We arrived in Charleroi late in the evening and I was staying in a room above an Italian restaurant whose owner was a friend of Peter’s. Pete left to stay at a friend’s house while I got ready for bed with the pungent smell of garlic wafting through my room and a tingling of trepidation of not knowing what was going to happen next.
Pete phoned me the next morning and told me to treat the place as home and not to worry about anything because he was covering all expenses. This was my base and how fortunate that Italy is my favourite country and of course my favourite food. Pete met up with me for lunch and said that I was playing in a reserve fixture for Charleroi tomorrow evening and so I had some time to look around the town. Charleroi was a mix of old and new with lots of historical buildings intermingled with pavement bistros and bars. The town’s folk were quite young and there seemed to be a cosmopolitan atmosphere running around. I felt so comfortable and non-threatened which made you relaxed and confident. I sat outside a restaurant, ate a bowl of pasta, drank a glass of Bordeaux and then made my way back to Gino’s for a siesta.
The following evening Pete picked me up and took me the short journey to Charleroi’s training pitch, ready for the game-come-trial for me. Once again I walked in to the changing room not knowing the language nor the players and met the coach who briefly explained who we were playing and what position I was in. It was a strange feeling but as far as I was concerned I was there to perform in a one off game. I was playing well so all I had to do was go and show off. We won the game 4-1, I scored 1 goal and made 2 and played even better than I did in France to the point of trapping the ball with my bum with 20mins to go. After the game Pete was raving and he told me that the coach and other dignitaries watching were very pleased with my performance. News had somehow reached the club President who had been at an all-day carnival in the town and we were both invited to his tent as guests. Pete said that if you were going to meet the President then they must have been very impressed and that more than likely an offer was going to be made. We made our way back in to the town following one of the officials, parked up and was lead to a marquee where loads of people were eating and drinking. Pete and I sat down and were asked what we wanted to drink. We sat there like a couple of lemons with 2 beers for a while when I saw a portly gentleman with a glass of champagne and a cigar making his way over. He shook our hands and introduced himself as the club President and proceeded to talk to Pete in French. Every now and again ‘El Presidente’ acknowledged me with a smile and the little English he knew. He asked Pete and I to stay the rest of the evening as his guests and wandered off. A couple of minutes later I felt a tap on the shoulder and there was ‘Mr P’ standing there with a bowl of oysters on ice in one hand and a bottle of Moet in the other. He sat them down on the table, pulled 2 ‘Lardidars’ (cigars) out of his breast pocket for us and proceeded to talk with Pete again – this was my kind of man. I could tell they were talking money and I was encouraged to be part of the conversation even though I couldn’t understand a bloody word that was being spoken. By this time things were moving very fast and my brain was racing quicker than my heartbeat. Their banter lasted about 10mins and when Pete came up for breath and told me that Charleroi wanted to sign me for 2 years with a £20,000 signing on fee, a basic salary of £500 p/w net plus bonuses, a club flat and a club car. The offer was so much more than you could attain in England at the time and I couldn’t believe that in such a short space of time a foreign country desired my services in favour of my homeland.
That feeling that every footballer craves for was running alive throughout me – that feeling of being wanted along with the security of time and money gives you so much confidence. The champagne and beer was tasting better and better and I am sure if a contract was put in front of me I would have signed it there and then. Instead Pete and I left after a couple of hours with a commitment for Pete to speak again in the morning. I shook everybody’s hand and left the tent to go back to the hotel. I laid my head down on the pillow and awoke later in the same position with the lights shining in my eyes where I had forgotten to draw the curtains. About 9am the phone rang and Pete said he was coming around for breakfast and a chat. He arrived and we sat downstairs in the restaurant and spoke over toast and coffee. He said that he had spoken again that morning to Charleroi and they were just waiting on my decision before drafting up a contract. He advised me to go back to England and speak with my family and ring him with my decision after a couple of days. The honest truth is I would have signed that day but I took his advice and we made our way back to Calais to catch the hovercraft back home. I should have put pen to paper while I was in Belgium because I was never to return to Charleroi and this transpired to be the biggest regret in my footballing career. Later on all will be revealed because there is a story within a story.