Phases of football: Tales of poaching days

Saturday, September 28 – 1907
Between fifteen and twenty years ago there were stirring times in the football world, for the English Clubs, following on the adoption of professionalism, had gone in wholesale for the employment of Scots, and to secure these agents had to be employed.

These agents were called poachers, and no opprobrium was considered too great to heap upon them.

There sprang up a regular system of exportation of Scots for English service, and the agency business had its genesis in a very simple way through a Dundee man desiring to find employment for a player friend in England.

That player was Barber, of Renton, who was sent to Bolton, and quite unexpectedly two five pounds notes were received as reward.

It struck the agent that if the Wanderers were prepared to pay thus for men other Clubs would be the same, and immediately the idea was put in execution, to the no small profit of the agent, who soon had numerous rivals in the business of exportation.

Of course, Club officials and supporters everywhere were up in arms, and the man who ventured abroad in search of talent for English service had practically to take his life in his hands, for at any time he might have been set upon by irate crowds and violently assaulted.

Indeed, there were numerous cases of that sort.

Housed in a Cowshed.
On one occasion the agent alluded to have had a commission to execute in Renton which, on account of the high position taken by the village Club, and also the Clubs of Alexandria (Vale of Leven) and Dumbarton, was marked out as an exceedingly dangerous place, being chokeful of rabid supporters.

Arrived at Renton, the agent and his friends were hidden away in a cowshed or byre occupied by the parents of Andrew Hannah, and from here messengers were successfully despatched; but the commissariat proved rather a difficult business, a steak pie having to be smuggled in for the delectation of the famished emissaries.

Mr. Tom Watson, the Liverpool Secretary, tells a story of his he was once pursued by the employees of Nobel’s Explosive Works; whilst on another occasion two gentlemen – at least, they looked and were dressed like gentlemen – arrived from England and did a round of the provincial grounds, but their real objective was William Dickson, a famous forward of the period, who afterwards saw a long period of service with Aston Villa and Stoke, and is now a Director of the latter Club and a Boniface to boot.

The gentlemen had taken up an advantageous position for viewing an evening game at Rollo’s Pier, in which Dickson was engaged. But, ever suspicious, the Club’s supporters, and especially the younger portion of them, soon guessed the business of the strangers, and this was confirmed by certain stray remarks innocently let drop, for apparently they had no idea of the danger they were in.

The youngsters at once proceeded to the hill bounding one side of the ground, and locally named “Ben Nevis,” and there provided themselves with abundance of ammunition in the shape of “divots” of large dimensions.

Thus armed, they set upon the strangers, and a scene of wild confusion ensued, to which a spice of humour and also terror was innocently lent by the Club trainer.

One of the Strathmore practices was to tar the boundary wall in order to prevent people from having a free view, and suddenly the trainer emerged from the pavilion – a curiously arched, dry-dock sort of contrivance-carrying a bucket of tar and large brush.

Thinking, not unnaturally, the tar was meant for them the strangers made valiant efforts to get out of the ground, and, thanks to a merciful gatekeeper, at last succeeded, but they were pursued for a quarter of a mile until a passing tram car afforded them timely means of escape.

Arrival of “Wee M’Gregor.”
Once in the North of England there existed a couple of Clubs, between which there was intense rivalry. One had adopted professionalism and called in Scotchmen, and by this means had twice beaten their enemies.

It fell out that they had to meet a third time – and that in a district cup tie – and there was great excitement in the camp of the still amateur Club over the event.

The Committee were divided as to the advisability of adopting professionalism, and at last decided on a compromise whereby a weak forward position was to be strengthened by an imported Scotchman.

An agent was communicated with and a list of available men recommended, from which one was secured. He was timed to arrive on the Thursday night before the match, and did so, but he proved such a puny looking creature that his new masters would have none of him.

Considering they had been unfairly dealt with by the agent, who had given the lad a special recommendation, they resolved forthwith to pack the player home to his native land and decline to pay for him.

But the youngster refused to be sent home. He, however, quite blandly offered to take what money they cared to give him and clear out. A £5 note was handed over, and it was considered a good riddance had been effected, though one and all were highly indignant at the way matters had turned out.

A big hotelkeeper who financed the Club in times of stress, and who was mainly responsible for what had happened, vowed dire vengeance on all agents and Scotchmen generally, for “Wee M’Gregor,” the lad alluded to, was a Scot, and as he lifted his brown paper parcel he coolly winked to the publican, squirted a line of tobacco juice along the carpet, and asked to be directed to the abode of Davie Graham, the “Swift’s” left-winger.

“Ye see, man, he used to play alang wi’ me, and I was like to see him.”

The request was complied with, and the lad was allowed to go.

Where Appearances are Deceptive.
But a great astonishment was in store, for on the Saturday when the sides lined up for the cup tie who should appear in the centre for the Swifts but the identical M’Gregor who had been cast out by the opposition.

There was a rubbing of eyes, and as the game proceeded consternation pure and simple took the place of astonishment. As the little fellow, who, by the way, made a wondrously fine strip, wriggled and walzed round his big opponents and scored 3 out of 4 goals for his side, the hotelkeeper fled from the scene, and when a day or two later the Scotch agent wrote demanding an explanation and his fee, the money was meekly paid over.

Probably the greatest deal ever executed by one agent was at the formation of the Middlesbrough Ironopolis Club, and it is curious how largely this town has figured in what may be termed the shady side of the game, for it also holds the record in the way of transfer prices.

Well there had been a split in Middlesbrough football, and one actor resolved to adopt professionalism out-and-out – and that in a great hurry, for the resolution was no sooner come to than negotiations were opened up with the leading Scotch agent of the period, and in less than a week a full team was sent from Scotland, and a really good team it proved to be.

Though in the end the Club proved to be a rank failure this was through no fault of its first players, but simply because football had not gained sufficient held to enable an expensive professional team to exist under the condition then prevailing.

A curious point regarding this hurriedly brought together side was that the men were drawn from but two Clubs – Arthurlie (of Barrhead) and Harp (of Dundee), and it was more curious still that the pair should have been billed for a match at Dundee, only to find themselves minus the bulk of their best players, who were that very day performing on behalf of Middlesbrough Ironopolis.

It was a great coup truly.
(Aberdeen People’s Journal, 28-09-1907)

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