Pat Neil: The Big Interview

England schoolboy international Pat Neil caused a stir when he made his Pompey debut as a 17-year-old in 1955.
England schoolboy international Pat Neil caused a stir when he made his Pompey debut as a 17-year-old in 1955.
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On the opening day of the 1955-56 season, English football heavyweights Pompey named a side featuring multiple League Championship winning players – and one schoolboy.

Club legends such as Jimmy Dickinson and Duggie Reid proudly donned the star and crescent, although the Blues’ all-time top goalscorer Peter Harris, who played a pivotal role in the 1949 and 1950 title-winning sides was conspicuous by his absence.

In his place, was unknown quantity Pat Neil, who could scarceley believe his own fate.

Far from being overawed with his unexpected debut, 17-year-old Neil – whose first-team bow made national news – impressed away to Huddersfield, albeit in a 1-0 defeat.

Understanding his inclusion to be a ‘one-time thing’, a twist of fate then saw Neil return to the line-up sooner than expected when fellow winger Gordon Dale was injured in the following game.

That provided the Fratton Park tea-boy with an unforgettable home bow.

Neil said: ‘In the days when there were amateurs and professionals, I was from the amateur breed.

‘I was playing for Pompey boys at 15 and attended the local grammar school (Northern Grammar).

‘By the time I had started my A levels, I had also earned my England schoolboy international cap and played in the same team as Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Melia and Wilf McGuinness.

‘But because I was a grammar-school boy, things were slightly different for me, as I was expected to stay on and go to sixth-form from the ages of 16-18.

‘You could leave school at 15 in a secondary modern, though.

‘Many young lads went into clubs and signed what you’d call groundstaff boys forms – there weren’t academies in the 1950s.

‘So in the summer of 1955, my teacher, who ran the Pompey boys’ team, got in touch with the boss Eddie Lever and said: “I’ve got a young lad here who is looking for a job for the holidays.”

‘To cut a long story short, they let me into the offices at Fratton Park, where I worked with Mrs Lever who was the secretary – among others.

‘In those days we didn’t have computers, we had typewriters, so I did a bit of typing, answered the phone and made the teas.

‘I was there in the close season and in those days there would be public trial matches where the first team would play against the reserves at Fratton Park and people were allowed to come along.

‘I managed to get a half in there, which I just saw as a token half and I managed to do alright.

‘That was the week before the season started.

‘All of a sudden, Mr Lever says I’m in the team to play in the first game at Huddersfield because Peter Harris had a bad ankle.

‘I couldn’t understand this because I hadnt even played in the reserves – I was just playing in the youth team with all the other lads and apprentices!

‘I ended up turning up at Portsmouth station on the Friday of the weekend with my boots in a bag and went off and played at Huddersfield with the first team.

‘Because I was still at school, it was quite an unusual thing to happen and of course it was all over the papers which was embarrassing at the time but rather nice to look back at now!’

After Harris recovered from his injury, Neil reflected on his moment of fame in the stands as the Blues then played host to Wolves.

But an injury to fellow winger Dale thrust the youngster back into the limelight – this time in front of his home fans.

He said: ‘That (Huddersfield) was going to be a one-off – we lost 1-0 although I played quite well and got quite a lot of kudos.

‘The next game was at home to Wolves in midweek and I was sitting in the stands watching that because Peter had recovered.

‘Would you believe it, Gordon Dale got injured in that game.

‘The next home game was against Blackpool who had won the cup two years previously.

‘Before I knew it, I was standing next to Stanley Matthews in the tunnel thinking this can’t be real.

‘It all happened so quickly but I had a fantastic game.’

In front of a crowd of 37,072, the youngster slammed in his first senior goal and his direct attacking play captivated the masses.

He said: ‘There was a goalmouth scramble and the ball came to me.

‘I just hit the bloody thing and it nearly burst the net!

‘I couldn’t believe what was happening but I was a little disappointed we didn’t win the game – it finished 3-3.

‘From then on, I stayed in the team for a while, and managed to take my tally to three goals.

‘My best came against Bolton.

‘I hit it on the volley with my right foot from the left wing.

‘I also played in an incredible game at Chelsea where we beat the reigning league champions 5-1.

‘As an amateur, I wasn’t getting paid – these gentlemen professionals were playing their game and I was butting in on it.

‘I wasn’t ever quite sure how these hardened pros were looking at this sproggy teenager keeping them out!

‘It was unreal, even for its time.’

Neil was unable to continue his flying start after his impressive introduction and he was handed a rest, before playing for the reserves in the London Combination League.

But when his amateur forms expired at the end of the campaign and the Blues returned for pre-season training, Neil was in Wolverhampton.

He said: ‘For some reason, the summer came and the summer went with no-one at Fratton Park making any effort to contact me.

‘In the meantime, underlying all of that, Wolves came down to play Pompey and Stan Cullis, their manager knocked on my front door and spoke to my dad.

‘I must admit I was knocked out by the thought that I could be playing with the England captain Billy Wright.

‘My headmaster wasn’t too pleased with the idea of me spending my weekends in Wolverhampton but goodness me, looking back that’s what I did.’

Neil made four appearances and scored one goal for Wolves while continuing his academic studies.

He soon turned his back on league football, though, when he began a three-year degree at Cambridge University.

But on completion of his course, Neil, who had unfinished business on the south coast, was convinced to return to the Blues by new man at the helm George Smith.

The unique opportunity allowed Neil, then 25, to combine football with part-time teaching at former school Northern Grammar.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t recapture the form he showed as a teenager and after making two first-team appearances, embarked on a full-time teaching career.

He said: ‘Unfortunately, it was the season when the weather took a hold on things – the famous winter of 1962-63 – and we didn’t play for several weeks.

‘I had damaged my foot previously and been out of action.

‘And with others ahead of me in the pecking order, the season didn’t go too well for me.’

With Neil content to play for fun while embarking on a full-time teaching career, he reinstated his amateur playing status, leaving Fratton Park for good with a record of 11 games and three goals.

The teenage talent later became headmaster at Midhurst School and chairman of the Pompey ex-Professionals Reunion Club.

Now 77, he remains a keen follower of the Blues.