“The Bear of Brussels” driving in a new direction

After brushing shoulders with the likes of Elton John, Chris Rea and John McNally, ex professional footballer William Ashcroft went from a life of entertaining thousands, to retiring and becoming a driving instructor in Southport. He discussed his story with Chantelle Heeds…

IT has been 29 years since the former Tranmere Rovers footballer, William (or Billy, as he prefers) hung up his boots. But it was not always Garston born Billy’s plan to pursue this career.

“I was a triple jump champion of Liverpool and a Lancashire swimmer, so I never kicked a ball until I was 14-years-old. However, in the last year of school, I was signed for a professional team,” Billy, 63, recalled.

Before that, his family assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps and work as a docker in Liverpool. But it appears fate had other plans…

In 1968, he applied for a trial at Blackpool Football Club. After playing one game, the club saw his potential and he was signed as a schoolboy.

“I just had a drive and I knew that playing football was what I wanted to do, so like every young boy I wanted to be a professional footballer, and from 14 years of age, I knew that it was going to happen,” he admitted.

However, his time spent at the club was short as he explained: “I was only there for six months because being 14 years of age and from Liverpool, it was too far for me to travel every weekend.”

He signed an apprenticship with Wrexham Football Club later that year.

“I was on £7 a week and it cost me £8 to live so I was sneaking on buses and hiding under seats on trains to get to North Wales from Liverpool,” he laughed. Quite a contrast to modern day footballers, such as Manchester United player Wayne Rooney’s numerous travel options.

He may not have broken any records on the pitch but six foot two “King Billy” (as he was named by fans) jested that he held the title of being “the heaviest player at Wrexham,” weighing in at 14 stone.

Jokes aside, his time here marked a turning point in his career. During a game against R.S.C. Anderlecht Football Club he tore the defence apart, which led to him being nicknamed “The Bear of Brussels” by the media, a name that stuck throughout his career.

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Photograph: Barry Thomas

It was not long before he was saying “hwyl fawr” (goodbye) to Wrexham, but not without leaving his mark on the town. There is a beer named Billy’s Brew after him, sold in Wales still to this day.

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Photograph: Wrexham Football Club

Although, this profession was not as glamorous at it might seem. Back when Billy was in his prime, footballers were still celebrities, but they were not as accessible as they are today – and paid nowhere near as much!

Billy lived a normal life, and went on to marry, and have two children with, the girl next door. A huge contrast compared to Rooney, who despite marrying his childhood sweetheart, has been associated with women of the night and an alcohol induced lifestyle.

Being a professional footballer was fuelled by a love of the game, rather than a lust for fame.

He added: “It was not as bad for us because there were no mobile phones in those days and if you saw somebody with a camera you could just slip away somewhere, but if you do something wrong today, you are in every newspaper in the world. When I was playing we were allowed to go for beers, be idiots and get into trouble because we were not the same type of celebrities that these guys are.”

The grandfather of three has opened a Twitter account but his 344 followers seem microscopic in comparison to Rooney’s following of 12.9 million.

When Billy was 25, he joined Middlesbrough Football Club. His transfer marked a considerable point in his career, and history for the club.

Billy explained: “I was the record signing for Middlesbrough for £135,000, which is probably a week’s wages to most players these days, but back then it was big business because their previous record was £90,000.

“Although I loved my time at Wrexham, Middlesbrough gave me the chance to play against Everton, Manchester United and other big clubs, and against some of the world’s best players.”

After leaving Middlesbrough five years later, Billy made a life changing decision to spend the next three years with FC Twente in Holland. He described this as the highlight of his career – claiming that he had never felt physically fitter.

“When I first arrived it was difficult because I did not speak the language and although the guys spoke some English, they spoke Dutch to each other, so I felt like I was on Mars or something. Then I started to pick up a few words and by the time I left, I understood every word.

“When I went to Holland, the training was much more physical and it was a lot more technical. It was a different culture,” he said.

After leaving FC Twente, Billy joined his final professional football team, Tranmere Rovers Football Club. It was here that he retired at the age of 34.

“I got a trapped nerve in my back and I could not really do a great deal of turns and twists. So I spoke to Frank Worthington (ex manager of Tranmere Rovers and former England footballer) and I said I think I have had enough and he said ‘I think you have had enough too’. So I retired,” he explained.

Once retired, he had no idea about what he wanted to do with his life. After much consideration, he moved to Southport with his family to manage a pub named The George.

However, the struggle was yet to come. Increasing rent prices and the recession meant that he was unable to keep managing the pub.

His financial difficulties may seem surprising as the lavish footballer lifestyle of today screams money, but it was very different in the past. Billy sees this as a blessing.

“We did not have the money they have so we did not live in those luxurious places, we lived next to normal people. So we were normal people,” he said.

Billy’s attitude to contemporary celebrity culture allows his good nature to shine through. There are not many people who would have such an open mind to the fact that modern day footballers are getting paid up to ten times the amount he did, for playing the same sport.

Nowadays football remains a big part of Billy’s life, as he plays five-a-side football every Tuesday and regularly attends Everton matches, due to being a lifelong supporter.

He is still treated like a celebrity by many, and his contribution to football is not overlooked, as he is often asked to present football related awards.

Career-wise, Billy now earns £20 per hour in exchange for teaching people how to reach their goal of passing their driving test.

He insists: “I have no regrets about where my career has taken me, I dreamed of being a professional footballer and I made it. I made it to the top.”

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Infographic: Piktochart

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