‘TheHardTackle Relic’ is a semi-regular column which dusts off the pages of football history. It intends to walk you down memory lane and relive events, players and teams long forgotten. In this edition we look at a motley bunch of coal mine workers who beat the best from Italy, Switzerland and Germany to become “World Champions”, twenty years before the first World Cup.
We all love a Cinderella story. Throughout its history, football has given birth to scores of Cinderella stories – ranging from tiny Wrexham defeating FC Porto in the 1983/84 Cup Winners Cup to Senegal dazzling their way to glory against France in 1998. One of football’s greatest Cinderella stories came when the game was in its nascent stage in Britain and while Europe was still warming to it. Ask any football aficionado when the first World Cup was held, pat will come the answer – 1930. But 11 years before that, a motley crew of amateurs and professionals participated in what was arguably the first real ‘World Cup’. And quite shockingly it was the amateurs who triumphed. The name West Auckland Town Football Club may not ring a bell with modern football fans but in 1909 a group of miners who doubled up as footballers became the first world champions with the same club. This was a rags to riches story like none other.
But first, a word about Sir Thomas Lipton. On 10th May, 1848 in Northern Glasgow Thomas Johnstone Lipton was born to parents who had emigrated from Northern Ireland at the start of the decade. By the time he was twelve Thomas Lipton had left his “three pence a week” school and started working first in a stationery store and then cutting shirt patterns in Messrs. Tillie & Henderson. His first “dream job” was as a cabin boy but it didn’t last long. Refusing to be satisfied by dull jobs Lipton jumped on a ship to the land of dreams, America – he was not even sixteen. In the United States he had a roaming and varied career which saw him take jobs in Cotton and Tobacco Plantations before working as an assistant in a big New York grocery store. It was in his last job that he would pick up nuances of the trade in which he would find success later.
In early 1869 he returned to Scotland and worked for two years in his parents shop before opening his own in 101 Stobcross Street, Glasgow. Lipton would pour his heart and soul into this shop, spending more than eighteen hours a day working. He had developed a flair for advertising and used the entrepreneurship skills he picked up in USA to devastating effect. By 1876 his shop was so prosperous that he relocated to a larger area and in the next six years Lipton would set up shops in Dundee, Edinburgh and Leeds.
Going into the last decade of the nineteenth century Thomas Lipton was a millionaire. Refusing to rest on his laurels, he started a new segment of his business which would immortalize him. Tea. Drinking tea had become a fashion in Britain around that time but it still remained out of reach of the middle and lower classes. Applying his business acumen Lipton removed the middle-man and began selling tea at the lowest price in the market. His brand was unique because it was completely consistent and the quality didn’t vary regardless of where you bought it. With breakneck pace “Lipton Tea” became a household item – a brand instantly recognized anywhere.
Thomas Lipton became “Sir” Thomas in 1898 after being knighted by Queen Victoria. He would also feature on the cover of Time magazine in 1924. Yet, Sir Thomas remained grounded all his life, free from any snobbery and never forgetting his roots. He generously donated to charity, be it to medical volunteers during World War I or epidemics in distant Serbia. After his death in 1931 majority of his fortune went to charitable institutions in Glasgow. Sir Lipton was also an avid sportsman and encouraged sports ranging from yachting, in which he himself earned a legendary reputation, to football. The Copa Lipton was donated by him and was contested by Argentina and Uruguay in the early years of 20th century. And then there was the “Thomas Lipton Trophy” or the first ever “World Cup”.
In 1909 Sir Thomas Lipton was bestowed Knight Commander of the Grand Order of the Crown of Italy. The Italian ambassador had a small request for Lipton during the award ceremony. He wanted a tournament to be organized which would pit teams from different countries against each other. Football in Italy in that period was still a fledgling sport and at the turn of century was the only the seventh most favoured sport, according to John Foot in Calcio. The Italian Championship had started in 1898 but it was almost primitive in comparison to the burgeoning League and FA Cup in England. Sir Lipton, who was donating the winner’s trophy, expected it to be held in Rome but instead was informed that the tournament will take place in the industrial city of Turin home to recently formed Torino and 1905 Italian champions Juventus. Switzerland, Germany and Italy agreed to send their top professional sides to the tournament but Sir Lipton ran into rough waters in his homeland. The English FA was asked to nominate a team, they declined straightaway. Of course, the English FA were never known for preferring the unconventional and unsurprisingly declined to participate when the actual World Cup started two decades later. Stung by the denial, Sir Thomas had to be content with an amateur side representing England. This is where West Auckland Town FC makes an entry into this story.
Established in 1893 in the village of West Auckland in County Durham, West Auckland Town FC played in local leagues for over one and half decades before making an entry in the Northern League. Started on 25th March, 1898 the Northern League is one of the oldest surviving football leagues. West Auckland Town FC was mainly comprised of miners from the locality and in all fairness, was not that good either. In their inaugural Northern League season West Auckland finished 10th out of 12 teams after losing 12 times in 22 matches. So it was a shock for club officials when they received an invitation to participate in the “World Cup”.
To this date, the exact reason why this obscure amateur side was selected is still unknown. One theory was that Sir Lipton wanted newly promoted Woolwich Arsenal FC (precursor to the famous club of modern days) to represent England and asked his assistant to contact “WAFC” and a confused assistant made the mistake of contacting the amateurs. Another theory suggests that an employee of Sit Lipton was a referee in the Northern League and chose the most convenient replacement available at short notice.
In 1982 Lyn Tees Television produced a TV movie based on West Auckland’s story and the ‘World Cup’, titled “World Cup – A Captain’s Tale”. Just like their story, the movie has also faded into the pages of history but deserves to be included in any list of greatest football movies ever made. Tinged with wonderful humour coupled with an undercurrent of pathos the movie does a brilliant job in capturing West Auckland’s journey through the eyes of captain Bob Jones, played by David Waterman. In that film, there is a particularly hilarious and not completely inaccurate scene about FA officials who debate for a while on the grammar used in Sir Lipton’s letter to them asking for the English national team to be allowed to participate, before dismissing it without reading it completely. Recently deceased Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon for Harry Potter movies fans) shines as the bumbling Sidney Barron, the club secretary. Griffiths and Waterman managed to capture the shock and awe of the team to perfection when they were informed about their participation in a dingy pub.
One of the main reasons Uruguay was handed the first World Cup was because they offered to refund expenses of participating teams. For this particular tournament, though, there was no such offer from the Turinese organizers. The club was assured however, that their lodging expense would be taken care of. They still needed means to reach Italy from England and some of the miners went to the extent of pawning off their valuables to accumulate money (the film shows Jones pawning off a valuable watch of his wife’s grand father) and were told they might lose their jobs due to the trip. Most of the players had never gone out of their county before they started their journey. They crossed the English Channel by ship before taking a train ride through France to Turin.
The confusion with their initials travelled all the way to Italy where the players were welcomed as Woolwich Arsenal by organizers. Once the confusion was resolved the players learnt about their opponents. Sportfreunde Stuttgart, opponents in semi-final represented Germany and had forward Eugen Kipp, who played in the national team, in their squad. Swiss club FC Winterthur was a daunting prospect as well, having been crowned Swiss Super League champions twice in previous three seasons. Last but not the least, was a side consisting of local players – Torino XI. Seeing their opponents practice was a spectacle in itself for the West Auckland players as they seemed fitter and more technically sound than the English players.
On 11th April, 1909 West Auckland Town FC lined up against Sportfreunde Stuttgart in the first ever “World Cup” semi-final. The West Auckland team sheet read like the following – Jimmy Dickenson in goal, Rob Gill and Charlie Hogg as full-backs, Jack Greenwell, Bob Jones, Tom Gill in midfield, Ben Whittingham, Douglas Crawford, Alf Gubbins, Jock Jones, David Thomas, Tucker Gill as forwards. Jack Greenwell – then a forward with Crook Town and who would later play 88 matches for FC Barcelona before coaching them for seven seasons – a record only matched by Johann Cruyff – was in reserves having travelled with the club as a guest player. The underdogs started slowly but were boosted on the 10th minute as Whittington drew first blood. Growing in confidence and with “Dirty Hoggie” Hogg tackling players up and down the pitch West Auckland added another goal two minutes before the final whistle when incredibly, Dickenson the ‘keeper converted a spot-kick, to reach the final.
Winterthur had remained true to their billing of tournament favourites when they knocked out Torino XI in the semi-final with a 2-1 score-line. They were expected to breeze their way to the title when West Auckland faced them on 12th April for the first ever World Cup final. With Sir Lipton and King Emmanuel III in attendance West Auckland once against shocked the watching crowd as Bon Jones struck a captain’s goal after 6th minute to put them ahead. Two minutes later Jock Jones scored the second goal as West Auckland took a firm grip of the match. 2-0 eventually proved to be the final scoreline.
West Auckland Town Football Club, an amateur side made up with coal mine workers had upset the two- time Swiss champions to become World Champions. The 1981 movie begins with a snide comment from Bob Jones in background with pictures of England’s 1966 triumph on screen –“Who’re they kiddin’? They won the first? Mind ya, no one cheered for us like that when we did it”. Most interestingly, the team with third worst defensive record in the Northern League had not conceded a single goal.
The players returned to their homes amidst wild celebrations from the locals. The World Cup victory seemed to have spurred them on as they finished 5th the following two seasons. In 1911 they were once again back in Turin to defend their title.
The city of Turin showed up with two of its best club sides – Juventus and FC Torino, the latter had finished third in their section of Italian championship the previous season. Switzerland send a different team as well – FC Zurich who were no less formidable having finished runner-up in Swiss Super League the previous season.
West Auckland’s team had also changed significantly and only three players from the 1909 squad were still with the team including Bob Jones and Hogg, players who played crucial roles in the first edition. West Auckland’s knuckles up approach once again proved effective against a Swiss side as they won 2-0 in semi-final, to face Juventus in final.
On 17th April, 1911 West Auckland’s team for the final was J. Robinson, Tom Wilson, Charlie Cassidy, Andy Appleby, Michael Alderson, Bob Moore, Fred Dunn, Joe Rewcastle, Bob Jones, Bob Guthrie, Charlie Hogg, T Riley, and John Warick. Juventus might have finished bottom of their group in Italian Championship the previous season but they were still expected to make short work of their opponents. Yet, the final panned out totally differently as West Auckland pummelled their opponents to win 6-1, their most dominant display till that point. Bob Moor and Fred Dun scored braces while Andy Appleby and Joe Rewcastle added a goal each. Upon successfully defending the title West Auckland Town FC was allowed to keep it in perpetuity, 59 years before a South American nation was allowed the same for a certain Jules Rimet trophy.
Cinderella’s stock lasted till midnight. Following the pattern West Auckland’s fall from grace was also swift. The financial strain of travelling to Turin had taken its toll and the club had to quickly repay a £40 debt. A deal was struck with Mrs. Lancaster, the Landlady of the “Wheatsheaf Hotel” which doubled up as headquarters West Auckland. She would pay off the debt with the trophy being kept as security while the club repaid her.
In 1911/12 season they finished second from bottom, the following season saw severe financial problems disband the club. In 1914 they were reformed and spent the 1918/19 season in Northern League after being renamed as “Auckland St Helen’s United” (they again finished second from bottom). After few more years in wilderness they were re-elected in Northern League with their old name in 1934. They had to wait till 60s for more success, winning back to back Northern League titles in 1960 and 1961 and even came close to doing a double in 1961 before losing in the FA Amateur Cup final in Wembley. They also won two Northern League Cups in the same period. Around this time club officials tracked down their old landlady, buying back the Thomas Lipton Trophy for £100.
In January 1994 lightening struck the club officials when the almost century old Lipton Cup was stolen from West Auckland Working Men’s Club. And just like the Rimet trophy it was never recovered, though they were able to get a replica of the trophy from the insurance company. Thomas Lipton Cup has become emblematic for the club, literally, as the club crest carries an image of it.
One hundred years after their first triumph, a lot had changed. FC Zurich had won multiple titles while Juventus had become one of the biggest names in football. Little had changed about West Auckland Town FC except the miners were replaced by postmen and college students. Nonetheless, the club officials contacted British consulate in Milan to organize a celebratory match with Juventus on the 100th anniversary. The Serie A club was keen on the idea and the dream match of West Auckland was scheduled to take place on 2nd August, 2009 exactly one hundred years since their first Lipton Cup win. And just like the first time, West Auckland had fund problems to make the journey. They had initially planned to rent a plane for players and fans but the idea was dropped once it became evident that £ 250 cost had to be carried per person. Even trains and ships proved to be too costly so the players had to finally embark on a 28 hour long coach journey to reach Turin. The match was organized in Chiusa Pesio against Juventus Academy team. West Auckland chairman carried their proudest possession, the replica of the Lipton Trophy in the original 100 year old wooden box, along with him. For the amateurs this was truly the chance of a lifetime.
It was a Juventus youth team but still more than strong enough for West Auckland. Highly rated Argentine youngster Sergio Almiron and young talents like Filipo Boniperti, Ayub Daud and Alberto Libertazzi were part of the team. West Auckland players wore an exact replica of the kit worn by their ancestors in 1909. In the end, that would remain the only thing common. In front of 500 cheering spectators, most of whom had paid 10 Euros to get in, West Auckland trailed 2 minutes after kick-off, conceding 5 more times in first half. Second half was much better for the visitors as they finally managed to grab a goal through Sam Hucthinson. It was a perfect revenge for Juventus in terms of scoreline, winning 7-1.
This match should have had a larger significance than just a football match and should have carried the same festive mood that prevailed when Juventus played another minnow, Notts County during inauguration of their stadium two years later. Sadly, it didn’t.
Northern Echo journalist Mike Amos was part of the 40 member group that travelled to Turin from West Auckland and he published a particularly damning article about the treatment they received from the Italian giants. It was a long list of maltreatments. The team never got an official welcome and the exchange of gifts before the match included a blank plaque and 2 books on flowers from the Italians. West Auckland had numerous complaints about the lodging handed out to them and the team was handed a meagre round of crisps and pops as part of post-match refreshments. West Auckland officials even gave hints that they wanted to lodge an official complaint.
The Thomas Lipton Cup remains an almost landmark in the village of West Auckland. While rest for the world believes that Uruguay won the first World Cup inhabitants of that locality think otherwise. Few of the other memorabilia remain. The winner’s medal belonging to Bob Jones is still owned by the club while some of the others, like Dickenson’s, have gone under the hammer. On field, West Auckland have done reasonably well in recent times, finishing 4th last season and missing the Northern League title by a mere two points in 2011/12 season. Their record of 117 goals in 42 matches in 11/12 season would have surely made the 1909 team happy. From outside, West Auckland Town Football Club may appear to be just one among scores of amateur clubs still plying their trade in England. However, the events between 1909 and 1911 make them a very unique amateur club.
Perhaps, the most unique one in the world.