Pitching into the battle

THE notion of footballers being pampered individuals living a privileged life more than they deserve is nothing new.

This was the common perception of them as long ago as the First World War – which prompted the formation of a 'Footballer's Battalion' to show that they were supporting the country in its hour of need like everyone else.

Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, a heated debate took place about whether professional football should continue during a time of national crisis. In response to claims that footballers were not doing their bit, William Joynson-Hicks MP raised the 'Footballers' Battalion' in December 1914, with some 35 professional players enlisting at the inaugural meeting in Fulham Town Hall.

Professional footballers, with connections to more than 70 present-day League clubs, lost little time in following their lead, the Battalion being brought up to strength by amateur players, officials and football fans eager to serve alongside their favourite players.

When the Whistle Blows by Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp is the first book to tell the story of the 17th Battalion The Middlesex Regiment – the 'Footballers' Battalion' – and their experiences on the pitch and in the trenches of the Great War.

"Part of the reason that football needed to improve its image was that there was a great deal of snobbery directed towards what had started out as a public school game but was no longer so by the time war broke out. Soccer was for plebs, rugby was beginning to become the favoured sport of the knobs," says Riddoch, who grew up in Millhouses and is an exiled Sheffield Wednesday supporter living in the West Country.

The book combined his two passions. "I have always been into the First World War ever since my grandfather gave me a book on the Somme," says the languages graduate who trained as a barrister but now works in law publishing. It all started when he saw a plaque on the wall of a Chancery Lane office listing employees who had died in the Great War.

One name in particular intrigued him, A Strike of the Footballer's Battalion who died in 1916.

"It was an unusual name for a start but also, I wondered, why was a guy who worked in the printroom in the footballer's battalion?"

It was some time later that he came across a match report of a wartime match involving a battalion team which mentioned the referee – Archie Strike.

Once they embarked on research, the authors drew on many previously unpublished letters, personal accounts and photographs to paint a vivid portrait of a remarkable battalion that fought in some of the fiercest battles of the Great War.

It involved much trawling through newspapers, especially the sporting papers such as Athletics News which existed in those days and published every day of the war.

There was also Red Cross archives and service records and Riddoch made a trip to the battlegrounds in France and Belgium.

There are fascinating stories to tell, such as that of Charles Bunyan, the goalkeeper who let in a record-breaking 26 goals playing for Hyde against Preston in the FA Cup in 1887. He went on to play for Sheffield United and Derby before being signed by Chesterfield in 1892.

But his habit of going walkabout got him sacked (his team conceded a goal while he was upfield remonstrating with his forwards) and he moved on to various clubs before becoming one of the first Englishman to coach overseas.

That found him in Belgium when the Germans invaded in 1914 and he escaped back to England with his family disguised as refugees.

His three sons promptly enlisted and in 1915 he followed suit, lying about his age, but in 1916 he was discharged from the army on account of "debility".

Then there is James McCormick, also once of Sheffield United, who was wounded and captured, feigned madness and attacked a German officer in an unsuccessful attempt to be repatriated – but survived the war.

Others on the list who played for the Blades were William Booth, Joe Fidler, Frank Lindley and Archie Needham. Wednesday players included George Beech, Charles Dexter and John Lamb.

Among more famous names was England international Vivian Woodward, who was given leave to play for Chelsea against Sheffield United in the Khaki Cup Final but generously gave up his place to a team-mate who had played in the previous rounds. Another international, Frank Buckley, later became a well-known manager always referred to as Major Buckley.

Sgt Joe Mercer's health never recovered from his war experience but his son was an England international who at one time managed Sheffield United.

The appeal of the book goes beyond football, as historian Richard Holmes notes in the Foreword: "In their skilful interweaving of the story of professional football in Britain they have produced not only a beautifully-researched history of a fine battalion but a lasting tribute to men who remained true to their salt when the whistle blew, not on manicured greensward but in a muddy trench."

When the Whistle Blows (Haynes Publishing, 19.99).

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