In and out of the Lion’s Den tells the story of the life and times of Millwall, Brighton and Gillingham centre-forward John Shepherd – and of how he and his family survived poverty, illness and war.
When 20 year old John Shepherd scored four goals on his debut for Millwall in a Third Division South league match against Leyton Orient in October 1952 he not only equalled the national record for an away match debut which has never been surpassed, he also launched a footballing career which saw him notch 15 goals in 17 FA Cup games for Millwall – another record – and go on to score prolifically for Brighton & Hove Albion and Gillingham as well. But this successful professional career almost never happened: he had spent much of 1951 in hospital, struck down by polio.
The remarkable story of how John Shepherd overcame this debilitating setback, and how he launched and progressed his career in the £14 a week days of the 1950s professional footballer, is told with searching perception by his daughter Julie Ryan in a new biography and family history. In and Out of the Lion`s Den vividly evokes that post-war footballing era, when the players would be travelling to the ground on the same trains and buses as the fans, and where their wives and girlfriends waited for them afterwards outside the ground. It also describes the social and economic conditions of the world from which many footballers like John came : in his case the slums of West London where several families shared a single toilet, and water had to be carried up from the ground floor, but also where a mix of close community spirit and self-help would be the envy of those seeking the `big society` today. And it was also where the budding footballer would be learning his skills in the street with a rolled up newspaper serving as a ball – a far cry from the footballing academies of today.
But the author`s researches also revealed a much deeper back- story to this footballer`s life. For once the aspiring young man from Notting Hill had met and fallen in love with Esther Gonzalez at the Seventh Feathers Youth Club in North Kensington , he was to marry into a family who had been refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Her parents had survived the danger and chaos of conflict and a ten –year separation when her father left their home in Madrid to fight for the Spanish Republic and subsequently escaped serious illness or death from his incarceration in the concentration camps which greeted fleeing combatants crossing the Pyrenees into France. The moving story of their survival from the Lion`s Den of Franco`s fascism – altogether more savage and devastating than Millwall`s footballing version – is a poignant counterpoint to the trials and tribulations which John`s own family had endured through the Depression of the 1930s and the dark days of the Blitz in the Second World War.
This book is a wonderful evocation of football in the 1950s – the story of a `Roy of the Rovers` footballing hero who could not have been more different from the highly trained and paid professionals of today ; but it is also – via Julie`s detailed and searching family history – a richly detailed portrayal of working class life of that time and the war-torn decades which led up to it, both in England and in Spain. It will be a `must read` for all true football fans – especially those in London and the south east of England. But it is also a tour de force for those interested in the wider social, economic and political forces which shaped that era, as an intimate account of the consequences and impact of those forces on this legendary `lion` and his family.
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