‘Tosh’ – The Tommy Johnson Story

Rob Sawyer   16/11/2020 12comments  |  Jump to last
Tommy Johnson of Everton, 1933

In September 1928, Tommy Johnson – the celebrated Everton and England forward – achieved one of the finest scoring feats accomplished at Goodison Park. Sadly for Toffees supporters, his five-goal haul was achieved two years before he swapped the sky blue of Manchester for the royal blue of Merseyside. Once he did make the move to Goodison, ‘Tosh’ – an inside-forward with an eye for goal and a killer pass – enjoyed a trophy-laden four-year spell.

Thomas Clark Fisher Johnson (the middle names were taken from his grandparents' surnames) was born on 19 August 1901 in Dalton-in Furness, four miles from Barrow. He grew up with his parents John and Margaret. A seismic change occurred when he was only nine years old. His parents, seeking a better life, took the momentous decision to join John’s relatives living in Utah, USA. On the ship crossing the Atlantic were John, Margaret (pregnant at this time) and their daughter Eleanor – but no Tommy. He was settled in a good school – his sporting capabilities had earned him a scholarship – so his parents had taken the agonising decision to leave him in the care of his grandparents in Dalton. They would come back to visit a couple of times and Tommy would get to meet his new baby sister, Elizabeth. John died in 1915; Margaret would subsequently remarry and remain in Utah. It says something for Tommy’s mental strength that he coped with these upheavals so early in life.

Tommy was not the only future sporting star raised on Queen Street: Johnnie Baxter, born 20 years before Tommy, became a Rugby League star for Rochdale Hornets and was given England and Great Britain honours. He attended Broughton Road Council School and had first excelled at rugby he was soon dribbling the cheap football around all-comers in the sloping school yard. He joined Dalton Athletic FC before switching to Dalton Casuals FC – all the while doing his apprenticeship as a riveter at the Barrow shipyard. At 17, playing for Casuals in the wartime Munitions League as a centre-forward, he attracted the attention of football clubs from outside of the immediate area. In February 1919 Manchester City invited him for a trial as an amateur. He discussed it with his schoolmaster, who advised against risking his shipyard apprenticeship – but his schoolmaster recounted later that the teenager exuded tremendous confidence and grasped the chance to go to Manchester wholeheartedly. City full-back and captain, Eli Fletcher was immediately impressed with the Dalton lad (who was accommodated at the Midland Hotel) and strongly urged his club to tie him to a professional contract. Team manager Ernest Mangnall agreed and Tommy was a professional footballer within a month of his arrival in the city. He was soon rechristened ‘Tosh’ to differentiate him from several players already at the club named Tommy.

Tommy Johnson as a child

Tommy Johnson as a child, probably with his sisters

Tosh debuted in the wartime Football League Lancashire Section – scoring one in a defeat of Blackburn Rovers. His Football League bow came in February 1920, and it could hardly have gone better as he scored a brace against Middlesbrough. In only his sixth appearance, a home match against Liverpool, he was introduced to King George V before kick-off. It took until the autumn of 1922 for him to be established as a regular starter. He lined up in the inaugural competitive match at Maine Road at the start of the 1923/24 season (the club had relocated from Hyde Road in Ardwick). Horace Barrel would score City’s first goal in the place they’d call home for 80 years – but Tommy would notch the crucial second in a 2-1 victory over Sheffield United. It was a proud moment for the Dalton man. In the FA Cup that season, City progressed to the semi-final before coming up short against Newcastle United – it would be the great Billy Meredith’s last match at the grand age of 49.

Later that year Tommy married Manchester girl Hannah ‘Annie’ Smith. They set up home in Clowes Street and subsequently in Park Avenue, Gorton – not far from Manchester City’s present home at the Etihad stadium. It was a home they would keep for the rest of their lives- just renting it out during periods of absence. Their only child, Alan, was born in 1925. He would recount the following tale in 2017: ‘When I was a baby, one or two years old, on a Sunday morning Mum would get me dressed and dad would wheel me [in the pram] out to the right up Hyde Road. There would be 10 blokes following – like an escort there and back. They all used to go to the Plough pub on Hyde Road – but there were three pubs between Park Ave and the Plough – they’d go in all three, on after the other. They’d go in the vault – and check occasionally if I was still asleep outside.’

In the 1925/26 season Tommy claimed his first hat-trick and broke the 20 goal in a season barrier – something he’d repeat at City three more times. City also reached the FA Cup final that season – meeting Lancastrian rivals Bolton Wanderers. Young Alan was there – even though he was just turning one – accompanied by his auntie and uncle. Tosh and teammates would (again) shake hands with King George V before kick-off in front of a 91,400-strong crowd. The only goal of the game was scored by the Trotters with 14 minutes left. Back home the team was given a civic reception at Manchester Town Hall before preparing for a vital midweek fixture against Leeds. They won, with Tommy scoring – but a defeat at Newcastle the following Saturday saw the club relegated to the Second Division.

A small consolation for this crushing disappointment was an international call up for Tommy. At 24 he became the 504th player to be capped by England. He duly scored on his debut in a high-scoring match (a 5-3 win for the visitors) at Belgium’s Olympisch Stadion in Antwerp – but waited over three years for his next selection. He promptly scored two more – this time against Wales.

Alan Johnson recalled his father’s devotion to keeping fit, especially after a close season break: ‘At the end of the season we used to go to Dalton, where we had family, and Blackpool, where we had friends. We had three weeks at each. He was that conscientious that in the last week before he used to report back for pre-season, he used to travel by train to Belle Vue and run round the speedway track three or four times with a rubber tyre around his waist.’

Having helped the club to promotion (as champions) back to the first Division in 1927/28, with 19 League goals, Tommy would enjoy a career highlight at Goodison on 15 September 1928 – but the match very nearly didn’t happen. The City travelling party assembled at Manchester Central Railway Station (now the Manchester Central Convention Complex) in good time to catch a train to Merseyside. However the service ran late – with the players getting changed into their kit on board the train to try to recoup some lost time. Things got worse when the taxis that had been hailed from central Liverpool to take them to Goodison Park became stuck in the throng of match-goers. With the taxis abandoned, the final few hundred yards were made on foot with the players pushing the kit skip up Goodison Road. The ill-prepared Mancunians ran directly onto the pitch nine-minutes late for kick-off and received an ovation from the home crowd – and even a burst of trumpet fanfare from one musical supporter.

Tommy Johnson with Manchester City

Manchester City players in the mid-1920s, with Tommy in the centre

The Football League champions, with the sun on their backs, attacked City and scored within the first minute from Weldon. Maybe this was the wake-up call the tardy travelers needed. Switched for the match from inside-left to centre-forward – with Marshall and Tilson in support – he equalised on 26 minutes when running through the middle to finish past Davies. The players exited the field for the break with the scores equal – little could anyone envisage the final score. The second period got underway in bizarre circumstances with the referee Haworth promptly dropping to the ground with a muscle injury. He was bandaged up and returned to officiate the 45 minutes left. What followed was the Tosh Johnson Show. He scored his second from the penalty spot and slotted a further three to end on 5. Brook added a sixth goal for City with Jimmy Dunn making the sole reply from Everton. The final score at a stunned Goodison: Everton 2 – Manchester City 6.

City were later fined by the authorities for their late arrival at the stadium. As for Tommy, that memorable afternoon set the tone for a record-breaking season as he scored 38 goals in 39 Football League appearances – a club record that stands to this day. In later years, when asked about this scoring feat by fans, reporters or drinking buddies in the pub, he’d say that the record was not his but the team’s and the honour should be shared: ‘They all helped me to score, I only finished it’ was his stock response.

Just over a year later Tommy starred in a 3-1 derby defeat of their Manchester rivals but was robbed of a wonderful solo effort when the referee blew the whistle, milliseconds before the ball rolled across the line. Galling enough for Tosh – but more so when it came to light that the match official had blown his whistle two minutes early. To the shock of Mancunians of a Blue persuasion, their scoring talisman was gone without five months of that infamous refereeing blunder.

The five goal salvo back in September 1928 had left an indelible mark on the Everton directorate. With the team struggling for goals in a troubled 1929/30 season, Tommy’s name was high on the list of potential recruits. The story of the Toffees’ interest was broken in the Liverpool Post and Mercury on 4th March but Everton had already been rebuffed in one approach in the previous October (Huddersfield Town had been another club making approaches). Now that City were out of the FA Cup, and out of contention for the League title, their officials were more favourably inclined to striking a £6,250 deal. The Merseyside press would report that, at this time, Tommy had been receiving some barracking from sections of the Maine Road terraces, which was, along with Tommy’s age, a factor in the City directors’ willingness to sell. The one person who was unaware of the boardroom negotiations was Tosh. He was stunned when the news broke in the press and he was approached by similarly bemused supporters. Reluctant though he was to leave his beloved club, he accepted that the decision had been made for him. Some compensation was that he’d be linking up with Dixie Dean who he had got on well with on England duty. The next day he was driven by Manchester City officials to Goodison Park to complete the deal.

Tommy left City having scored 158 League goals – a club record shared with Eric Brook until it was finally broken by Sergio Aguero. Although a vocal minority may have been barracking Tommy that season, other City fans wrote to local newspapers to bemoan the transfer and many voted with their feet. Approximately 7,000 was shaved off the average Maine Road attendance figure in the wake of the shock departure.

On completion of the transfer, Bee of the Liverpool Echo reported on why Tommy had been identified as the man to help fire the Toffees out of the relegation mire: ‘Everton realise that there is need for a key man who shall be not only a general key man but a shot who will not hesitate to let his leg fly when any chance is available. The Everton team is lacking at the moment in what one might call “a snapshot”. All along the line, the forwards chosen are rather too deliberate towards shooting, and each is inclined to move the ball a foot before shooting, which means that the defence often covers them up.’

The same journalist, several years later would give this updated assessment: ‘Johnson...belongs rather to the brainy school. A man who can hold the ball, steady his co-forwards, distribute the play, and, particularly in the days now gone, send his winged messenger, the ball, hurtling through space and on into the net.’

Tommy Johnson and family, 1930s

Left: The Johnson family in the early 1930s; Right: Tommy a proud father with his son in 1943

The transfer was sealed a day after the news leaked out and several days later he was lining up at inside-left for his new club in an away fixture at St James’ Park. Although it was noted of the new man that he ‘did some powerful work and created centre-forward passes that were models’, the team played poorly – falling to a 1-0 defeat. It prefaced 4 defeats on the bounce – even though Tosh was on the mark in three of them. Although Everton rallied with four wins and a defeat in the final five fixtures of the season it was too little, too late. The club was relegated for the first time in its history.

Fortunately, the Toffees demonstrated great ‘bouncebackability’ the following season and Tommy developed as an ideal foil to the fit-again Dixie Dean. The Birkenhead-born striker would score 39 league goals with Tommy chipping in with 14. Although now in his 30s and stockier than he’d been in his City pomp, Tosh was an astute player, able to use a combination of physique, skill and intelligence to lay on chances with his left foot for teammates or have strike for goal himself. Andy Cunningham, writing for the Topical Times praised Tommy’s contribution to the Toffees team: ‘Everton were a marvelous attacking combination. Their forward line was a fast-moving set and much of their effectiveness was due to the play of Tommy Johnson. Tommy was adept as the cross-pass to the far wing, and Geldard used to delight in the long raking balls which Johnson threw over to him.’

Better was to come in the following season when the freshly promoted Blues stormed to the League title. Tommy missed just one game – contributing 22 League goals while Dean led the line superbly and put away 45. Tosh was rewarded with three more international caps in this period of his career- bringing his tally to five (scoring five goals) – his final match in an England shirt coming in October 1932, a defeat of Ireland.

Tommy Johnson and Dixie Desn

Left: Dixie and Tosh at Goodison around 1931; Right: Tosh and Dixie on the good ship Dunoon

Although the following 1932/33 season brought only a mid-table finish, there was cup glory to savour. Everton has beaten West Ham in the semi-final to secure a date at Wembley against, of all clubs, Manchester City. Tommy’s seven year old son travelled down with relatives to the match. He recalled: ‘We went down to the game on the train and it was full of Manchester City fans, although my dad was playing for Everton. They were all ribbing me but it was all good-natured!’ The match itself was a fairly routine win in which Tommy – wearing number 10 for the first time – had a steady match without getting on the score sheet or grabbing the headlines. After the lap of honour and getting changed the Everton team was ready to leave the stadium – and Alan Johnson was itching to congratulate his dad:

‘At the end of the match my uncle carried me to the players’ entrance and we stood facing the door. There used to be a horse-shoe shaped little road just big enough for a coach to go round. So, up came the coach – it was the old-fashioned type with the driver on the right – with a policeman at the side. My uncle said to the policeman: ‘Watch him – don’t let him get hurt.’ Dixie got on first and sat at the front with the cup, with Ted Sagar and my dad sitting behind him. They wound the window down and the policeman lifted me up. All of a sudden two hands grabbed me – then two more. Ted and my dad then pulled me through the window into the coach and sat me down at the front with Dixie Dean. So I was on the coach holding the cup all the way through London!’

That wasn’t the end of Alan’s memorable experiences that weekend: 'When they were waiting at Euston to get the train back on the Monday morning. I met my dad and Dixie and we were walking through the station. Then Dixie grabbed me and we walked up to the train carrying the cup between us.'

Dixie Dean, Tosh Johnson, Billy Cook at Wembley in 1933

Dixie, Tosh and Billy Cook at Wembley in 1933

Just four days later the Blues were back in action against Sheffield Wednesday at Goodison Park. Suffice to say that certain members of the squad were still toasting their success several days after the final. Alan Johnson recalled how Dixie Dean needed a helping hand from his teammate: ‘There were a few steps [from the tunnel] up to the pitch. When Dad got to the ground and got changed Dixie said, “Hey Tommy – give me a push when I get to the top.” Dad said “Why?” and Dixie replied, “I am still drunk and I want to run onto the pitch!” They lived life and enjoyed it.’ Tosh didn’t forget his roots and shortly after the Cup triumph he sent a football signed by the Everton squad to be auctioned off by Barrow FC in aid of one of their ex-players.

A straightforward character, Tommy was a popular member of the Blues squad and developed a string friendship with Dean. Tommy’s son recalled Dixie’s frequent appearances in east Manchester: ‘Dixie Dean used to come to our house if they had played in Manchester or in Sheffield. He’d stay in the house overnight in the spare bedroom. Mum would do potato hash and then, at 7pm they’d walk up Hyde Road and have a drink in each pub – four or five – until they got to the Plough where they’d sit in the Vault talking to the regulars.’ Naturally, there would be no shortage of people asking Tommy about the forthcoming match and offering to stand him a drink (he’d happily accept a pint of best bitter).

Telegram from Dixie Dean to Tommy Johnson

Telegram from Dixie

Of Dixie’s ability on the pitch, Tosh was fulsome in his praise. On his strike-partner’s 60th birthday he paid this tribute: ‘Billy used to play with chipped ankle bones and all sorts of injuries. But if Billy said he was fit that was it. It was his great ability to head the ball with power and precision that scored and set up so many goals. He used to hang so long in the air I often thought he would never come down; it was a gift he exploited to the full.’

In March 1934 Everton’s ‘available for transfer’ list of eight senior players was leaked to the press. Tommy’s name was on it. Within a day the 33 year-old was crossing the great divide and signing for Liverpool for £650. He left Everton having scored 65 goals in 160 appearances, but mere statistics do not give lie to his positive influence on a club that he joined in dire straits. He left on good terms – with an accrued benefit cheque for £468. As he prepared for his Anfield debut against Middlesbrough a telegram made the short journey across Stanley Park, addressed to the new Liverpool forward: All the best Tosh. Hope you turn their luck. From Dixie and the boys.

Tommy certainly did help turn the Red’s luck – in 11 appearances that season his experience helped steer the club away from the relegation zone. He was used sparingly in the subsequent two seasons, clocking up a further 28 outings before being released in the summer of 1936.

He was promptly engaged as player-coach at Darwen FC of the Lancashire Combination, a post he held for one season. Tommy enjoyed a football final curtain call when Everton veterans took on their Liverpool counterparts in a charity match staged at South Liverpool FC early in 1950. Alan Johnson recalled: ‘My dad had played for both. So who would he play for? Well, he’d played for Everton more so he played for them. They got changed – they all had their bellies [by then]. Deany scored and walked off the pitch. He said: “I have done my bit”. He got changed and dressed and they are all cheering. Dad said, “Where’s Deany?” He was in the social club behind the ground.’

Tommy Johnson recovering from TB

Tosh recovering from TB

In 1940, with the war going badly for Britain, Tosh volunteered for the Royal Artillery. He was made a corporal and sent to an anti-aircraft battery in Scotland. Allan, meanwhile, was serving in the Royal Navy on a minesweeper. In July 1941, Tommy wrote to Merseyside sports reporter Don Kendall (known as Pilot) – the letter was published in the Liverpool Evening Express: ‘I have lost the superfluous flesh and, believe it or not, I am still playing football and doing my stuff. I am fitter now than I have been for some years, and it would do Harry Cooke and Charlie Wilson a world of good to see me.’ Tosh finished the letter by sending his warm wishes to Everton and Liverpool supporters. Not long after he was posted to Scotland, Tosh had to return home on compassionate grounds as Annie was ill. In the end he spent only six months of his service away from Gorton.

Tommy followed the well-trodden veteran footballer’s path to the pub trade. Family recollections suggest that he had a hand in running a pub in Rhyl that was in the extended family – possibly shortly after he’d been convalescing from Tuberculosis in the area. However, it was closer to home that he established himself as a publican – the majority of his career in the trade being as mine host at The Crown on Clowes Street, Gorton. The pub was popular – boosted by footballers past and present calling in for a pint. On one occasion Bert Trautmann, newly signed for City in 1949, came in for a drink but was cold-shouldered by the patrons, on account of his history as a POW. Annie, seeing this, took matters in her own hands – coming out from the bar, introducing herself, shaking the goalkeeper’s hand and telling him to make himself at home there. The others in the pub took the prompt and got chatting to the young German. When interviewed at his pub in 1954, Tommy was asked to give words of advice to young players. His message was simple: ‘If football is your job of work, then you must put all you have into it.’

Tosh would still find time to regularly attend matches at Manchester City – his first footballing love in spite of his happy and successful years on Merseyside (he would always tell his son that he City to thank for the good life he had there). He was particularly thrilled when his former Everton club-mate, Joe Mercer, led City to dizzying heights in the late 1960s. He was reunited with his 1933 Cup-winning teammates in 1966, when they were invited guests of Everton for that year’s FA Cup Final and the subsequent banquet.

In January 1969, Tosh, Joe Mercer and Dixie Dean were guests at a function in Knutsford to launch a range of Texaco ‘famous footballer’ medals. The ex-Toffee trio were in sparkling form when asked to compare the football of the late 1960’s with their heyday. Expressing frustration at the lack of attacking intent in modern football, Tommy said: ‘You watch some teams working the ball nicely out of defence. But when the build-up reaches the 18-yard line – and you're expecting a shot – you see the goalkeeper picking the ball up again at the other end. They're all playing it back, and no one seems ready to have a go at goal.’ Dixie then chipped in: ‘When I watch the wonderful Everton team playing, it can affect me like George Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue. But with some of the other teams it's like hearing the first couple of lines of Colonel Bogey.’ As for Joe – he put down the lack of goals in 1960s football to there not being any Dixie Deans.

Left: Tommy looks back on his career; Right: Tommy on holiday in Blackpool with his frend Jack in the 1960s

Tosh would become a doting grandfather to Alan’s two daughters, Alison and Joanne. The former retains many fond memories: ’What a wonderful man he was – a cuddly granddad. He was very kind and generous, always with a twinkle in his eye. I really wish that I had taken the opportunity to talk with him about his football more. On Sundays he’d come to our house. He always brought magazines for my sister and I and we’d sit on the floor reading them. He’d sit in the dining room with my dad and spread the newspapers out on the table. They’d talk about the previous day’s matches – and then he’d walk to the friendship pub on Hyde Road for a couple of pints where he’d see friends and other old players. Then he’d tootle back home to grandma for the evening meal.’

Alison never recalled her grandfather being ill but Annie was sickly – so Tommy would often be seen out and about in Gorton with the wicker basket doing the errands. In the winter of 1972-73, Annie was hospitalised for a while, so Tommy would make frequent visits to the ward. He didn’t drive so it would involve long walks in the rain and cold. A chill got onto his chest and developed into pneumonia – the earlier bout of TB would have been a contributory factor. Tosh was admitted to Monsall Hospital but did not recover and passed away there on 28 January 1973, he was 72.

Four years after his passing Tommy joined a select band of footballers to have had a street named their honour. Tommy Johnson Walk is in Moss Side, along with the adjacent Fred Tilson Close, Sammy Cookson Close, Sam Cowan Close and Horace Barnes Close. They are situated less than half a mile from the site of Maine Road. He was also one of the first 15 inductees into the Manchester City Hall of Fame in 2004 (he was selected for the period 1911-1927) – his son Alan collected the award. Speaking of his father to a Cumbrian newspaper in 2002, Alan said: ‘I am extremely proud. My father was an all-time hero.’ Over on Merseyside, Tosh was an early inductee into Gwladys Street’s Hall of Fame but has not, to date, been awarded the status of Everton Giant – an honour bestowed on his teammates Dixie Dean and Ted Sagar. Maybe his time will come.

Acknowledgements

My sincere thanks go to Tommy Johnson’s family for sharing memories and giving access to images and cuttings from the family collection.

Thanks also to Pat and Thomas Shaw.

Sources:

The Official Manchester City Hall of Fame – Gary James
The City Alphabet – Ian Penney
Everton – The Official Complete Record – Steve Johnson
England Footballers Online
The Everton Encyclopedia – James Corbett
Gwladys Street’s Blue Book – David France with David Prentice
Blue Correspondent website newspaper transcriptions – Billy Smith
Various regional newspapers including the Liverpool Echo and Evening Express
Alan Johnson plus his daughters recorded in conversation with Bernard Halford and Stephanie Alder at Manchester City in 2017

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Reader Comments (12)

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Peter Farley
1 Posted 16/11/2020 at 09:58:12
Really great story. They were great players then, tough as nails. Hard men but gentlemen off the field.
Brendan Connolly
2 Posted 16/11/2020 at 23:15:33
Another great read, thanks Rob.
Horace Barrell – another fantastic name.

Tosh must have been highly thought of to be afforded the luxury of the Midland Hotel. I bet he was the envy of his teammates.

Don Alexander
3 Posted 16/11/2020 at 00:06:45
Poignant to read that Dixie, Johnson and Mercer were all so critical of chance-creating football at Goodisin in 1969, a season of great football to 14 year-old me!

Dammit, if I'd been born 40 years earlier, I could have "enjoyed" Everton's first relegation season, I suppose!

Good read though, and thank you, Rob Sawyer!

Derek Thomas
4 Posted 17/11/2020 at 00:42:26
Great stuff, Rob... Proper characters back then and they were right, Rhapsody in Blue sums up those late '60s years.
Paul Birmingham
5 Posted 17/11/2020 at 22:45:12
Thanks Rob, a fabulous story.

Incredible to think what such players would be worth in today’s times.

Rob Sawyer
6 Posted 19/11/2020 at 11:30:16
Thanks for the kind comments, everyone.
Don A (5) - just to clarify:- Dixie spoke warmly of the late 1960s Everton team (the 'Rhapsody in Blue') but he was disparaging of 1960s football in the wider context - as was Tosh.
Chris Williams
7 Posted 19/11/2020 at 12:01:42
Another of my fathers favourite players in one of his favourite Everton teams.
Paul Hughes
8 Posted 19/11/2020 at 17:46:38
Thanks Rob, a great story. I see that Tosh's 1920's scoring record for City was eventually beaten by one of their modern day stars.
I doubt Everton's scoring record from the same era will ever be matched, but wouldn't it be great if we could find a modern day player to score 30 goals a season for 15 seasons!
Mike Owen
9 Posted 21/11/2020 at 15:05:15
Yet another very good piece, Rob.

Thanks, I enjoyed reading it.

Oh, if only in 1966 someone had taken a tape recorder to that FA Cup banquet and interviewed all those 1933 players

What's 33 years on from 1995?
Oh heck, it's 2028!

Mike Gaynes
10 Posted 21/11/2020 at 15:51:58
Another lovely entry from your historian's treasure trove, Rob. And what a bonus to enjoy Alan's memories of his father and Dixie, memories still clear in his 90's. Is Alan still with us?
Rob Sawyer
11 Posted 21/11/2020 at 23:06:40
Thanks for the kind words. Mike (10): Sadly Alan died in January 2018, less than a year after his wonderful and vivid memories were captured for posterity at the Etihad.
Bob McEvoy
12 Posted 23/11/2020 at 18:58:36
Lovely stuff, Rob. I always enjoy your articles.

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