In and Out of the Lion's Den: Poverty, War and Football

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When 20 year old John Shepherd scored four goals on his debut for Millwall in a Third Division South league match against Leyton Orient in October 1952, he not only equalled the national record for an away match debut which has never been surpassed, he also launched a footballing career which saw him go on to score prolifically for Millwall, Brighton & Hove Albion and Gillingham. But this successful professional career almost never happened: he had spent much of 1951 in hospital, struck down by polio. The remarkable story of how John Shepherd overcame this debilitating setback, and how he launched and progressed his career in the 14 a week days of the 1950s professional footballer, is told with searching perception by his daughter Julie Ryan in a new biography and family history. In and Out of the Lions Den vividly evokes that post-war footballing era, when the players would be travelling to the ground on the same trains and buses as the fans, and where their wives and girlfriends waited for them afterwards outside the ground. The book also reveals a much deeper back- story to this footballers life. For once the aspiring young man from Notting Hill had met and fallen in love with Esther Gonzalez at the Seventh Feathers Youth Club in North Kensington, he was to marry into a family who had been refugees from the Spanish Civil War. The moving story of their survival from the Lions Den of Francos fascism - altogether more savage and devastating than Millwalls footballing version - is a poignant counterpoint to the trials and tribulations which Johns own family had endured through the Depression of the 1930s and the dark days of the Blitz in the Second World War. This book is a wonderful evocation of football in the 1950s - the story of a Roy of the Rovers footballing hero who could not have been more different from the highly trained and paid professionals of today; but it is also a richly detailed portrayal of working class life of that time and the war-torn decades which led up to it, both in England and in Spain. It is a must read for all true football fans - especially those in London and the south east of England. But it is also a tour de force for those interested in the wider social, economic and political forces which shaped that era, as an intimate account of the consequences and impact of those forces on this legendary lion and his family.