The Days of Cricketing Footballers
On the eve of the 2019 Ashes series, I look back at the days of cricketing footballers, today a rare breed but a phenomenon which enjoyed a ‘golden age’ from the late nineteenth century. The giant of Victorian cricket, Dr W.G. Grace, was also a keen footballer who appeared for the Wanderers; Grace later became the first President of the Gloucestershire Football Association on its foundation in 1886 and also served as a referee. William Chatterton and Levi Wright were among the nineteen sportsman who achieved the ‘Derbyshire Double’ of playing cricket for Derbyshire and football for Derby County (both in the first season of League football, 1888-89). Another hotbed was Nottinghamshire where Mordecai Sherwin was goalkeeper for Notts County, again in the 1888 season, and wicket-keeper for Nottinghamshire and England. His team-mate Billy Gunn – whose name lives on in the famous Gunn & Moore bat-making company which he co-founded – was an England international in both sports. Gunn was renowned on the football field, where he represented both Nottingham clubs, Forest and County, for his fearsome long throws, hurled in one-handed, which reputedly prompted the throw-in laws to be changed in 1883. Among the county’s other stars were brothers Arthur and Harry Cursham, the FA Cup’s all-time top goalscorer.
Many more players in the Football League’s early years excelled at both sports; these included the legendary goalkeeper William ‘Fatty’ Foulke and John Goodall, top scorer in the first season of the League. The fame of Frank Sugg – a powerful England batsman who enjoyed his greatest success for Lancashire – also lives on. Sugg joined Everton for the 1888-89 season, and set up a sports outfitting business in Liverpool, supplying both Merseyside clubs’ kits. Several sportsmen reached the pinnacle of both games, notably C.B. Fry, one of the most famous figures of his day, a dashing dual international who played County cricket for Sussex and Hampshire, and appeared for Southampton in the 1902 FA Cup Final. Fry, a brilliant all-round athlete and scholar who later dabbled in literature and politics, was one of the twelve men to represent his country at cricket and football. In an era of great sporting achievements, R. E. ‘Tip’ Foster became the only man to captain England at both sports. In 1903, already a football international, Foster made his first Test appearance, as captain against Australia at Sydney – his score of 287 remains the record debut innings; he sadly died prematurely of diabetes in 1914, aged only 36.
After the First World War, the ‘Derbyshire Double’ was completed once more in the 1920s by Harry Storer Jr, an England football international and later a successful manager for over thirty years whose last job was at Derby County. The 1930s saw the emergence of two of the most celebrated sportsmen of their generation, the Compton brothers, Denis and Leslie of Arsenal, Middlesex and England, the only brothers to win both the County Championship (in 1947) and Football League title (in 1947-48), and later the 1950 FA Cup. Another member of the great Arsenal side of the 30s, England striker Ted Drake, also played County cricket for Hampshire. Raich Carter, a League and FA Cup winner with Sunderland, combined his football career with cricket for Durham – then in the Minor Counties – and after the Second World War played first-class cricket for Derbyshire while winning another FA Cup with Derby County. Yet none of these great sportsmen were dual internationals; with professionalism and the growing demands of top-level sport, it was increasingly difficult to excel in both cricket and football during the inter-War era, not least because of their overlapping seasons.
The post-War period confirmed that the days of the cricketing footballers were numbered. The last of the dual internationals, Arthur Milton, another Football League winner with Arsenal, achieved the feat in 1958 when he made his Test debut for England at Headingley – he had in fact retired from football three years earlier to concentrate on his cricket career. Milton’s example illustrated that players now tended to specialise in one sport or the other; however it was still not uncommon to find County cricketers in the Football League – and vice versa. One of a trio who managed to successfully combine the sports for Bristol Rovers and Gloucestershire in the 1950s was Barrie Meyer, a scorer in a famous 4-0 1956 FA Cup win over Manchester United and later an international cricket umpire, together with his team-mates Harold Jarman and Ron Nicholls. Geoff Hurst, the only man to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Final and a regular in the Essex Second XI of the early 60s, made a single County Championship appearance. Hurst’s club colleague, goalkeeper Jim Standen, helped Worcestershire win their first County Championship in 1964, topping the national bowling averages after playing in West Ham’s FA Cup-winning side.
Ted Hemsley, a Sheffield United defender, holds a claim to fame unlikely to be equalled – in June 1971, he played cricket on his home football ground, for Worcestershire v Yorkshire at Bramall Lane. Chris Balderstone, scorer of the goal which briefly took Carlisle United to the top of the First Division in August 1974 during their only top-flight season, and also an accomplished cricketer who won two Test caps, managed a unique achievement on 15 September 1975. Balderstone played for Leicestershire against Derbyshire at Chesterfield during the day, and then for Doncaster Rovers on the same evening, before completing a County Championship century the following morning, helping Leicestershire to their first title. Jim Cumbes successfully combined the sports for the bulk of the 60s and 70s, notably representing Aston Villa and Worcestershire, before a long stint as Chief Executive at Lancashire. Arnie Sidebottom, who began his football career at Manchester United, like Milton only flourished once he concentrated exclusively on cricket, becoming a mainstay of the 1980s Yorkshire side and making an England Test appearance. At the highest level, cricket superstars and Somerset team-mates Ian Botham and Viv Richards were both capable footballers; Botham played in the Football League for Scunthorpe United, while Richards made international appearances for Antigua & Barbuda, earned a trial at Bath City and a contract with Minehead before deciding to concentrate on his efforts at the crease.
The 1970s and 80s saw the last instances of the cricketing footballers. Naturally, several were goalkeeper-wicketkeepers, given the affinity between the two positions; among those to don the gloves in both sports were Ian Gould (of Arsenal, Sussex and England), Chris Marples (Chesterfield, Stockport, York and Derbyshire), and Andy Goram (one of four dual internationals for Scotland). As both seasons began to be extended, and big money made football clubs reluctant to risk injuries, the career of Phil Neale, who made over 300 League appearances for Lincoln City, also played at Scunthorpe, and won two County Championships as Worcestershire captain, seemed like an anomaly. Gary Lineker might have had a career as a cricketer at Leicestershire, but young players had to choose their sport at an early age.
Often, like the Curshams and the Comptons many decades before, sporting excellence seems to run in the family. The Gattings had an England cricket captain in Mike, who played youth football at QPR and Arsenal, while his brother Steve had a long Football League career, firstly with Arsenal and later at Brighton, appearing in the 1983 FA Cup Final, while also turning out for Middlesex’s Second XI. Steve’s son Joe did manage to play both sports at a high level, but at different times; after starting at Brighton, he went on to Sussex and Hampshire. A recent example of another multi-talented sporting family, the Nevilles, illustrates how the cricketing footballers have become all but extinct; both Gary and Phil were outstanding youth cricketers, with the latter captaining England at Under-15 level. At 15, Phil became the youngest player for Lancashire’s 2nd XI, and played alongside Andrew Flintoff in the Lancashire Under-19 side. Both brothers enjoyed celebrated football careers but, had they not been forced to make a decision between the sports, would surely have had every chance of joining the ranks of the dual internationals of an earlier age.