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James Catton, 1924: The best team of all time

Author: Isaque Argolo | Creation Date: 2022-07-28 15:27:21

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James Catton | 22/09/1924

The latter-day football enthusiast, and even players, are inclined to be sceptical concerning the skill of Preston North End at their zenith. Often is the question asked: "Would Preston North End be as great as in these days?" Their doubts can be forgiven, because modern followers of soccer have only seen the teams of these later years.
It has been my privilege to enjoy the best for more than forty years, and as far as I am capable of judging, and as one who lives in the present, I hold that Preston, given the same players in the same condition, would be as powerful as ever. To compare the players of long ago with those now on the green is difficult, and the conclusions, at the most, can only be an opinion.
This is neither the place nor the occasion to enter into an argument, in detail, on the merits of footballers ancient and modern. When Aston Villa won the League championship and the Association Cup in 1896-97 I went to their headquarters, at the Tavistock Hotel, London the day after they had received the Cup. While I congratulated them I rashly remarked that I could not help feeling sorry that they had deprived Preston North End of their unique record of having captured both the same honours in 1888-89.
The Villa players naturally objected to this observation. The discussion became heated and even reached the stage of a threat to drop me out of the window into the courtyard.
The prospect, for a moment or two, was not pleasant, but presumably they remembered that there were twelve or thirteen to one — and such a very little one, so small indeed that even Fanny Walden smiled when he first met me and said with his soft voice and winning way that it was not often he had the pleasure of gripping the hand of a man on whom he could look down! Clever.
Probably the Villans relented and repented when they looked me up and down and considered my miniature proportions in relation to my daring. So they did not pitch me out of the window, but one of them, I think it was John Campbell, the Scotsman and the centre-forward, retorted: "Preston? Ha! Football was in its infancy then. They had no one to beat." EVERY MAN A MASTER
Certainly there were not so many clubs in those days. Therefore, the good players were more concentrated. The teams had a higher average standard of skill even than in 1896-97. I should like to point out that between 1883-84 and 1888-89 Preston won 294 matches, lost 35, drew 37, and scored 1302 goals and forfeited 385 goals.
They could be beaten and they were, but no club has a record to equal this, and in the season of 1888-89 they were the premiers of the League, which then consisted of only twelve clubs, without the loss of a match, and they carried off the Association Cup, in which they had been defeated for several seasons, without losing a goal.
What manner of men were these who could do such great deeds? Taking the old Prestonians as a whole, they were men of about 5ft. 9ins., with an average weight of 12 stone, and these figures do not overlook James Ross, who was so often called Ross, junior, to distinguish him from his elder brother, for he was only 5ft. 7ins., and 10st. 10lb.
So much for their physique; but evert man was a master in his position, and some were so versatile that they could fill more places than one in the hour of need. They studied football with chessmen set out on a billiard table and with diagrams on blackboard. Oh, yes, laugh, but theory is good as well as practice.
I remember going into the offices of Huddersfield Town a year or two ago, and in the secretary's office there was a table with a football field carefully and exactly marked out, with all the lines and goals neatly painted in white on black oilcloth. I said to Arthur Fairclough, the burly and genial Yorkshireman, who was then secretary: "What's this for?" "Ah," he replied, "this is where the directors play." And a very good answer, too. But this blackboard work has its used, in spite of the hoary retort of the player who, when assimilating theory, said: "What are the other fellows doing?"
These North End men took the lessons of none, Dr. Gledhill, given in the billiard room of a club at Fulwood, a suburb of the two, and applied them on the field. Every player knew what he had to do — to make the ball do the work. "FINGERS INTO A GLOVE"
As John Goodall once said to me:
— Every man in the team was a master of his craft. What is more, every man was a partner. That made our success.
» We never bothered about who got the goals. They belonged ot the side — not to the man. Nobody offered gold watches and grand pianos for goals then. Newspapers did not publish lists of goal-scorers. We had no jealousy. We could generally get often when we had a goal or so in hand we left the rest to Jimmy Trainer and the backs.
I liked these words from the veteran who, when we last had a crack by his own fireside, was keeping a bird shop at Watford. John Goodall, the first Scotsman who ever played for England, simply because he was born in London, was a man of 5ft. 9in. and 11st. 7lb. — and as quiet as an old sheep, but such a player.
I think I saw him in every forward position except outside-left, but he was best at either centre-forward or inside-right. It was no trouble for any man to play with Goodall, for he made the game so easy for his mates. That was to me the principal characteristic of this North End team.
They earned the title of the Invincibles, but this was because they all seemed to fit — like fingers into a glove, and, as Goodall said, they were all partners. BIG SCORING FEATS
There used to be some rare struggles between Notts County and Preston. About 40 years ago Notts had a team of international strength, and they often played a local eleven of whom eight had won English caps.
There was great desire for a match between Notts and Preston, but the Midlanders were a proud lot. They insisted upon Preston playing them first on Trent Bridge ground. What is more, Notts won. The match took place on February 7, 1885, and the game was decided by the aid of a free-kick which Herbert Emmett, a typical Notts man, drove into the goal. This was a last minute victory — by 2-1 — and so dramatic that the heavens were rent with the cheering. But it was the only match Notts won against Preston for many years.
On another occasion the North End looked like being beaten. The players heard the voice of "Billy" Sudell: "Now then, boys! Get us a goal or two." There were three in the last ten minutes, and Preston won by 3-2. John Goodall told me that he never saw such play — finer than in any international match.
John Graham was taking part, and he said: "I stood with my mouth open. I could not say a word — so wonderful was the football." And even John Goodall, the most astute of schemers, could not recollect that he ever touched the ball. But he did. THE 26-0 MATCH
I call to mind some big thrashings that even such a team as Notts County then boasted had to put up with Notts County were beaten 8-2 and even by 14-0 at Deepdale on November 6, 1886.
The soil of Deepdale was heavy and sticky in those days. That was some explanation of the fourteen goals that North End got, but, although a forward, William Gunn, the giant who played for his county at both soccer and cricket, was compelled to be one of the backs on that day. Now "Billy" Gunn stood 6ft. 2 1/2in. in his socks, and he was terribly handicapped by the state of the turf, especially as he was wearing a new pair of football boots.
The match just indicates what Preston could do. In 17 games between 1883-84 and 1888-89 Preston made double-figure scores, including 26-0 against Hyde in a Cup-tie at Deepdale in 1887, 19-0 against Earlestown Wanderers in 1886, 16-0 against Darwen, then a good club, 10-1 against the best players of Lancashire, 12-1 against Bolton Wanderers, 11-1 against Aston Villa, both in 1886-87, and 16-2 against Strathmore of Dundee, when John Goodall got the first nine goals off the reel.
Of course, "The Cup-tie" with Hyde remains an historical feat, a record. The curious part about it was that no player did the "hat-trick", and Charles Bunyan, who was the goalkeeper for Hyde, assured me one day at Brussels that it was a wonder Preston did not get 40 goals. That may be, but there came a time when the whole eleven of Hyde were backs. Such are some of the great deeds of Preston. SKETCHES OF THE PLAYERS
James Trainer was a wonderful goalkeeper in that he was so consistent. He was an everyday custodian. This tall, well made, quiet man was known as The Prince of Goalkeepers, and it was most unfortunate for him that he was not qualified at the time that Preston won the Cup.
It is sad to think of Trainer's latter days when he was soliciting alms. Any football team which visited London when he was experiencing the seamy side of life, used to expect him as a caller. The team often had to raise a subscription for him, and to my knowledge none was more generous to him than Leigh Richmond Roose — or "Dick," as this eccentric but clever man was called.
Nick Ross died young from consumption after a sojourn in the Canary Isles. He, like Trainer, never won The Cup medal because he was with Everton during the season that the North End had their one triumph in 1889. Bob Holmes, a well-spoken man, became a trainer, but glided into obscurity. The other famous back, R. H. Howarth, a giant of a man and a splendid back, is still practising as a solicitor in Preston. A fine type of man, but he lost his interest in the game after he gave over playing.
Of the half-backs who spring to mind John Graham, who was not too young when he joined Preston, and was 32 when he won the gold medal of the Association, holds me for a moment. Although 5ft. 8ins. he was 12st. and seemed to be made of iron. Anyone who came in contact with this dour Ayrshire man recognised the metal and the mettle of him. No day was too long for him and no match too severe.
A superfine placer of a ball, he will be best remembered as a wing half-back who could throw the ball from touch into the centre of the field. His throws used to make throng say: "Oh! Did you ever?" Hugh Wilson, of Sunderland, was also an adept of this kind, and it was mainly in consequence of the hurling capacity of these men, Graham and Wilson, that the throw-in was introduced as we now know it — with both feet on the line, both hands round the ball, and propelled over the head. THE SAFETY VALVE
Dave Russell was abrupt in speech and a big man who was a rock to bump against. As a centre half-back he was quite acrobatic, bringing high balls down to the grass with a foot in the vicinity of an opponent's car. Modern referees would have something to say to him about dangerous play and the honest vigour of his charges. He was a force and a rare schemer.
Sandy Robertson, the other wing half-back, was a painter "to trade," was little Ginger Lyon, one of his successors, would say. But Robertson was a delightful personality — so clever, and fair and dainty. He once played through a semi-final tie for the Association Cup with a small bone in the ankle broken and giving him much pain. This man, who was playing in the 'eighties, was one of the South African contingent who donned khaki for the European War! Such an act, even at his age, was just what I should have expected of him.
Jack Gordon, the outside-right, lean and sinewy, had long legs and ran like a stag, but he could centre to a yard when moving at top speed. His partner, James Ross, junr., was a cunning as a monkey, and as accurate with a ball as a billiard player. Moreover, he was one of the very best story-tellers I ever heard. On one occasion when he played with a scratch team at Stonyhurst College he kept a room full of reverend fathers convulsed with a laughter by his anecdotes and experiences.
Not so clever as Goodall, Sam Thomson, at centre-forward, was an artist, but not so versatile as Geordie Drummond, who was really extraordinary — and quite of a different type to Graham, known as Safety Valves. Drummond could make a ball do anything he desired, and once he dribbled through all the Corinthians from near the corner-flag to the goal. Originally a baker's boy in Edinburgh, he was a gamin, full of ready wit, and many is the hour of variety entertainment that he and Dave Russell gave on long train journeys.
Russell and Drummond were very fond of boxing, and their sham fights were so real that once, as the Fleetwood steamer touched the quayside at Belfast, one of the constabulary stepped up the gangway to separate them. Mr. Sudell explained that this was a joke, and offered the officer half a sovereign. This he refused, and walked sheepishly away.
Fred Dewhurst, who was the one amateur, and member of the Corinthians, was a big, vigorous build of a player and talented, but he had not the science of his colleagues. Being of the Brann, Cotterill, Goodhart type, he could simply walk over his opponents — and did.
Such are the impressions left on me of the finest team I ever saw — although Queen's Park in the 'eighties, Sunderland in 1891-92 and 1913, and Aston Villa in 1897, challenge comparison with them.