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Looking for the origins of the footballer spy

Looking at the records of Woolwich Arsenal it is clear that player longevity at a club was a rarity.

Look up the records and you will find that the vast majority of players played maybe a dozen or so games for the club and then moved on elsewhere.  Transfers (probably without any fee) were commonplace and happened every day and every week.  Players came, players went.

Of the players who stepped out for the club in that historic 1893-4 season, only two survived four or more seasons.  For some, Woolwich Arsenal was their last club – presumably retiring with an injury.  Some clearly felt the need or desire to move back to Scotland.   But for many it was just a stepping stone on an endless merry-go-round in which doing one season at a club was the norm.

The two long termers from that first season were Frederick Davis from Birmingham (137 games over six seasons), and Gavin Crawford from Scotland (122 games over five seasons).  Davis went on to Nottingham Forest and Crawford to Millwall Athletic.

Our first really long term player was Percy Sands a centre half from Norwood who joined in 1903 and left in 1915 when football was suspended due to the war.  He played 327 times and scored 10 goals.  But even then he was not finished, for he moved on to Southend United.   He died in December 1965, aged 84.

So by the time 1909/1910 came around (our particular period of study – this being 100 years ago) we had only a small number of players who had regularly turned out for the club over several seasons.

Most famous probably was Andrew Ducat, the England international who joined in 1904 from Southend Athletic and left in 1912 after 175 games to go to Aston Villa.  Although described as a right half or centre forward, his centre forwarding was not his high-point, scoring only 19 goals for us during that period.

More typical of the players we used was Thomas Drain.  Born in Glasgow,  he played for Drongan Juniors, Celtic, Ayr United, Maybole, Bradford City, Leeds City, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Carlisle United, and Exeter City before joining Woolwich Arsenal in 1909.  He played three games before going on to Nithsdale Wanderers and Glaston.

Nithsdale Wanderers (I am sure you want to know) were from Sanquhar in Dumfries and Galloway, and eventually rose to have membership of the Scottish League, winning the third division one year in the 1920s.  There is another club now of that name, but they are not directly connected with the club Drain played for.

And this constant movement was probably Woolwich Arsenal’s downfall.  The manager was trying to make ends meet with a cobbled together squad, including many players who popped up for a couple of games and moved on.

There is however one really interesting thing to note.  Thomas Drain travelled here there and everywhere to play football.  How did he know where to go?  Were clubs advertising for players?  Did someone tip him off?  Surely there were no agents or scouts around in those days!

From Carlisle to Exeter to Woolwich – certainly the trains were there to carry him on each journey – but why?   Did he perhaps have another job – another trade – a trade that took him from place to place as he made a habit of getting some footballing in while there?  Or was there something more mysterious?

Of course I would not in any way wish to dishonour and man who was certainly most honourable and straightforward, so let us forget Mr Drain, but think perhaps of another man, wanted by the police, moving on from the authorities, and turning his hand (or foot) to whatever he could do.  If you have read MAKING THE ARSENAL you will know spying was a huge industry at the time.  Footballer-spy?

Who knows… I can’t find the information, and as always I would welcome more knowledge.  Tony@hamilton-house is where to write.

But there is another point – today we are used to calling players mercenaries and suggesting that they have no loyalty.  In the words of Lord Sugar, “a load of Johnny Foreigners playing here for a year or two and then going back home.”

In national terms these Scotsmen were not foreign, but in footballing terms they were, and if FIFA or UEFA bring in their rules about national limits, then Scottish players will not be counted as home-grown in English teams.

But the fact is that the majority of these players had no loyalty to the club, nor the club to them.  They came and went, played a few games, moved on.  That’s how it was.

In short, football 100 years ago was a far more transient affair for most division 1 players than football is today.   Quite a thought that.

If you want to know more about life 100 years ago and how Woolwich Arsenal adapted to their problems in that traumatic season, read MAKING THE ARSENAL – by Tony Attwood, which co-incidentally, is my name.

More details and you can order direct from the publisher at www.emiratesstadium.info If you want me to sign the book write it on your order.      Or you can order from Amazon.co.uk

(c) Tony Attwood 2009

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