Alec Jackson made several debuts on 6th November 1954: one was travelling by train, another was having lunch at the Dorchester – and then there was his first game for West Bromwich Albion in English football’s top division.
For many of the young men whose football careers started either side of the Second World War, their first railway journeys as professional footballers were also the first time they had left the localities in which they grew up. The sense of departure must have been as keen as that of an astronaut being fired into space.
Such a man is Alec Jackson. Had he not become a professional footballer Jackson might never have travelled by train for more than a few miles from his home in Tipton in the West Midlands, where he was born in 1937.
Jackson still lives in Tipton. His father was a factory worker and ‘my mum was just a mum’. Jackson himself was educated in Tipton and worked in the town as a machinist for the engineering firm W.G. Allen.
He tells how he was discovered playing for the St John’s Church team at Prince’s End in Tipton. ‘I never got any proper coaching when I was young,’ he says. ‘After we’d seen how the top players did it, we’d go down the fields and we’d have a go at it.’
He says he did go to train briefly at Walsall when that club showed an interest in him. Apart from this, the furthest he had ever been until West Bromwich Albion spotted him was Great Bridge, a village just down the road but still within Tipton.
Once signed as a professional as a 17-year-old in September 1954 Jackson’s progress in speeding past some of the Football League’s best fullbacks was rapid. Two months later he boarded a train to London to make his First Division debut for Albion against Charlton Athletic. ‘I couldn’t believe what was happening to me,’ he says. ‘It was unreal, putting me out of contact with the life I’d been used to. A new world hit me.’
He says that at times he found it hard to cope with being so suddenly thrust into the spotlight of professional football. ‘But my football got me out of trouble.’
The journey to London for the Charlton game started when Len Millard, the West Brom captain, picked him up at Great Bridge. When they arrived at Birmingham station a crowd of supporters travelling to the match spotted them.
Jackson reckons he was only five feet tall – he grew to about five six – and being unknown to most of the fans he was probably mistaken for Millard’s son. When they found out he was in fact a player they all crowded around wanting his autograph.
On the train an incident revealed ‘how illiterate I was in terms of my new surroundings’.
One of his new teammates went to buy a round of teas and coffees. Jackson was used to drinking out of a big mug at home and when the teammate called out, ‘How many sugars do you want, Jacko?’, he replied, ‘Oh, put me about six in.’
The coffee cups were only this big, he says, holding the tips of his thumb and index finger three inches apart, and whoever it was shouted back: ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going to put these six lumps then?’
When in London, the team went by coach to a hotel for lunch. ‘I’d never seen anything like it. It was just across the road from…. What do they call that park? That’s it, Hyde Park.
‘It was the Dorchester Hotel.’
When the players sat down for the meal Jackson had a moment of panic. ‘There were more knives and forks in front of me than we’d got in our house.’
Jim Sanders, the goalkeeper and a senior member of the team, came to his rescue. He put his hand on Jackson’s shoulder and said: ‘I’ll sit right across from you and whichever tool you’ve got to use I’ll give you the nod.’
‘So every time I went for one he’d either shake or nod his head.’
Not long afterwards Jackson was running onto the pitch to make his debut for West Brom in English football’s top divison. And his impact could hardly have been more immediate. He scored within three minutes against Charlton to set up a 3-1 victory. ‘All I can remember about the goal was that once I’d knocked the ball in they couldn’t catch me,’ he says.