In which a young reporter probes the career of a distinguished but eccentric soccer player.
“Excuse me, are you Mr. Waring?” asked the shy fresh-faced young man.
“Who’s asking?” said the other, looking up from the table and wiping the froth from his mouth with his sleeve.
“I’m Fred Hargreaves, a reporter from the Tranmere Gazette, Mr. Waring,” replied the young man earnestly.
“It’s a while since anyone called me ‘Mr. Waring’,” mused the other, taking a large swallow of his beer. “The directors at the club call me ‘Waring’.” Here he adopted an exaggerated posh accent and stuck his nose in the air. “Everyone else, the players, the fans, just calls me ‘Pongo’!” he concluded. “What d’you want anyway?”
“Well, Mr. Waring,” began Hargreaves hesitantly, “down at the Gazette we heard that you’d been arrested by the police, and my boss, the editor told me to come down and find you and ask you for your side of the story.”
“Well, wack (friend),” replied Pongo calmly, “your editor can go take a running jump! To put it even more bluntly, he can go —- himself!” He paused to take a further gulp of his beer.
“But, Mr. Waring,” protested Hargreaves, “we will be receiving the police report of the incident. Surely you would want to have your side of the story published in our evening edition!”
“D’you know who I am, boy?” said Pongo thrusting out his jaw pugnaciously.
“Of course, Mr. Waring,” answered the reporter. “You’re Pongo Waring, the famous, former Aston Villa center-forward. You just signed for Tranmere Rovers.”
“‘Famous former’ is right!” declared Pongo ruefully. “I left this backwater town for the bright lights of Birmingham just eight years ago, and look, here I am back once again in scenic Tranmere!” He pointed his finger sharply at the young reporter and continued, “Do you know, wack, five years ago I was top scorer in the First Division with forty-nine goals, I’d already played four times for England, and I’d just been picked to play against Scotland at Wembley? And now where am I? Sat in a pub in Tranmere, facing a charge of Disorderly Behavior and Police Obstruction!”
“All the more reason you should tell me your story, Mr. Waring,” persisted Hargreaves. “Not only about last night’s incident, but also about your illustrious career. Your fans will want to know the true story.”
Pongo was silent for several moments, apparently contemplating the young reporter’s suggestion. At last he rose from the table to his full height of six feet and one inch and held out his empty glass.
“Alright, kid,” he said. “My dad always told me: ‘Don’t let on your bandy’ which means in scouse ‘keep your own counsel’, but if you’ll buy me another pint, I’ll tell you the story.”
Hargreaves glanced at Pongo’s impressive bulk and ruggedly handsome features. He still looks in good shape, he thought to himself. He can’t be much more than thirty. I wonder what happened!
When Hargreaves returned to the table with two glasses of bitter, Pongo was staring moodily into space. The bar was empty apart from the two of them. Not altogether surprising at two o’clock in the afternoon! Most normal people were at work! Cautiously, the young reporter set down the drinks and pulled up a nearby stool. Perching nervously on the edge of the stool, he drew his notebook and pencil from his pocket.
“Okay, Mr. Waring,” he began hesitantly. “Why don’t you tell me in your own words what really happened?”
“Well,” began Pongo, “me and some mates, we’d been out for a few pints and we were down cruising the lanny (pier). Then we waited for a bus at New Ferry. It seemed like till dick docked (a long time). Finally a bus came, the one that goes to Birkenhead.” Pongo pronounced it ‘Byerkenhed’, clearly revealing his scouse origins. “We bought penny tickets,” he continued, “and most of me mates gorroff at Grove Road. Me and Willy decided to ride on into Birkenhead to go to a club, and the driver told us to pay an extra penny for the fare. Now I dunno if it was the drink or I was just feelin’ sore cos the bus was late, but I told ‘im to piss off. We started to argue, and things got a little heated. Some other passengers got off the bus and alerted a couple of ‘bobbies’ who were passing nearby. That’s when the real trouble started!”
“Go on,” said Hargreaves encouragingly.
“Well, the ‘coppers’ were not too polite. They could see we’d been drinking, and they told us to pay up right away or else. Now, I’m not a man that responds well to threats. I played seven years in the first division, and I’ve seen my share of hard men, and I’ve taken some stick from ‘em. These cops didn’t scare me. I really had a cob on (was very angry). So I told ‘em to shove it,” continued Pongo.
“You told the police officers to ‘shove it’?” said Hargreaves incredulously.
“Actually,” said Pongo with a wry smile, “I used some rather stronger language than that, but I don’t think your readers would want to hear the actual words I used!”
“Probably not,” said the young reporter, licking his pencil. “So what happened next?”
“Well, one officer asked for names and addresses, so I said, ‘You know who I fuckin’ am’, and then there was a scuffle and some blows were exchanged. One of the officers lost his helmet, and fell off the bus. A couple of other coppers arrived, and they began to manhandle Willy on the pavement, so I gave one of them a good solid shoulder charge such as I like to give the goalies, and he went crashing through a shop window.” Pongo paused to take a long draught of his beer.
“You’re telling me that you pushed a police officer through a shop window!” repeated Hargreaves incredulously.
“Aye, wack, that’s exactly what I’m tellin’ ya!” replied Pongo with some satisfaction. “I don’t like being pushed around. If there’s any pushin’ to be done, I’m the one who does the pushin’! Now I’m in Dicky’s meadow (real trouble)!”
“But you don’t seem like a violent man, Mr. Waring,” said Hargreaves cautiously.
“Not usually,” agreed Pongo, “but I come from a hard area in Birkenhead, and I learned how to look after meself early on.”
“I don’t recall you being violent when you were playing for Villa,” said Hargreaves.
“I was sent off only once in my career,” answered Pongo. “It was a game against Spurs in January of 1934. We were taking a right pasting at Villa Park, and I lost it. I charged into Nicholls and Arthur Rowe with my studs up, and the ref sent me for an early bath. But the funny thing is, I was walking to the tunnel with me head bowed down in shame, and I heard this almighty roar of applause from the crowd. They were standing and cheering as if I’d just scored the winning goal in the Cup Final! You see they loved me whatever I did. I was like them. I was a poor working stiff, not like those ‘toffs’ from London.”
He paused for a swallow of bitter, and then leaned over conspiratorially towards the young reporter.
“You see,” he continued, “I usually didn’t have to actually do anything to put the wind up my opponents. I just had to make some threats. I always was a big feller, and I could scare ‘em! There was this Arsenal keeper, called Charlie Preedy. Arsenal were our big rivals, especially in the season where I scored all those goals. So before the game I sidle up to Preedy, and I say to him, ‘I’m gonna get you this time, Charlie. Just when you’re not expecting it! Best keep out of me way!’ The poor bastard was scared shitless. Every time I went for the ball in the penalty box, he backed off and tried to be in some other place. We won 5-1, and I scored two of ‘em. Never laid a finger on old Charlie, but he was rattled alright!” Pongo paused and chuckled with delight at the memory. “It was sweet revenge cos the Gunners had stuffed us 5-2 at Highbury earlier in the season. Boy, what a great team they had! Cliff Bastin, Alex James, David Jack, Joe Hulme, Alec Jackson, George Male, Jack Lambert! And the boss was Herbert Chapman. I used to say to him, ‘Bet you’d like ME in your team, wouldn’t you, Herbert?’ and he’d look right awkward. Never did give me an answer!”
“Tell me about your record season, Mr. Waring. I like to get some background for my stories. Besides I’m interested. You must have been some player!” said Hargreaves.
“‘Must have been’, wack!” exclaimed Pongo. “I still am some player! You come to Prenton Park next Saturday and I’ll show ya what kind of player I am! Well, let me tell you me story from the beginning if you have time.”
“All the time in the world,” answered the reporter.
“I was born in an area called High Tranmere in Birkenhead on October 12, 1906. Me family was poor. Me dad was a docker, but he often didn’t get a nugget (a full week’s work), so sometimes there was na ackers (money).Many a time I’ve gone hungry! I went to Mersey Park Council School. They had a football team. I was a big lad for me age, and they soon put me in the team. After school we’d play football in the street wi’ a tanner meg (cheap rubber ball). There weren’t enough money fer a casey (leather ball). There was this other lad, about four months younger than me, lived close by. His name was William Dean and he went to Laird Street School. We used to play against each other. He was the only boy I thought might be better ‘n me! We played together later for Birkenhead and District Schools team. He used to give me a backie (ride on his bike) to the games. Well I heard he’d left school and been spotted and signed by a Tranmere Rovers scout, and he made his debut when he was still sixteen years old. I got a job, sellin’ chocolate at Prenton Park, and I used to look at him as he ran out on the field, and I used to say, ‘I want that!’ Well, eventually I got signed to the Rovers in 1926 when I was nineteen, but by that time Willy Dean had gone to the bigtime with Everton. They were calling him ‘Dixie’ Dean, and he was fast becoming a legend. Well, I did well in me first season with Tranmere, especially against Durham City. We put eleven goals past them in two games, and I scored six of ‘em! By the beginning of me second season I had 23 goals in 24 games. Not bad for a young’un! I heard scouts from Arsenal, Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers were after me, but I signed for the Villa in 1928. They paid Tranmere 4,700 pounds. At last I’d made it to the top. I was looking forward to running into ‘Dixie’ again. He was in his record season when he scored sixty goals. I was determined to match that if I could.”
Pongo paused and picked up his glass. “All this talkin’s makin’ me throat dry. I could do with a refill, wack,” he said with a smile. “Don’t be sly (tight with your money)! Gemme a bitter!”
When Hargreaves returned with two more pints, Pongo resumed his story.
“When I made my debut for Villa reserves against Birmingham City Reserves, 23,000 people turned up to see the new boy in action. I knew I couldn’t afford to disappoint them! Wouldn’t you know I scored a hat-trick and we stuffed ‘em. How those Villa fans loved to see their enemies, the City, humbled! From that moment on I was accepted! They loved me, especially in the Holte End! I couldn’t put a foot wrong! I only played thirteen games in my first season, but I managed to score seven goals so I was off and running. Meanwhile my old mate, ‘Dixie’, had just scored sixty! The following season was great. I was enjoying my football, and I scored thirty-two goals. In the third season I got myself injured and I was out for a while. I got a tad worried because me replacement, George Brown, scored thirty-six goals while I only managed eleven all season! I was scared me brief time at the top was over, but the gaffer had faith in me and I started out season 1930/31 fit and rarin’ to go. They’d got me a part-time job at the Hercules Motor and Cycle Company in Aston which was good because me wages weren’t exactly princely! Those directors, the toffee-nosed bastards, they just think you’re a slab of meat. They work you like a slave, payin’ you peanuts, and then they’ll dump you as soon as you hit a bad patch.”
“What about your team-mates?” asked Hargreaves. “Did you all get on well?”
“They were a good bunch of lads, most of ‘em,” replied Pongo. “There were a couple I wasn’t too fond of. I had a great captain, name of Billy Walker. He was a veteran by then, well into his thirties, a local lad from Wednesbury. He was very patient with me. I was a cocky bastard, and I’d turn up for training when it suited me, ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, twelve. Billy never got angry wi’ me. I used to have a little bottle of Scotch hidden in me locker, and I used to go round all the refreshment counters in the ground, using the dregs of lemonade the fans had left behind after the match to flavor me Scotch. He knew what I was doing, but he never called me on it. It was all running up and down the terraces and round the cinder track. Hardly any ball work! Boring and a waste of time. I’d knock fer a welt (tea break) after a half an hour o’ that. But as long as I delivered the goods on a Saturday afternoon, old Billy never bothered me. A grand man! He retired and became manager of Sheffield Wednesday. Took them to Wembley last year, and won the Cup!”
Pongo paused and set down his glass on the table.
“Look, kid,” he said, “I’m feelin’ tired. I didn’t sleep too well last night in the police cell. I gotta to get home and snatch some kip. The club bailed me out, but I’m suspended till things are settled at the Magistrate’s Court next week. Why don’t you meet me here tomorrow at noon, and I’ll finish my story.”
“Of course, Mr. Waring,” replied Hargreaves. “I appreciate the time you’ve already given me. Until tomorrow, then.”
Pongo Waring nodded and trudged wearily out into the street.
Later that evening Fred Hargreaves placed a long distance call to Sheffield.
“This is Billy Walker,” said the polite voice on the other end of the line. “Who’s calling?”
“This is Fred Hargreaves, a reporter for the Tranmere Gazette, Mr. Walker. I’m doing a story for my paper about Pongo Waring who’s just signed for Tranmere Rovers. I’d like to ask you a few questions if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Pongo, eh? You don’t say!” exclaimed Walker. “Haven’t set eyes on him since I left Villa in ’33. But I’ve kept up with his career in the papers. Not doing so well lately, I understand?”
“Mr. Walker,” said Hargreaves. “I believe you were his captain at Villa for a while. He spoke fondly of you. Said you were the only one who really understood him.”
“Did he really? How kind of him!” said Walker. “I always liked Pongo. He was a strange character, but honest and a real menace in the penalty box. He had it all – speed, power, strength and guts. Everything that a good center-forward needs. He was so confident and consistent, absolutely deadly in the box. And boy he terrorized center-halves and goalkeepers! They were scared to death of him! He was a giant, so tall and imposing, and intelligent too. He could read the game, and he had the knack of being in the right spot at the right time.”
“You sound like a real fan, Mr. Walker,” said Hargreaves.
“What’s not to like?” asked Walker. “My own game improved when I was playing alongside him. When he scored 32 goals in 1928/29, I bagged 19. I was already 31 years old. I was nearing the end of my career at Villa. Then in the season when he scored 50 goals, two years later, I managed 16.”
“Tell me about that season, Mr. Walker,” said Hargreaves.
“It was 1930/31,” began Walker. “Our main rivals for the title were Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal. They had a star-studded line-up with Cliff Bastin and Alex James, but we had a fair team an’ all. Pongo was on fire that year. He couldn’t stop scoring. He was like a machine. On the opening day he scored all four goals in our victory over Manchester United. In the third game he got four more against West Ham. He scored 13 goals in the first 7 games and we were top of the table. In November and December he scored twelve goals including a 35-yard scorcher against Blackburn. At the New Year he had 22 goals in 23 starts. We all thought he had a chance to break Dixie’s record. Then he got injured and missed three games. But he came storming back and scored two against Middlesbrough and two against Huddersfield and then all four against Sunderland.”
“You have an extraordinary memory, Mr. Walker,” said Hargreaves.
“Well, to be honest,” said Walker. “I’ve been collecting this information because I’m thinking of writing a book about my time at Villa, and I have my notes in front of me. Anyway, we had the famous game against our rivals, Arsenal, at Villa Park where Pongo scored twice. I expect he’s told you about that! We had 70,000 in the crowd that day, mostly Villa fans. How they idolized Pongo! They loved it when he stuck it to the Arsenal! By the time we got to the last game against Manchester City, Pongo had 48 league goals and 1 FA Cup goal, so he just needed one more for his fifty. Well, we did everything we could to set him up, but the ball just wouldn’t go in. To tell you the truth, he was so nervous he missed a couple of sitters! Finally eight minutes into the second half Reg Chester, our winger, crossed the ball low into their box, and Pongo slid in and nudged it home in spite of the close attentions of their defender Laurie Bennett and goalie, Len Langford. I can still hear the swish as the ball hit the back of the net. I can see Pongo, his arms raised in the air, acknowledging the cheers of the Holte End. Pongo didn’t take any prisoners. He left both City players lying on the ground. Langford needed attention, and Barnett limped off the field. Pongo really wanted that goal. I wish I could tell you that that goal won the league, but I’m afraid Arsenal took the title by seven points. We scored 128 goals as a team. That’s a record for the top division. But Arsenal had a better defense, conceded less goals, won two more games than we did. Still Pongo was on top of the world! He was top scorer in the First Division, scored more than Dixie that year. Everything looked rosy.”
“Did he ever play for England?” asked Hargreaves.
“Yes. He won 5 caps. He scored on his debut against France in May of ’31, and played again two days later against Belgium. He was picked against Northern Ireland in the Home International Championship in October, and scored twice. The next month he played against Wales. He won his last cap in April, 1932, against Scotland at Wembley and scored again. He was proud of that goal, and he fully expected to get called up again, but that was the last time he played for England. 5 caps, 4 goals, his international career lasted less than a year. Explain that one for me if you can!” said Walker.
“How did he ever get that nick-name of his?” asked Hargreaves.
Walker laughed. “The newspapers all said he was named after this popular cartoon character in the newspaper called ‘Pongo’, a dog I believe. That was the public story. But I know better! Pongo was an eccentric young man at the best of times, and he used to keep chickens in the front parlor of his club house!”
“Chickens in his front room!” exclaimed Hargreaves incredulously.
“Don’t put this in the newspaper or Pongo’ll be over the Pennines to kill me!” said Walker. “The fact is that he kept these chickens in a cage in his front room, and their strong smell attached itself to his clothes, and Pongo was no dandy dresser! Sometimes he’d wear the same jacket or trousers for days, so the aroma became very noticeable. So the lads got to calling him ‘Pongo’ because of the strong ‘pong’ or smell! He didn’t seem to mind. He only cared that when the Holte end shouted ‘Pongo! Pongo!’ they were expressing their adoration not their disgust!”
“So Pongo had just scored 50 goals, been capped for England, with Villa finishing runners-up in the League. What went wrong?” asked Hargreaves.
“Well,” said Walker. “The next season was good though something of an anti-climax. Pongo scored 30 goals, a pretty good haul, but we only finished fifth. Towards the end of the season Villa signed this Welsh international, Dai Astley, and Pongo began to get nervous. He was already trying to fend off the challenge of George Brown for his position. Then the next season 1932/33 he got a serious injury and played only six games all year. At the same time his rivals George Brown and Dai Astley scored 35 and 14 goals respectively. He recovered and got back in the team for 1933/34, scoring 14 goals. Unfortunately he was eclipsed by Astley who notched 33 goals. Pongo’s star was fading while Astley’s was rising. The next season Pongo scored 14 again, but Astley netted 21 times. Two season ago after ten games and five goals they transferred Pongo to Barnsley. The fans were incensed! Five thousand angry Villans marched to the stadium to demand that the board bring back their favorite. They still loved him in a way that they never loved Brown or Astley. Pongo was their darling. But as usual the directors paid no attention. And poor old Pongo never really took to Barnsley. He missed the Holte End. After seven goals in eighteen appearances he moved on briefly to Wolves. But the last thing fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers want is an ex-Villa player. Only ten games for Pongo, and he was on his way to Tranmere.”
“Well, Mr. Walker, I want to thank you for your time and your helpful information about Pongo,” said Hargreaves.
“I was glad to help,” replied Billy Walker. “It was good to recall the exploits of my old friend. Send me a copy of your article when it’s finished.”
“I will,” said Hargreaves, and he hung up the phone.
“Hey, wacker,” Pongo greeted Hargreaves jovially the following afternoon. “These ham butties are really good! You should have one!” The former Villa ace’s voice was partially muffled by a mouthful of sandwich. A few crumbs escaped from the side of his mouth as he spoke.
“Hello, Pongo,” said Hargreaves as he walked over to the table. “I had the chance to talk to your old friend, Billy Walker, on the telephone last night. He sends his regards.”
“Why did you do that?” snapped Pongo suspiciously. “You reporters are all the same, going behind people’s backs, trying to dig up the dirt!”
“I was just trying to get the true story of your career, Pongo,” replied Hargreaves soothingly. “Who better to tell the story than your former captain? He was lavish in his praise for you as a player.”
“Was he really?” said Pongo grudgingly. “Haven’t seen him for years. Guess he’s okay to talk to.”
“He told me about your wonderful season in 30/31, described some of your goals,” continued Hargreaves.
“Greatest year of my life,” acknowledged Pongo. “Especially that last goal against Manchester City. You should have heard the roar. Greatest moment of my life! I felt like a colossus, like a giant!” A broad smile creased his face as he recalled the moment. “Funny thing,” he continued, “you reach a pinnacle like that, and soon after you realize that you can never reach such a height of ecstasy again. It’s once in a lifetime, as good as it gets. It was gradually downhill from there. I was only 25 years old, and I’d achieved the greatest triumph of my life! Now I’m scarcely 31, and I’m back here in Tranmere as if it never happened. Now do you understand why I pushed that policeman through the window?”
“But, Pongo,” said Hargreaves earnestly, “the Holte End will never forget you. They’ll love you forever. Every center-forward who follows you will be measured against you and found wanting. ‘Aye he’s good, but not as good as Pongo’, they’ll say. Your goal-scoring record will stand forever. Smith and Astley will be forgotten, but not ‘Pongo’ Waring!”
“Astley, that Welsh snake in the grass,” spluttered Pongo. “Not fit to tie my boots! Listen, wack, I’ve decided. There’s one last goal I’ve set myself. Tranmere Rovers gave me my start. Without the opportunity they offered me, I’d never have made it to Villa Park. So I’m going to win promotion for them to the Second Division. In the next two years. My last hurrah before I hang up my boots! What do ya say, kid?”
“I believe you can do it, Pongo,” said Hargreaves warmly. “And that’s the story I want to write. One more moment of glory for Pongo Waring. I told my editor that I didn’t want to write the police arrest story, so he’s given it to the cub reporter. It’ll get buried on the inside page.”
“Great, wack,” said Pongo. “Now I’ll mug YOU! I’m going to buy YOU a drink. And a ham butty!”
Easing his tall muscular frame out of the chair, Pongo Waring strode off to the bar, jingling the coins in his pocket and whistling cheerfully.
Pongo Waring got his wish. In season 1937/38 he spear-headed Tranmere Rovers successful challenge for the 3rd Division North title. They became champions and won promotion to the Second Division for the first time in their modest history on the back of Pongo Waring’s 22 goals. Pongo’s ‘Indian summer’ was celebrated when the Mayor held a reception at the town hall whilst the 3rd Division North trophy sat in a shop window in Grange Road.
Pongo Waring scored 167 goals (159 league, 8 FA Cup) in 226 appearances for Aston Villa. He continues to hold the record for most league goals scored by a Villa player in a single season with 49 (1930/31). This is also the second highest total all-time for Division One behind Dixie Dean’s record of 60 goals in one season. His career total of League goals scored for 5 clubs in 12 seasons is 244 in 363 matches. The majority were scored for Aston Villa and Tranmere Rovers. He is number 49 in the list of all-time league goal scorers from all divisions of the football league
Pongo was variously known to Aston Villa fans as ‘The King of the Holte End’ and ‘The Gay Cavalier’. During the years of World War II he guested for various clubs, including Wrexham, New Brighton, Everton, Crewe and Aston Villa. What a welcome the Holte-enders must have given him on his return!
No disrespect is intended in this story to Dai Astley who was a capped Welsh international of some renown who scored 92 league goals for Villa or to George Brown who was a record scoring forward at Huddersfield (159 goals) before moving to Villa where he scored 79 goals and was capped for England. However the fact remains that they were rivals to Pongo Waring, not his friends, and so I have placed words in his mouth that are not complementary to them! Remember Pongo is a character in my story, and his dialogue is fictionalized. I take no sides; I only seek to dramatize his story.
Pongo Waring continued to appear in non-league football after the war in the Wirral area, finally hanging up his boots at the age of 50. He continued to attend games at Prenton Park, supporting Tranmere Rovers boisterously and vociferously. He died on December 20, 1980, aged 74. His ashes were scattered in the Holte End goalmouth at Villa Park, scene of so many of his glorious goals, before a league game with Stoke City. Rest in Peace, Pongo.
PONGO WARING: THE RECORD AT ASTON VILLA.
1927/28 13 games 7 goals
1928/29 42 games 32 goals ( incl.7 FA Cup) Villa 3rd
1929/30 23 games 11 goals Villa 4th G. Brown 36 goals
1930/31 40 games 50 goals (incl. 1 FA Cup) Villa 2nd
1931/32 38 games 30 goals Villa 5th
1932/33 6 games 4 goals Villa 2nd G. Brown 35 goals.
1933/34 28 games 14 goals Villa 13th D. Astley 33 goals
1934/35 25 games 14 goals Villa 13th D. Astley 21 goals
1935/36 10 games 5 goals
I am grateful to the website, Liverpool.firstname.lastname@example.org, for the scouse dialect included in Pongo’s dialogue. Please excuse the parenthetic definitions – I hate footnotes! I didn’t think the word ‘butty’ needed an explanation – the context is clear. Anyone who really knows about the Beatles knows about their fondness for ‘chip butties’ (a sandwich filled with French fries!).