IT had come to that awkward point in the season. With games running out, Middlesbrough were second bottom of the First Division and likely to be relegated.
“That the Borough will have to do something extraordinary to escape is fully recognised,” said the Echo’s football writer on February 14, 1905. “But when will it be?”
The answer came that very afternoon when breaking news of "something extraordinary" was posted in the Echo’s office windows in the iron town: the Borough had signed 25-year-old England international Alf Common for a world record fee of £1,000 from their North-East rivals, Sunderland.
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The Echo said that its windows were “read with great interest by scores of football enthusiasts”.
There are plenty of parallels to be drawn with the "something extraordinary" that Middlesbrough did this week in a bid to stave off relegation, and so even today – when Manchester United can buy Paul Pogba for a world record £89.3m – there is great interest in the first £1,000 footballer who ended his days running a pub in Darlington. Only recently, football memorabilia collector David Copland, a Quakers fan, bought a collection of Common’s medals and photographs at auction, and he has kindly loaned them to Memories.
The sacking of Aitor Karanka by Boro chairman Steve Gibson this week has barely caused the batting of an eye, but when Borough director Thomas Gibson Poole splashed out £1,000 on a footballer in 1905, the rage ran white hot as mercenary Middlesbrough were condemned for the most unsportsmanlike behaviour: buying their way out of trouble.
“The Second Division would be more honourable than retention of places by purchase,” snorted the Athletic News.
Other commentators said the deal was the start of “a new type of white slave trade which might one day see transfer fees reaching £2,000 or even £10,000”.
Alf had been born in Millfield, Sunderland, in 1880. The new collection of pictures contains the earliest known one of him in a football team, St Cuthbert’s, in 1895-96. Within a couple of years, he was semi-pro, before joining Sunderland in 1900. In his first season, he scored six goals and helped the Mackems to come second in the First Division behind Liverpool.
Regarded as one of the best young goalscorers in the country, Alf was sold to Sheffield United in October 1901 for £325, and in April 1902, he helped the Blades to win the FA Cup – he scored one goal in the final and, aged 21, became the youngest winner.
On February 24, 1904, Alf made his debut for England, scoring against Wales in a 2-2 draw – he only won another two caps, and scored one more international goal.
In the summer of 1904, he wanted to return to Sunderland for “business interests”, and the Roker Park club paid a record £520 for him. He began that season quite well, scoring six goals in 20 matches as Sunderland made it into the top five.
Alf was 5ft 8in tall, deceptively quick, 13 stone and “tubby” – his battle to lose weight was as much a part of his career as his battle against defenders.
By the start of 1905, Middlesbrough were in the relegation mire. The club’s ruthless director, Cllr Thomas Gibson Poole, began negotiations with Sunderland for their chief asset. As the predicament of the Borough – the Echo didn’t shorten their nickname to Boro in 1905 – worsened, Gibson Poole’s bids became higher until he reached £1,000, nearly twice the record price the Wearsiders had paid just six months earlier.
“This arrangement is a clear indication that the Middlesbrough directors even at the eleventh hour are determined to risk a good deal in order to save the club from relegation,” said the Echo’s commentator, Harry Walker, who was one of the few voices backing the transfer. “In this policy they will have everybody’s approval and good wishes.”
Part of the deal was a friendly between the two clubs, played on Saturday, February 18, before a crowd of 5,000 at Ayresome Park. Sunderland won 2-1 but the Borough kept all the gate receipts.
The following Saturday, second-bottom Borough were away at high-flying Sheffield United. They won 1-0 with a 48th minute penalty scored by Alf – it was the Borough’s first away win in more than two years.
“The turning in the long lane of non-success has at last been reached, and the silver lining to the dark cloud is assuredly visible,” said the Echo.
Gibson Poole was so delighted he threw a celebratory dinner the following evening at the Zetland Hotel, Middlesbrough. Alf didn’t attend, as he still lived – and trained – in Sunderland, but Gibson Poole said: “No club in England has been talked of so much as Middlesbrough during the last few weeks and this has had an inspiring influence on the players.”
He was right: Alf scored three more goals that season as the Borough finished fourth bottom and escaped relegation. However, he needn’t have worried as at the end of the season the division was expanded from 18 clubs to 20 and so no one was relegated.
Middlesbrough was a club on a tightrope. They’d been fined £250 for making illegal payments to players, which Gibson Poole personally paid off so he could become chairman. He signed Steve Bloomer – the Alan Shearer of his day – from Derby County for £750, but was found to be using the club as a personal kitty and to have made illegal payments to Bloomer. The chairman had to pay back £500; the player was suspended for two matches and the Borough just avoided relegation by goal difference at the end of 1905-06.
Although they stabilised their league position, they were only a short free kick away from scandal: in September 1907, Alf was stripped of the captaincy and fined £10 for “drunkenness and violent behaviour”.
At the end of the 1909-10, Middlesbrough had money problems and Gibson Poole encouraged Alf to leave on a free transfer so long as he didn’t claim the £250 benefit money he was due. Alf chose to go to Woolwich Arsenal, and so just avoided the most notorious match in the Borough’s history: on December 3, Gibson Poole tried to bribe the entire Sunderland team into losing to Middlesbrough for £30 so that all the supporters would vote for him two days later to be the town’s Conservative MP. He lost the election and was banned from football for life.
Alf spent two solid years at Arsenal before moving for a last hurrah to Preston North End in December 1912 for £250. He immediately carried them to the Second Division title – his winner’s medal is among the recently bought collection.
He retired in 1914, and became a sports officer in the Royal Engineers, stationed at Kitchener Camp at Richborough, a huge military port on the Kent coast.
His wife’s parents were direct descendants of Captain James Cook and lived at Croft, to the south of Darlington. Alf had stayed with them while he played for Middlesbrough, coincidentally only a goal kick away from the club’s current training headquarters at Hurworth, and perhaps it was this connection that caused him to make Darlington his home after the war.
He was landlord at the Cleaver Hotel in Skinnergate, where Argos is today, until 1925 when he moved to the Alma Hotel in Cockerton – it later became the Brown Trout and has recently been revamped as a florist’s.
He batted for Darlington Cricket Club, and religiously watched the Quakers at Feethams – he always maintained that the football club would never succeed while it played at the quaint ground. Talking of religion, he had a close relationship with the Cockerton Methodist minister, the Reverend Arnold West, who would regularly drink in the Alma on Saturday night (lemonade only), vigorously contributing to the singalong with Ilkla Moor, and the following day, Alf would lead his customers “in Sunday suits and hard hats” to the church.
David Copland’s medal collection reveals that Alf was a Special Constable and also a member of the Cockerton lodge of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a philanthropic organisation. Indeed, one of the medals hails him as a “worthy host”, so perhaps the lodge met in his pub.
Alf, who was something of a celebrity in the town he came to call home, died 11 months after his wife on April 3, 1946, at his home of 326, Coniscliffe Road, having been retired from the Alma for three years. He was 65.
His son, Alfred, attended Darlington Grammar School and was said to be an even better footballer than his old man. However, aged 18 in 1932, when on Sunderland’s books, a motor accident put paid to his career. Alf also had a daughter, and the last time we wrote about him many moons ago, he still had descendants living in Darlington.
In 1905, the "something extraordinary" of making Alf the first £1,000 footballer saved the Borough's season; 112 years later, can this week's "something extraordinary" of sacking the manager save the Boro from relegation?
With many thanks to David Copland for his help with this article. We’d love to see a picture of the Alma, or the Brown Trout, and to hear from anyone related to Alf.