helped England gain the Ashes.

Post-War, there was that glorious summer of 1937 when he and Bill Edrich (a left-winger once himself, with Spurs) made 3000 runs each for Middlesex. Endless painful knee trouble, including the removal of a knee cap, would ensue, but Denis would bravely battle on, though MCC tours would limit his Arsenal appearances and he was never the same athletic figure he had been before the War; and India! He left behind memories of exuberance, adventure and sheer joyous entertainment.