New film planned about Sheffield Wednesday legend who worked with Charlie Chaplin and escaped POW camp

Fred Spiksley England portrait
Fred Spiksley England portrait

A fundraising campaign has been launched to create a film about the remarkable life of flawed Victorian football hero Fred Spiksley. Chris Burn reports.

His colourful life included escaping from a German prisoner of war camp and sharing a stage with Charlie Chaplin - and now there are hopes that the fascinating story of Sheffield Wednesday legend Fred Spiksley will become the subject of a new film.

An online campaign to raise £67,500 towards the costs of making the film has been launched this week, with those involved in the project including an Emmy Award-winning producer of James Corden’s popular US chat show.

The idea of the film, due to be called Football: A Unique Tale About The World’s Favourite Sport and pencilled in to be released next June is to explain how Association Football was born, developed and spread across the globe with a focus on Spiksley’s role as one of the first worldwide stars of the game.

It follows the recent publication of the book Flying Over An Olive Grove: The Remarkable Story of Fred Spiksley - A Flawed Football Hero, with co-authors Clive Nicholson and Mark Metcalf also part of the film project after bringing Spiksley’s long-forgotten story back to national attention.

Those who pledge money for the making of the film will have their name included in the credits, while being given the opportunity to see it before anyone else.

Nicholson says Spiksley’s own story represents an opportunity to explain the broader importance of Yorkshire to the birth of football, with the world’s oldest club, Sheffield FC, based in the city where he played.

“The film is trying to retell the history of football but in a different way through his story. Even things like the invention of the penalty kick, he played in the first game where a penalty was given so there are all these parallels. He coached through into the 1930s and was making predictions about when England would lose to another international team and he got it pretty much spot on.

“When you see other football documentaries or books that are about the history of football, they tend to jump from event to event whereas Fred’s story ties everything together really well. All of his football glory was in Sheffield and you can link that in with the birth of the sport in the city.

“The birth of football and Fred Spiksley’s story as the first great working class football story both come from Yorkshire.”

Spiksley was born in Lincolnshire in 1870 but is most associated with Sheffield thanks to his 11 years playing for Sheffield Wednesday. At that time, Wednesday played matches at a place called Olive Grove and Spiksley was affectionately known by fans as the ‘Olive Grove flyer’. He scored 170 goals for Wednesday, including two in their 1896 FA Cup Final triumph and also became the first player to score a hat-trick against Scotland when he represented England. Among those watching that day was Princess Mary of Teck, later Queen Mary, who chased after the goal-scoring hero waving her handkerchief in excitement.

But for all his achievements on the pitch, it was his life after retiring from playing in 1906 that is most fascinating. He went on to find a job in a touring stage show called The Football Match where he repeatedly performed alongside Charlie Chaplin ahead of the latter man finding worldwide fame in silent films.

After his brush with acting he returned to football, carving out a long and successful career as a coach. In 1914 he was working in Nuremberg when war broke out. He was among those sent to an internment camp but managed to escape and make his way back to England. Spiksley went on to become the first professional footballer to coach on three continents - including working in Mexico, Peru and a stint coaching Sweden’s national side. Then in 1929 he became the first person to put together a football coaching skills film.

But his life was not easy - Spiksley developed a reputation as a gambling addict and a womaniser, though the latter waned after he married for a second time to a German woman called Rose, some 20 years his junior who he remained with until his death at the age of 78.

Awareness of Spiksley’s story is on the increase once again; earlier this year was voted by Sheffield Wednesday supporters into their greatest ever team for a ‘Dream Scene’ mural that was commissioned to celebrate the 150 year anniversary of the club.

For more information, visit www.kickstarter.com and search for Football: A Unique Tale About The World’s Favourite Sport.