Weekend Interview: Ooh-Aah Bob Booker – Sheffield United fans’ favourite

Bob Booker in his Sheffield United days.
Bob Booker in his Sheffield United days.
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IF THERE was a glossary of terms relating to Sheffield United, then Bob Booker’s entry would probably be found under the letter O.

IF THERE was a glossary of terms relating to Sheffield United, then Bob Booker’s entry would probably be found under the letter O.

Sheffield United new signing Bob Booker on 25th November 1988

Sheffield United new signing Bob Booker on 25th November 1988

Certain footballers’ names are forever remembered in song; occasionally irreverently, sometimes caustically. Or if you are one of the fortunate ones, with warmth and genuine affection.

Bob Booker is among that number. Or Ooh-Ahh Bob Booker as he will always be known to legions of Unitedites.

The journeyman story of an honest-to-goodness guy who went from the factory floor to professional football is the kind of salt-of-the-earth tale which is good for the soul.

And Booker’s story has been chronicled in a very readable tome. A man in the street who made it to the Lane, gave his all on the pitch and did not just have a pint with supporters, but even ate with them at their own home.

It was a big culture shock and you just keep going and I kept my head down and believing and it finally turned. You have to go out the other end or you fall by the wayside.

Bob Booker

In a modern era when many footballers walk into stadiums in their own cocoon, listening to music with obscenely-sized earphones, signing autographs with faceless expressions and the passion of a robot and are never slow to whizz off after a game, Booker provides an antidote.

He may have hailed from Watford, but Booker is as much a part of the Blades’ DNA as a gallon of Magnet and a greasy chip butty.

His Steel City stint may have lasted just three years after joining from Brentford. But what a three years.

On his decision to write a book, Booker, due to return to Sheffield for a book signing ahead of the Blades’ home game with Hull in early November, said: “I have read a lot of autobiographies about players at a higher level who, after four or five years, have written a book.

Bob Booker with his new book.

Bob Booker with his new book.

“What they have written about is how much money they have made, what cars they have got and how big their house is.

“I just wanted to put people in the picture as to what it was like to be a footballer in my era really.

“I understood what a Sheffield United supporter was looking for. Their lives revolved around football. They are giving their all at work at week and saving up their money to follow the Blades.

“The players need to be passionate about it and they could see I appreciated what it meant to be a Blades footballer.

“I was not a very gifted player. But I had the basics, I had a good engine, could pass and score goals and put myself about and show it meant something. It was a great relationship.”

As his own inimitable song, he observed: “You don’t get it by luck, you have to earn it. It’s just nice and humbling. It is something I will never forget and it is priceless to me. Special.”

Booker’s highs were innumerable. From leading the Blades to promotion back to the top-flight at Leicester in May 1990, with captain Paul Stancliffe injured, to playing a key role in the mother-of-all Great Escapes from relegation in 1990-91.

But it was Booker’s ‘Everyman’ qualities with punters which perhaps cement his cult hero status with the Blades.

Fate saw Dave Bassett sign him in late 1988 – a time when he was contemplating hanging up his boots at the age of 30 after an injury-ravaged spell at Brentford.

A bit of assistance from his good mate Derek French, then United physio, saw Booker head north in his ‘little Fiesta’ with the Blades seeking a midfield enforcer after Simon Webster suffered a serious injury partway through the Blades’ Division Three promotion year of 1988-89.

It was not quite a case of the rest being history for Booker, who fought hard to establish himself after early misgivings among fans and plunged himself into strenuous rehabilitation work to overcame a significant knee injury.

But ultimately it all adds to the Booker legend, with his lightbulb moment with Unitedites coming in an epic performance at Mansfield Town’s Field Mill home in April 1988 amid galeforce winds and a snowstorm. It was after that that he never truly looked back.

He recalls: “Even though I was quite an experienced pro, I was a bit out of my depth. With a bad injury, it was a massive step up – no disrespect to Brentford, who put food on my table for 15 years.

“I struggled to get up to the pace of the game Dave played as I was used to playing ‘tippy-tappy’ football. It was a big culture shock and you just keep going and I kept my head down and believing and it finally turned. You have to go out the other end or you fall by the wayside.

“You sink or swim with that group of players. ‘Harry’ made a class vibe with all the southerners and northerners together and a few of the old Wimbledon gang in John Gannon, Simon Tracey and Wally Downes. It was very special, but a ruthless place to be. Once you were in it, you were on a journey.

“We had Deane and Agana, but no big, big names. We were just a team of thugs really!”

For Booker, memories of every-day life in Sheffield endure as much as the footballing ones.

He was taken under his wing by legendary Blades promotions manager Mick Rooker who introduced him to the Steel City. It’s pubs, clubs and punters, one of whom once asked Booker at a club event to come along to his house for a family meal of meat and potato pie and chips. As ever, he did his bit and went along.

Booker, now working as a driving instructor after time in coaching – including a stint as No 2 at Brighton, where he still does match-day commentary – said: “I didn’t have an agent. Mick was mine, really.

“I was living away from home and he took me in. I spent a lot of time in his office with him drinking tea and talking about the city. He was priceless.

“My drinking pub was the Big Tree in Woodseats and I mixed with the fans, having a beer. Everyone was so helpful and it made it so easy. I used to go in The Railway and I think they have still got pictures of me behind the bar there. We used to end up at Josephine’s, even though I wasn’t a big nightclub person. I am still in touch with that lad whose house who I had a meal at now. I didn’t see him for many years, but then saw him at a signing session once. It was great to meet him again.”

One Sheffielder who Booker knows well is Blades chief, ex-team-mate and good friend Chris Wilder – who he lived with in Gleadless along with saxophone-loving Tony Agana for a time.

Entrusted by Bassett to help with Booker’s integration, Wilder didn’t let his boss down, just as he is not letting the club down in presiding over its re-emergence and keeping faith with Bassett’s successful ethos.

Booker said: “Chris is out of the mould we had with ‘Harry’.

“He will have time for the public and the media and like Chris Hughton at Brighton, he is a proper old-school manager.

“They aren’t up their own a**e and know where their roots are and don’t ever forget that. Players and fans can relate to them.”

The Bob Booker story...

Born: Watford, January 25, 1958.

Clubs played for: Brentford (1978-88 and 1991-93), Sheffield United (1988-91), Harrow Borough.

Coaching: Brighton and Hove Albion assistant-manager (2000-06). He also took charge of the Seagulls on a caretaker basis on two occasions during his time at the south coast club.

Blades appearances: 109.

Goals: 13.

Honours: Brentford: Division Three championship winner (1991-92); Football League Trophy runner-up (1984-85).

Sheffield United: Division Three runner-up (1988-89); Division Two runner-up (1989-90).

Blades debut: November 26, 1988, v Bristol City (home) W 3-0.

Final appearance: October 5, 1991, v Leeds United (away) L 4-3.

Highlight: Booker was captain in the memorable 5-2 win at Leicester City on May 5, 1990, which clinched promotion to the top-flight.

“OOH-AAH – The Bob Booker story” by Greville Waterman is available for £12.99 in the Sheffield United stadium store and on Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/y8ea8ovx.

Booker will be signing copies of the book ahead of the Blades’ home game with Hull City on November 4 and before the Bristol City game on December 9.