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  • Writer's pictureThe Rail Holiday Maker

Top Gun!

What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve seen at a bowls match? I know what mine was. In fact, several of the most bizarre incidents revolve around one man, sadly no longer with us and sorely missed around Yorkshire.

Graham Wood. Or Woody, or Top Man, the list of nicknames goes on. He was a stalwart of a successful Pudsey Britannia side and then Pudsey Littlemoor, managing a game or two for the Yorkshire Parks County in its full Yorkshire pomp before the association splintered into North, South, West, Central, etc. A good player. Not the best. But a jack the lad in his youth and one hell of a character as he got older too.

Where Graham found himself later in life, well, many of us can probably imagine ourselves there, depending on the choices we’ve made. Sometimes your life choice takes you off into the unknown. Sometimes you make a bum choice. Sometimes life throws stuff at you anyway and you have no choice but to make the best of what you have. And, on his own and out of work in his 50s, Woody didn’t have much. So bowls was his life.

At another of my ex-clubs there was a different bowler who found himself out of work, kicked out of home. He started to secretly live in the bowls hut, I’m sure on a diet of choc ices and tins of beer that were in the fridge ready for the next game. There was a loo and a sink. We turned a blind eye when we cottoned on, not wishing to see someone destitute. But, by ‘eck it did hum in there in the end before he sorted himself out with a place to live!

But that wasn’t Woody. Woody was the guy around the green who always had a pint in his hand, but not a penny in his pocket to buy one. He was the guy who would put his arm around you after you came off the green, saying, “I’m sorry I can’t buy you a pint, but if you’re buying I’ll have a jar with you.” He’s the guy who was sat in the upstairs bit at Littlemoor berating a particular teammate, only for said teammate to walk in, having heard the gist of the criticism. “Have you got something to say to me, Woody?” he enquired. A few seconds of silence, then the typical Top Man response, “Yea, mine’s a pint!” The teammate just laughed, turned and went to the bar for him.

The great Brian Richards (I don’t use the term lightly; great bowler and great guy) married Woody’s sister, Cathy. Brian recalls going down to Dodworth Miners Welfare with Woody for their open competition. After both of them had made an early exit Woody then proceeded to challenge a very good local pair to a money match on the other green. At about 17 all Woody took his more talented brother-in-law to one side, told him he had no money to pay out and that Brian should frame himself. Brian’s response is not printable here! The Pudsey pair won, by the way.

There’s the time Graham needed some new footwear and found a discarded pair of trainers in the caravan that for decades was the bowls hut at Littlemoor. A pair of trainers several sizes too big for Woody. For the next few games you could hear Top Man flippedy-flopping across the green. Flip flop flip flop went the trainers, trying desperately to cling onto Woody’s feet. There was an upside to this for his teammates though. With those shoes on, at least if we were stood at the bar we could hear him coming! A new nickname added to the list, Coco the Clown, Graham eventually changed his footwear.

Oh, and what about this tale of legend? I wasn’t present, but the Mirfield Merit final, one of the great Yorkshire crown green days out, was taking place at Lower Hopton WMC. After a heavy day drinking beer probably bought for him by other people, Woody slept in the back of someone’s van. The following morning, waking up with not a penny in his pocket as per usual, he walked all the way back to Pudsey across the fields. That’s got to be 15 or 20 miles. I hope he wasn’t wearing those trainers!

Then there was the last Bradford League game of the season, away at Guiseley. A late surge had brought Littlemoor up on the rails. An away win at Guiseley and the title would be ours again. It was a great day, great to be part of it, having come into the side for the final push. We got out, winning 18-12, though it was never in danger, with a celebratory atmosphere around the green that carried on into the evening around Pudsey. Great days. Though it was never quite that simple for Woody, was it? Stood at the other side of the green to me, no doubt with pint in hand bought for him by someone else, I heard two dramatic sounds. The first was a BANG! The second was “AAAAARGH! I’ve been shot!” with Woody clutching his neck, jumping around in agony, though not spilling a drop of the precious liquid in his glass. If there had to be one Littlemoor player shot with a pellet gun at a bowls match, well, it had to be Woody. We reckoned he probably owed the mysterious sniper a few hundred beers and this was his warning from the Guiseley Mafia to pay his tab. Bizarrely, Woody was shot twice round a bowling green that season!

But that’s not the most bizarre thing I’ve seen at a bowls match. That happened at Hightown Libs up in Liversedge on the way out towards Hartshead and the M62. It was the semi-final of the West Riding Cup, the big season opening team competition in Yorkshire. On a classic Friday night under the lights Littlemoor would be expected to beat Low Moor Harold Club and proceed to the final, which we did. Working at Wallace Arnold near Elland Road at the time and, desperately trying to pass my driving test, I was going everywhere by public transport.

Actually, there’s a little story here in itself. 2004 and picked for the first time as reserve for the Yorkshire county away side, I had heard that the selectors didn’t take kindly to non-drivers. There was no team coach and driving was shared amongst the players. Away at Broughton & Bretton in Wales, I definitely needed a lift but also needed to keep my non-driving prowess hush. I looked at the Yorkshire away team, most of whom would have no idea who this new lad was. A who’s who of Yorkshire bowls, it was. Wilson, Hitchen, Thompson, Mordue, the list went on. What the hell was I doing on the same team sheet as them anyway?!

I had once met Richard Lawrence, another Leeds resident, and gave him a call. He politely told me he had a full car with family travelling to watch him play this big game. Maybe try Gary Smith? A good suggestion. Gary was lovely, congratulated me on my selection, but he was making a weekend of it away with his wife in Rhyl. Fair enough. I considered giving Allan Thompson a buzz. “Hello Mr Thompson. You don’t know me, but I’ve been a big fan ever since I saw you win Top Crown with Robert Hitchen in 1982 on BBC2 in the infamous ’stamping final’. Will you give me a lift to Wales please, sir, so I can mark your card?”

Of course I didn’t make that call. So my first experience of county bowls began with the 6am bus from Garforth to Leeds, a train from Leeds to Manchester, another train from Manchester to Chester, then a bus from Chester bound for Mold that I could jump off at the roundabout just after the British Aerospace plant. Half a mile walk would take me to the green. I marked cards, shouted on my new county, then walked half a mile back to the roundabout, caught the bus to Chester, the train to Manchester, the train to Leeds and then Garforth. Phew! I think I deserved the shirt when I finally got it!

Anyway, back to Hightown Libs, this was a tad easier. Bus into Leeds, bus to Cleckheaton, bus to Hightown. Still, I was pushing it time-wise. Flustered, but I was just in time to make the draw and give the skipper a choice on where to put me in the 12. I turned the corner next to the club and put down my bowls bag, only to get an eye-full I really wish I hadn’t seen. Stood next to the window outside the club was Woody, eyes popping out of his head, grinning wildly. In the club itself on the other side of the window, which was getting a bit misty with all the excitement, a late middle-aged woman was also grinning wildly, dancing topless and sliding her ample chest up and down the window in the direction of Woody.

“Rob! Get yer woods. You’re on!” came the call from the skipper. So, onto the green I went. We polished off Low Moor comfortably, although I got stuck at 19 with my opponent, obviously still scarred. That’s my excuse anyway. We would go on to get a lesson from Spen Victoria in the final but, back to that night at Hightown, well I suppose it’s a Liberal Club, so maybe anything goes. Certainly, when it was my turn to nervously creep inside to the bar it looked like a wild scene, the air foul with the tension of a room filled with all-day-drinkers. And there was other stuff going on in there too. I reckon you could have scored most things that night in that part of Liversedge.

But Woody, it seems, had scored. I only saw the bizarre mating ritual for a split second but the image remains with me, particularly as it transpired she was sat in the window with her kids and grandkids! I had never seen the Hightown stripper-gran before, nor have I clapped eyes on her since, but to be fair it was clear there was history, a backstory, some kind of bond between the two of them. After all, she spent the rest of the evening dealing in the currency Woody appreciated the most; she kept bringing him pints of beer.

Life can veer off in strange directions depending on your choices. Sometimes you don’t have much choice but to take what life throws at you. These two, Woody’s Uptown Girl and her Top Man, seemed like two peas in a pod. Hell, in my Covid lockdown I’m even dreaming up an alternative final wedding scene for these two grinning characters, just for the Hollywood dramatization. Or maybe that’s just delirium inspired by too many medicinal lockdown beers.

Sex, drugs and Rock n Roll? Beer, roll-ups and crown green bowls. Graham Wood, a Pudsey legend in his own lunchtime. Which, due to being cash-strapped, was often rumoured to be a bean on a soldier. RIP Woody.

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