Former Charlton keeper Graham Tutt on rebuilding his life – and career – after sustaining serious eye injury in televised match at Sunderland’s Roker Park

At seven minutes past three on Saturday, February 21, 1976, Graham Tutt lay on the Roker Park pitch expecting to die in a pool of his own blood.

Gasping for the breath of air his lungs so desperately needed, Tutt eventually coughed up two half-inch pieces of bone that had slid from his busted eye socket and into his sinus. At 19 years old, the goalkeeper’s promising top-flight career was finished as the BBC One cameras broadcast the gruesome moment to thousands across the country.

Heading up to Sunderland as part of a youthful Charlton team, Tutt knew a win could shake up the promotion race and give his side a push towards the First Division after a 20-year hiatus.

Sunderland began the day in third place, but a Charlton victory would take them above their hosts.

An impassioned crowd of more than 30,000 supporters embraced the frenetic opening stages before the ball was chipped over Charlton’s centre-backs. Tutt came racing off his line – as he’d done countless times before – getting both hands to the ball – once again as he’d done countless times before. But as he clutched it tight to his body, his world was shattered when Sunderland striker Tom Finney’s boot connected with his face.

“When something like that happens to you…you’re laying on the ground…’what’s wrong with me, I can’t get up,’” Tutt recalls from that fateful afternoon. “My neck muscles were strained. But more than that, it was the broken nose, shattered orbital, that’s the softer part of the eye that broke.

“Our trainer Charlie Hall grabbed my nose and squeezed it. Now, that’s the last thing you want if you’ve got a broken nose! But he was trying to stop the bleeding, I think for my sake, and for the sake of the television viewers. The game was on national television with Match of The Day’s top football commentator John Motson.

“What happens then is the blood goes into your sinus, and then into the back of your throat. I started to choke. I couldn’t breathe. Air wouldn’t go in, air wouldn’t come out. So I had to try and move to the side and work out somehow to breathe. It seemed like it took 10 minutes. But in reality it was probably 45 seconds to a minute. And yeah, that’s the bad part. When you feel you’re gonna die. If I don’t get an air passage, I’m gonna die. That’s what goes through your head.

“It was just a feeling of ‘can I pull out of this?’ I’ve got to be aware of everything that’s going on and fight this. The easiest thing was to give up.”

As Tutt fought for survival with the ball still tucked under his arms, he forced himself to pick the tough choice. If giving up was the easy way out, it was also something Tutt would never allow himself to do.

It’s no coincidence his recently published autobiography is titled Never Give Up. As he chats to the South London Press over Zoom from the site of his family vacation in Texas, the many painful memories are interspersed with near constant laughter. Tutt is proof of the edict that has defined his existence: never give up. Not only is Tutt alive today, but he’s full of life.

In the hours, days, and weeks leading up to his life-altering moment at Sunderland, Tutt was on top of the world.

Born and raised in the working class post-war rubble of Brockley, South London, Tutt grew up as a goalkeeper. Playing on an abandoned bomb site just 20 paces from the home he shared with his mother, father, elder brother, and younger sister, Tutt’s passion developed as he dove around the “rough and tough” makeshift pitch littered with bricks, World War II remnants, and a distinct lack of rules.

“I was a goalkeeper through and through. It was running in my blood. At eight years old I knew I wanted to be a pro goalkeeper, isn’t that crazy?” he asks with a big smile.

His innate hunger for goalkeeping led Tutt to an apprenticeship with “the worst team in London,” London Irish. In the game prior to his arrival they lost 18-0. His debut ended 9-0 – progress.

As childhood gave way to adolescence, Tutt grew into his six-foot four-inches frame and was soon spotted by both Crystal Palace and Charlton, but rejection from the former made his choice simple.

Despite growing up as a Millwall fan to his Charlton supporting father, Tutt excitedly threw himself into life as an Addick, his lifelong dream reaching the culmination of reality.

“The Crystal Palace manager, Malcolm Allison, turned around and said to me…in front of other players, ‘you’re not good enough, son,’” Tutt explains. “It made me more determined. And that’s that never give up attitude. I got that from my parents. And I had such strong passion. In South-East London, the passion for the game is incredible. And very few people can understand that football is more than life.”

At The Valley, Tutt quickly proved he was good enough. He may have arrived as a 17-year old with four goalkeepers ahead of him, but just two years later he had amassed more than 70 first-team appearances. His rapid emergence didn’t go unnoticed and before long he had cropped up on the England U21 radar. A scout from Newcastle United informed Tutt of their interest in signing him just hours before he took to the pitch against Sunderland, his final appearance on English soil.

“I had aspirations of beating Sam Bartram’s [appearance] record,” said Tutt. “And I worked it out. If I played 20 seasons, an average of 30 games, that would have been 600 games. So maybe I could have beaten Sam…that’s the hard part.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow. Because my dad would have loved that, and so would have I. Or maybe I could have been transferred to Newcastle. And maybe in six weeks, I could have got an injury there. Or picked for England. It was just a really dizzy time of excitement.

“Everything was so good. It was like a Hollywood movie. It couldn’t have gone any better. And then your world comes crashing down. So that was one of the reasons I wrote this book. Because I wanted other athletes to know that it’s not the end of the road. It’s not the end of the world.”

Tutt’s brief moment of ‘what-iffery’ in our 90-minute conversation isn’t a manifestation of any lingering bitterness or resentment. It’s merely an understanding of the incredibly high perch he had reached before it all came tumbling down. It’s the magnitude of the fall that makes Tutt’s story such a powerful example for others who have watched their lives fall apart.

Finney’s wild kick ended with Tutt stretchered off and taken to the hospital. He had suffered a broken cheekbone, broken nose, lacerations to his eyelid and internal damage to his right eye.

When the swelling finally went down and Tutt was able to open his eyes again on his third night in hospital, he saw the end of his football career.

“When I looked up at the moon after the injury, and I saw two, that was scary,” he says. “That was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a problem.’”

After months of rehabilitation, Tutt attempted to make his comeback in time for the 1976-77 season. But the damage was too great. Tutt still suffers from double-vision to this day and looking through his camera he tilts his head up and down to demonstrate.

“Now when I look at you, you’re alright,” he says with his eyes locked straight ahead.

“But if I’m looking now,” he says, with an upwards shift of his head, “there’s two of you.” “When I was trying to make my comeback six months later…any shot above my head…you use your peripheral vision. You don’t look up, it’s peripheral vision all the way.

“And then I obviously realised… I thought the ball was here. And it was another foot higher. That was alarming. Because the game…it was a pre-season friendly for Charlton and I realised that there was no place to hide. I couldn’t hide anywhere on that field. The goal all of a sudden became a mile long. It was a shocking time of reality.”

Tutt describes his change in vision as “looking through a periscope” and when Charlton travelled to Reading for a pre-season friendly, the already confidence-sapped keeper had his worst fears confirmed. The match thankfully occurred behind closed doors as Tutt misjudged a corner before watching a long-range effort sail over his expectant hands and into the net. Any lingering hopes for the preservation of his career were destroyed when he saw Charlton manager Andy Nelson waiting for him outside the changing room.

The conversation was short and brutal. “Tuttie, you’re finished,” the manager said. And with that a lifelong aspiration vanished.

As Tutt left the training ground he passed his former team-mates warming up on the pitch before stopping to cry in the shower. Upon his arrival home, there were more tears, this time from Tutt’s father as he relayed the devastating news to his family.

“When you have to give your parents bad news about yourself, it takes time to get over stuff like that. Imagine losing your dog, your wallet, and your girlfriend in one day? It’s a bad day!

“My mom and dad went through World War II, so they believed that we could get through anything together with love and care for each other. So that’s what we battled with – love and care. And the belief that it’s going to be okay. Don’t give up, there’s something better waiting for you.”

Charlton gave Tutt a testimonial game to earn some money and say goodbye to the fans, but after his special night the world appeared to move on without him.

“I was lost. I felt depressed,” Tutt recalls. “I didn’t want to be seen in public. Because everywhere I seemed to go people would come up to me and ask me ‘how’s your eye Graham?’ I’m sorry you got hurt.’ And all of a sudden I felt like a has-been and left on the shelf.”

Every day as Tutt trudged through his listless new life, he would take his dog on a walk up to One Tree Hill, a park overlooking London, named for the solitary tree at its summit. As he watched a world that no longer seemed to include him, Tutt broke down in tears, the force of his shattered life an overwhelming wave sucking him beneath the surface.

One day Tutt decided he’d had enough. His life, as he dreamt it, was over. But he was determined not to miss out on the next one – a journey that ended up taking him to opposite corners of the globe where the former prodigy spent time in South Africa before helping propel the growth of football in the United States into a new age. But at the time, as he sat atop One Tree Hill in tears, looking out at the city he once expected to conquer, the only aim was survival.

“I just thought, ‘I’m tired of crying. I’m tired of being upset. I’ve got to get something going here.’ You know, don’t waste your life, son. You can’t. You go through a mourning period. I wanted this book to be hopefully a lifesaver to some people. Because I know, some athletes who have basically committed suicide in a bottle when they couldn’t play anymore. That is so tragic.”

Tutt joined his brother Jim in South Africa where after 18 months he managed a return to football with local club Arcadia Shepherds. Following his second season he moved to Columbus, Ohio, jumping on to the United States’ burgeoning football scene.

Now settled in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and two kids, there isn’t a trace of regret in the way Tutt speaks about the event more than 40 years ago that completely changed his life. Quite simply, he loves his winding path and believes in the work he’s dedicated himself to.

More than 40,000 children have come through his football camps in Georgia while he played in the first integrated football league during Apartheid South Africa. Breaking Bartram’s Charlton appearance record would have been fulfilling, but failing to get there hasn’t stopped Tutt from enjoying an equally accomplished story.

“There’s something better for you, there is,” he says. “It’s always keeping optimistic. I want people to know, it’s not the end of the world when you can’t kick a ball anymore.

“You’ve got dedication, you’ve got discipline, you’ve got team mentality, tactics. Lead by example. And you’ve got all these skills you can take to the workforce. That’s what set me up with running soccer camps for kids and running, developing a soccer complex, 26-acre, seven fields, it’s been incredible. So it really has been a good dream after all. Coming out of the nightmare into a good dream.”

Of course, while the new dream has been more than he could have imagined when the darkness surrounded him in the months following “the incident” (as he refers to it), the nightmare – Finney’s boot flying towards his unprotected face – will always live with him. But around the nightmare, he’s traversed a long trail of forgiveness and closure.

In the days following the injury, Finney visited Tutt in hospital. By his own admission the former Charlton keeper gave the Sunderland man a tough time, believing the tackle to be reckless at best and intentional at worst.

The decades that followed saw Tutt come to terms with his own path, but to him, that still felt somehow incomplete.

In 1961, John Lewis, later elected to the United States House of Representatives, was beaten by a white policeman for protesting against racial injustice and segregation. Almost 60 years later when he encountered his assailant again, this time as one of America’s most respected leaders, Lewis forgave the man instantly. It’s a message that rooted itself deep in Tutt’s mind.

“Some people thought Finney did it purposefully,” Tutt says. “And for years, I carried a shadow in the back of my head thinking, ‘that son of a gun, he done me.’ But in reality, it was his enthusiasm. He was a bull in a china shop. He didn’t go out to hurt me. He just went out too aggressively.

“And then I started thinking, ‘if John Lewis can have his skull cracked…and forgive the state trooper personally, then I haven’t got a goat to get.

“If you can forgive and forget you must, because I think it tears people apart internally. You have to forgive. It’s the way they are, you can’t change them. And for years I thought I could change people. You can’t, it’s just the way we’re all built. And it’d be bloody boring if we were all the same!

“It was a lesson of life that I learnt. Of forgiveness…go forward. You may not necessarily forget, but you’ve got to forgive and learn.”

Graham Tutt’s life has been filled with harsh lessons, learnt in the harshest ways. But he hasn’t shied away from them – he’s learnt his lessons.

As he worked on his book over the past year, Tutt found his mind frequently wandering towards notions of forgiveness and the story of Lewis. He hadn’t spoken to Finney since that groggy day in the hospital, but now it was time.

The search for Finney led to an email address, but the moving end to an emotional story must be left to Tutt to tell.

Never Give Up can be purchased from Amazon or at the website www.grahambustertutt.com.

MAIN PICTURE: DAVID BERRY

 


 

Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ


Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing recently: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.

So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.

Everyone at the South London Press thanks you for your continued support.


2 thoughts on “Former Charlton keeper Graham Tutt on rebuilding his life – and career – after sustaining serious eye injury in televised match at Sunderland’s Roker Park

  • 12 June 2021 at 14:27
    Permalink

    Another super piece of writing, Benjy.

    Reply
  • 12 June 2021 at 21:46
    Permalink

    I was present at the game and can remember the challenge by Tom Finneys son, one of the worst l have ever seen at a professional game

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *