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The Big Cheese Interview

Paul Cheesley ranks among the Bristol City legends. Quite simply, his contribution to the great promotion-winning side of 1976 and THAT goal at Highbury will forever mark him down as an Ashton Gate hero. He is the greatest international that City never had - and 25 years after injury cruelly ended his career he is still turning out for the club, acting as a host for corporate hospitality before games. In an exclusive interview with The Incider, he relives the glory days, gives his assessment of the current squad, his feelings about the Ashton Gate Eight and reveals plans for a new drinking hole near the ground where fans can sup a pint of cider with him before the game.

For those City fans who never got a chance to see you in action, what sort of a player were you? 

I was quite a robust player, I guess. My strength was my aerial ability. If I saw a high ball going into the penalty area I was after it, whether it meant taking the keeper with it or not. I used to work hard at trying to linger in the air. I could use both feet and had a bit of speed too. Donnie Gillies and me were the quickest on the track during training. I think the fans liked me because I was very aggressive and I worked hard, and they like to see that you are trying.

When you came to Ashton Gate, did you honestly think the team were going to get promotion?

Well it was a year and a half after I arrived before the team really started playing like a promotion side. I came in December 1972 from Norwich City and to be honest I didn’t want to come. John Bond had just been made manager at Norwich, who were in the top flight. I had had my debut against Manchester United, complete with Bobby Charlton, and I thought that was the start of great things there. But John Bond wanted to buy another player and I didn’t feature in his plans because he liked to play it on the ground.

He thought sensibly and realised that with me being a Bristol lad, maybe City would want me. They agreed a fee behind my back and on the Thursday the Norwich team sheet went up and I wasn’t on it. I wanted to know what was going on, because I’d expected to be in the team, and he told me I was in the reserves. I went home unhappy and then Alan Dicks phoned me up and said: "We’ve agreed a fee. It’s up to you if you want to come." A lot of things go through your mind. If I went back I was going to be in the reserves, Norwich were looking as though they were going to get relegated and I could see City were an up-and-coming side, and thought it would be good to go back home to Bristol. Norwich did go down – and it was great to stuff them 3-0 when they came down for a pre-season friendly the next season.

Alan Dicks didn’t really see eye to eye with me on certain things and we’d have a few arguments about how to play. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut but I was young and thought I knew best. In the end, I figured the best thing to do was to stop rowing and get out there and do it, and that’s when I started making progress. As soon as I was in the first team on a regular basis everything went from strength to strength for me and for the side. I asked to stay behind for extra training in the afternoons and Tom Ritchie stayed on too. Together we worked up a great partnership up front and things started to roll. There was a lot of camaraderie. Those of us who were senior players would go out and help train the younger ones, who would tell us they’d be taking our first team places before long. We didn’t care because it was all for the love of the club and that was what it was all about.

How did you celebrate the promotion to the old Division One?

It was absolutely fabulous, personally and for the team but especially for the fans. The support was amazing then and I’ll never forget it. The whole team went out and painted the town red, white and any other colour we could think of, from the Portsmouth game right through the week up until the next one. I’d better not say too much about it but it is fair to say half of us were still the worse for wear when we lost 2-1 against Notts County. If we’d needed a point or something from the game it would have been different and none of us would have touched a drop, but we were already up.

We had a real affinity with the fans. We used to go to the supporters club and into the bars with them for a few pints after the game because they were the fans and we enjoyed being with them. I think we all had a closer relationship with the supporters in those days than the players do now. It’s because there’s so much more money involved now and things are just a lot different generally. No-one is to blame, it’s just one of those things. Fans start blaming the players if they lose a game and having a go at them because they are on so much more money, and from the players point of view they are expected to have diets of pasta and such like, whereas we would eat and drink anything.

So tell us about that Arsenal goal? What do you remember about that day?

We went to Highbury when Malcolm McDonald had been signed from Arsenal for a third of a million pounds. Everyone up there was talking about what they were going to do to the country bumpkins. But we had enough aggression and determination and we went up there with the attitude that nobody was going to do that to us. I hit the post and hit the bar and scored – and 3-0 would not have flattered us. The Arsenal keeper, Jimmy Rimmer, didn’t know what was going on.

Tom Ritchie broke down the flank. He knocked it back to Clive Whitehead who had a quick look up, crossed the ball and...bang. I knew it was going in the moment I’d got my head onto it and I was halfway into the stands by the time it went over the line. It was a fantastic moment for me and the club. The fact that people still talk about it is an accolade that I feel honoured by - but it wasn’t the only goal I scored!

And the injury?

The ball went in the air, Peter Shilton jumped up, I headed the ball and it went over the bar. As I landed I tried to put my leg out but my knee hyper-extended. It was a really bad accident. Maybe it was one of those balls I shouldn’t have gone for, but if you stop doing the things you are renowned for then you are not the same player. The game has changed so much since then and maybe players these days wouldn’t even go for a ball like that.

I worked hard to get the leg back working until I realise it was never going to be good enough to play on. But I see it as a fantastic character builder. I can understand now how people who have long-term injuries feel. I feel so happy when I see players out a long time who have managed to come back. I was unlucky, but I feel great for them because I know what it would have meant to me and how hard they have had to work to come back.

How far do you think you could have gone if the injury had not cut your career short?

People make their own judgements, but I know in my own mind how good I was, how much better I was getting and that I could have gone so much further. I had a letter from Don Revie saying I had been chosen to play against Hungary, but City were playing Sunderland and it was an important game. I realised I had to take it one rung at a time and that the important thing was to get promotion. If we could get into the First Division then there would be plenty of other chances coming along. But of course it didn’t work out that way.

I know Paul Mariner very well and with no disrespect to him I think I had more in my locker than him. We were similar players but I had a left foot as well as a right one and was a bit faster. He was a great player and he played many internationals so I feel I could have gone further in time.

What was Alan Dicks like as a manager and which of his successors have impressed you most? 

Alan Dicks was a fantastic manager. He was one of the longest-serving managers in the football league, and that was for a good reason. He would tell us: “Go out and enjoy yourselves, but remember who you are and where you are.” He expected us to enjoy ourselves but be sensible. He treated us like adults and was always totally honest with us, and because of that we didn’t take advantage. All the players looked after each other and if one of us stepped over the line someone else was there to tell them. His assistant early on was John Sillett and he was a real disciplinarian. He had you back out on the pitch on a Sunday if you lost - even if you’d played brilliantly and had just been beaten through really bad luck or a poor decision.

Of the managers since, John Ward impressed me immensely. He did very well with a bunch of young lads. Danny Wilson is doing a great job at the club too. The youngsters are playing some fantastic football from the back right through to the front. They aren’t panicking, they are just knocking the ball around and are getting better all the time.

How far can this current City team go?

Well it’s a good sign that they are all still there and none of them want to leave. That shows how they’ve grown together. We have got the likes of Matty Hill, who is fantastic, terrific, and getting better. He needs to improve his distribution, but what a player! And Danny Coles is another one who impresses me. What a fantastic centre-half he is going to be. And there’s still Louis Carey to come back in. Joe Burnell is another impressive youngster. They are local lads – and that is what we had in the '70s when we got promotion. The current squad are very similar in many ways. Everyone gets on well together. There is the same sort of togetherness we had. You can feel it within the club. The camaraderie within the squad is fantastic. There is no bickering. You can see them enjoying each others’ company off the pitch. They always look after each other.

I think they can get promotion but I think we need another striker. We have Peacock and Matthews and Beadle injured. We need an old head like Beads. He is a fantastic guy with a great deal of knowledge of the game. He talks Christian Roberts around the pitch and gets the most out of him, telling him to make a run to the back post or look for a ball to the near post. He teaches him and is helping him all the time. That's why they look so good playing together up front. Beads will be the first to admit he is never going to catch pigeons, but he is a good link man and can hold the ball up and wait for support. We need some more of that and it looks a bit thin at the moment.

Do you think the Ashton Gate Eight should be officially remembered? If so, how?

Of course they should. They lost money and at that point there was not much money around for anyone, so they didn’t have fortunes stashed away. They could have gone bankrupt. The club survived and a couple of seasons later they were bragging that they were £2 million in the black, but none of that went to the players who enabled it to happen.

I know that this is a different regime and some people will say, “Why do the people at the club at the present owe the people from the past anything?” But if they put a game on and got an England XI together they would be able to fill the place up, give the proceeds to the eight players and say: “Thank you”. The supporters want to thank them but it was not the supporters who put them in that position, it was the club. I know the guys who were in the Eight and we are really good friends They have memories and there are one or two that still feel hurt. I feel something positive should be done. The club could make it possible if they wanted to it just takes a bit of organisation and time.

What would be your first choice strike partnership if all our squad was fit?

That is an extremely tough one. Christian Roberts’ work rate is fantastic. He is a bit raw but he works hard and is very aggressive and plays to have a go at people. It is good to have someone like that around. Peter Beadle makes a good partner for him because he talks him around the pitch. Lee Peacock doesn’t talk enough on the pitch for me. I’d like to see Peacock show a little bit more work rate. He has changed a little bit since Tony Thorpe left and I hope he changes back. He has the skill and he is fantastic in the area. I would love to coach him in a one-to-one session to work on holding the ball up and making runs into the box because he needs to improve those areas. But I think with everyone fit it would have to be Roberts and Peacock.

What do you think about the atmosphere down the Gate now? How does it compare to the old days and how could it be improved?

There was much more noise in our day. There were bigger crowds but the fans were also putting far more effort into raising the team in every game. Now it goes really quiet at times. You need to pick the team up and get behind them. I have heard people around me shouting obscenities after a couple of passes go astray – but these people have won six or seven games on the trot! If they were all perfect it wouldn’t be worth watching. The fans can really help to get their dander up. When you are having a bad day, you can hear what people are shouting. If you pick up something positive then it is absolutely fabulous and it lifts you. As an away team, it’s also frightening to come into the cauldron. If there is a big roar you soon realise there is a hell of a noise and you’re going to have a lot to cope with. It really does have an affect.

How do you enjoy your role at the club and what are your future plans?

I still do matchday hospitality and I really enjoy it. It’s great to talk to all the fans you get to meet and also to see the games, which I really love. I have also done a fair bit of taxi-ing but I’m moving back into the pub trade. I don’t want to say too much but it’s not a million miles away from the ground and people will be able to have a drink there before the game. We are about 75 per cent there and we are hoping to be up and running in the early part of December.

*Do you have any memories of the Big Cheese and the Bristol City glory days? If so, please share them with other city fans by writing to the incider at letters@theincider.com. We'd love to hear from you.

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