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David France profile in Daily Telegraph

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http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/main.jhtm....xml&page=2

 

As the granddaughter of William Ralph 'Dixie' Dean, Melanie Prentice grew up surrounded by football treasures accumulated by the Everton legend during a playing career that brought him two League championships and an FA Cup triumph. But nothing had prepared her for the array of artefacts awaiting her arrival at Dr David France's home in Victoria, British Columbia.

 

"We were bewildered by the original artwork of Picasso, Magritte, Dali, Chagall, Warhol, Miro and others," she recalls. "It was an overwhelming sight but a mere distraction because before our eyes lay a priceless exhibition of the masterpieces of football's history. I can only draw comparison with Howard Carter as he opened the door to Tutankhamun's tomb. While there were no gilded mummies or papyrus scrolls, there were simply too many sacred football items to comprehend…"

 

Programmes dating back to 1886, ancient medals and photographs, books and international caps, documents and letters, cigarette cards and trading cards… Dr France's collection of football memorabilia attracted two bids of £1.25 million from the Middle and Far East in 2006, instead of which it will go on display when the new Museum of Liverpool opens in 2010, having been purchased by the Everton Collection Charitable Trust for a fraction of what the 10,000 or so items would have commanded at auction.

 

Born in a two-up, two-down in Widnes with one cold tap, one electric light, one outside toilet and one nail holding up a zinc bath, Dr France was dismissed as a 'slow learner' as a schoolboy and was unable to read until the age of 14. Having begun his working life as an apprentice gas-fitter riding the streets on a bike with coils of copper pipe over his shoulders, he resumed his education and gained several university degrees, including a PhD in chemical engineering. He subsequently won the Institute of Physics' Joule Medal for his research into hydrogen combustion, served as a consultant to NASA in rocket science (his Green Card having been sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy) and ended his working life at the age of 42 in 1990 to concentrate on 'good deeds'.

 

As well as combing the world for Everton jewels for the past 25 years, he has flown more than two million miles from his homes in Canada and Washington state to attend games, published 16 books (the latest, The Golden Vision, about 1960s centre-forward Alex Young) to raise money for Alder Hey Children's Hospital, established the club's Hall of Fame and founded the Everton Former Players' Foundation, a charity to assist old Evertonians who have fallen on hard times and which Uefa use as their template for all such associations.

 

Former England international Gordon West, who won two championships and an FA Cup winner's medal during his nine years as Everton goalkeeper, heads a long list of heroes whose lives have been transformed by Dr France. "It was Brian Labone - who tragically died two years ago - who knew I collected bits and bobs (one particular cardboard box of 'bits and bobs' costing £78,000) who told me Gordon was struggling and might want to sell his medals," Dr France said. "He had ballooned to about 26 stone, didn't like to be seen in public so didn't attend any games and was so financially strapped that he had no laces in his shoes. Gordon's a lovely, lovely man but he was in trouble with the loan sharks and they are not lovely men.

 

"He'd borrowed £1,000 but owed £4,500 so I rang the money men and they came round, three of them like something out of Reservoir Dogs complete with the Liverpool shuffle. They had Gordon's medals - which he'd given as collateral - in a plastic bag which they tossed on the floor with a sneer. After Gordon had seen them to the door he said, 'You've changed my life, I can live again now'.

 

"I never haggle over the price. I pay people exactly what the item or items would fetch at Christie's or Sotheby's so I left Gordon with his debt paid and a few quid in the bank. I also decided to do something to help all the Everton players - not only greats like Gordon West but the unsung guys - who need a helping hand in some way."

 

And so began the Everton Former Players' Foundation, which has moved on from paying off loan sharks to funding hospice care and vital operations. Such as the one undergone by Gordon Watson, who played for Everton alongside Tommy Lawton in the late 1930s.

 

Dr France said: "He then served as coach to Colin Harvey, Howard Kendall and Alan Ball, he brought Joe Royle along, was still working as a Goodison barman when he finally retired after working for the club for 60 years. When he retired they gave him a clock and two tickets for the next match right in the back row.

 

"When I first met Gordon at one of our Hall of Fame dinners he was in a wheelchair and had to be carried into the hotel by big Dave Watson. When he took the microphone Gordon captivated everyone with his tales of the old days and Dixie Dean. At the end of his speech he vowed, 'And this time next year I'm going to walk in here'. And one year later - watched by a slimmed down Gordon West in his new suit - Gordon Watson did just that after we'd arranged for him to have operations on his knees and hip. Two weeks later he passed away quietly without any fuss, but he'd kept his pledge."

 

Now the city of Liverpool will reap the benefits of Dr France's magnificent obsession with all things Everton. "We were a very poor family so not surprisingly we had few belongings," Dr France said. "My world changed and my royal blue indoctrination process started in 1953 after my folks arranged to have Rediffusion radio piped into our home. As a result, my first recollection of Everton was listening for the outcome of the FA Cup tie against Manchester United. I can close my eyes and still hear the cheers that reverberated along the distressed terraced brickwork lining Gerrard Street when the radio proclaimed that Dave Hickson had scored. Later that evening a neighbour presented me with the programme. Despite its folds and Bovril stain, it immediately became my most prized possession.

 

"Soon afterwards, however, I was stricken with scarlet fever and quarantined for a couple of months. Most things in the house were taken away and incinerated, including my one and only programme. However, upon my discharge from the misery of St Helens Isolation Hospital, my kind neighbour presented me with a replacement copy - in mint condition. That was the start…"

 

Half a century and more on, Dr France's programme collection numbers 6,000-plus and represents a social history of Britain through the decades.

 

Return with me to Perry Barr on Sept 10, 1892, when Everton were the guests of Aston Villa and Lewis's were advertising "Gentlemen's blue beaver overcoats with velvet collars - 25/- [£1.25]", or to the Manor Ground, Plumstead on Nov 16, 1912, when Woolwich Arsenal were entertaining the Toffees and J Turnbull of 14 Plumstead Road was offering "the largest stock of boxing gloves and pocket lamps".

 

Is there a special jewel in Dr France's collection? "The most widely acclaimed outside of Merseyside is the earliest programme - April 15, 1889 - involving Newton Heath before they became Manchester United. After details of my great find had been featured in a collectors' magazine, I received an avalanche of responses. One offer from Kobe in Japan came with a string of zeroes while another proposal from Bournemouth wanted to clone copies for worldwide sale to Red Devils fanatics. It took me less than a nano-second to decline both offers."

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