George (Abner) Harris - born at Gorsty Hill in 1878 chose to become a publican when his fine career with Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion came to an end.
The licensed house he purchased in 1913 could not have had a more appropriate name, for it was known as "The Sportsman" in Station Road (Slack Hillock), Old Hill.
Abner was then 35 years of age. He had been born within half a mile of his newly-acquired pub, first seeing the light of day in a small cottage close to Gorsty Hill Chapel.
"The Sportsman" had previously been a farm (Slack Hillock Farm) and although a licensed house for several decades before Abner Harris bought it, the building had not completely shed its former image.
Ray helped out at the pub when a very small boy and lived on the premises for some time. He remembered that when he first saw "The Sportsman," fowls had free range through the house and scratched about in the sawdust which covered the floor. Great iron stoves were used for heating the rooms and spittoons were placed at strategic points. The toilets were primitive and probably dated from the early days of the 18th century house. The floors sloped at an alarming angle, probably due to mining subsidence and the beer was brewed at the rear of the house.
Abner's presence at the pub greatly increased custom for he was a famous sporting figure who had been a "star" player for Aston Villa during what was probably the club's greatest era 1903-1909. His innumerable medals and trophies decorated the walls of the tavern, where photographs of the great sides in which he had played looked down on the "Sportsman" clientele.
The tough miners from "Sackers Pit," just up the road, and the even tougher citizens of nearby Tory Street took pride in being served by the man who had played with humour and rare skill on the most famous football grounds in the land.
Abner started his football career with Coombs Wood F.C. in 1897, was soon "spotted" by league scouts and within a few years had gained a regular place at full-back in the Aston Villa side between 1900-1908. He later moved to West Bromwich Albion and a newspaper report gave us a pen portrait of Abner in his playing days...
"I walked eight miles each way and through a foot of snow to watch an F.A. Cup-tie between West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers. About five minutes from time with no goals scored, the Albion were awarded a penalty and Abner Harris, a Black Country product, came up from left back to take the kick.
Now Harris could kick like a mule with his left foot but his right was a "swinger." As he ran up it was obvious that he meant to use his left foot and he also "telegraphed" that he was aiming for the space to the left of the keeper.
In the last split second the goalkeeper dived frantically to his left but Harris checked his run, changed his feet on a sixpence, as it were, and with his right foot tapped the ball into the yawning goal-space. The ball had barely enough impetus to cross the line.
A laugh of sheer relief, mingled with wonder, echoed from the terraces where thousands of Albionites rose to acclaim their hero..."
Which proves that Abner Harris possessed guile as well as the tremendous physical power which made him a winger's nightmare throughout the lands.
Evidence of his great versatility lies in the fact that he occupied every position except goalkeeper during his great seasons with Aston Villa.
He was also a fine cricketer and spent several summers as Cricket Coach at a private school in Surrey. With his football career over, he joined Old Hill Cricket Club and was a member of the Birmingham League Championship side in 1921. He was a great favourite with the crowd, especially when stealing the cheekiest singles ever seen on the Haden Hill ground.
The "Sportsman" prospered greatly during his years at the pub and he "kept order" with the same authority which had "tamed" so many flying wingers during his playing days. Although his "pub" was a popular meeting place for collier, iron-puddler and boatman, alike, there was rarely any "trouble" on the premises. Even "Mop" one of Tory Street's notorious trouble-makers, invariably behaved himself when visiting Abner's house and the Gornal Salt women, and barge-women, who regularly called might have been Sunday School teachers from their demeanour.
The womenfolk kept strictly out of the tap-room and had quarters of their own, known as "The Big Kitchen" where a mighty black-lead grate came in handy for the mullers and pokers with which the ladies of Tory Street warmed their ale.
The bargees, who kept their horses overnight in "The Sportsman" stables also had their own room - a wise precaution, for their feuds with the Tory Street landlubbers were famous in that turbulent period.
Abner and his wife Rosannah (a Gorsty Hill girl whose maiden name was Dingley) managed the business with rare tact and diplomacy and the "Sportsman" regulars were a very merry crew. Mrs Harris was already well-versed in the trade, having been a barmaid at "The Anchor" in previous years.
We were told locals were not above passing base coin in those days and a dozen or so counterfeit half-crowns were nailed to the bar counter. During and shortly after the First World War "arms smugglers" must have been prolific in the area for it was always possible to buy a revolver and ammunition for five shillings at the pub. Abner's brother, Tom, still used the old farm buildings around the "Sportsman" to house his horses and pigs and "mowed the lezzer" every year, keeping the old farming tradition alive.
Disaster struck the Harris household early in June 1923 when Abner was killed at Enoch Wheeler's Scrapyard. He had gone there to buy a horse for his brother, Tom, and died instantly when a heavy leaden ball fell from the jib of an overhead crane and smashed his skull.
He was buried at Halesowen Church. The ceremony was attended by a host of friends and members of both his and his wife's families. The full list of mourners is too long for us to reproduce here but many of his colleagues from Old Hill Cricket Club were present.
Amidst the vast array of floral tributes were those from Aston Villa F.C. and West Bromwich Albion F.C. tied with the colours of the clubs. The bearers were J. Woodall, H. Parkes, E. Lowe, G. Wood, G. Dingley, H. Dingley, H. Emery, W.B. Eley, W.L. Edwards, B. Hunt, J. Oliver and N. Woodward.
And so ended the life of a great Black Country sportsman,. Although his years were cut short he had lived his life to the full and left the imprint of his skill and personality on the most famous sporting turf, throughout the land. His widow survived him by many years and died at "The Sportsman" in 1968. Their only child, Joan, only briefly survived her mother and "The Sportsman" passed from the Harris family.