It was October 1964 at Keele University. As a fresh-faced student, away from home for the first time, I nervously entered the Students Union Bar. A rotund, jovial figure offered a confident handshake. "Welcome to Keele. I'm Neil Baldwin.
As we chatted, he recommended a visit to the Stoke City Victoria Ground two days later. That's how it all started for me. I appreciated his warm welcome, but who exactly was he? The college chaplain? I wasn't quite sure. And so it has always been with Neil, who lives by many roles. It is not that, as is sometimes said, he doesn't know the difference between fantasy and reality, but rather that he renders the distinction irrelevant and continuously turns one into the other across the loves of his life: Stoke City, the Church, circuses, the Boat Race and famous people.
A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN
Last month I was back at Keele for a day of celebration for his 35 years as an "honorary student". It started with a football match between the Neil Baldwin Football Club (NBFC) and Caius College, Cambridge. Don't ask me how he made the contact!
NBFC, a motley collection of students of the day, managed, coached, captained and kit-managed by our hero has played a variety of weird and wonderful opponents over 35 years. Amazingly, Neil has scored in EVERY game. A definite case for a Grobbelaar-type enquiry here. This game was no exception as, mysteriously, two penalties were awarded in the last ten minutes.
Neil finally managed to hit the target with his fourth re-taken spot kick; the 'keeper dived out of the way and the record was maintained. Such astonishing consistency is no doubt the reason why no-one other than Neil has ever won the NBFC Player of the Year award!
Then there was a thanksgiving in the Keele Chapel for Neil's 35 years of work for the Church at Keele. In his sermon, the visiting vicar recounted how he had first met Neil 20 years before whilst at theological college in London.
"His precise status was unclear" he said, "but he seemed to know all the bishops!" - some things never change!
Neil's total lack of self-consciousness has made him many genuine friendships with the famous. Who else could get the likes of Gordon banks and Joe Worrall to turn up at his recent "testimonial"? When he says he knows Kevin Keegan and Graham Taylor, you'd better believe him! This is, after all, the man who sold a Rag-mag to Harold Wilson and button-holed the Duke of Edinburgh for a chat about world problems.
Neil, who was named after Neil Franklin, had always hung around the Victoria Ground. Fantasy became reality when Lou took him onto the books and, in doing so, showed that there is still a human face in football. he is the perfect foil for Lou's sense of humour and accompanies him on trips to watch players and walks with the dog. No wonder that Mary, Neil's dear mother, thinks the world of Lou (although she appreciated Joe Jordan's thoughtful drive to get Neil's weight down. Lou feeds him up). Who can ever forget him on the bench at Bournemouth dressed as a chicken or his hysterically funny appearance at Villa Park as a sub in the Gordon Cowans testimonial game, wearing Steino's shirt and offering to swap it with David Platt (a good trivia question - when did a cup final referee allow a league team to play for ten minutes with twelve players?)
In 1974 I was Mayor of Newcastle. Who was it who asked to ride the Civic Limo from the Mayor-making ceremony to the official reception and gave royal waves to the mystified bystanders en route? you've got it. At one function I met Terry Conroy and the conversation turned to Neil. "Oh", I said, "so he really does know the Stoke players well?"
"Funny you should say that" said Terry, "We were wondering whether he really knew the mayor of Newcastle!!" Neither of us would now ever doubt it.
His recent celebration day ended with a reception organised by the students including "This is your Life Neil Baldwin" with members of the current Stoke City playing and backroom staff as guests, along with many former students. One of the nice things about Keele is the way in which three successive generations of students have looked after Neil in this way.
NELLO THE CLOWN
He spent several summers as 'NELLO THE CLOWN' with various circuses. One b*****d circus owner once dumped him in his small caravan without money in a Scottish lay-by. He found the nearest vicar who telephoned his worried mother. She sought advice from another member of the circus community, who sent a van to Scotland to tow him home - an act of kindness which indicates the concern which those who know Neil often show for him because, although he is colourful, he is also very vulnerable.
LETTER TO BALDWIN
He is a writer of letters, with varying results. Although the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan turned him down for a drink on the night before the Remembrance Day service, others hit the target. He once showed me a letter from a Welsh college confirming his forthcoming visit to lecture on the role of the student priest - the mind boggled! When Keele appointed a new Vice-Chancellor, guess who got himself invited to tea in Cambridge as the new appointees first visitor from Keele? His normal method of travel was to don a "dog-collar" and hitch - a sure-fire way of getting lifts quickly.
Over the years, members of the Cambridge Boat Race crew received letters from him. Some, particularly the yanks, were flattered by the fan mail and responded accordingly. One year Neil told me to look for him on TV on the official Cambridge launch. I did, and he was a complimentary guest at the Boat Race Ball, complete in striped blazer.
At Blundell Park last season he asked if I could put him up the following Friday when he would be visiting an "old friend" in Manchester, who turned out to be Ken Dodd who was playing at the Palace Theatre. Asa gave him a lift from Stoke to the theatre. Doddy invited him into his dressing room after the show. I had to drive in to pick him up. Matt Busby had just died and Neil asked if we could return via Old Trafford so that he could pay his respects because "Sir Matt was very good to me". Although it was now past midnight, he asked me to drive past Nigel Gleghorn's house to "make sure he's in bed". The following morning he was due to be picked up by Stoke's Manchester Scout (yes, there is one) and taken to watch a schoolboy game before they returned to the Victoria Ground for the First Team game. The guy drove miles out of his way, only to arrive at our house and find Neil still in bed because of a mix-up over the time. He couldn't wait - so we had to leave home much earlier than normal to get Neil to the ground in time to meet Joe's strict matchday deadline.
This story is typical, but no-one begrudges doing favours for Neil, because
there isn't an ounce of malice in him. Space here permits only a small proportion
of the stories to be told. the rest will have to wait for the official biography.
Over the years he has given me more laughs than anyone I know. Thanks Neil,
and long may it continue.