The year was 1980 and Steve Bruce was just a teenager, still seven years away from moving to Manchester United.
He was amid his first season in the Gillingham team, one which would end with him named their Player of the Year.
Living away from Janet, the woman who would eventually become his wife, Bruce would call her regularly. Not flush with the kind of cash young players have these days, he sometimes could not even afford the call.
He happened upon a method of making those calls which did not cost him a penny. It was a ploy which would result in sirens blaring and him telling Janet, on the other end of the line, to run.
"I have to admit that in my early days with Gillingham I managed to become the subject of headlines on both the front and back pages of the same edition of the local paper," Bruce said in his autobiography 'Heading For Victory', now over 25 years old.
During my initial season in the first team, I used to telephone Janet every day. Her family was not on the phone at the time so we arranged for her to be in a call box at an agreed time for me to ring her there. I did not like to use my landlady's telephone where I would have run up a frightening bill, so I too went out to a call box. On one occasion I had only a couple of coins available so when they ran out, I tried reversing the charges to Janet's box. It worked, so whenever I was a little short of cash I used the same trick.
It became something of a habit, to the extent that the authorities had caught on to what was happening. The practice was more widespread than I realised, because someone locally had been using a similar dodge to make calls to a box in Sunderland. Determined to find the culprit, the exchange was listening in to reversed charge calls from Gillingham to the North East to get a clue about who was making all these calls. One day I was telling Janet about being sent off during a game against Swindon and it did not take Sherlock Holmes to deduce from the newspaper reports the next day who had been making the call. When I came to make my next call, the trap had been set.
I reversed the charges, and while we were chat I heard sirens in the distance. I remarked that there must be a fire or something in the area and carried on talking. The sirens came closer and closer and, before I realised what was happening, four police cars and a van roared up outside my telephone box. There was a moment of horrid realisation that I was the target of the manhunt. I just had time to scream to Janet 'Run, run; they've caught us!' before I was nabbed. I thought it was a bit excessive to send so many policemen to apprehend someone for making an illegal phone call costing only fifty pence, but that was before I knew that someone was doing the same thing to Sunderland and running up bills of unimaginable proportions. Never having been in any trouble before, I was frightened. I kept saying that I was not responsible for the Sunderland calls, but they would not believe me. I was thrown into the police cells until 3a.m. when I was allowed to make a call to Bill Collins to come and get me. When I told him what I had done, he just burst out laughing. 'What a brilliant idea' was all he could say in between bouts of laughter. I was given conditional discharge and had to pay a fine. Thank goodness it appeared when I was playing for Gillingham and it did not make the national papers, because the locals had a field day. On the front page was a story headed 'Soccer Star's Shame' while the back page headline ran 'Bruce is Gill's Player of the Year'. For a little while after that the crowd chanted `Buzby, Buzby' every time I touched the ball!
You would wonder if Bruce's run-in with the law was the moment of conception for his series of crime novels.
Thanks to Wayne Barton for highlighting the story.
Picture Credit: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE / Shutterstock.com