Tony Dewhurst meets an Eccleston-based octagenarian who kept goal for Liverpool and Ipswich Town back in the 1950s, and once saved a penalty from Tom Finney
When he was 12 Charlie Ashcroft stood over six feet tall.
They stuck him in goal, working on the theory that his frame would make it a much smaller target, and he found great satisfaction in the job.
Even now, in his 82nd year, bright-eyed and sharp as a tack, he recalls another era, when Charlie played for Liverpool, joining the Anfield ranks from Preston and District League side Eccleston Juniors in 1946.
"I signed for Liverpool for 2, ten shillings a week, and I thought, 'Blimey, I've made it'," he said.
"I was part-time at Anfield because I was still serving my apprenticeship at Leyland gas works!
"I'd had a trial, then I got an official card through the post, saying, 'Dear Charlie, would you accompany Liverpool's reserve team for a Central League game at Burnley on Christmas Day'.
"So I turned up at Turf Moor and my name was on the team-sheet.
"It rained and rained, and it was blowing an awful gale.
"I stopped a shot and the ball was like a lump of lead.
"We played Burnley 24 hours later at Anfield and afterwards one of the lads shouted, 'Charlie, you're wanted in the manager's office'.
"They offered me my first professional contract.
"I didn't sign then, though.
"I went back to Eccleston to ask my uncle Ellis Cornwell, who was a player for Rochdale and Chorley.
"He just said, 'Get your pen and sign, Charlie'. So I did.
"I was only there six weeks and I made my debut against Everton.
"And we beat them 4-0 at Anfield.
"I seemed to handle it very well and I always felt comfortable. I was so proud, you know."
Ashcroft was at Anfield for nine years, making 87 appearances for the Reds, shoulder-to-shoulder with Bob Paisley and Billy Liddell.
"When I got there I was the only goalkeeper Liverpool had," he says.
"They had another chap but he wasn't up to much.
"Then they signed Cyril Sidlow from Wolverhampton Wanderers and I was out of the side, but I got plenty of opportunities later on.
"In the first team the wages went up to 15-a-week, with a 2 win bonus. I felt like a millionaire.
"In the summer, my money dropped to 12, 10 shillings because I wasn't playing!
He recalls a 4-4 draw against Manchester United at Anfield in August 1953, still the highest scoring post-war score between the two old rivals.
"It was an incredible game, with three of the Busby Babes – Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg – in the United side," he recalls.
"Louis Bimpson scored a hat-trick for Liverpool.
"We led 4-2, but United came back through Eddie Lewis and Tommy Taylor."
Taylor's equaliser was a controversial one, bundling Ashcroft into the net, with seven minutes to go. The Liverpool Echo reported that hundreds of police formed a solid wall in front of a furious Kop terrace.
"You're not allowed to lay a finger on the goalkeeper now, but in my day as soon as you got the ball they were on to you, pushing and shoving," he says.
"When the ball was wet it was like trying to catch a cannonball.
"It had big laces on the outside – I've seen players knocked out by shots.
"Billy Liddell had the hardest shot I ever saw.
"I played at Stoke and got winded so badly I couldn't stand up.
"It was near the end, and when the referee came over, he said, 'Stand up Charlie and I'll blow for full-time' – and he did.
"I think it was a fairer, more gentlemanly game then.
"Playing in front of the Kop was incredible.
"The Kop would pack in 27,000 then, a sea of red and white swaying about in front of you.
"They'd raise the roof, and the noise was astounding.
"I would always get a great reception – it took your breath away.
"Sometimes people call Liverpudlians fit to burn, but I've got some good friends in Liverpool I can tell you."
Ashcroft lived in digs with a family on Goodison Avenue, yards from Everton's ground.
"They were very happy times," he says.
"I'd walk across Stanley Park to training every morning, come rain or shine.
"I got friendly with Joe Mercer, who played for Arsenal then.
"He lived in Birkenhead so he'd train with us a couple of days a week.
"When Liverpool played Arsenal in the 1950 FA Cup final, though, Joe had to train on his own, away from our squad.
"I was picked as his training partner and Joe tried to tap me up to join Arsenal.
"The next day the newspapers carried a story, claiming Arsenal had offered 6,000 to buy me, which was a lot of money then.
"But Liverpool said no and that was that."
Ashcroft was at Deepdale earlier this month for the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Preston.
"I thought Preston were a bit unlucky and it brought back a lot of memories for me," he said.
"I once saved a penalty from Tom Finney at Deepdale.
"Tom had scored a penalty against us a year earlier.
"I got my hand to it, pushed the ball against a post and it went in.
"I knew where he was going to put it the next time, and I scrambled it wide.
"Finney was some footballer, though.
"There were so many smashing players – Nat Lofthouse, Len Shackleton, Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen, all legendary characters."
He smiles as he recalls his finest Liverpool performance.
"That was a 0-0 draw against Arsenal at Highbury," he says.
"I saved everything that day. I tipped shots over the bar, around the post and the ball bounced off my head, shoulder and behind – but they couldn't get it past me.
"Sometimes it just happens like that, and other times you had a nightmare.
"There was none of the fancy kit they have now, though.
"I wore cotton gloves, and I had to buy my own.
"They were sixpence a pair from a sports shop in Chorley."
I asked him what makes a good goalkeeper.
"More than anything you have to be as brave as a lion," he replies.
"Bert Trautmann was one of the best I ever saw.
"The modern-day goalkeepers have better technique, they are incredibly fit.
"I like the Liverpool keeper, Jose Reina. He's a class act.
"They'd tell me at Liverpool, 'There's no good staying on your line lad, come out, catch and claim it'.
"That was always drummed into me."
He left Anfield for Ipswich Town in 1955, making just seven appearances before joining Coventry City for a season.
Shortly after arriving at Portman Road Alf Ramsey, who would engineer England's World Cup success in 1966, took charge.
"Ramsey was a master of his craft, a superb coach and a great tactician," he said.
"He didn't mess about. He was a little bit hard but always got the most from his players.
"Coventry's manager was a schoolteacher and it was a circus.
"He didn't have a clue. It was laughable really.
"I played about six games and then I smashed my arm in bits.
"I dived on the ball and the centre-forward tried to kick it from underneath me. I heard it crack.
"The trainer raced on to the pitch and asked me what was up. I'm shouting, 'My arm's broken, and he's going, 'Don't be daft son, I'll give it the magic sponge and you'll be as right as rain'.
"My arm was bust in two places. I had 14 weeks in plaster."
Charlie still lives in Eccleston, in the bungalow he built when he returned to Lancashire.
He finished his career at Chorley, and enjoyed a happy swansong at Victory Park. "I had four seasons at Chorley, it was perhaps my most enjoyable time," says Ashcroft.
"We had a really good manager, Cyril Fairclough.
"We won a sack of silverware, and it wasn't uncommon to see 2,000 gates at Victory Park.
"When we played Wigan Athletic in the old Lancashire Combination we'd get double that.
"I was working at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Euxton, training twice a week and building my house.
"I played cricket until I was 56 for Eccleston in the Southport and District League.
"I was a batsman and every player in that side was an Eccleston boy."
He still returns to Anfield when he can and will be there tomorrow for the FA Cup Merseyside derby.
"I'm a member of the Liverpool ex-players' association, and I enjoy that," he said.
"I never see the players or anything like that but I can go in the trophy room and that brings back a lot of memories.
"It makes me still feel like a little part of Liverpool."