Lou Macari, Stoke City’s manager in the nineties, was welcomed to the Victoria Ground by a group of fans. At the end of the day, one of those fans was still outside waiting. Macari asked him what he did for a job, he said he was unemployed. The Potters’ new manager asked what he used to do, he answered: ‘circus clown’. This conversation led to an offer of work as the club’s kit-man and developed into a friendship that has lasted for over twenty years.
Neil Baldwin has a skill for making friends, famous and well connected ones at that. Not only can Neil be found out walking with Lou Macari and his dog but he classes Kevin Keegan, Gordon Banks, Graham Taylor and many other footballers as his friends. It’s this skill and his positive outlook that has earned him a BBC film about his life.
What makes Neil’s life worth televising is the unbelievable things he has achieved, despite his learning difficulties. Some would think that he is a Walter Mitty type character, when he says he’s friends with Archbishops and once ran away to the circus to become a clown.
Lou Macari dedicated seven pages to Neil in his autobiography and said that he is a ‘man without an angle and there aren’t many of them in football.’
Malcolm Clarke, the Football Supporters Federation Chair, first met Neil in 1964. Neil was on campus at Keele University, where he was a regular fixture when he introduced himself to Malcolm, who was a new student.
“I didn’t know quite who he was”, Malcolm said. Neil welcomed Malcolm to Keele University as he did with countless undergraduates. Neil doesn’t work at the university – it just makes him happy to be there.
“He is almost totally lacking in embarrassment and self-consciousness,” says the FSF Chair. “If he wants to speak to someone or ask a question he will. If he saw David Cameron on the other side of the road, you or I would say ‘oh look there’s David Cameron’. Neil would probably cross the road to introduce himself.”
During his time at Keele University he created his own football team, the Neil Baldwin Football Club. He is player, manager, coach and kit-man. He recruits players from the university to play and when they move on he’ll recruit the next generation of students.
Malcolm Clarke has played for Neil Baldwin FC a few times. He told me a story of Neil setting up a fixture against Oxford University. Malcolm had no idea where he got the contact from but he managed to arrange the game between the two teams. Both teams were slightly ‘misled’ about each other’s ability. After 20 minutes Neil Baldwin FC were down 9-0. The player/manager spent the rest of the game running around telling his team to ‘get a grip’ and that they could win it.
Malcolm says Neil has a very positive attitude and ‘lives life to the full’, even when he’s faced with a nine goal deficit.
Clarke believes that Neil shows the ‘dangers’ of labelling people with learning difficulties: “We all have needs, difficulties and limitations. What Neil shows is that you can disregard those labels and just create what opportunities you can.”
I asked him whether Stoke City using him as a talisman was a sign that they might be laughing at him, not with him. As the Potter’s kit-man, Baldwin has previously sat in the dugout during matches dressed as a chicken and in full white tie and tails. ‘Nello’ the clown once interrupted a TV interview dressed as a Scotsman in full kilt and fake beard.
Clarke agrees that there is a fine line and that some of Lou Macari’s book makes for ‘quite uncomfortable reading’, but he also thinks that even if people do laugh at him it won’t worry him.
In 1993, during Gordon Cowan’s testimonial at Villa Park, Neil came on as a sub for Stoke. He played the last five minutes for his beloved club. Both teams ignored the fact that he was old, overweight and Stoke now had 12 players on the pitch. The players passed him the ball and he almost got a shot on goal.
This is a man who makes his dreams come true. Malcolm Clarke describes Neil as the person who is the most content with his life that he has ever met and that he has got more out of his relationship with Neil than Neil has with him.
In the BBC film Marvellous, Neil tells Clarke: “I’ve always wanted to be happy, so I decided to be.” If only we could all live life this way.
Marvellous will be shown on BBC2 at 9pm on Thursday 25th September.
Read more from Laura Jones here!