The blacksmith, the bobsleigher and the architect

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The festive season is a time for cheap nostalgia. And the nostalgia in this blog is free, give or take the cost of your broadband connection and electricity.

For reasons that largely elude me, I'm honouring some greats who had the misfortune to play before the global melodrama we call the World Cup had been invented, an era full of tennis playing centre-forwards, goalscoring blacksmiths and bobsleighing strikers.

The goalscoring blacksmith
As a kid, I read about Joe ‘Ten Goal’ Payne, who once scored 10 in a game for Luton. The definitive account of Payne’s heroics is now online, but his most famous feat was matched by a Danish striker called Sophus Nielsen.  

On the Danish national team site Nielsen looks more of a bruiser than his half-namesake Poul. In October 1908, Sophus starred in the Danish team that beat France 17-1. After six minutes, Nielsen was on a hat-trick. He scored the next seven in the 39th, 46th, 48th, 52nd, 64th, 66th and 76th minutes. Not bad for a part-time blacksmith.

A blacksmith, yesteryear 

Two years later, he and his brother Carl, an unemployed carpenter, decided to travel Europe as journeymen. They only made it as far as Kiel, where they agreed to play for Holsten Kiel after the chairman promised to employ them as blacksmith and joiner.

Before and after his time in Kiel, Nielsen was prolific for Frem, a working class club in Copenhagen long sponsored by the metalworkers union.

The bobsleighing Belgian Rossoneri
Louis van Hege won gold at the 1920 Olympics with Belgium's football team, came ninth in the bobsleigh at the 1932 games and scored 98 goals in 91 games for AC Milan. There’s a nice photo of him on this Milan site looking like a schoolboy who has been told to wait outside the headmaster’s study. Van Hege lived to the ripe old age of 86, dying in 1975.

"Going down, GO-ING DOWN, going down..."  

Belgium’s gold in 1920 was controversial. In the Antwerp final, the Czechs were so incensed by the English officials that they walked off the pitch. Their letter of protest, ignored by the IOC, noted: “During the match, Belgian soldiers were introduced to the crowd until they circled the pitch and because of their provocative presence our players were unable to play their normal game.

"As a result of the very regrettable incident at the end of the match when there was a pitch invasion led by the soldiers and our national flag was insulted we will not participate until we have received an apology from the (Belgian) soldiers.”

That must be the very opposite of what Ernest Hemingway meant when he defined courage as “grace under pressure”.

The oppressor of the Norwegians
They called him “Tist”, short for “gratist” because he snuck into games without paying as a kid. But whatever income Poul Nielsen deprived Danish football of as a youngster, he more than made up for as a striker for club (KB) and country.

Outside Denmark, Nielsen is largely forgotten – he hung up his boots in 1927. But his picture on the Danish national team website makes him look like a sly poacher of goals, and he was: he scored 52 goals in 38 caps. From October 1911 to June 1916, he was never off the scoresheet for Denmark.

In an astonishing 10-game run, he scored 23 goals, including six in a 10-0 thrashing of Sweden in 1913. And he'll never be forgotten in Norway, where defenders of a certain age still flinched at his memory years later: in 11 games against Norway, he scored 29 goals.

The gentleman player
Who is England’s all-time record goalscorer? Bobby Charlton, surely.

And yet on, that online cavern of football statistics, you’ll see one Vivian John Woodward credited with 73 goals in 53 England games between 1903 and 1914. But a footnote points out that 44 of these goals were scored for England’s amateur team in fixtures that were deemed full internationals by England’s opponents.

There’s a thorough biog of Woodward here. He was a gentlemanly, posh kid, told by his father to concentrate on tennis and cricket, but he was so good at football that he made his debut as a centre-forward for Clacton Town at the age of 16. 

Contemporary accounts suggest he was the complete attacker, a superb dribbler, passer, striker and header of the ball who could play as centre-forward, inside-right or inside-left and score with either foot.

He kept up his tennis; in 1912 and 1913, he even reached the final of Wimbledon. He was also a dairy farmer and an architect, who designed the main stand used in Antwerp for the 1920 Olympics.

Those Olympics, that stand, but not that man 

A glorious career – with Clacton, Spurs, Chelmsford, Essex and England (he twice won Olympic gold with the amateurs) – had an inglorious aftermath. In 1953, he was found in a nursing home in Ealing, bedridden and paralysed, complaining that “no one who knew me in football has been to see me in two years”.

It was the kind of scandalous neglect that would hasten the demise of another gentlemanly England hero – Bobby Moore. Still, Woodward’s plight moved the FA to respond. They sent him a TV set.

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