David Harrison: 65+ Years At The Casuals

David Harrison has been involved with Corinthian-Casuals for over 65 years, first as a player and then as a committee member, organising the reserve team and the Schools XI. He is also a journalist and broadcaster of great renown. Dominic Bliss caught up with him recently to ask about his extraordinary experiences as a footballer, reporter and Corinthian…

By now you have gone beyond stalwart status at this club, but how did your connection to Corinthian-Casuals begin?

I played my first game in 1953. It was quite bizarre, really, because I’d just played in the Oxford and Cambridge football match in early December, and a few days later I saw in the Daily Telegraph that this chap ‘Harrison’ was going to play for Corinthian-Casuals against Highgate School. 

I was flattered at that because I knew all about the Corinthian-Casuals – I’d played against them for many years at school and university. So, I turned up at Highgate School and said, “I’ve come to play”, and they said, “Well, we’ve never heard of you!”

But there was a man in the team called Reg Vowels, who was an England international and had won cup winners’ medals with Pegasus. He’d been at the same school as me, so he knew me, and he stood down for me. 

I thought, if an England international will stand down for David Harrison, this club’s got something. That was how I came to play for Corinthian-Casuals – because of that gesture – and I’ve been involved on and off ever since.

So it was an early taste of the club’s ethos that drew you in…

Well, it was extremely generous. Reg Vowels was twice the player that I’d ever be, and he stood down for me. It was amazing… and there weren’t any substitutes in those days, so I played, and he didn’t.

Did you play for any other teams? 

Well, I played in a lot of sides because I had a job which took me all over the place. Immediately after that period, I was abroad for two years – I worked in Australia, in various jobs, and played a bit of football. Then I went to Hong Kong and had a great football experience there.

It happened because I was trying to get to Japan at the time. I was working in a bar in Hong Kong that was frequented by British servicemen – I was hired because I had my jacket and tie on, and I was supposed to add a bit of status to the bar. I’m not sure if I did that or not, but I would go down to the docks each day to see if there were any ships going to Japan and one day there was a Norwegian freighter that came in. I went over to them and said, “Any chance of a job to get me through to Tokyo?” And they said, “Sure, come on board!”

I started off by chipping paint while they were still in port, and they said, “Do you by any chance play football?” I said, “Yeah, I sure do.” And they said, “Well, we’ve got a game this afternoon in Hong Kong – do you want to play?” 

So I played, and as it happened, the first time I touched the ball, I squared it across goal and the chap headed it in – and it was the captain, who was the real football enthusiast on board. So that set me up. They said, “Look, we’re going to Tokyo, then we’re going all the way back to Europe, and we’ve got football matches lined up all the way back. Do you want to stay on board and play for us?”

But I had plans to work in Canada and I’d taken out all the papers to go as an immigrant because that was the only way you could work there, so I didn’t take up the offer, but it was a wonderful offer. 

What work were you doing at that time?

In Australia, I’d had a lot of jobs. I even worked in the bush, but more important was the reason I went to Australia, which was for the 1956 Olympics. The Times had offered me a job helping to cover the Games. 

I covered a lot of football, as well as basketball and various other sports. I enjoyed doing the boxing because the Brits had some good boxers, including a guy called Terry Spinks, who got a Gold. 

Then I went to Adelaide and covered the Davis Cup in the days of Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, when Australia were absolutely top of the world at tennis, and they slaughtered the Americans. 

They paid me £30 plus £15 expenses for my reports, but it got me a foot in the door, so when I came back after my trip around the world I managed to get a job on The Times, and then got hired by the BBC.

Presumably once you were based in England, you were able to represent Corinthian-Casuals more regularly.

Well, that’s when I was able to play a bit, yes. I remember playing in one game in the fifties, when I was also doing a report for The Times. It was against Cambridge University at The Oval, and I scored! 

I think, in the match report, I said, “Harrison surprised the opposition, and himself, by scoring from Insole’s corner.” I don’t think there’ve been too many Times football reporters who’ve reported on games they’d actually played in. I felt that was quite unique, I was proud of that.

I imagine a lot of Corinthian-Casuals players had jobs and responsibilities that took them away in those days, so it must have been hard to field the same team consistently.

Well, I suppose that was true. For a time, I was working for the BBC at Alexandra Palace, in television news, and Doug Flack was our manager. We used to train in south-east London, and I used to trek across London a couple of times a week for training and that was very well attended. 

But we never did particularly well – we floundered low down. It’s only in these later years that we’ve got the Bracken contingent, and they’ve put us up where we’ve never been before. It’s been fantastic being around to see how well we’ve done. 

We did well in the cup competitions back in those days, mind you, even though we floundered in the league.

Well, once or twice, yes. They reach the final of the FA Amateur Cup in ’56, didn’t they, and drew with Bishop Auckland 1-1 at Wembley, then lost the replay. That was when Mickey Stewart was on the sidelines having played all the previous rounds, because he was away on a cricket tour for the final.

Which is very Corinthian in itself, given the number of cricketers that played for us.

Yes, that’s right – there were a lot of cricketers. Doug Insole was a key figure. I mean, he was remarkable because, having played a very large number of games in the first team, he went on to play a very large number of games for the schools side too. That was a big example – for someone with the record he’d got to keep going with the schools side that Brian Wakefield was running. 

I was very much involved with the schools side at various stages. When Brian was ill, I took over the running of it, but I played until I was 65, so I had quite a few years at the Corinthian-Casuals in one way or another.

So many people of your generation played for the schools side after they had finished playing for the first team. What was the attraction, for you?

Well, that was the thing we all did. We used to drive all over the country to schools in various parts. That was the big event on Saturday – we’d drive to Shrewsbury, Winchester and places like that. 

Winchester was always an important one and we always used to try and go there, and recruit players from there as well, because our great friend Geoff Hewitson – who had played for the club for years and was also chairman – taught there. So we had a long link with places like that, which was always a good thing. 

We had similar links with lots of other schools, and that was all done by Brian Wakefield. I mean, he was extraordinary because he’d had a brilliant career himself. He was an absolutely top-notch goalkeeper, yet when he stopped playing, he ran our schools side for 30 years.

It’s remarkable to hear about the time that people have given up to this club, and it doesn’t seem to have been a bind to many of them, but something they’ve enjoyed.

That’s right. Well, I’ve felt it’s a privilege to be involved. I did all sorts of jobs – I ran the reserves for several years. I never ran the first team, but I was chairman of the club for a number of years. Then there are chores like doing the newsletter, which has always been a privilege, trying to pull some stories together about what the chaps have been up to.

I have to ask you about touring. How much joy have you derived from all the far-flung trips you’ve been on with the club down the years?

Touring is a great tradition of the club, and we’ve certainly been on a few interesting ones, I must say. One of the most exciting was when the veterans went to South Africa – that was quite something. South Africa was a country which I spent my life working in, following the story of apartheid and all that for the BBC, so to actually go back there and play football, which we did in Durban and Cape Town, was very exciting. 

Then, of course, South America is perhaps the most exciting. In 1988, we had communication with John Mills, an absolute stalwart at Sao Paulo Athletic Club. It was their centenary, and they invited Corinthian-Casuals to come to Brazil and play against them to mark the occasion. Then, as part of that trip, he initiated the link to Corinthians. 

How did that come about?

He approached Corinthians Paulista, who obviously had that famous link with us – that of our grandfathers who went there when they were founded in 1910. So the trip was organised, and off we went, with plans to play primarily against Sao Paulo Athletic Club, and then against Corinthians. 

Then, of course, there was a big discussion via John Mills about what sort of Corinthians side might play, and they said, “We’ll play our past and present [on the same day].” So they assembled a side of their legends and we played against them as a curtain raiser to a league game. 

It was a team that included Rivellino and Socrates, who had never played together – they were of a different generation. The exciting thing about Socrates was that he was very much a sort of Corinthian because, as well as being an astonishing footballer and captaining Brazil, he was a doctor. In fact, he was a paediatrician, a specialist.

We thought, “Well, this is somebody who might look favourably on Corinthian-Casuals,” and that’s why we said to the club, “Do you think Socrates would play a bit of the game for us?” And he agreed, and we were thrilled to bits, because he played 20 minutes in chocolate and pink. It was much celebrated, you know, and we all believe that he was perhaps the best player ever to put the chocolate and pink on. That was a great thrill.

Incredible, isn’t it? This club’s name means a lot around the world. When we went to Budapest a couple years ago, just the mere mention that the Corinthians were coming to play there was enough for several newspapers to show up.

Yes, that’s true. I remember I was working in Paris for a couple of years for the BBC and I organised a visit by Corinthian-Casuals. I was actually playing football in Paris, which was fun, and I managed to get them over on tour and we played two or three games, scattered over France, and people in each place had heard of us, so it wasn’t difficult just to say, “Can we come and play?”

At the end of all those experiences, what do you think it means to be a Corinthian? 

Well, I think you do it because you love it. To me, perhaps the people you could really label ‘Corinthian’ are people like Mickey and Alec Stewart, who had professional careers – highly successful careers – and yet they came and joined us, and played for us… and Mickey’s still club president. I mean, if ever there was a Corinthian, it’s him.

Find out what our other interviewees said when asked ‘What does it mean to be a Corinthian?’ in the final episode of our second series. Listen on the player below, on our Podcasts page, or on all podcast apps.