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Phoenix from the Flames: Skinner on Astle

9 April 2015

Frank, on Jeff

COMEDIAN Frank Skinner became friends with Jeff Astle during the mid-1990s when the Albion legend became a regular on BBC series Fantasy Football League.

They remained close until Jeff's death in 2002.

The Baggies supporter gives his own personal insight to on working with his all-time Albion hero.

Q. How did Jeff come to work for you?
A. I was doing a show called Fantasy Football with a bit called Phoenix From The Flames where we would recreate famous goals from the past. We wanted to do what some cynics call the 'offside goal' against Leeds United - I would call it the 'perfectly legitimate goal' myself. It was a goal that Albion fans and Leeds fans remembered but probably nobody else. And best of all it was a chance to meet Jeff Astle, who had been my hero since I could remember. His name was on my roughbook at school, I had badges with his name on, I had a plastic cap - which was pretty horrible - that had Jeff's name on there too. 

Q. Tell us about Jeff, Gary Sprake and the Astle garden...
A. We were travelling up to Jeff's house and there was this mixture of excitement and fear because there is that old saying about 'not meeting your heroes'. He might have been unpleasant and that would have been upsetting having loved him all those years...but we got there and he was great. And that's how he was. A, he was friendly. B, he was actually very good at what we asked him to do. Former footballers aren't trained to be actors or comics so we used to struggle with many of them but Jeff took to it brilliantly. He got Laraine involved playing Gary Sprake - 'Laraine...she'll be Gary Sprake' - and he was brilliant. When we left the house I was sat in the car and couldn't speak to anyone - I was so excited. It was like being in shock. But the other people on the show realised just how brilliant he was. He'd had a single out called Sweet Water and so we asked Jeff to be a singer on our show each week, which he did. 

Q. And so 'Jeff Astle Sings' was born?
A. He'd come down every week and be as stiff as a post like all ex-players tend to be. I think it was all that cortisone footballers used to get in their knees - when you're the best players the clubs would want to make sure you were on the pitch. He'd be there tellings us jokes and stories about his week. And he'd punctuate each punchline with, literally, a punch. He'd give you a dig in the ribs. I found myself standing further and further back. He loved getting laughs. They talk about people who retain the child about themselves and Jeff was very much like that. He said 'you know me Frank...I like to be laughing and joking wherever I go'. He'd been my hero and then he became a natural comedian too. What more was there to love?

Q. It revived his profile too didn't it?
A. He didn't need any publicity with Albion fans. We were always looking for the next Jeff Astle. I remember when Cyrille Regis was up here and people sang  'Astle is back'. But also what most people were remembered for by the general public wasn't the 1968 FA Cup Final, all the goals he scored for us that season, or the England caps but that miss against Brazil. But I think the perception changed a bit. 

Q. Were you aware how unwell Jeff was?
A. Looking back at the end of his time on Fantasy Football I remember taking the mickey out of him for forgetting stuff. We used to pull his leg about it. Of course we didn't know those were the first signs of the illness setting in. The one thing I do hold on to is that I know the doctor said to Laraine that learning those lines probably kept it at bay as the best thing you can do for the brain is keep it active and give it challenges to do. I'd like to think that was the case. But, yes, I do look back and think...'oh God'. I do recall he couldn't remember the national anthem and I said 'Jeff, I know for a fact you've heard it five times...' Nobody knew. With Fantasy Football he was still very much a livewire. The decline came afterwards.
The minute's silence against Walsall was ...I don't know how I got through it. I went to Jeff's funeral. I remember when the coffin came through, a load of Albion fans cheered and applauded. Which is what they did whenever they saw Jeff - even at his funeral. And then there was the gesture by Jason Roberts. I know some fans had their arguments with Jason about how he left but I, personally, forgive him everything for that gesture. He realised how important Jeff was. Anyone who has been at this club for any length of time appreciates what Jeff meant.

Q. Which brings us onto this day...
A. It's important, not just for Jeff but important for everyone connected with football. You want to learn from what happened, to look after people the way Jeff should have been looked after and to prevent such things happening in the future. Im no expert on neurology but I saw the x-ray and saw the reports and it seems obvious what happened to Jeff. And yet I was one of those people willing him to score. When we got a corner it was one of the most exciting things in the world because you knew he'd be on the end of it. Jeff was so good at it. It was a specialist skill. Nobody knew the implications.
I remember when he scored that goal in the League Cup final against Manchester City. Their manager Joe Mercer, who was the guest in the studio afterwards, said  '...when Astle soared up like a great, white seagull'...I thought,yes, that's right.
Every time I park the car I walk past the Astle Gates I always give him a pat on the chest. It doesn't matter if you watched him or not. I'm glad I saw him play. But it goes beyond that. If you're an Albion fan, you get it - it's a family thing.

And here is Jeff Astle...playing Jeff Astle. And Laraine playing Gary Sprake.

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