|The Man Who Loved Limericks|
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Monday, 18th Feb 2019 17:31
There once was a gent called Mister John
Just before he died tragically young, aged just 56 in 1983, John Cobbold committed a few thoughts and memories to tape. It was supposed to be the catalyst for his autobiography. But fate took over and he passed away before the task had even begun.
It was to be 25 long years before Mel Henderson took those tapes, sought out some anecdotes from those who knew John Cobbold best and cobbled together his extraordinary book, Mr John: John Cobbold - The Most Eccentric Man in Football Ever.
It’s not much of a book. Quite short and disjointed, really. It reads exactly like what it probably was. A man talking into a tape recorder, alone with his whisky and his dog, filtering through a lifetime of extraordinary memories, smiling to himself as he recalled a life lived to the full and knowing that the end was nigh.
I’m sure there was much left out for reasons of tact, or maybe he simply never got around to telling them. But the book and the warmth of the tributes within provides so much more than a truly exceptional and inspiring read. It makes you realise just what Ipswich Town lost when Mr John died. He wasn’t just the life and soul of the party – he was the life and soul of the club.
The book itself is rather scarce. I hope one day somebody reprints it and sends one out to every season ticket holder and member to remind them of the chasm that exists between what the club once was and what it is now.
For John Cobbold was so much more than a chairman. Simply stated, John Cobbold was Ipswich Town Football Club. His extraordinary personality defined and drove the club. Almost certainly, he alone was the catalyst for the tremendous success the club achieved under his tenure and care. Not that he would have thought so, nor would he have sought to take any credit.
The forward is penned by Allan Hunter. ‘Big Al’ was the pivotal signing that helped transform Town from relegation strugglers into a force at home and across Europe. When Allan Hunter said his goodbyes at Blackburn, the chairman told him he knew nothing of the club he was going to – but he was going to a hell of a chairman.
On arrival in the club car park, Hunter and his wife’s first taste of Portman Road was the sight of John Cobbold, standing up in his Rover, head out of the sun roof, pretending to shoot at Hunter’s young son with a pretend rifle, before leaping out to introduce himself to the whole family and welcome them personally to the club. unter had discovered a character perhaps even bigger than his own. He described him as by far the nicest man he had ever met twice in the same forward.
There are far too many anecdotes in the book to repeat, but one I particularly like is from the boardroom at Old Trafford, when Mr John was being regaled by the odious Louis Edwards, the somewhat overbearing United chairman of the day. Edwards, was proudly showing off his personalised Champagne during the half-time drinks. Cobbold, who didn’t suffer fools gladly said ‘Don’t be such a c**t Louis – we’ve got our name on millions of bottles”.
It was clear that everybody at the club loved Mr John. He would love telling jokes and anecdotes. Often on long coach journeys he would hold limerick competitions among the players. Every limerick had to include a football club in the rhyme. Imagine our somewhat distant and largely invisible current figurehead doing that! Alan Hunter, who shared a comedic touch as well as a birthday with Mr John, was usually the winner. I wonder what rhymes with City?
Simple fun perhaps, but not one usually associated with footballers and club chairmen. Cobbold cultivated his posh, public school persona, often wearing tweeds and turning up at the ground with his Labradors. But he was approachable, affable and got on with absolutely everyone. Above all he was very diligent in his duties. He had no office and no desk – but took a deep interest in every aspect of the club. He was very much hands on but also very much hands off. He backed people 100 per cent to do their job – but was always available for advice if asked.
He understood that the very idea of a club is that it is a club. A club that everyone ultimately belongs to. He created the Town’s relaxed ambience and personality that was reflected in the boardroom, the changing room, on the pitch and on the terraces. It was John Cobbold’s way that became The Ipswich Way as Ipswich Town overachieved to such a startling and extraordinary degree.
I think his impact on people and the club is admirably explained in this moving tribute from Paul Mariner. Like Hunter, before him, Mariner’s abiding memory is the selfless welcome he and his wife Ali received to the club. Seven years later he was to speak touchingly on behalf of the players at John Cobbold’s funeral.
"What I most admired about him was the way he had time for everyone at the club and in terms of the playing staff he made an effort to go and see the reserve and youth fixtures, instead of completely focusing his attention on the first team lads as I know is the case at other clubs.
"I know how much this meant to the younger players who subsequently joined the first team squad and Mr John’s terrific example created the happy atmosphere that prevails throughout Portman Road…. On behalf of everyone on the playing staff, I want to express my deepest sympathies to the members of Mr John’s family. I know they will understand when I say we all considered ourselves to be his second family.’"
And there I think you have it in a nutshell. The ultimate definition of Ipswich Town - the family club.
As Town fans nowadays come to terms with abject displays from here today, gone tomorrow players and anonymous ownership of dubious provenance, it is staggering to remember that John Cobbold inspired everyone to achieve extraordinary things just by being his extraordinary self.
It’s no exaggeration to say that a big part of the club died with John Cobbold. The man had more than a truly unique style after all. He had presence. So not surprisingly perhaps an even bigger part of the club died when his legacy was tossed away to an invisible offshore owner.
Some of the best Mr John anecdotes come from outside football. Mr John liked to mingle with the jet set at St Moritz in the late 50s. Needless to say his forte was apres-ski, rather than skiing itself. A friend persuaded him that the Cresta Run on a skeleton toboggan was an excellent hangover cure. He took to it like a drunken duck to water.
The most notorious bend on the Cresta Run is apparently called Shuttlecock. Fall off here and you qualify for a shuttlecock tie. Cobbold fell off so many times he was elected president of The Shuttlecock Club. One fall left him with a badly broken jaw and in need of 30 facial stitches. His face was reconstructed by a doctor called Herr Butcher.
Another St Moritz story perhaps defines his effortless charisma best of all. Mr John was not, shall we say, a ladies' man. But his easy-going charm meant he could get on with anyone. On one walk back up the Cresta Run he noticed a startlingly attractive girl watching proceedings and struck up a conversation with her. Within minutes she had agreed to have lunch and go skiing with him.
Later that evening they went to the cinema, where somewhat embarrassingly, the film was Rear Window. For Mr John’s new chum was none other than the film’s star, probably the most famous and glamorous woman in the world at the time. Grace Kelly.
What a man. It’s such a shame that supporters today can walk past statues of Robson and Ramsey, and soon Kevin Beattie – while the true architect of Town’s legacy, the man who inspired all three of them, is not there beside them in tweed, Labrador by his side and bottle of white wine in hand.
It’s now over 30 years since his passing and the club is in awful decline on and off the pitch. Yet perhaps now, as we look ahead and hope for better times, it’s more important than ever to remember him and what the club used to stand for.
In time even Marcus Evans might think John Cobbold’s values are something to embrace – and treasure. In his own invisible way Marcus Evans is somewhat eccentric after all. He seems, after eleven years, to want to connect with supporters. It may be simple necessity as relegation looms large, but maybe, just maybe he believes it is not too late to reboot the way he’s been running the club.
I’m not so sure. But IF Evans is going to try and resurrect the club he could do worse than start by borrowing my copy of Mr John – and try his hand at limericks
There once was a toff called Mr John
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