Striker Steve Balcombe has fond memories of his brief spell at Elland Road. Leon Wobschall meets the lifelong United fan who now runs a pub/restaurant in North Yorkshire.
SHORT but sweet is the somewhat appropriate description for pub landlord Steve Balcombe’s first-team career at Elland Road.
Now 49, Balcombe, who has been in the licensing trade for over 25 years and who currently runs top pub/restaurant the Victoria at Cattal, near Knaresborough, is still proudly dining out on his 15 minutes of fame in a Leeds United jersey way back on October 3, 1981.
Balcombe, a lifelong Leeds fan despite being born in north Wales and brought up in Shrewsbury, Stafford and then Dublin, enjoyed the proverbial dream debut aged 20, netting with a deliciously-taken goal in United’s 1-1 draw with then Division One champions Aston Villa.
The former centre-forward fondly remembers that autumnal day 30 years ago – when Adam and the Ants ruled the airwaves with Prince Charming and the big news story of the day involved Irish Nationalists calling off their seven-month hunger strike at the Maze Prison – as if it was yesterday.
televised footage of that goal features on the Victoria’s website and several photographs of his unforgettable debut are on the wall of his hostelry.
It was far from a meat-and-drink goal either with Balcombe controlling a bouncing ball expertly before lobbing Villa centre-half and future Leeds captain Brendan Ormsby with an instinctive shot with the outside of his foot past visiting keeper Jimmy Rimmer in front of the ecstatic Kop.
Unfortunately, the goal failed to prove an aperitif to a long and rewarding stint in the first team, with time ultimately called on his brief United career the following year in the wake of relegation to the second division – Balcombe having made just two senior appearances, his sole one in the league being his Whites bow against Villa.
But Balcombe remains as proud as punch at realising his boyhood dream.
He said: “I’ve bought a few Leeds United DVDs of the best 100 goals, but unfortunately my goal has not been on. Maybe, I have got the master copy (on video), I’m not sure!
“Obviously, with having a short career, my memorabilia isn’t that vast. but there is footage of that goal against Villa on our website.
“On the Friday before the Villa game I’d gone out training with the reserves as normal. But as we were walking off, the first team came on to train as they trained a couple of hours later than us and Allan Clarke (the manager) asked me to stay out and carry on training.
“But I didn’t know anything was happening until about quarter past two the next day. I just stuck my head into the first-team dressing room and (coach) Barry Murphy threw me a shirt and said: ‘Pick that up today, son’.
“It was the number nine, the first time I realised that I was down to play – it came out of the blue.
“As a Leeds fan as a child, being able to play for the first team and score, I couldn’t have wished for anything more. It didn’t work out as I wanted it to in the end, but I still have that 100 per cent goalscoring record in the league!
“I was so happy to say that I managed to get a sniff of the first team. A lot of lads when I was there gave up four or five years of their lives and didn’t make it.”
On his path to Leeds, Balcombe, who came through the ranks with the likes of John Lukic, Terry Connor, Aidan Butterworth and Martin Dickinson, added: “I’d been a Leeds fan for as long as I could remember and all I wanted to do was play for the club.
“When I moved over to Skerries, which is north of Dublin, I started playing schoolboy football for a team called Home Farm, where I played with Ronnie Whelan. “And at under-14 level, I then started having trials with Leeds when Jimmy Armfield was manager. After two years of trials at Christmas, Easter and in the summer, I eventually signed on.
“Gary Howlett was in our team at Home Farm as well and he went on to play for Brighton in a cup final, while Ken De Mange was also from Home Farm and he went on to have a few games for Leeds later.
“All of a sudden I was there, at Leeds when the manager was Jimmy Adamson and I got into the first-team squad at 17 when we went to Southampton (in October 1979).
“It was when you had 11 starting players and a sub and 13 of us flew down to Southampton and we stayed at the Winchester Hotel. I didn’t know what was going on – I thought I was just being taken down for the experience.
“It was only when we were travelling to the game that I was told that I was going to be sub.
“As far as my career was going, I thought it was going very well. They must have thought something of me to make me sub and I remember we won 2-1 with Wayne Entwhistle and Alan Curtis scoring.
“I remember Alan picking the ball up in his half, beating about three men and scoring.
“I didn’t come on, but as an apprentice it was great to get the money and the win bonus. We were only on £16 a week and a steak three times a week, which was to take home to your landlady to cook for you to make sure you were getting some protein.
“I eventually went on to make my debut against Villa and I played in the League Cup match at home to Ipswich Town – who were another big club – the following Tuesday or Wednesday.
“But I then got injured and was out for two months and never really got back in.
“Things were getting bad, we were in the relegation zone and everyone was fighting for survival. that was it for me, really.”
The last thing Balcombe feels is resentment at his Leeds first-team career crashing almost as soon as it began with the forward packing plenty of highs into his relatively short time in professional football.
Released by United in June 1982, Balcombe, who represented two countries at youth level – Wales and the Republic of Ireland, picking up under-21 caps with the former – went on to rejoin Home Farm in the Irish League a couple of months later.
He later played for Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers ahead of becoming player-coach with Oaklands.
At the same time, Balcombe had made his first steps into the pub trade in the Emerald Isle, before a call from an Elland Road legend saw him head back to Yorkshire and he has remained here ever since – running several pubs in North Yorkshire.
Balcombe, who lives above the Victoria with wife Gillian and his two sons, William and Thomas, said: “I started getting involved in pubs in Ireland and I loved it – it just seemed to suit my personality.
“Out of the blue, David Harvey rang me at Whitby Town and asked me to come over and play, so I did and I enjoyed it.
“At the time there was a pub called the Three Cups at Stamford Bridge and that was where I moved in to, I was just happy to be in the trade.
“That was 1985 and my next goal was to have my own free house. So I learnt my trade there, then went to the Duke of Wellington at East Keswick and the Crown at Ouseburn and now I’ve got the Victoria at Cattal.
“I’ve loved my time in the pub trade. Paul Reaney is a regular at the Victoria and Terry Yorath comes in quite a bit as well.”
After playing at Whitby in the mid-1980s, Balcombe later briefly turned out for the likes of Harrogate Town, Collingham and Tadcaster and was a regular for United in charity games for several years.
Raising money for good causes is something that has stayed close to Balcombe’s heart and despite approaching his 50th birthday, he has still managed to put his body on the line to amass cash for charity.
He has regularly competed in triathlons in Ireland, raising money for breast cancer research and the Martin House Hospice in Wetherby, with wife Gillian having recently completed a triathlon as well.
Balcombe, an occasional visitor to Leeds United matches at Elland Road, said: “I try and do something every year to raise money for people less fortunate. I wouldn’t say I’m really fit and I have put a few pounds on.
“But I still manage to get around and it’s all in a good cause.”