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Why this is the best bromance in football history

BY Spencer Vignes

6th Dec 2022 Sport

Why this is the best bromance in football history

Two rival goalies struck up a friendship in the 1950s, and they've been close ever since. We explore why this remains football's most remarkable friendship

“You don’t make many friends in football,” says Dave Hollins matter of factly. “At least not close ones. But I’ve come to realise over the years that Eric and I are different.

"We’ve been through so much, both together and as individuals. And we’re still here. After all this time, getting on for almost 70 years from when we first met, we’re still here.”

In November 1955, Dave, then 17, pitched up at Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club on trial as a rookie goalkeeper. He impressed and was handed his first professional contract worth—stop sniggering at the back—£7.50 per week.

It wasn’t long before he met the man whose job, in effect, he was there to shoot at, namely Brighton’s first-team goalkeeper Eric Gill. Despite being rivals for the same position, the two men became friends. Good friends.

Later on, when Dave returned to Brighton from doing his National Service and found himself without a place to live, it was Eric and his wife Ida who put a roof over his head at the cosy guest house they ran as a sideline to Eric’s football career.

Dave ended up staying the best part of two years—that’s how close they were.

"You don’t make many friends in football"

In the years that followed, Eric made headlines around the world by equalling the Football League record for the number of consecutive games played by a goalkeeper.

Dave was eventually poached by Newcastle United for the eye-watering sum of £11,000 and went on to become the Welsh international goalkeeper during the early-to-mid 1960s, making his debut against the great Brazilian striker Pelé.

On retiring from the game, they lived busy lives as a hotelier (Eric) and interior decorator (Dave) as well as husbands and fathers.

Yet they always remained the closest of friends, speaking regularly and meeting up whenever they could, even when living in different parts of the country.

What makes this football friendship so unique

Eric Gill and Dave Hollins in their 80s and 90s sit in football t-shirtsCredit: Denton Island. Eric Gill and Dave Hollins have been firm friends since the 1950s

Today, Eric and Dave remain thick as thieves, living just a short drive away from each other in the Sussex coastal communities of Peacehaven and Ovingdean respectively.

I first heard about their remarkable relationship in 2020, around the time that COVID was closing in on us all. As a long in the tooth sports writer, such a friendship struck me as truly astonishing, for three reasons.

One: footballers aren’t very good at keeping in touch with each other. They’re not so much ships that pass in the night—more like ships that put into port and spend time berthed alongside each other before scattering to all points of the compass. Eventually, they retire.

Sure, there are reunion dinners for the more successful sides, while some clubs preside over former players associations which organise occasional events.

However, the hard yards behind such affairs tend to be put in by people who remember those players fondly, rather than the actual players themselves. The sad truth is that when a player leaves a club, they are unlikely to speak to the majority of their ex-teammates again.

"Theirs appeared to be the firmest, most enduring friendship in elite British sport"

Two. Eric and Dave were rivals. Although it’s often said there’s an unofficial "union" among goalkeepers, formed in the knowledge that one mistake on their part can lose a match or, at worst, end careers, this empathy doesn’t always extend to keepers at the same club.

It certainly didn’t in the 1950s, when players in the first team automatically received a better wage than those in the reserves. With bills to pay and a woman’s place still largely in the home, unable to contribute financially to the running of the household, resentment could easily brew.

Three. I’ve written about sport for many years and I’d never come across a genuine friendship between former teammates or opponents that had lasted so long.

This was different to, say, long retired former tennis players I knew who renewed acquaintances once a year over a bottle of red in the private restaurants of Wimbledon.

Dave had known Eric longer than he’d known his wife Jackie (putting that into context, Dave and Jackie first met in April 1957). They were the kind of natural pals who didn’t need an occasion to bring them together.

I spoke to several of my peers in the sports writing fraternity and they couldn’t think of anything like it either.

As far as I, and seemingly everybody else, could work out, theirs appeared to be the firmest, most enduring friendship in elite British sport. Which, by and large, is why I decided to write a book about them.

The secret to a successful football friendship

Eric Gill and Dave Hollins in Brighton football team lineupEric (fourth from left, middle row) and Dave (fourth from right, middle row) in a Brighton team line-up for the 1958/59 season

So what makes Eric and Dave so different to everybody else? “I think we were cut from the same cloth, Dave and me, and I don’t just mean in terms of being goalkeepers,” says Eric, who started his career with Charlton Athletic during the late 1940s.

“He’s a lovely guy and Jackie has always been a lovely wife. He also cares about people.

"The one thing I really don’t like to see in this world is injustice, and I think Dave feels very much the same way. I don’t like it when people are browbeaten or lose out through no fault of their own.

"You almost want someone to come along and say, ‘No, that’s unfair, that’s not going to happen,’ but of course life doesn’t work like that. I’ve been lucky, but a lot of people suffer from awful bad luck. You get some where nothing ever seems to go right for them. That, for me, is a tragedy.

"I do care, yes, and Dave does too. It’s in his nature. The more people who cared, the better off we’d all be.”

“Eric showed me the way, not just as a goalkeeper but as a person,” adds Dave. “I wanted to be like him. He was a lovely man. He still is a lovely man. And Ida was a lovely woman too.

"I used to think to myself, If I ever meet someone, I’d like it to be just like it is with Eric and Ida. And when I met Jackie, it was. What’s more, Jackie and Ida hit it off from the start as well, which only made things easier.

"Our friendship has been like a marriage really. Although we didn’t speak for some time while I was at Newcastle, he’s always been there for me, just as I hope I’ve always been there for him. As soon as we moved back to the Brighton area, the first person to ring was Eric. That’s true friendship.”

"Our friendship has been like a marriage really"

Eric isn’t wrong when he mentions the crucial part that luck has played in his story.

Take, for instance, the time when a German parachute mine drifted down out of the night sky and came to rest yards from his family’s front door in London NW1.

Twenty-five seconds after making contact with the ground, parachute mines were primed to detonate, laying waste to anything in their immediate vicinity. Except this one didn’t detonate.

That’s not to say, though, that Dave (who grew up in relatively rural Surrey) got off lightly during the Second World War.

“One afternoon my elder brother and I were playing in the back garden and this plane, a German one, came over low and started firing its guns,” he recalls.

“All of a sudden my Auntie Kath came running out, grabbed hold of the two of us and pulled us inside to safety. I think he was getting rid of all his bullets before flying out over the English Channel back to wherever he’d come from.

"That was pretty hairy. Well, it was more than that, I realise now. I think we were pretty near to death there.”

Ageing well in football

Dave Hollins playing as a goalkeepers for Newcastle UnitedDave playing as goalkeeper for Newcastle United—a position that may have saved both him and Eric from dementia

Luck may also have played its part in terms of the position Eric and Dave occupied on the football field.

Given their ages (92 and 85 respectively), you could argue they remained oblivious to the issue of dementia in football until fairly recently because, well, all bar a couple of their former teammates are now dead.

Dementia in football only came to light in the 21st century. A fair percentage of Eric and Dave’s cohort never even got to see the year 2000.

Both men played in the one position on the football field where you rarely head the ball—that of goalkeeper. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Both did suffer concussions, not to mention various breakages, so it’s not as if they came away entirely unscathed.

Luck. A good wife or partner. Exercise. They, in Eric and Dave’s considered opinion, are the holy trinity when it comes to living long, largely happy lives.

“In my time, I’ve had both—a wife and a partner—and they’ve been wonderful,” says Eric (Ida, his wife, died in 2012). “It just takes all the worry away. Find a good one, in other words.”

It just so happens that Eric met his current partner, Irene, while out exercising. Or, to be more exact, playing bowls, the sport Eric and Dave both took up once their footballing days were over.

“Bowls is very social, but it’s also about competing, no matter who you’re up against,” says Dave.

“Oh yes,” agrees Eric. “Always got to win, me. Always. But Dave’s right—you meet some lovely people playing bowls. We’re not running out in front of thousands of people every week anymore, but we’re still having fun. And we’re still competing.” 

Eric & Dave—A Lifetime of Football and Friendship by Spencer Vignes is published by Pitch Publishing, priced £18.99 in hardback

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