By Tony Attwood
There are moments when doing research into Arsenal’s past that one finds a fact which has been completely overlooked. Not, I must admit, a major fact, but nevertheless a fact which really ought to be mentioned. That’s the case we have here.
William Jeffrey was born in Dalerby, a small village in Lincolnshire in 1868, who played as left back, right back and goalkeeper for Arsenal in the season 1893/94. His goalkeeping came during the periods when Charlie Williams was dropped for letting in too many goals (see my previous article). So immediately the question is raised: was this just a one off – a situation in which the regular keeper was playing so badly that the club needed someone, anyone, to fill in?
In fact William Jeffrey’s is one of those players from the early days of football who suffer from having had one person write a few lines about him. Those lines turn up on web site after web site, repeated word for word. Which is ok, except where the original piece is wrong, or rather has an omission of significance. If you have read of William Jeffrey on any other site, you’ll realise that there’s a story that hasn’t been told before (at least as far as I know).
Jeffrey’s list of clubs is long, and it looks as if he rarely played for much more than a season with each. That in itself is not unusual for the period. The list runs
- West Manchester (not related to the current West Manchester FC)
Horncastle (see note below)
- Lincoln City
- Boston Town (not, I think, directly traceable to either of the current Boston clubs)
- Grimsby Town
- Gainsborough Trinity (who were in the Midland league at the time)
- Lincoln City
- Woolwich Arsenal
- Southampton St Mary’s
The earliest news I have found of him comes from his Horncastle days, and there is a report of a match in January 1885 in which Jeffrey played in goal for the club. Here is an extract from that site’s report of the game.
“A sharp shot was direct for the Horncastle upright but the ball , striking the cross-bar it rebounded into play only however to be again propelled forward. Jeffrey however caught the ball and immediately threw it out of danger, a piece of play for which he received the well earned plaudits of the spectators.”
And that’s the clue – he was not just a full back, who suddenly filled in, in goal, for Arsenal. He was also a goalkeeper from his earliest days in football.
In 1891/92 William Jeffrey made seven appearances for Burnley at right back, but (in another story repeated on site after site, but really any clear original evidence to back it up) Burnley had a huge squad (the site everyone has copied puts it at 50) and he spent the whole of the following season eking out an existence in the reserves and in friendly games.
For his one season with Arsenal Jeffrey played 22 league games and four FA Cup games scoring no goals. Nine of his league games and two of his cup games were in goal – the rest were mostly at left back, but included a couple of appearances at right back.
In November 1894 he left Woolwich and joined Southampton for their first season in the new Southern League, and is reported to have played most of the season, as the team finished third in the league. (There was no promotion to the Football League as the Southern League was seen as a rival to the Football League, rather than a feeder).
However despite his seeming success with the club he left at the end of the season, and is not recorded as playing with any club after that point.
Nothing more is known of him, except this tantalising fact (which again is omitted on the web sites that mention him). In 1933 a book was published in England called “The boys with educated feet” by William Jeffrey. It is listed in catalogues of unavailable books as being about association football. Was the author same man? He would have been 40 then, and would have hung up his boots – so it is possible.
I suspect the only way I am going to even get half an answer is to see the book in the British Library – unless any reader can tell me. The only other person who stands out as a possible author was the head coach of the USA team that famously beat England in 1950 (Bill Jeffrey). What makes me think this is not the William Jeffrey who played for Arsenal is that the world cup hero has a web site, and there is no mention of the book there. He is a famous man in American football, and surely his book would be listed among his achievements if it were by him.
The book itself was clearly a success as it went through three editions in the 1930s – which increases hope that apart from the copy in the national archives there might be a copy elsewhere (I gave up my British Library ticket after I got my research degree, and I doubt that they would give me another, unless the rules have changed!)
Elsewhere on Arsenal History, and on Untold Arsenal…
Joe Powell, our first captain, who died as a result of a football injury