The term ‘character’ is perhaps a little overused, but – believe me – Hugh Symons was a character. Not many people, after all, get to star in GQ magazine at the age of 80. And even fewer octogenarians are selected for inclusion because they happen still to be playing football.
Hughie died recently after a period in a major London teaching hospital. He had once been a consultant there, but unfortunately – as old age and memory loss took its toll – he wouldn’t have recalled the fact. And the staff who treated him were none the wiser either.
If we turned back the clock a few decades, however, Hughie was actually a rheumatology specialist and in charge of physical medicine. Leading football players of the day would come to him with their knocks and injuries, which would have put him into seventh heaven, as Hughie himself had been a very useful player in his time. He signed for Wimbledon in an age when they’d pay you a shilling and cover your bus fare if you turned up for training. In the end, the football became a hobby rather than a profession. But a very serious hobby that took up a whole load of free time.
My father played with Hughie in a Sunday side known as London Hospitals. Each year, this unlikely band of medics and a few of their relatives and friends secured a season’s worth of friendlies based largely on Hugh’s personal contacts and organisational skills. The games would lead them to places like Gunnersbury Park, where they’d take on the staff of the District Line. Any ball that didn’t end up in the net had to be rescued from nearby tracks by one of the players, who’d need to be careful to avoid the live rail.
As a teenager, I frequently substituted for regular team members who got lost en route or forgot to set their alarm clock of a Sunday morning. I remember attractive home games at Cobham on a ground which later became a training centre for Chelsea FC, as well as rather less attractive away games in the shadow of Wormwood Scrubs. These friendly fixtures would have a ref, but no linesmen to give any guidance on fouls and offsides. Brawls were not unknown.
At the heart of the action was Hughie, who at this point – in the early 1980s – would have been well into his sixties. He lacked pace, as you might expect, but was still skilful enough to make some telling passes and score the occasional goal.
Why on earth would a group of young men turn out on a Sunday to play football with a guy who was old enough to be their father? Quite simply, because he was a legend on this particular circuit. And without his contacts and constant phone calls, there wouldn’t have been any games. No one else could be bothered with the logistics and hard graft.
Every so often, you’d get a newspaper article or regional TV news item about Hughie, who was also known as ‘Tank’ because of his formidable presence on the pitch. The angle was always the same: an extraordinary old guy who still played football at a time in his life when you’d expect him to have hung up his boots and sat himself in an armchair with a copy of Saga Magazine. There was more to Hughie than the stories suggested though. Not just the medical career, but also a spell in the Middle East with the armed forces after the war, a keen interest in ornithology and a fascination with politics. Hughie had stood as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in the early 50s, but had more in common with the old-style leftists of the Labour Party such as Tony Benn than any modern-day Lib Dem like Vince Cable or Nick Clegg. He was happy to voice strong opinions on topical issues, particularly after a couple of glasses of medicinal white wine and maybe the occasional vodka chaser or two.
I feel we gave Hugh a decent send-off at the South London Crematorium in Streatham last week. Amid all the hullabaloo surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, it’s always good to remind ourselves that we don’t have to turn on the television or surf the web to find exceptional and inspirational characters. I trust a football is being gently knocked against the Pearly Gates as I write.