Kiss and tell
PHUKET: Former Chelsea player and Leicester City legend Alan Birchenall talks to Dane Halpin about football, Mick Jagger impersonations, and his life as an involuntary gay icon
Friday 20 July 2012, 09:51AM
He’s brutally honest, and tells me his career consisted of precisely two things: “One goal against Leeds – a thirty-five yarder – and a kiss.”
But perhaps Alan Birchenall MBE is just being modest. After all, this wasn’t just any kiss – it was an embrace that challenged popular perceptions of sport, and even had the British prime minister of the time lambasting the decline of English football.
Of course, the infamous osculation was just one of many stories the former Chelsea player, and Leicester City legend, shed light on when he was in Phuket recently, as he spilled the beans on some of the highlights – and lowlights – of his eventful career.
“The funny thing is that they’re the stories I can’t tell you, the highlights,” he says through a cheeky grin.
“If you played in the late ’60s and the ’70s, it was probably the golden era of English football. We won the World Cup in ’66 and for the next 10 years, it was just flamboyant football.”
Between partying with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, we can only imagine the tales of debauchery that occurred off the field, though Birchenall did share one insight into those two English bands: “I’ll tell you what they didn’t do, they didn’t get a round of beers, the tight b**tards.”
An attacking midfielder, Birchenall gave up his day job as an engine fitter and started his professional football career with Sheffield United in 1963.
He made his league debut a year later, and won the first two of his four England under-23 caps while with the Blades.
He had the privilege of playing with, and against, some of the greatest players the world has ever seen – including Best, Pelé and Beckenbauer, to name but a few – but he says the true significance of what he achieved has only sunk in later in life.
“When you’re a 20-year-old, you just take it on board. Looking back on it now... and you think ‘these players are legends’.
“At the time, you didn’t look upon him as George Best, the unbelievable footballer, which he was. You just looked upon him as a player of our generation.”
And for all the money and careerism that exists in the modern game, Birchenall still maintains his generation was up there with the best of all time, and he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“People always say, ‘with the money that’s flying around the game today, what we were earning was peanuts.’ I’m not being facetious, of course I’d have liked to have earned the money, but you can’t replace that.
“The football today is quicker, and therefore you have to be marginally fitter, but I wouldn’t say it’s any more skillful. Ronaldo or Messi are outstanding footballers, but every team I played against had great players.
But Birchenall didn’t exactly do too bad in the money stakes – he was among the first players to command a £100,000 price tag when he moved from Sheffield Utd to Chelsea in November 1967.
Leicester City then paid £80,000 for him in 1971, and he remained with them until 1977, before later going on to play for American NASL (precursor of the modern day MLS) sides San Jose Earthquakes and Memphis Rogues.
But Birchenall says being offered that kind of money doesn’t change a footballer, even in today’s environment of multi-million dollar players.
“You’re exactly the same person. It’s immaterial... Money doesn’t corrupt a footballer.”
Yet despite his success on the field, Birchenall says one of the few regrets of his colourful life was never pulling on the national strip, despite captaining the England under-23 side.
And he says it was all thanks to a night out in Hungary while on tour with the under-23s.
“We were allowed a night out in Budapest... and it was dead. But I could hear some music, and where there’s music there’s beer. So I said ‘come on lads’, and about six or seven of the lads entered this dark room.”
After a few pints, the band started playing ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones.
After an enthusiastic Mick Jagger rendition, Birchenall says everyone in the bar was cheering for more – everyone except his teammates, who were nowhere to be seen.
“As the lights came on, sat in the corner were the team officials who came on the trip.”
A report went back, and Birchenall never played for his country again.
But despite his solid returns for Chelsea and Leicester, and his moonlighting as a Hungarian cabaret dancer, Birchenall’s playing days have instead been immortalised by one of the more unusual moments in world sport: An innocent exchange between two passionate footballers, and a well-placed photographer with a very long lens and immaculate timing.
It was 1974, and Leicester were down 4-0 against Sheffield United. The game was into the dying stages, and Leicester’s Birchenall was running for the ball. He collided with Sheffield player Tony Currie, and both went down.
“As I came out of the tumble, I just looked at him and said ‘Give us a kiss’… and behind the goal, there was a guy with a zoom lens, and he just captured that split second. And we just played on and thought nothing else about it.”
But that fraction of a second, splashed across the front pages of the British tabloids, would be the catalyst for parliamentary debates and scathing newspaper editorials about the state of football in England.
Perhaps more amusingly, it catapulted the pair into fame as gay icons across Europe; Birchenall was even approached to write a regular column for a German gay magazine. He declined.
To this day, there is a large print of the infamous moment mounted at the Leicester City ground. For the sake of posterity, Birchenall has added a caption next to it: “Just good friends.”
Despite not playing for England himself, Birchenall was able to share his thoughts on the Three Lions’ recent performance at the Euro championships, which saw them bow out in the semi-finals after several lacklustre performances.
“Predictable. I think we all knew,” he says.
“I think the most outstanding team won the tournament, and if anything’s been proved in the last few years is that you’ve got to adjust your game to play football now. You don’t necessarily have to have a big lump up front.
“It’s proved itself watching Spain over the last eight years, you can play any system you want if you want to control the ball and drag the other team around the pitch.”
“Because we invented the game, let’s don’t be embarrassed by taking [from other countries].” And one country we might be seeing a little more of in England in the foreseeable future is Thailand.
Birchenall was visiting these shores as part of his duties as ambassador for Leicester City. In August 2010, the club was bought by a Thai-led consortium fronted by duty-free retailers King Power Group, meaning the club now has strong Southeast Asian ties.
Birchenall says the visit to Thailand has opened his eyes to the enormous potential of football in Asia. “What’s surprised me is how passionate it is out here [in Thailand],” he says. “And now I understand why King Power [came in].
“Back home in England it was questioned a bit, ‘Are they here for the long term?’. And having been out here, yes, 100 per cent, because you realise how passionate they are about football.”
As for Thai players in the Premier League: “That time will come,” Birchenall says.
Already, players from [Bangkok-based Thai Premier League side] Buriram FC are going over to train with Leicester City.
“I can tell you a few of the lads have been very, very impressive, and that’s a massive high level to get in our academy.” He says the progress is evident, and it’s only a matter of time before more serious football is being played in Thailand.
But between his overzealous on-field male bonding, playing against Pele, and his lifetime ties with Leicester , Birchenall himself has never taken life too seriously, and therein perhaps lies his greatest success.
“In over 500 games, I never came off the pitch without having a laugh, with a supporter, with a referee, a teammate, or whatever.
“It was my job, and it was serious, but football is a sport, it’s an entertainment, and I treated it that way.”