Incredible collection of soccer treasures
A unique assortment of world football memorabilia is on display in the city, writes RAYMOND JOSEPH
LOOKING for all the world like an ageing rocker, Russell Martin is on a roll as he launches into one of his favourite stories about fallen football icon George Best – “the man who drank his way through two livers”.
An old London drinking mate of the former Manchester United and Northern Ireland star in years gone by, Russell, who wears his hair in a spiky Rod Stewart lookalike-style, is explaining how he got Best to sign 500 collectable cards with a picture of himself, for an allstar football star card series.
“I had this mate who worked for a company that had invested a fortune in the cards and George had agreed to sign his ones that were to be inserted in select packs, but he never kept any of the appointments,” explains Russell, 63, in his broad cockney accent.
“So I phone Georgie and he agrees to meet us in the pub for a drink and to sign the cards. This guy from the card company asks him what he wants for signing and Georgie takes a moment, and then says ‘500 quid’.”
What Best didn’t know was that the company, having laid out a small fortune for the rights to produce the cards, were desperate, as the chance of winning one signed by Best, which were to be sprinkled across thousands of packs, was the attraction to get people to buy them.
“He could have asked for 5 000 quid, even more, they were so desperate. Of course George, who was always broke and in trouble with the football authorities, couldn’t be seen to be taking the cash, so the dosh was handed over while he and this guy were standing at the urinal.”
Which all sounds like pub talk – and, with Best long dead, there’s no one to confirm or deny it.
Except Russell’s got the picture to prove it, showing him and Best sharing a glass of wine – with the boxes of freshly signed cards on the table in front of them.
It’s just one item in Russell’s unique collection of world football memorabilia that is on display at Greenpoint’s Cape Quarter, situated on the Fan Walk to the new stadium.
And Russell, who has lived and worked all over the world and is now living in Hout Bay, doesn’t tire of telling the stories.
The irreplaceable collection – worth millions of rands – is on display in a shop donated by the Cape Quarter after Russell had tried, but failed, to get a place at the Cape Town Stadium to mount the display.
His dream is to one day open a restaurant he’d call The Legends Lounge, with all his memorabilia – sports, showbiz and more – as decor.
Like the signed jerseys, that include one autographed by the entire Brazilian team last to win a World Cup, and others signed by a long list of stars that reads like a roll call of the who’s who of world soccer, past and present: Pele, David Beckham, Ronaldo, Eusébio, Michael Owen, Maradona and Thierry Henry… and more.
But Russell’s three favourite items all have English connections. Two of them a rare team picture of the allconquering English 1966 World Cup champions, signed by all the players, and a 1966 England World Cup shirt signed by Geoff Hurst, the only player ever to score a World Cup final hat trick.
The third is a painting of England skipper Bobby Moore and Pele, rated by many as the greatest footballer of all time, swopping shirts during the 1970 World Cup, which has been signed by both men – and is the only one of its kind, according to Russell.
One of the visitors who arrived to check out the collection this week was John Sissons, a former West Ham United and England player who was also at one stage the youngest player ever to score a goal in an FA Cup final.
Sissons, who features in several of the photos on display, has been resident in South Africa for 30 years, and now lives in semi-retirement at Theewaterskloof, near Hermanus.
Poring over the exhibition, a clearly moved Sissons said: “This is a truly amazing collection.”
Sissons was also a member of West Ham’s 1965 European Cup Winners Cup side, “the last all-English team to win the cup… now there are players from all over the world in the English league teams,” he says.
“You’ll find extensive football collections in the UK, but they’ll all cover one team. You could go to any club and they would have a great collection covering their history. What makes this collection unique is that it is so wide and covers so much ground, so many different teams and nationalities.”
Remembering the glory days of football “when there were real stars… not ones created by the media”, Sissons recalls playing against icons like Pele and England captain Bobby Moore.
Russell says he’s never paid for anything in his collection and items have come as gifts from the people involved, or given to him by someone he’s done a favour, like reps from companies who sponsor different teams.
“People just keep helping and giving me stuff. I do people favours and they give me signed shirts, photographs and the like in return.”
Russell, who captained his school soccer team and even had a trial with West Ham’s colts’ team, has travelled back and forth between the UK and Durban and Cape Town for the past 40 years, with a few years’ sojourn in Jersey and on the Greek island of Corfu, and claims to be responsible for introducing the concept of “cocktail bars”, “not bars or pubs”, into South Africa.
While in Durban, he began meeting “a lot of English guys who had come over, including several English football stars, who came out to South Africa to play for local teams”.
“South Africans may not realise this, but eight of the English 1966 World Cupwinning squad – including Geoff Hurst, Terry Payne, George Eastham and Bobby Moore, played here. Like the other English players who came to SA, they all came for one last payday… a bit of fun and wages.”
At one stage, Russell owned a holiday company called Villa Parties in Corfu, travelling to South Africa for the summer.
“Greece was amazing. I also had a disco club and video bar in Corfu. I was surrounded by gorgeous girls ready for fun, I lost count of the ones I had; it was a non-stop party. I was drunk for years.
“If I had not met and married my wife Jan, I would be dead now.”
His collection of memorabilia began many years ago when he bought a historic hotel on the banks of the River Wye in Herefordshire in England, which was often used for fashion shoots and as a movie set.
“I met lots of famous people there, like English rugby star Jeremy Guscott and loads of Bond girls, and I started asking them for mementos and signed photos. It just grew from there.”
Russell’s life in the hotel and entertainment business began at the age of 18 when, after a minor brush with the law, his father helped find him a job as “seventh barman – my job was to clear the tables” – in an upmarket London West End cocktail bar that attracted many famous people and their hangers-on.
The job was in the trendy Polo Room of the Westbury Hotel and was frequented by members of the “Swinging Set”, the likes of top ’60s model Chrissie Shrimpton, one-time girlfriend of Mick Jagger, and world land-speed record holder Donald Campbell, the Kray twins, two of the England’s most infamous gangsters – and occasionally even British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
“I was 18 and the girls loved me. It was a fun time and I was having a party.”
He went on to run classy cocktail bars all over London’s West End, often catering for private parties for famous people, like Princess Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd.
“I think she fancied me, but I was warned off,” says Russell, about to tell another of his stories, before deciding that perhaps some discretion may be called for.”
One of the attractions of South Africa for Russell, he says, is the sporting ties that have long existed between the two nations.
“Did you know that the Kop at Liverpool got its name from the Boer War battle at Spioenkop?” asks Russell, before launching into yet another story, this time about how returning British soldiers who had fought in that famous battle started dressing as Zulus and performing before big football games back home.
And for anyone who doesn’t believe the story, there’s a copy of a report from an old Liverpool newspaper in one of the displays, relating the story of the naming of the Kop, to prove what he says.
Russell’s Legends exhibition is in a shop tucked away in a corner of Level One of the Cape Quarter in Somerset Road. Entrance is free, but visitors are encouraged to make a small donation to the Amy Biehl Foundation.
CHEERS: Russell Martin points to a picture of George Best and himself celebrating with the collectors’ cards Best was paid £500 to sign on the table in front of them.
WALL-TO-WALL: Part of Russell Martin’s collection of football legends’ signed shirts and photographs.
PRIZED PIECE: A Brazil shirt signed by the country’s last World Cup-winning team.