Phil’s Forty, 38: A spellbinding story

My favourite from all the stories across more than 40 years was one of the first I ever wrote. It was first published in the Doncaster Gazette in August 1978 but pre-dated even my first job. And it explains how Hull City missed out on a lucrative cup tie.

“The witch who put an end to the Rovers’ return," Doncaster Gazette.
“The witch who put an end to the Rovers’ return,” Doncaster Gazette.

“The witch who put an end to the Rovers’ return” was originally a college project. Our journalism tutor, Frank Littlewood, hammered home from day one that “news is people”, and I became determined to find an exceptionally interesting person. 

As a former sub-editor at the Yorkshire Evening Post, Frank certainly had an eye for detail, except when he would wander the room looking for the glasses that were on a string around his neck. He would lead us on tours of the building gesturing at light fittings, door handles, goalposts and grass and insist that behind all of these there were people, and therefore stories.

He wasn’t wrong of course, just a little obsessed. For the interview piece which was an important part of my course work I wanted someone different, and I found it when my mum told me about a friend of hers.

Connie, as we agreed to call her, had an office job at a health centre. But before that she was a secretary at Doncaster Rovers and she told me all about how her spells as a white witch led the team to League Cup victory over Hull City before she removed the magical influences ahead of the next match, a quarter-final at Tottenham Hotspur.

The story helped me pass my course and it kicked off my career in newspapers with some big headlines which were followed up by the local news agency, who sold it to the nationals.

Connie was a mum of two children living on the outskirts of Doncaster and completely normal in every way but with a talent for making excellent pizza and with a special gift for serving up miracles.

She wasn’t particularly a football fan but I was. I’d grown up in Doncaster and had been watching Rovers for about 10 years when she dropped the bombshell over a few slices of pizza in her kitchen one evening.

Many City fans will recall the Tuesday night in November 1975 when a crowd reported as more than 20,000 squeezed into Rovers’ ramshackle ground to watch City in the Second Division take on their Fourth Division hosts and try to earn a trip to face the star-studded, First Division Spurs.

I was there with a few mates from school and it was nerve-wracking stuff. Match reports which can still be found online remind me that goals from Peter Kitchen and Ray Ternent won the tie for Donny either side of an equaliser for City from Alf Wood. I recall vividly how the star of the show for City was Roy Greenwood, and how the final whistle brought relief for the home crowd and excitement about the draw for the last eight of the competition.

Connie told me that, buoyed by some successful spells and undeterred by others which were slightly wide of the mark, she weaved her magic to make Rovers unbeatable. Over the years her spells had helped friends move house, get married and have children, although one woman told me that the unorthodox fertility treatment didn’t work for her but suddenly many of her neighbours became pregnant and all the gardens down the street bloomed.

Connie said she could only help someone if she genuinely felt for them and as an employee of the club, friendly with the players and the manager Stan Anderson she took a walk near her home on the evening of the match against City and collected laurel leavers for the spell which would give Rovers the luck they needed.

I had to ask what went wrong in the quarter-final ­– another match which I attended – when Rovers lost 7–2. Believe me when I say it was another crazy game. Spurs led 2–1 at half time, Rovers equalised and then their skipper inexplicably mis-hit a back-pass for a freak own goal. Rovers fought like, well, tigers, but luck deserted them and Pat Jennings in the Spurs goal found the powers of a super hero.

Connie told me: “By then I had had enough. The players began to think it was all due to themselves so I gave up.”

She also put a jinx on the club to stop them winning promotion for four seasons. We joked that with Rovers’ record at the time I could probably have done that, but the reality was they hung around in the top six or eight after their League Cup run, slumped to 10th by the end of the season and endured four barren campaigns before achieving promotion in 1981.

Stan Anderson, who died in 2018, was a real gentleman and very popular as a player and a manager. I particularly liked how he announced his team selection for away games. In the days of only one substitute the team coach would take 13 players, with only the goalkeeper confident of starting. The others would find out as they ordered their pre-match meal, with Stan leaning over the shoulder of the unlucky 13th and whispering in his ear: “You can have chips”.

When I asked Stan about Connie he said: “Remember her? How could I ever forget her?!!!”

A witch’s curse.

The bit we didn’t print was that Stan said Connie was “crackers”. I’ve no doubt he meant eccentric, because it would be a bit much to dismiss the possible influence of magic spells in a sport where some participants have admitted to pinning their faith on lucky socks or being last out of the tunnel.

It’s honestly not something I dwell on but what I do know is that as I neared the end of my college course and became frustrated by the limited job prospects Connie made me a personal talisman. Within a week I’d received three job offers.

Phil Ascough

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.