His excellent autobiography makes for fascinating reading – not only about his life as a footballer but also his later life and the early days growing up in Fulham.
Cohen was born in Cassidy Road in Fulham then moving to a Walham Green council flat.
Times were hard – although quite as hard as he momentarily thought. He recalls:
“After the street market at North End Road had closed in the evening I would see old women collecting scraps of vegetables, cabbage leaves, that had fallen from the barrows and I imagined that they were eking out a very slender diet. ‘Oh these poor people,’ I thought, ‘poking around to find something to eat.’ But my brother Len explained that the vegetables were to feed the rabbits which were kept in the little backyards of flats, and were, because of their energetic breeding habits, a wonderful addition to the food supply. You have to remember that in those days a chicken was a rare delicacy. I didn’t taste one until I was eleven years old.”
Jellied eels were his passion.
Cohen was public at Fulham Central School in Fulham Palace Road (later absorbed into Henry Compton). He says that the corporal punishment of the time “the slipper” did not do him any harm. Indeed he adds:
“This was especially so when the slipper was administered by Mel Roberts, a maths teacher and running coach. Roberts was, when I think of it, one of the key men in my development as a boy of good physical gifts who make just make it as a professional sportsman.”
He played for Fulham Football Club between 1956 and 1969 (his highest weekly wage after tax was £80). He was also in England’s victorious 1966 World Cup squad. After the match Nobby Stiles gave him a “big toothless” kiss. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” said Cohen. “It’s like being kissed by a liver”. 34 years later they were each awarded an MBE.
After being forced to retire from football due to injury at the age of only 29 he went on to work for the Cecil Gee clothes shop. (“What are you doing here?” one of his customers, Chelsea fan Sir Richard Attenborough asked.)
Another job was with a building firm Brickman Properties. “Fortunately my education at Fulham Central had been technical so I could make sense of the drawing and do some of my own,” he said. “I also had to learn about planning law, which meant that a lot of my time was spent reading the works of Sir Desmond Heap.”
He went on to set up his own business, with some success. Although later on there was a serious setback when a scheme to build retirement homes in Tunbridge Wells was blocked by Kent County Council despite “conforming to all their demands.” Despite this it did not go through: “We were devastated. We had put so much time and money and now the purchase of the school and grounds was a waste of money.” He had to sell his house: “My capital had been destroyed.”
Worse was to come. His mother was killed by a juggernaut on the junction of North End Road an Lillie Road in 1971 at the age of only 62. Then in 2000 his brother Peter was killed in a nightclub he owned in Northampton by a gang of thugs.
In the 1980s George Cohen overcame bowel cancer and went on to help cancer and dementia charities.
Earlier this month his statue was unveiled at Craven Cottage.
So a fascinating life of triumph and tragedy. I am pleased it is being honoured.