Vernon Hodgson pours a pint down his neck.
A second follows. So do pints three, four and five.
But this was no Saturday night for West Bromwich Albion’s reserve player, otherwise known as the ‘Fourth Degree’.
The following day he was facing Nottingham Forest’s second team. He was playing for Albion’s reserves.
The alcohol wasn’t just for joy. It was medicinal. Or at least that’s what Vernon told himself.
We’ll return to the bar later.
Now aged 59, Vernon reflects on a football lifestyle that never actually was.
The Hodgson family settled in Smethwick in the late 1950s following their move from Jamaica.
Vernon’s first memories arrive in 1963, living in Nelson Street on the Tantany estate in West Bromwich – his mother using saucepans to fill a tin bath for him and his sister.
By all accounts Nelson Street was a road of pigeon fanciers. Pigeons here, there and everywhere – “I was into them myself… five of them actually, they were my own pets,” coos Vernon.
Football was to become a big influence.
England’s 1966 World Cup win left an imprint on the young wide-eyed youngster. Sir Alf Ramsey’s men giving West Germany the run around. Little did the six-year-old know that England’s most successful-ever football manager be his manager at Birmingham City just 12 years later.
Sir Alf made a huge impression on the young West Bromwich lad.
“When we won the World Cup…that’s what made me turn to football,” said Vernon.
“We’d just watched Alf Ramsey win the World Cup…and a few years later he would be giving me instructions as Birmingham boss. Just imagine what was like for a 17-year-old. His favourite saying was ‘…I believe’. He would never tell you what to do – he would recommend what you did. This bloke was football royalty, he even spoke like somebody from the Royal family.
“He was a cockney but he sounded nothing like one. He was the kind of manager who you wanted to play for – he commanded a respect that not everyone had.”
Yet the youngster had designs on the Black Country, rather than Small Heath – not least after attending his first game at The Hawthorns.
He added: “In my head I went to the Hawthorns in 1967. A family friend called Gordon Phillips took me under his wing and loved football. Gordon Phillips told me to use both feet and he took me to see Albion play – Astle, Fraser were both playing. I remember it was against Liverpool.
“Gordon told me if I want to be a footballer I better learn to used both feet. It was great advice because I was right footed and Ron Atkinson signed me as a left back many years later…
“Anyway, I was seven and I turned around to Gordon and said ‘I’m better than this lot now – I’ll be playing for Albion’. That’s how cocky I was. By 11 I could keep the ball up for 1000 times. I got to 1039 to be exact – then I booted it into the air. I got 5p off each kid watching me because they didn’t think I’d do it.
“I was playing for West Bromwich Town, at Spring Road. I’d already played a game that morning so by half time of this second game I was knackered. I asked to sit out the second half and watched it from the sideline. Two blokes in suits approached me and introduced themselves as Don Dorman and Ron Jukes – they were scouts working for Birmingham City. ‘Would I be interested in playing for City…’ I said I’ll ask my mom…but of course I did.”
Vernon was settling into life alongside the industrial units and factories of Digbeth, just south of Birmingham city centre – the floodlights of St Andrew’s poking out between a cluster of chimneys belching out smoke.
The second city was a different place back then. Racial tolerance wasn’t big on the agenda.
“At 16 I played three games and went straight into the reserves,” recalls Vernon.
“The lad whose place I took at Blues used to belittle me – I won’t name him, he didn’t make it anyway. But he would call me ‘Vernon Wogson’.
“I laughed at it just to humour him…but some of the other lads in the reserves laughed as well. I knew he didn’t like me because I’d taken his place.”
Vernon Hodgson became the first black professional at Birmingham City, signing on September 1, 1977. But he was never to play a League game.
“The one day the manager Willie Bell called me over and told me to take Kenny Burns’ place against Trevor Francis during training,” he recalls.
“Francis was still yet to be a million pound player, but he was God at Birmingham. He had to go up against me and I stopped him every single time. We had a five a side after that and Trevor, who was quick, could skin everyone…apart from me. From that day things happened quickly.
“I was put on standby to be part of the squad for the following night’s first team game because Jimmy Calderwood had a problem and needed a fitness test. I knew if he failed a fitness test I might be playing. But I was late coming in. I got into the ground at 7.30pm instead of 7pm and by then the game had already started.
“They were so angry…and it was made very clear to me that although Jimmy had made it and was fit, they wanted me to play. I’d blown it.
“The next week I was back in the reserves and we played Ipswich reserves – they had Kevin Beattie, David Geddis and other big names. And then it happened: I tore my knee ligaments. That was my punishment. If only I’d turned up on time for that first team game, I wouldn’t have played in that reserve game. That finished me off. I was out for three months.”
Vernon never recovered.
He was released by Birmingham City, having suffered a set-back with his knee during a training session at Lincoln.
“When I went to Lincoln the manager was Willie Bell, my former Blues boss – he offered me a two year contract but I said I need to ask talk to my mom first. It’s what I always did.
“I was supposed to stay at Lincoln for a week but I broke down in training and that’s when they checked me over and told me I had a torn cruciate ligament and torn cartilage . So I was only there a day.
“I knew I wasn’t right. The physio called me and said ‘That clicking in your leg…it’s your cartilage and ligaments. You’ve ruptured them. That’s the only reason why Blues got rid of you…I’m afraid you’re finished’.
“I drove home back to the Midlands and packed up football.”
But not just yet.
Vernon continued: “Two days later (Albion scout) Roy Horobin called me. I didn’t tell him what had happened with my knee. He asked if I wanted to meet Ron Atkinson and his assistant Colin Addison so I went in just before pre-season – I walked in and it was like meeting the mafia. Ron and Colin were sat there like two gangsters, all tanned and suave.
“They said ‘we’ve never seen you play…but we’ve heard good things about you’. I got a monthly contract each month for three months. I got two years there in the end. I have no idea how I got away with it.
“People said I got an injury at Albion…I hadn’t. My career was over before I got to Albion really.
“When they signed me I accepted £55 a week. They then offered me a deal for the season. Ron called me in and said: ‘How much do you think you’re worth Vernon?’
“‘£100’ I replied. ‘Right, we’ll give you £95’ said Ron.
“Idiot Vernon here, instead of saying ‘Yes,’ I said: ‘I’ll take £90!’ I ended up getting £85.”
Vernon, apart from needing a damn good agent, was simply going through the motions. The knee wasn’t right. And he knew it. Which is where the alcohol came in.
“I trained but every time I had a reserve game I’d get drunk on the previous night to forget the pain the next day. I’d get hammered and hopefully forget the fears about my knee. I’d have a few pints to drink away the pain. Even though I was told I was finished I ignored it and carried it on.
“I played against Forest when I was absolutely hammered. I was up against Garry Birtles and had one of the best games I ever had. I had a good football brain but my pace and agility was gone. In a shuttle run at 16 I’d have beaten any footballer…but by 20 I couldn’t run anymore.”
And so the so-called Fourth Degree never played a single first team game for Albion.
Fast forward 40 years.
Vernon is a trade waste dustman for Sandwell council. He joined on October 15, 1986.
His precision of dates is of significance. Vernon claims he was the first black refuse collector on the patch.
He claims the waste and recycling industry saved him.
“All the problems I’ve had, all the troubles I suffered as a footballer… they could have finished me,” recalls Vernon.
“But they didn’t. Working on the bins has a certain stigma. But it saved me. It saved my life.
“I was drinking, I was depressed, I wasn’t right.”
He remains a key member of WBA FPA – pick out a photo and he will generally be the one wearing the colourful, outlandish attire.
What Vernon lacked in luck on a football field, he makes up in the sartorial stakes.
He adds: “You know what… I look back now. Yes I could have made it as a player.
“I was quick, I was decent enough to play at the top level but that injury got me. But working on the bins has given me a new lease of life.
“It’s the best thing I did. It saved my life. When I think back to the number of drinks I used to have before games – back when I knew I was finished, that game against Forest springs to mind.
“I could easily have gone off the rails. But I can at least say I got to wear the stripes. And, more so, I got a second chance to make something of my life.”