Cables Greats: Sandy Lyon

Compared with their full-time counterparts in the Football League, the part-timers of non-league football probably face fewer problems when they hang up their boots. Some will stay on as managers and coaches, of course, but most will spend the rest of their working lives outside the game. With the players I have written about so far, it was nearly always a case of continuing the same work they were doing while playing. Harry Boydell, for instance, carried on as a qualified painter and decorator, Fred Finney as a businessman, Bert Jelly as a plumber, Frank Garton as a joiner and Bill Rainford, Harry Grisedale and Jack Roscoe with their jobs in local industry. Cables’ stylish inside-forward of pre- and post-war years, Sandy Lyon, also continued his work – mostly as a surveyor with various local authorities. But very few footballers at any level end up as Mayor of their town and a Justice of the Peace. He was a remarkable man.

Sandyland (‘Sandy’) Lyon was the fourteenth and last child of coal-hewer William Lyon (1873-1960) and his wife Marjory nee Platt (1875-1959). William and Marjory were married in Whiston on 22 July 1896 and over the ensuing twenty-three years gave life to the following children: William (born 1897), Ruth (1898), James (1899), Margaret (1901), John (1902), Hannah (1905), Marjory (1906), Elizabeth (1907), Edward (1908), Joseph (1910), Mary I (born September 1911, died aged 17 months February 1913), Mary II (known as ‘Polly’ – born 1913), Esther (1917) and Sandyland (born 22 October 1919). At the time of the 1911 Census William and Marjory were living at ‘Whiston Lane Ends’ (the area close to Whiston Cross) with their first ten children and William’s elder brothers John, a bricklayer (born c1863), and James (‘Jem’), another coal-hewer (born c1865). According to Sandy’s niece Barbara Hotchkiss, the actual house stood close to the T-junction of what was then Tarbock Road (later Windy Arbor Road) and Dragon Lane-Greens Road. Later occupied by a Co-operative store, the site is now the home of the China Star Restaurant.

This part of Whiston, forming an irregular square with Greenes Road at the top, O’Casey’s (now Willis) Lane at the bottom, Tarbock (Windy Arbor) Road on the right, Paradise Lane on the left and Jubilee Drive in the middle, was very much the Lyon family’s stamping ground. The family later moved to Jubilee Drive, with Sandy’s brother James and his wife Mary living in Paradise Lane. Whiston Village School was positioned in Greenes Road and, even more importantly, the Lickers Lane sports field, now the home of Whiston Juniors FC, was and still is at the bottom right corner. Football was a consuming passion in the Lyon household. Sandy’s father Bill was known as ‘Lick Lyon’ because he would tell his team that its objective was not just to beat the opposition but to ‘lick ’em!’ As a young man he played for Whiston Ramblers. As Neville Walker remarks in unpublished notes for his book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street, Sandy was ‘one of five brothers who all played football’, the others being Young Bill (‘inside left for the old Whiston club’), James, Johnny and Ted. In addition, several of Sandy’s nephews became footballers, including Jackie (of whom more later) and his sister Maggie’s boy Billy Rogers, who played with Sandy for Cables after the war. A third nephew is Harry Warburton (son of Sandy’s sister Polly) who has run Whiston Juniors for 54 years and made good use of the Lickers Lane sports field for the likes of Steven Gerrard and countless more youngsters. With Sandy twenty-two years younger than Jackie’s father James and just four years and four months older than Jackie, the two boys trained together at Lickers Lane under the supervision of Sandy’s father Bill and uncle Jem. ‘A rigorous regime’, according to Barbara Hotchkiss. ‘Left foot only today, boys,’ Bill would announce. It worked, both Sandy and Jackie spending their playing careers at inside-left. Meanwhile Uncle Jem was close-by pacing out a hundred yards and timing the boys’ dash from a standing start. No wonder Jackie was a Lancashire County junior athletics champion. When the weather was bad, training and even matches would be played in a special unfurnished downstairs room inside the Tarbock Road house where the stone floor was marked out for football.

Like his brothers and sisters, Sandy attended the Whiston Village School (now a nursery) just a few yards from the family house. At the age of ten he won a scholarship to Prescot Grammar School. ‘You’re going down the pit like the other lads’, his father announced. Luckily a sister was on hand, as Sandy’s elder daughter Sandra Provan explains:

My dad’s sister Hannah, who didn’t marry until she was thirty and was still living at home, said she would buy his uniforms, a bike to get to school, and when he was fourteen she would chip up to her parents what he would have earned ‘down the pit’.

Sandy was an outstanding athlete at the school. Like Bill Rainford and Fred Finney a year or two later, he won the Victor Minorum (most outstanding junior athlete) and in 1935 the school tennis championship, his grandson Iain Provan now the proud keeper of his medal.

On leaving school in the mid-1930s, Sandy was articled to Whiston Borough Surveyor William Gabbot. By this time he was playing football for Whiston in the Liverpool County Combination and, according to Walker’s unpublished notes, ‘chosen for the Rest of the League when he was only sixteen’. In Slacky Brow, Walker adds that Sandy ‘joined Cables at the age of 17 in 1937-38 as an outside left.’ Little has turned up about Sandy’s first two seasons at Hope Street. Away from work and football, and with war looming, he enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1938. Sandra told me that within an hour or two of Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast declaring war on Germany on Sunday morning, 3 September 1939, Sandy was standing on guard outside the Drill Hall in Aspinall Street, Prescot, ‘with a broomstick because they didn’t have any rifles!’ By early 1940 Sandy had joined the Royal Corps of Signals based at Catterick and the broomstick had been replaced by a real rifle. At some point in the war Sandy enjoyed the tuition of a celebrity crack-shot instructor: the actor David Niven. It is tempting to speculate if Sandy was present when Niven tried to downplay the dangers of war to his comrades. ‘Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I’ll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Erroll Flynn!’ But there was nothing whimsical about Sandy’s trial by fire in 1940 when he took part in the British Expeditionary Force’s attempts to recapture Norway following the German invasion of 9 April. Two main taskforces were despatched to Norway: a mostly British outfit aiming for Trondheim and one comprising British, French and Polish troops heading further north to Narvik. The Trondheim force, embarking on 17 April and evacuated just sixteen days later on 3 May, failed miserably. It led to an emergency debate in the House of Commons, the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill’s formation of a coalition government. Sandy belonged to the 4th Independent Division of the Narvik Taskforce. Together with a comrade from West Derby called Bill Fairclough, he was a signalman in charge of a field wireless set. It had a range of twenty miles and was operated by two men, one carrying the set itself, his partner the battery. The Narvik taskforce, led by Norwegian troops, took the town on 13 May 1940 but to no avail. Three days earlier Germany had invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France and the emphasis of Churchill’s new government suddenly switched to western Europe. The decision to evacuate Narvik was made by 28 May, leaving troops to get to a Royal Navy vessel as best they could. Sandy and Bill’s story is taken up by Bill’s son Derek Fairclough:

At one point they met a group of twelve Allied soldiers who had decided to head for the Swedish border, and though this was against orders … it was reasonably close by and Sweden was neutral.… Sandy and Bill, however, kept to their orders and headed back to Narvik. After the war Sandy bumped into one of these men … in Liverpool, who informed [him] that they came across a German Unit and he was the only survivor. He spent the remainder of the War as a POW. [A few days later] they were in sight of the boat (HMS Southampton, I guess) and under mortar fire. [In the company of another man,] they ran down the hill to the port, … a mortar exploded next to the other man, taking his hand off and bursting Sandy’s eardrum.… They got back to the ship and were evacuated…. As a result of the ear damage, Sandy was never A1 fit again and … spent the rest of the War serving in the UK.

Sandy was a lucky man: HMS Southampton was the last vessel to leave Narvik. Commenting on his own whirlwind marriage at roughly the same time, David Niven wrote that ‘war is a great accelerator of events’. After his lucky escape from Norway, Sandy, aged just twenty-one, and his nineteen-year-old fiancée Maud decided that, in times of such uncertainty, a short engagement would be best and were married at St Mary’s, Prescot on 30 November 1940. Maud was the daughter of yet another William Lyon, this time the husband of Elizabeth Maud nee Robertshaw, and the happy couple went on to have two daughters: Sandra Joan (born 8 February 1944) and Elaine Margaret (7 December 1949). Sandra (now Provan) moved to the USA in 1968 and with her own family settled in La Porte, Indiana in 1973. It was Elaine, now Swire and living in Rainhill, who showed me the picture of her parents on their wedding day, Maud radiant in her bridal gown and Sandy the dashing soldier in khaki. Between them Sandy’s two daughters have produced five grandchildren leading to nine great-grandchildren. Sandy and Bill remained the very best of friends for the rest of their lives. ‘Bill was a good lad,’ Sandy told Derek years later. ‘We depended on each other for our survival’. Their bonds were strengthened in 1942 when Bill married Maud’s sister Alice.

For the rest of the war Sandy was based at Catterick Camp (in married quarters called ‘Somme Lines’) and according to Derek Fairclough ‘soon spotted for his footballing skills and recruited to run the regimental football team.’ He captained his brigade and divisional teams and played for Northern Command in Inter-Command matches and against the Norwegian Army – presumably after the events of 1940. As Neville Walker points out, Sandy, like so many professional and talented amateur players, guested for a number of Yorkshire and northeast teams during the war, including Darlington, Hartlepool United (where according to www.poolstats.co.uk he played three matches and scored three goals during the 1944-45 season) and Leeds United. He helped Yorkshire Amateurs FC win the West Riding County Cup and turned out for West Riding against North Riding. Not that his sporting prowess was limited to football. Sandra informs me that he was ‘fit as a fiddle playing three sports a day’, including basketball and tennis. Her son Iain is in possession of a medal commemorating Sandy’s basketball team as ‘Catterick Garrison League Champions 1945’.

After demobilisation Sandy, now twenty-six, returned to his job as a surveyor for Whiston Rural District Council. In March 1946 he re-joined Cables as a professional player (and proud owner of a two-seater MG according to Harry Warburton) and was a regular first-team inside-left from January 1947 until leaving for Wigan Athletic at the end of the 1950-51 season. The Cables team he joined included Bill Rainford, Harry Nickson, Tommy McMahon, captain Stanley Johns and his nephew Billy Rogers, who played alongside Sandy until the autumn of 1949. Sandy scored eleven goals between January 1947 and the end of the season. This increased to twenty goals in 1947-48, a year which saw Cables win the Lancashire Combination Cup at Lancaster. The road to the final included a third-round replay at home against Wigan Athletic in April 1948, a match described by Neville Walker (Slacky Brow) as ‘one of the great highlights of post-war football at Prescot’. There were 4712 spectators and Cables won 4-1 thanks to goals from Jimmy Veacock, Freddie Kilshaw, Harry Boydell and a Sandy Lyon penalty. ‘My father never missed a penalty in his career,’ Sandra informed me recently. ‘He told my grandson Evan, “There are two things you need to take a penalty kick, confidence and patience”’. ‘Sandy was an expert penalty taker’, Neville Walker adds, ‘slotting the ball neatly with his left foot just inside the angle of upright and bar’. My brother David Williams describes Sandy’s ball placement as ‘impeccable’ and recalls a number of occasions when the Cables No.10 scored directly from a corner. The team followed its success in the Lancashire Combination Cup with its fourth victory in the Liverpool County Challenge Cup at the end of the 1948-49 season. The final against Everton ‘A’ was played at Anfield. ‘The Blues paid Prescot the compliment of fielding a very strong side’ (Slacky Brow) but Cables won thanks to goals from Sandy and Bobbie Middleham. Sandy’s younger daughter Elaine recently showed me Sandy’s cup winners’ medal. After serving as vice-captain and temporarily as full captain during an injury to Bill Rainford, Sandy finished the season with another twenty goals in the bag. Earlier in the season his stylish play had been attracting the attention of league club scouts, and this may have been linked to his request for a transfer. Nothing came of the scouts (Sandy was twenty-nine and perhaps a little old for the demands of higher-level football) and the transfer request was subsequently withdrawn – to the relief of everyone at Hope Street.

Reminding one of the Berlin situation, both sides were resolved to give nothing away, and it was cheering to the home supporters when Sandy Lyon provided the ‘air lift’ by piloting the decider. … [It was] one of the finest of the dozen goals he has registered this season.

Bert Taylor, reporting in the Prescot and District Reporter on a 1-0 Cables home win against Barrow during the 1948 Berlin Blockade.

When Bill Rainford departed at the end of the 1948-49 season (see programme for 5 October 2013), the captaincy passed to Sandy Lyon en route to Bert Jelly. Sandy netted sixteen goals during the term. It would have been seventeen but for a ‘brilliant save’ (Bert Taylor, writing in the Prescot and District Reporter) made by the Bootle goalkeeper in a 3-0 away win on Saturday, 3 December 1949. Perhaps it was this save that brought Frank Garton back to Hope Street the following season (see programme for 26 August 2013). 1950-51 was Sandy’s last for Cables. In fact, he’d started the season at South Liverpool but his real intentions seem to have been joining his nephew Jackie at Wigan. It may have been Combination rules about playing for different teams in the same competition in the same season that steered him back to Prescot where, according to Neville Walker’s unpublished notes, he ‘saw out the remainder of the season’. He had clearly not lost his touch: ‘at the end of [the season],’ Walker continues, ‘he scored all three goals when appearing for a Lancashire Combination representative team against Chorley in a benefit match’. According to his daughter Sandra, he’d left Cables because they refused to pay him. By this time he was earning good money in the Whiston Borough Surveyor’s Department and, in the opinion of Cables Board of Directors, didn’t need to be paid for playing football. Their loss was Wigan’s gain, but it must have been a sad day for Sandy, in the late spring of 1951, when he played his last game for Cables. He’d been on their books for seven seasons before and after the war, had provided sterling leadership, and scored over seventy-five goals. His short stay at Wigan proved just as exciting as any experienced at Hope Street, Sandy no doubt contributing to the Latics’ Lancashire Combination championship of 1951-52 and double-winning season a year later.

Sandy’s nephew Jackie, the boy that Sandy had grown up alongside and with whom he’d shared those rigorous training sessions organised by Bill and Jem at Lickers Lane, was yet another talented sporting Lyon. He was born in February 1924. By the age of fifteen he’d made several appearances as an England Schoolboy International and been signed by Everton, where in the summer of 1939 he featured in the official Everton FC squad photograph for the ensuing season. The picture shows forty-one players (the first team, reserves and some of the youth squad, no doubt) and includes the likes of Ted Sagar, Joe Mercer, T.G. Jones and Tommy Lawton. Fifteen-year-old Jackie is pictured second from the right in the middle row. When the season was abandoned soon after the declaration of war, just four Football League matches had been played. The Everton website shows little more than Jackie’s appearances during the 1940-41 season: 18 appearances (14 in the War League Northern Division and four in the War Cup) and five goals (four in the league and one in the cup). Everton did not retain him at the end of the war. He moved to Macclesfield and, in 1950, to Wigan Athletic. When Sandy joined the Latics a year later both men must have been delighted to be playing together, Jackie retaining the inside-left position and Sandy ‘successfully converted into a full back’ (Walker). In all, Jackie made 151 appearances for Wigan between 1950 and 1955 and scored a very impressive total of 83 goals.

By early 1953 Sandy, now aged 33, had joined Chorley, a team with a long and successful history. By this time they’d notched up ten Lancashire League and Combination championships and five Lancashire FA trophies, but nothing during Sandy’s short stay. By early 1954, he’d moved to Runcorn of the Cheshire League where he played for about three years and helped them win the Northwich and District FA Senior Cup in 1955-56. Sandra has his winners’ medal.

Sandy retired from the game aged 38 in 1957. This was partly to assist him spend more time with his family (they were now living in Kemble Street, Prescot) and as a surveyor, moving from Whiston Council to A.L. Gibson, architect and surveyor of Wigan, in 1964. A few years later he ran an estate agency on Leyland Street, Prescot and in 1977 took the bold move (for a man of 58) of a job with Westminster and Hammersmith Borough Council. He and Maud stayed in the southeast, living in Ewell, Surrey, until Sandy retired from full-time employment in 1982.

But there was a more important reason why Sandy hung up his boots in 1957. Three years earlier, in 1954, he’d been elected Councillor for the East Ward of Prescot Urban District Council and, in 1958, selected as Mayor of Prescot. He sat on the council for eighteen years (until 1972). ‘He cared a great deal about Prescot,’ writes Sandra, ‘standing first as a Conservative and later as an Independent because he believed that local decisions shouldn’t be influenced by [party] politics’. He served a second term as Mayor in 1967. As one of Prescot’s leading figures, always willing to contribute to public life, he became a Governor of the Grammar School, a Patron of Cables’ Vice-Presidents and Members Association and, most fitting of all for a man of his wisdom and integrity, a Justice of the Peace.

Sandy maintained his sporting interests well into old age. He was a regular at both the Prescot and Huyton Golf Club and leaning over the Guild Hall billiard and snooker tables. ‘He was an all-round athlete’, writes Sandra. ‘I never beat him at tennis. He could always put the ball where I wasn’t and when he visited us over here [in the US] he could play a good game of table tennis’.

There is usually a great woman behind every great man, and speaking to Sandy’s nephew Harry Warburton recently I learned how Maud Lyon helped Harry’s mother Polly and her family endure the austerities of post-war Britain. Barbara adds that she was an excellent businesswoman. Maud died in Llandudno on 6 April 2001, just sixteen days before her 80th birthday, and Sandy passed away a little over three years later on 20 May 2004. He was 84. His ashes were buried in the Garden of Remembrance at Prescot Parish Church. So typical of the man, he’d been a sides-man and member of the Parish Council.

Asked to describe Sandy’s qualities as a man, family and friends have usually focused on his warmth, honesty and dignity. ‘He was a gentleman’, Harry Boydell told me. ‘A super uncle’, said Barbara. ‘More like a father than an uncle,’ according to his nephew Raymond Wood. ‘He was the best Dad in the world to Elaine and me’, said Sandra. ‘He had a wonderful sense of humour and loved his five grandchildren and now nine great-grandchildren. He left us many happy memories.’ I suspect that all of Sandy’s nuclear and extended family, whether children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews or cousins, would find resonance in these lines by Edgar A. Guest:

Out of the old, old long-ago
Come the summer days that I used to know,
When I learned life’s truths from my father’s lips
As I shared the joy of … companionship!

 I am indebted to Sandy’s daughters Sandra Provan and Elaine Swire, his niece Barbara Hotchkiss and his nephews Harry Warburton, Derek Fairclough and Raymond Wood for family details and recollections, and to  Neville Walker for allowing access to unpublished notes for his book ‘From Slacky Brow to Hope Street’.

Glyn Williams