Sunday, July 27, 2003

Our soccer stars fought England's best

James Reaney, Free Press Arts & Entertainment Reporter
2003-07-27 03:59:12

Soccer's roots in the Forest City go deep. But even an expert doesn't know just how deep.
"As for the history of soccer in London, that is something of a puzzle . . . the early history of the game in the London area seems to be in the towns and villages surrounding London, rather than in London itself," e-mails Canadian soccer historian and author Colin Jose. "I rarely come across anything about London itself before 1930."
All the talk about the possibility that soccer might be played at baseball-friendly Labatt Park has had me checking with Jose for details of its early days.
Around London, the game flourished in the late 1800s. Its driving force was the Western Football Association, founded in 1880 -- not so long after the first-ever Football Association was formed in England in 1863, setting the organizational rules for the game we now know as soccer.
"The Western Football Association is one of the forgotten stories of Canadian sports history," Jose writes. "Formed in Berlin (Kitchener) . . . the WFA spread throughout all of Ontario west of Kitchener and before and after 1900 every little town and village in that area seemed to have a soccer team. Seaforth, for example, was a power in Ontario soccer in those days and won the Ontario championship in 1905."
There was a London team in Western Football Association play in the early 1900s, playing at the old St. John's Athletic Club grounds.
Among the London stalwarts was goalkeeper James Couse. When he wasn't holding the fort against sides from such places as Salford and Woodstock, he was the manager of the United Typewriter Co. Ltd.
The association also had a much-admired referee, often mentioned in Free Press coverage. The applauded official was William M. Govenlock, a teacher at the old Collegiate Institute, forerunner of Central secondary school.
The First World War devastated the Western Football Association, Jose believes, with its players going off to fight -- and die -- in France. The league did not recover from the war era.
Fast-forward to the early 1930s, where Jose's research and the London soccer scene do connect. There are two peaks that stand out -- May 26, 1930, and May 25, 1931. The dates share a British connection with London soccer.
Scottish champion Kilmarnock played an exhibition match against a London and district all-star side in 1930. Almost exactly a year later, a touring England team, including legendary Birmingham City keeper Harry Hibbs, played another all-star team. London centre-forward Bernard Maule, of the local Thistles side, seems to have been the only soul to play in both matches.
Both matches attracted thousands of fans to the Western Fair's old Queen's Park grounds. Both were hailed as the biggest day in London's soccer history. No photographs of the excitement were to be found, but stories hail the display of team photos to the approval of London dignitaries at official banquets.
The visitors won both years. Kilmarnock prevailed 3-1 before 4,000 fans, and the London keeper E. Bickford (no first name was included in the game story), of the Ontario Hospital side, "was called up to make many sensational stops." A year later, before about 3,000 fans, England was the 4-1 winner as London and district keeper Bumps Wright of St. Thomas "gave a marvellous display of goaltending seldom seen . . . it was the goalkeeper against the whole of the visitors and he was not to be denied."
You get the picture. The home sides were kept in each game by stellar performances from their keepers. Perhaps the tourists did not press home their advantage, content to make polite noises about the hard work of their Canadian opponents and the skill of those colonial keepers.
But let us not sell the London side short, especially against the English visitors. The England players were opening their Canadian tour in London and would later triumph at all their stops, including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. In just 16 matches across Canada, England scored 107 goals, giving up just 12. By that measure, London's 4-1 loss does not look too bad.
Jose's account of England's 1931 tour has Jimmy Cookson of English league power West Bromwich Albion, scoring 21 times. He opened the scoring at London, about 30 minutes into the match and later scored again. Wright also stopped him several times.
It was no shame to be scored on by Cookson in 1931. Later that year, in a reserve team game, Cookson scored seven time as West Brom thrashed Liverpool 10-0.
The best advice at the time came from Kilmarnock Football Club president Andrew McCullouch.
"I might state that the time will come when touring teams will get defeated regularly," McCullouch told the banquet after the Scottish side's victory. "I would suggest that football be taught in the schools and that the Canadians develop Canadian players. In this way, you would establish machinery for a steady source of supply."
Then McCullouch proved even hard-headed soccer moguls know the game is more than a matter of supply and demand.
"There appears to be a spirit of happiness in this country," he rhapsodized.
Who could argue? London soccer history is a happy goal any time.


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