Cables Greats: John Bennison

When I visited the area, known as the ‘Welsh Streets’ because it was built in the 1880s for artisans from Wales, the houses were empty and boarded-up, as if awaiting demolition. This particular corner of Liverpool 8, designated the Princes Park Regeneration Zone, is, indeed, due for re-development, but even on an overcast Sunday afternoon in mid-October 2013, it wasn’t hard to imagine Kinmel Street, Madryn Street and Powis Street in their heyday filled with working-class families, mothers hanging out washing in small backyards, fathers returning from work in nearby dockyards and children playing in streets undisturbed by traffic. Extending the idea, I imagined two little boys playing close to their grandmother’s house on Powis Street in the 1930s: Johnnie and his cousin Len. In the first summer of the war, July 1940, a couple living round the corner in Madryn Street gave birth to a baby boy. As the years unfolded, all three boys made their mark on the world: the baby born in the next street as Ringo Starr, Len as the actor Leonard Rossiter and Johnnie as John Bennison, an outstanding non-league footballer, a gifted coach and later an esteemed member of the legendary Anfield Boot Room. His journey from the back streets of Toxteth to Liverpool’s first European Cup win in Rome in 1977 included spells as a player with South Liverpool, Earle, Flint Town United and Prescot Cables.

John Bennison was born above his parents’ off-licence at 48 North Hill Street on 25 May 1927. His parents were George Bennison and Margaret nee Rossiter. She was one of eleven children that included Jack Rossiter, the father of Leonard. John attended school at nearby St Silas’s. The church and original school buildings are long gone, the latter replaced by the much fortified building of St Silas CE Primary School on High Park Street. St Silas’s Under-12s was Bennison’s first team. Liverpool Schoolboys promised to be his second before World War Two broke out in September 1939 – a little over three months after his twelfth birthday. Little is known about John’s war-time experiences. He left school aged fourteen in 1941 and possibly started work at the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. By the time he was eighteen in May 1945 the war in Europe was over. A successful trial for Liverpool FC led to his signing amateur forms, but as with his trial for Liverpool Schoolboys six years earlier, events beyond his control conspired against him. He was called up for National Service, spending most of his time with the Military Police in Palestine.

At some point after returning to civilian life in 1948, John took a job with Manweb. On the football front he signed for South Liverpool, staying there for the ensuing three seasons. Harry Boydell recalls playing alongside Bennison at Holly Park and his familiar mantra: ‘square ball, Harry, square ball!’ Off the field, John no doubt attended a number of South Liverpool social functions, among them the 1950 Directors’ Christmas Dinner. Together with ex- and future-Cables wing-halves Fred Finney and Alec Muir, he added his signature to the menu card (reprinted on the South Liverpool website). He signed a much more important document in the summer of 1951 when, at the age of twenty-three, he agreed to join Prescot Cables ‘as part of the plan to re-vitalise the club’s fortunes following their first-ever relegation to Division 2 of the Lancashire Combination’ (Neville Walker, unpublished notes for his book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street). 5 feet 8 inches tall, 10 stone 10 pounds in weight, slim of build and dark in colouring, he soon struck up a successful attacking right-side partnership with fellow new boy Jack Bradbury. A partnership of a different kind was formalised on 1 September 1951 when John married Audrey Alexandra McDonald at St Silas’s Church, Toxteth. They went on to have a daughter Ruth, a son Colin, grandchildren Natalie and Adele and, so far, a great-granddaughter Georgia.

Back in the early 1950s, the young John Bennison was proving a valuable new asset to Cables’ squad. Despite a ten-week layoff due to a broken leg sustained on Boxing Day 1951, he ended the season with fourteen goals, his reputation greatly enhanced and his team with the Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup and the Lancashire Combination Division 2 Championship. Cables were back in the top flight. Bennison was ‘more of a schemer than a scorer’ (Walker) with skills compared to that of a ballet dancer by Bert Taylor of the Prescot and Huyton Reporter. An example of his popularity with the Hope Street crowd can be seen in the collection made on his behalf at a home match on 12 January 1952 following his broken leg. Matched against the easier opposition of Division 2, Cables enjoyed some heavy victories during Bennison’s first season: 10-0 against Morecambe, 9-0 against both Atherton Collieries and Padiham, 8-0 at Darwen and 7-2 at Lomax. The ensuing 1952-53 season was also a high point in Bennison’s career and Cables’ fortunes, the team ending runners-up in the Lancashire Combination Division 1 and, once again, winners of the Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup. It must have been a great pleasure to watch Cables at the time, with Garton in goal, Jelly at centre-half, Bennison performing ‘balletic’ tricks on the right and Harry Grisedale excelling at left-back. Grisedale later described Bennison as one of the best players he’d played with. His time at Cables ended in the summer of 1953 when Bennison moved to Flint Town United. He took his golden touch with him, Flint ending the season as winners of the Welsh Cup. For Bennison, this made four trophies in three seasons.

By the late 1960s John had served as player-manager of Earle and manager of South Liverpool. He was in his early forties. He could have looked back with pride at a series of jobs well done and rested on his laurels. But the best was yet to come. In 1970 his old friend from the Liverpool Coaches Association Tom Saunders offered him a part-time job as Assistant Youth Development Officer at Liverpool FC. John worked for Manweb by day but spent his evenings and weekends coaching Liverpool’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams. ‘Scouting for young talent was a key role of mine’ (liverpoolfc.com). When manager Bill Shankly made way for Bob Paisley in 1974 John was taken on full-time. By this stage he’d already become a vital part of the legendary Anfield Boot Room, working alongside Joe Fagan, Reuben Bennet, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans. ‘It’s amazing how so much intrigue and mystique surrounds what was basically an old broom cupboard,’ he later wrote (www.lfcbootroom.com).

To look at, it was nothing special. It measured about eight feet square and there was nothing remarkable about it apart from the people who used it. Inside, there was a table and a cupboard, some old photographs on the wall, a rack where the boots would hang and a few crates to sit on … The likes of myself, Joe, Ronnie and Roy  would be in there every day as part of our daily routine. It was our office … and the place where we’d meet to discuss every aspect of life at the club … After a match the visiting manager and his assistant would often be invited in for a drink. From the conversations that went on in there we’d glean all manner of useful information that invariably helped the team in its quest for success.

It was a place where guests more than Liverpool’s own players and management were welcomed. During his time as chairman of Watford, and following a heavy defeat against Liverpool at Anfield, Elton John rejoiced at his opportunity to visit the Boot Room and chat to the boys. Mark Lawrenson recalls the room as a  player:

I’d knock and hear ‘Come in’ and they’d just stop talking. They’d look at you as if to say, ‘What on earth are you going to say?’ I’d ask, ‘Can I get picked up at such and such place’ and it would be, ‘Fine, on your way.’

During the Fagan, Dalglish and Souness eras John Bennison’s work at Melwood focused on coaching the reserves: with Chris Lawler under Fagan, Phil Thompson under Dalglish, and Sammy Lee (a player Bennison had discovered and taken to Anfield aged seventeen in 1976) under Souness. Lee refers to his mentor as ‘very astute’, Steve Staunton to Bennison as ‘well respected [and] tough on the young lads he wanted to test mentally.’ As at every club, many young players didn’t make the grade. In the case of John Aldridge, the grade was made but a little later than scheduled. During his early part-time days at Liverpool, John Bennison called at the Aldridge house to read the electricity meter. As Kenny Dalglish relates in My Liverpool Home, Mrs Aldridge told the man from Manweb about her talented son and Bennison invited him for a trial. Aldridge’s trial team lost 8-1, his contribution forgotten. When he signed for Liverpool from Oxford United thirteen years later it cost Liverpool £750,000. They could have had him for nothing!

Bennison retired from Liverpool FC, after twenty-three years of sterling service, aged 66, in 1993. He is now in his mid-eighties and not in the best of health. His daughter Ruth describes him as ‘a likeable character, a family man, very easy going and fun.’ Considering John’s lifelong devotion to the development of young football talent, it is totally fitting that the site of his birthplace, at 48 North Hill Street, should now be occupied by the Admiral Park Schools’ Sports Ground. It is used by a number of local schools, including St Silas’s.

I’m sure everyone at Prescot Cables wishes John good health and happiness.

I am indebted to John Bennison’s daughter Ruth Sinclair for passing on valuable information and to Neville Walker for allowing access to unpublished notes for his book ‘From Slacky Brow to Hope Street’.

Glyn Williams