Cables Greats: Albert Jelly

When I was a small boy, growing up in Queens Road, Prescot, my father George took me every few weeks to have my hair cut by Bert Williams of St Helens Road, a barber’s shop happily still in business. My only wish was that Mr Williams didn’t cut it so short that my classmates made fun of me and pulled what hair I had left at school the next day. At various times teenage boys no doubt hoped that Bert Williams could endow them with Presley pompadours, Beatles mop tops or Travolta ducktails. But back in the late 1940s and early 1950s many Prescot boys asked Mr Williams for a ‘Bert Jelly’, a severe short-back-and-sides (looking like it was designed around a pudding basin) crowned by a centre parting of mathematical precision. It was inspired by Prescot’s now-legendary, rock-like centre-half Albert Jelly.

Albert Reginald Jelly (‘Bert’ to some and ‘Reg’ to others) was born in Guildford, Surrey on 5 November 1916, the son of Percy Jelly and his wife Mary Muir. Percy and Mary had been married in Guildford in 1907 and went on to have a daughter called Ethel (born 1919) and another son, Frederick (1927). As a 14-year-old schoolboy Bert played football for Surrey and later for local teams Ripley Wednesday and Guildford City. The war came when Jelly was twenty-three. He served in the army and played football for his regiment, squadron, base and command teams. Away from football Bert served with distinction at Dunkirk and was wounded taking part in the D-Day landings. It was while convalescing from this that he met his future wife Margaret Concannon. He ended the war stationed in the Newton-le-Willows area and settled in Earlestown. After a brief spell playing for Newton YMCA, he signed forms as a full-time professional for Liverpool on 11 September 1946, joining a team destined to win the League Division One Championship at the end of the same season. Competing against established defenders like Bob Paisley, Phil Taylor, Ray Lambert and, in particular, centre-half Laurie Hughes (his junior by eight years), Jelly made no appearances in the first team and only a handful of other reserve matches have so far come to light: Burnley away (28 December 1946), Derby County at home (29 March 1947), Aston Villa away (5 April 1947), West Bromwich Albion away (24 May 1947) and Sheffield Wednesday away (31 May 1947). In unpublished notes for his book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street Neville Walker asserts that Bert appeared many times for Liverpool’s ‘A’ team. Records are sketchy but one match he certainly played in was reported by Bert Taylor in the Prescot and Huyton Reporter and records ‘Jelly’ playing number five for Liverpool ‘A’ against Prescot BI. Bert Jelly’s registration with Liverpool lapsed on 14 June 1947. Since Liverpool ‘A’ played their home matches at Hope Street at this time, the Prescot Cables management wasted no time in persuading the imposing centre-half (just under six feet tall and 12 stone 6 pounds in weight) to join the host club. He signed for Cables in August, adding his considerable but largely untapped skills to a team captained by Bill Rainford with Harry Nickson (later Alf Hobson) in goal and the likes of Sandy Lyon, Jim Veacroft, Tommy McMahon and the young Harry Boydell in its ranks.

Saturday, 27 November 1947 was an eventful day for the 31-year-old defender. In the morning Bert married his fiancée Margaret and in the afternoon played for Cables in their match against Southport Reserves.  Bert and Margaret had a daughter called Mary Denise, born 1949. His first season at Hope Street ended in triumph with the team winning the Lancashire Combination Cup Final away at Lancaster on 30 April 1948. The trip to Lancaster was almost as eventful as the match itself. Event 1: Jelly went missing! With Bert not turning up to board the team coach at Hope Street, club officials Rogers and Parkin set off (presumably by car) to find and collect the wandering centre-half while the bus started on its journey north. ‘Perhaps he’s waiting for us at Wigan Station,’ someone suggested. He was. Event 2: the coach broke down causing a delayed kick-off. Event 3: when passengers on the bus alighted to relieve themselves in a Lancashire field an abandoned horseshoe was discovered nearby. This was too good a lucky omen to resist. The horseshoe was dusted down, taken as a talisman to the match and eventually mounted above the door in the Hope Street director’s room. It perished when the building burned down some years later.

Bert Jelly’s wedding day was also marked by temporary captaincy, Bill Rainford stepping aside for the Southport Reserves match in his honour. It was a sign of things to come, with Jelly appointed permanent captain following Rainford’s departure for Chorley in April 1949. Apart from one short spell, it was a position he kept until his benefit match in April 1953. Not that his relationship with the club was always as smooth as his slicked-back hair. During the first few weeks of the 1950-51 season Jelly and his Newton-based team-mate Bobbie Middleham absconded to Northwich Victoria, leaving Larry Coen and Harry Topping to share the Cables’ captaincy; and at one point there were rumours that Jelly was unhappy with living conditions in Lancashire and ‘was about to terminate his connection with the club and return to his native Guildford’. Bert Taylor’s Friday Reporter round-up does not record what backroom deals may have been done between club officials and their charismatic captain, but the rumour was quickly denied. Jelly was happy, Taylor assured his readers. So to everyone’s relief, especially his many devoted fans, Jelly stayed in his house in Earlestown, returned from Northwich, and resumed his position as club captain.

The dates of these minor skirmishes with the Cables’ management are a little sketchy, but Bert Jelly was certainly back at the heart of Cables’ defence for most of the 1950-51 season. It witnessed Bert’s worst football moment, scoring an own goal away at Nelson on Saturday, 12 May 1951 that ensured Cables’ relegation, for the first time in its history, to the Lancashire Combination Division Two. The ensuing season, on the other hand, was a double triumph with Cables winning the Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup, with a 4-3 victory against Skelmersdale United in front of 5,000 spectators at Haig Avenue, Southport, and finishing top of Division Two and returning to the top flight. The team played a total of 56 matches during the season and Jelly, Harry Grisedale and goalkeeper Frank Garton appeared in every one of them. Many supporters who remember this time reckon that the team’s success was built on the merits of these three players: on the sure judgement of Garton, the individual flair and versatility of Grisedale and the iron solidity (he was known as ‘Granite Bonce’ and ‘The War Horse’) of Jelly. The season also saw Jelly, a player who, according to Neville Walker, rarely ventured into the opposition’s half but was a rock in defence, appearing on the score sheet with eight goals mostly from the penalty spot.

Bert was also known as ‘The Tank’, a nickname which no doubt inspired the following quip from the match programme for 22 September 1952: ‘There is no truth in the rumour that the army employed Albert to throw himself at moving Churchill tanks as a test for their armour. That’s quite wrong – they were Centurions!’ Not that Jelly lacked a sense of humour. His favourite trick, when under pressure, was to lock the ball between his feet and perform a forward roll, a unique accomplishment he performed on many occasions. ‘Referees never knew quite how to cope with this behaviour, the resulting decision almost always being a dropped ball’ (Walker).

Bert Jelly led Cables to another Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup triumph at the end of the 1952-53 season with a 2-1 win against Bootle at Anfield. He finished the term with a rare injury. Jelly had clearly intended to hang up his boots at the end of the season, and a benefit match in his honour took place at Hope Street on 27 April 1953. It included an All Stars XI graced by Ted Sagar, Eric Moore and Jimmy Harris, all of Everton. Unfortunately, Bert was unable to play. Not that the injury or benefit match heralded the complete end of his career at Prescot. He was still playing, aged 38, nearly a year later in a match on 20 March 1954. He made a total of 380 appearances for the club. His place as captain may have been taken over by Alex J. Muir, and his unmistakeable hairstyle may have lost its vogue, but Bert Jelly was not forgotten. When Bill Maddison assumed the centre-half position in 1959 he was heralded as ‘the second Albert Jelly’. After retiring from the game he worked as a plumber for Newton Urban and St Helens Metropolitan councils. Sadly, Jelly contracted Alzheimer’s disease later in life. He was admitted to St Helens Hospital where his wife Margaret and daughter Mary Denise were in constant attendance until the end. He died in May 2005 aged 88.

The programme that accompanied his benefit match in April 1953 summed up the man and his influence on a generation of Prescot Cables players and supporters:

Just as surely as our ancients speak today of Roscoe, Whalley and Tarrant … my generation will recall this time as ‘Jelly’s time’.

A great compliment to a great man.

I am indebted to Neville Walker for passing on unpublished notes for his book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street, Jonny Stokkeland for information from his Liverpool FC archive and Mrs Jan Byers for her research into Albert Jelly’s family background.

Glyn Williams