THE two old soccer skippers turned up for their last appearance on the hallowed turf of Vista Park, once among the most illustrious non-league venues in the North.

But for Jack Jaundrill, newly celebrating his 80th birthday, and 63-year-old Eric Bond it was merely a 'memory game.'

They'd made the two-mile football pilgrimage from their Haydock homes to the old Earlestown AFC ground, now fast vanishing under bricks and mortar. Earth-moving machinery now barges around where players were once locked into tackles as McAlpine Homes prepare to erect a private estate of 67 homes.

And after inspecting the last remaining patch of turf where once the centre-circle existed, the pair parked themselves for a few minutes on a large concrete drainage pipe to reflect on the glory days when Earlestown played in a Lancashire Combination then of the present Vauxhall Conference standard.

"They were great days and, in its way, the big match atmosphere was as great here on a Saturday afternoon as at any Premier League stadium," recalls Eric, from Church Road, Haydock, once a dashing right winger who played his last game for St Helens Town Reserves at the remarkable age of 47. "The only difference was that everybody around the touchlines seemed to know everybody else. It had that kind of family atmosphere."

Jack, once a commanding, shiny-domed centre-half who swears that his hair loss at an early age was due to all those defensive headers, set a club record by playing 118 consecutive matches. But perhaps his most vivid memory is of his farewell appearance at the age of 40 in 1957. As a good humoured gesture he was selected in the unfamiliar role of striker - and promptly helped himself to a hat-trick!

"It was a great club," muses Jack who had a fleeting glimpse of the big time when he signed amateur forms with Manchester United at the age of 17 and was later a regular with New Brighton in their Division Three days.

"But I never regretted my long service with Earlestown," adds Jack, of Penny Lane, Haydock, whose highly-promising career was cut short by the second world war. "I'd certainly do it all again if I had the chance."

The two footballing warhorses, who both spent a dozen seasons with Earlestown, and had the honour of captaining the club during separate eras, aren't anywhere as nippy on their feet now - both suffer the ravages of arthritis. But their memories and footballing brains remain undimmed. Remembering a time when home attendances could be counted in at least a couple of thousand or so for showpiece and cup clashes, the veteran pair filled up their senses with memories of local derby battles and former team-mates who are now in the grandad zone or have passed on.

Like Jack, Eric Bond (who still keeps a firm stud-hold on junior soccer as chairman of St Helens Combination) brushed shoulders with the big time when on Liverpool's books.

The pair are included in a list of former Earlestown players who were keenly snapped up by English League clubs - goalkeeper Wilf Hall (ex-Stoke, Ipswich and finally Macclesfield); Gordon Skeech, the long-serving Shrewsbury full-back; brother full-backs George and Bill Griffiths who enjoyed lengthy spells together with Bury (George later joined Halifax, eventually ending his career as player-coach at Vista Park).

Then there were former England schoolboy international full-back Ken Heyes, a regular with Everton and later Preston North End during Tommy Finney's final couple of seasons; powerful half-back Martin McDonnell (Coventry City); and bustling centre-forward Steve Abbott who had spells on the books of Chester and Doncaster.

Equally talented but quite content to concentrate on non-league soccer were the likes of Frank Phillips (now a successful local businessman); his brother Ray, Jimmy McKiernan, Freddie Crampton, Rocky Ashton, George Aspinall and others too numerous to list.

Their names and exploits trip off the tongues of great-grandad Jack Jaundrill and Eric Bond, especially when these firm friends get together for a regular natter at the Haydock Reading Room. But the greatest soccer celebrity to grace the now-vanishing Vista Park pitch was Wilf Mannion. The former Middlesbrough and England inside-forward genius had a short, ill-fated spell as Earlestown's player-manager at an age when he was patently well past his effective playing days. It was the one dark chapter in the club's history, ending in litigation and a genuine feeling of sadness among both the club and its fans.

Eric and Jack's lives have run on amazingly close lines. They live only a mile or so apart at Haydock, both worked in the mining industry (Jack for his final 17 years as fire officer at Parkside). They had earlier played for the old Haydock C & B's Liverpool Combination side, both became club skippers and gave identical long-service at Earlestown FC, playing alongside each other for a considerable chunk of those 12 years.

Now, that Vista Park venue of a million memories (it was the first to introduce bingo to the region and for a short time had a greyhound track skirting its touchlines) is rapidly vanishing into the future.

It is going the same way as its next-door Earlestown British Legion Club, once a popular half-time and end-of-match watering hole. That once-booming club was recently demolished and, along with what were once beautifully-manicured bowling greens, now forms part of that new McAlpine housing estate.

Eric and Jack are surprisingly philosophical about it all. They accept that this is the price of progress . . . senior non-league soccer long since vanished from the Earlestown scene and, in any case, the old ground had been standing derelict with not even the remotest chance of a revival of the old glory days.

"But at least," says Eric, speaking for the pair of them, "we still have all those fabulous memories to kick about with. They'll remain with us for the rest of our lives."

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.