A few weeks back I was walking down Queens Drive, not far from my house in Old Swan and near the site of my old school, West Derby Comprehensive. As I continued on my journey I passed by Moscow Drive before crossing over and passing Sandforth Road – a road which I have gone past on numerous occasions in recent years, but not on foot for some considerable time. Anyway, before you think I’m just rambling about walking the streets of Liverpool, Sandforth Road has a particular significance to my school days, and more relevantly my love for all things Everton FC. Walking past that particular area evoked fond memories for me, so I thought I would write a little bit about the reasons as to why.
Back in the year 2000 when I had entered my teens, I moved up from the Bankfield site of West Derby to the Quarry Wing, based on Queens Drive. Our school was originally split over two sites – one called Bankfield which was on the cut through from Queens Drive to Tuebrook and the other was on Quarry Road, adjacent to Queens Drive – but nowadays West Derby is joined as one on a site lower down Bankfield, and the two old school buildings have since been knocked down. When I moved up to the Quarry Wing, I discovered that Sandforth Road led to the then site of Everton’s Training Ground called Bellefield. This meant dinner times would now become slightly more adventurous than usual, as sad as it may sound!
Now Sandforth Road wasn’t the smallest road (if you’ve ever been down it, it feels like it goes on forever), and with only an hour to spare, a march down there, picking up some dinner before seeing some of your heroes and marching all the way back to school would be quite an achievement, but it was a challenge that me and me mate (Rochey, he probably won’t thank me for mentioning him) were well up for back in them days. I remember owning an Everton fleece at that time, with the Everton Badge proudly displayed on the front and Royal Blue colours making me stand out from the crowd, and this tended to be the attire I was seen wearing over my black West Derby blazer on nearly every photograph I got with Everton players outside Bellefield.
My early memories of my lunch-time ventures around L12 include a butty shop down Eaton Road – a cheese and ham barm (or batch, if you’re a wool), a drink and a walk back up Sandforth to take my spot outside the entrance to our training ground opposite the Bill Shankly Playing Fields. During that era, the training ground car park was ‘patrolled’ by a fella called Norman (If I remember rightly) and he had a strict policy of ‘do not enter’ (Bellefield, not him) as you’d expect. But rather than attempting to wander in to Bellefield unnoticed, our main focus was seeing the players enter or depart Bellefield, hanging around at the corner where the passage way met Sandforth, and nine times out of ten they would stop and pose for photos, give us autographs and have a bit of a conversation. Because of the narrowness of the entrance to Bellefield they probably had no choice but to stop and speak to the fans otherwise half of us would have ended up on their car bonnets anyway! A far cry from our new facility at Finch Farm, one could say. There was no blacked-out, speeding Range Rovers down country lanes and through barriers to enter Bellefield, it was just a case of cars pulling in down a narrow road into a narrow passage way which lead to the car park in front of the training facility. Fans sat on the walls either side and houses were adjoined to the entrance overlooking where we stood on countless occasions, it was all very tight and close, and probably scared the life out of our overseas players back in those days.
Over the next couple of years (before I got too old and too cool to want autographs) I managed to meet many Everton players of that era and still to this day have numerous autograph books, signed pictures and programmes, leaflets and scraps of paper taken from school, and photo albums of my leaning in to an Everton player’s car – even if I had already had a picture with him many a time before! I think I got Danny Cadamateri’s autograph about 100 times, I mean, Danny Cadamateri, what was wrong with me?! Over the course of dozens of dinner times I met a long list of Everton stars similar to Cadamateri, including some glittering names such as Tomasz Radzinski, Gary Naysmith and Abel Xavier. Just kidding, they are obviously not stars but at that time they were who I idolised, who I aspired to be and who I cheered on every fortnight at Goodison Park. Thankfully I met a varied selection of Everton players, staff and former players/managers whilst biding my time outside Bellefield, and there are a couple of memories which stand out for different reasons.
First up was Thomas Gravesen – an absolute loon every time I met him – he surprised on-looking fans outside Bellefield, and his fellow players inside the training ground too by pulling up in Nissan Micra one day. For all of the fancy motors that Premier League footballers drive and some of the high-end cars parked in the car park at Bellefield, Gravesen pulls up in a tiny, green Micra with a beaming smile on his face, much to our amusement. What made it even funnier? Tomasz Radzinski was in the passenger seat, looking rather bemused about the situation. Then there was Cadamateri and his dread locks. Cadamateri always had a smile on his face, he played the part of joker and lived up to it. He used to pull up in a silver Porsche, and to blatantly get on everyone’s nerves he parked it in the entrance to Bellefield on one particular afternoon, then proceed to go training and leave it there, much to the annoyance of Norman and everyone else. Cadamateri was one player who always spent time talking to the fans, laughing and joking and signing autographs, he always had a smile on his face unlike some. Our Scottish players such as David Weir and Scot Gemmill, all had a serious, professional nature about them, as did Walter Smith the at-the-time gaffer. They were either just shy or terrified of the Scouse mob that greeted them every time they went to training! Another memory of my time down at Bellefield was getting a lift back to school off Alex Nyarko – yes that is a true sentence. The much maligned midfielder was at the training ground and a few of our fans had been asking certain players to drop them off back up Sandforth Road, so one day me and Rochey blagged it that we would be late for school, asked for his autograph and said ‘will yer gizza lift Alex’. To our surprise, he understood our thick Scouse, teenage accents and then allowed us to jump in his 4×4 and travel with him up the long road that led back to school. Cheeky buggers wasn’t we?! My memory of that trip was the awkward silence between the three of us, and Nyarko’s funky music playing in the background, before being dropped on Queens Drive laughing our heads off. ‘Just got a lift off Nyarko’ was obviously our first words when we got back to school, but nobody was that arsed, coz he wasn’t exactly blessed as a footballer was he!! If you think about that happening now there would be an outrage if a Premier League footballer took two kids to school in his car, it just doesn’t sound right does it! I remember the following week being back down at Bellefield and Super Kevin Campbell pulled out of the training ground, to a chorus of ‘gizza lift Kev’ – from other fans, not me – to which Campbell answered ‘no more lifts, no more bloody lifts’ and drove off at speed! Obviously Nyarko wasn’t the only one being harassed by us young Evertonians!
Around that era, the likes of Michael Ball and Wayne Rooney were the fresh-faced youngsters around the first team, as was Leon Osman, Tony Hibbert and a left winger called Kevin McLeod (remember him?). Over the course of the seasons between 2000 and 2003 we had some real defensive ‘masters’ at Everton; the likes of Cleland, Peter Clarke, Alessandro Pistone and Paul Gerrard between the sticks – it’s enough to make you shudder! However real leaders like Stubbs and Weir began to be the mainstay of our defence during those times and Unsworth was another familiar face around Bellefield of that era. Abel Xavier, Niclas Alexandersson, Mark Pembridge and Li Tie are a few more classic examples of our quality back then! To be fair we might shake our heads at some of these names but at the time they were the players who I was fascinated with, growing up as a young Evertonian and following the Club with a passion. Thankfully I got to meet my hero Duncan a few times on my dinner time trips, and some other big names also stand out in the memory. Daniel Amokachi came back to visit the Club and when he pulled up it was great to meet him, as it was when Joe Royle passed through on the odd occasion. it was also an experience to see other big names like David Ginola and Mark Hughes in and around Bellefield, it felt quite surreal seeing them in Everton training gear. We went through a phase of signing this type of player under Walter Smith, the type of player who had been brilliant in their prime but was ageing fast. Everton offered them a lifeline. We had a wealth of experience within the ranks – Dave Watson and Richard Gough had recently departed, but we kept a core of old timers (Steve Watson, Kevin Campbell, Lee Carsley to name a few) and had a blend of youngsters coming through too. Joseph Yobo was a big-money signing after spending time with us on loan so he was another player I met on numerous occasions. It is just a damn shame that we could not keep hold of our home-grown youngsters, the likes of Franny Jeffers, Michael Ball and eventually Wayne Rooney. Others like Barmby left us too, and it seemed like as soon as we had a bit of quality back then, it was taken away. Maybe that theme has continued to present day you could say?
One final memory of Bellefield was the time me and Rochey managed to walk in to the car park unnoticed one afternoon. For some reason – I can’t remember why – the access route was unmanned and things seemed really quiet down at the training ground, so we took our chance. It was all so quiet, the only time we had actually gone in to the training ground it appeared our luck would be out and there was hardly any players around, that was until we spotted a figure sitting in a Mercedes Estate. That figure was Paul Gascoigne, sitting in the driver seat with his tracky top undone, chest on show, talking on his phone with not a care in the World. We waited patiently, then when he finished his call I took out my A4 pad and asked him to sign it to about six different people. He seemed surprised that two random kids had managed to get to him within the grounds but he happily signed our stuff, and then jokingly told me to calm down when I said he’s spelt me Dad’s name wrong on one of the pages! It was only another Everton player you might think, but Gazza is and will always be such a big name in football that was the most star struck I’ve ever been, it’s a great memory that I have of Bellefield and well worth the risk of being chased out that day. To think what has happened to Gazza since is quite sad, because on that day when I met him he was such a bubbly, full-of-life fella who looked really well, enjoying the end of his footballing career at Everton FC. The irony is, it was probably the end of his footballing career that has led to the problems he has faced since retiring.
As Walter Smith’s tenure ended at Everton and David Moyes took the Goodison helm, I began to discover the finer delights of life (girls, skin heads, Lacoste trackys and cans of Skol behind a skip, oh the joys) as I grew up and my dinner time jaunts did come to an end. I was hardly going to impress the girls with an autograph book was I? Moyes took charge in 2002 and Everton moved their training facility from Bellefield to Finch Farm five years later in 2007, after over 50 years occupying the Bellefield site. Everton’s former training ground was famously used by Brazil in 1966 because of the facilities available but now the old site in West Derby belongs to Bellway Homes where there are houses for sale at the reasonable price of £300k – I can’t see myself moving down there anytime soon! Finch Farm is now on another level to Bellefield, and our 55-acre site in Halewood is a futuristic base that modern-day Premier League players are used to. It boasts some of the best training facilities in the World and cost over £14 million to construct a decade ago.
But it will always be Everton’s former training ground that brings back memories for me, it was a place where meeting my idols became an everyday occurrence, and a place which I will always look back fondly of even though the football at that time was dire and we had some shocking players at the Club! So if I had one message to the football stars of the modern-day, fast flowing, money-churning Premier League era, it would be to stop, spend a few minutes, smile, pose for photos, and sign countless autographs for supporters, young or old, because people do remember that, and fans do appreciate it. We all live busy lifestyles and often don’t find time to make time for others, but it is obvious from my memories above that those small doses of stardom I experienced during my younger days will stick with me forever, and it was all down to my time spent on the walls of Bellefield Training Ground, near the bottom of Sandforth Road.