This is a story that came dangerously close to never being told. In May 2020, in my capacity as a freelance writer, I interviewed a man called Eric Gill. Way back when, Eric had been one of the finest goalkeepers in Britain, a Londoner who made headlines around the world by appearing in 247 consecutive matches for Brighton & Hove Albion between February 1953 and February 1958, equalling a Football League record for goalies.
Given football’s intensely physical nature in those days, that achievement took some doing. Besides keeping the ball out of the net, goalkeepers had to make do with being, to all intents and purposes, beaten black and blue by opposing centre-forwards, along with anyone else on the field who fancied having a go. Look up ‘brutal’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and it will say ‘the art of goalkeeping circa 1875 to 1960’. Or at least it should.
I’d never spoken to Eric before, but I knew of him. Growing up in Sussex during the 1970s into the 1980s and supporting Brighton, I heard talk among older fans of the goalkeeper to beat all other goalkeepers, the one who’d played year upon year without missing a single match. Being a young keeper myself, albeit of limited potential, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Here was a bona fide sepia superhero straight out of Pathé News – and he’d played for my favourite club.
However, it wasn’t only Eric’s story that interested me. Behind every first-choice goalkeeper, there’s an understudy, the poor sod who has to wait their turn until the main man or woman falls from grace, breaks their fingers, or gets spirited away by another club. Eric’s unbroken run had lasted five years. Someone with the patience of a saint must have waited for his chance … and waited … and waited.
In time, I learned the identity of that saint – Dave Hollins. Signed as a teenager in 1955 to replace a couple of other goalkeepers who’d grown tired of watching the paint dry, Dave got his hands dirty in Brighton’s reserve team for three years until, out of the blue, the seemingly immovable Eric developed flu. Into the breach Dave stepped for three matches, doing well but making way once Eric was fit again.
Six months later came another opportunity. Alas, this time things didn’t work out quite so hunky-dory. Middlesbrough 9 Brighton 0 remains Middlesbrough’s record league win and Brighton’s heaviest defeat. And Brian Clough – yes, that Brian Clough – scored five.
You could have forgiven Dave had he traded goalkeeping for something completely different. But no. Not only did Dave stay and fight for his place but he eventually usurped Eric, represented Wales at under-23 level, joined Newcastle United in a big-money transfer and assumed the mantle of Welsh first-team goalkeeper, making his full international debut against Brazil and rooming with the great John Charles on trips.
Eric, at the time we initially spoke, was a sprightly 89, living in the picturesque Sussex coastal town of Peacehaven. There we were, chatting away over the phone, when I mentioned Dave Hollins in passing and Eric spoke warmly of his former understudy and rival. Then, in a throwaway remark that nearly escaped me, Eric let slip that they were still friends.
This, it emerged, was anything but the kind of friendship where people send each other a Christmas card and that’s about it. These two octogenarians had, at least until Covid arrived, met up every few weeks to chew the fat over a milky brew, lunch or a game of bowls. Sixty-five years after football had first thrown them together, they were still thick as thieves.
This struck me as astonishing, for three reasons.
One. Footballers aren’t very good at keeping in touch with each other. They’re not so much ships that pass in the night, more like ships that spend time berthed alongside each other before scattering to all points of the compass. Eventually they retire. Sure, there are reunion dinners, while some clubs preside over former players’ associations that organise occasional events. However, the hard yards behind such affairs tend to be put in by people who remember those players fondly, rather than the players themselves. The sad truth is that when a player leaves a club, they’re unlikely to speak to the majority of their ex-teammates again.
Two. Eric and Dave were rivals. Although it’s often said there’s an unofficial union among goalkeepers, formed in the knowledge that one mistake can lose a match or, at worst, end careers, this empathy doesn’t always extend to keepers at the same club. It certainly didn’t in the 1950s when players in the first team automatically received a better wage than those in the reserves. With bills to pay and a woman’s place still deemed to be largely in the home, unable to contribute financially to the running of the household, resentment could easily brew. Then there was the retained list, drawn up by managers at the end of every season. If you weren’t in the first XI there was every possibility you might not make the list and would be seeking employment elsewhere. In such circumstances, you can hardly blame footballers for being, to quote Eric, “For myself and nobody else”.
Three. I’ve written about sport for many years and I’d never come across a genuine friendship between former teammates or opponents that had lasted so long. This was different to, say, long-retired former tennis players I knew who renewed acquaintances once a year in the private restaurants of Wimbledon. Dave had known Eric longer than he’d known his wife Jackie (putting that into context, Dave and Jackie met in April 1957). They were the kind of natural pals who didn’t need an occasion to bring them together. As far as I and seemingly everybody else could work out, theirs appeared to be the firmest, most enduring friendship in elite British sport.
I wrote my article about Eric. Three months later, having been given Dave’s telephone number by Eric, I interviewed and wrote an article about Dave. Both pieces attracted much warmth and attention … which helped fan the flames of what came next: a book.
Here were two men, their lives bookended by the extremes of the second world war and Covid-19, whose football careers spanned a time grossly under-represented in sports literature. When Eric and Dave first pulled on their string goalkeeping gloves there really was, as the Clash once sang, ‘no Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones’. Transatlantic travel, in all probability, meant by boat. Trains were uniformly hauled by steam engines. John F. Kennedy was barely known outside Massachusetts. Dementia was a grisly 1955 horror film set in downtown Los Angeles, not something that came with heading footballs.
In short, Eric and Dave had remarkable stories to tell from across eight different decades (10 if you include the 1930s and 1940s before football brought them together). If they didn’t get told now, then they probably never would.
Eric and Dave: A Lifetime of Football and Friendship by Spencer Vignes is published by Pitch (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com for £16.52. Delivery charges may apply