Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Killer Legend

When you are young, you are easily influenced. That is a fact. When you are a young football fan, who follows Charlton, you are influenced by the players you saw each week; those who scored goals; those who were really good; those who ended up being transferred away for record fees; those who came back to your beloved club and played out most of their career for YOUR team.

Being a Charlton fan, young and impressionable in the mid-seventies, I loved Derek Hales.

Killer, as everyone called him, was our hero. The nom-de-plume assigned to him by Keith Peacock really did sum him up, and the way he played. He loved gunning down the opposition, and it seemed the only way to stop him was kick him to bits. He had huge padding on his ankles, because that's where those big lumbering centre halfs kicked him...but it was never enough. When he got hurt, he reacted, and that got him sent off. Sometimes, he would hit or kick a player in retaliation, whether that be from being kicked, hit, verbally abused, or just out of frustration.

Of course, others tend to remember the bust up with Mike Flanagan; it happened right in front of me that evening. I was shocked, as was everyone else. Whack, whack. Gasp! Hales got the first red card, and Flash the second to follow him sheepishly off. The crowd was torn - who was to blame. Hales was sacked, and then re-instated; Flanagan refused to play again in disgust; he then went off to play elsewhere, only to also return a few years on.

I tend to remember the 16 goals in the first 16 league games of 1976/77, when Hales was at his most deadliest.

My recollections have been triggered by a meeting with a work colleague, my first with him, one of the Company directors, who also happened to be a fairly useful young footballer. He was a young player with Derby County in 1976, at the time Hales signed for Colin Murphy's side. As we drank a few beers at a company do last night, I asked about his playing career and if he had played at The Valley. He hadn't, but he asked if I was still a fan. Of course I said. We talked about Curbishley, Then he mentioned Hales; I drooled. He told me stories about Killer's time in the Midlands, mainly unhappy.

I think most fans know about the problems Hales had settling in; stuck in a hotel with nobody he knew and in a team that wouldn't pass to him. It never worked at Derby. Leighton James was not too nice a person to play with and Charlie George was a show-off, a great player who was past his best, and missing Francis Lee's flambouyance badly.

He told me that Hales turned up for training every day; it was tough for him - He threw up every morning apparently, during training. And what shocked my colleague was that it was always the corn flakes he'd had for breakfast! I guess if Killer was paying the hotel bill he didn't want a fry-up every day...

It took Hales about 15 games to get his first goal for Derby (I seem to remember it was in an FA Cup match against Blackpool, where he won the ball outside the area(probably unfairly) and curled it in from 25 yards. Typically, nobody passed the ball to him for that first Derby goal - he'd had to go get it himself.

I also saw Hales play in his home debut at West Ham when he had a year or so there; again, he never really settled that side of the river, but this was mainly due to injuries.

He came back to Charlton, his club, and played out five more years, still scoring goals, before a last fling at local team Gillingham.

I last saw him close up at the Sam Bartram statue unveiling ceremony. As fans stood behind the makeshift barriers, Derek wandered around in his grey suit, the hair grey and going, chatting, lighting up a roll-up, uncomfortable at all the attention lavished on others, less than heroes, who had a Charlton connection of whatever sort. He stood chatting to the supporters who had idolised him, rather than drink champagne in the boardroom - a man of the people.

Subsequent heroes have come and gone, but I'll always have a soft spot for Derek "Killer" Hales.

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