Gary Pallister: The Boy from Billingham Town

If I might begin on an abstract note, it occurs to me that if English football could speak it would probably have a north-east accent. Thanks to the wit in print of Harry Pearson and the unashamed enthusiasm of radio and television’s Mark Clemmit, there seems to be something unaffected about the region’s football voices that those from the north-west of the country – perhaps because the words are muffled behind its big clubs’ trophies – find it difficult to match. Pearson and Clem are both Middlesbrough fans and so, while it might be unwise of me to put too much emphasis on their Teesside connections given the location of today’s game, it seems appropriate that I’m to talk about one of Boro’s former players on Northern League Day.

Best remembered on a national level for his partnership with Steve Bruce in the first great Manchester United back four of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, Pallister moved to Old Trafford in 1989 for what was then the huge fee of £2.3m. Ferguson later took to calling his centre-half pairing Dolly and Daisy but Pally, as the player’s autobiography dubs him, claims never to have worked out which one he was meant to be. If the duo’s nickname did sound not unlike that of a couple of 1960s Californian folk musicians, though, Pallister himself could so easily have begun his career at a club with a name seemingly adopted from a band Rick Wakeman might have formed after leaving Yes. However, he didn’t join Billingham Synthonia (it’s actually a brand of fertiliser), instead being spotted as a teenager by Billingham Town’s junior manager Rob Gushley.

Pallister doesn’t dwell on his Northern League experiences with Town in his autobiography but does make time to comment on the injustice of his first club allegedly receiving only “a couple of goal nets and a bag of balls” upon his move to Boro in 1984 and then just “a set of strips” by way of a sell-on clause when United hooked him from Ayresome Park five years later, breaking the British record fee for a defender in the process. The most likely apocryphal nature of that story notwithstanding, Billy Town’s recent brush with a winding-up petition – rescinded late last year by Hartlepool United, who had raised it over an unpaid debt – shows how welcome a proper windfall from their hand in Pallister’s illustrious career would have been.

Leaving United in 1998 after winning four Premier League titles, three FA Cups, and the Cup Winners’ Cup at Old Trafford, Pallister moved to the Riverside Stadium and so he bookended his years as a professional as a Middlesbrough player. Naturally laidback, to the point that a childhood limp was diagnosed as a “lazy leg” by one doctor, Pallister took a leisurely approach to winning England caps too. Twenty-two appearances spread over eight-and-a-half years was the final tally.

Boro took a chance on him and United saw the best years of the gentle giant with the sweet tooth – Sir Alex recalls the player’s weakness for “sweeties” in Pally – but, for all the honours he earned in Manchester, Billingham Town remains where Pallister was schooled.

Having left the mean streets of Norfolk behind for the more sedate pace of London, William Abbs is working towards a PhD in football writing when not busy penning articles for Football FanCast. You can read more of his work on the superb Saha From The Madding Crowd and follow him on twitter here.

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