“WE are in Prague now,” wrote the world’s most expensive footballer on the back of a postcard, “and they have very nearly killed us – the roughest match I have ever played in. Give love to all at home and accept some yourself, from Alf.”
Alf Common was on tour in early June 1908 with Middlesbrough FC to Denmark and Prague, which was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and seven of the postcards that he sent home to his wife and family in Croft-on-Tees survive.
They are chatty lines in neat ink handwriting. “This is one of the main streets here,” he wrote from Copenhagen, “we are having fine weather.”
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Five of the cards feature young girls in rural poses, often with chickens and usually in the traditional dress of the country he was visiting. “This puts me in mind of Gladys with a bunch of flowers in her hand,” he wrote, showing that he was thinking of his daughter, Gladys, who would have been four.
As well as being a connection to Alf, the first £1,000 footballer, the cards are one of the earliest links to a Middlesbrough foreign tour.
The concept of football clubs playing closed season friendlies overseas was new at the start of the 20th Century. Newcastle United took their first foreign adventure, to Copenhagen, in May 1904; Darlington FC played four games in Holland in April 1908 and Sunderland took their first foreign steps in May 1909 with games in Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Munich and Nuremburg.
Middlesbrough seem first to have toured Denmark in May 1907. They returned in June 1908 for four matches and, as Alf’s postcards show, then moved onto Prague where they played two matches against SK Slavia Praha, a club managed by a former Scottish international which was beginning a very successful period in its history.
Boro won the first match on June 7 4-2 but lost next day 3-2, after which Alf wrote to Gladys in Croft: “We are in Prague now and they do play rough. Will be home on Thursday or Friday afternoon all been (sic) well, with love from Dada.”
As Memories 320 told, Alf was born in Sunderland in 1880. He developed two trades: firstly, he was a boilermaker; secondly, he was a goalscorer.
In 1901, his hometown club sold him to Sheffield United for £325 where, aged 21, he became the youngest winner of the FA Cup. He made his debut for England in 1904, returned to Sunderland in 1905 as the first £500 footballer and then, in February 1906, was transferred to Middlesbrough as the first £1,000 footballer – a scandalously high sum.
His wife was Ann Cook, who was possibly descended from Captain James Cook and whose family lived to the south of Darlington.
With Alf travelling around the country playing matches, Ann and their daughter, Gladys, lived with Ann’s mother in Belgrave Terrace, Hurworth Place. Then they all moved over the River Tees into a pair of houses in Monk End, Croft. Alf called his home Roker House – although we suspect he would have changed that when he moved to the Ayresome Park club.
In March 1906, Boro again broke the bank by buying England striker Steve Bloomer from Derby County for £750.
“Alf was great pals with Bloomer,” says Alf’s grand-daughter, Ann Parker, who lives in Darlington. “Because of the trains in those days, it was easy to get from Croft Spa station to Middlesbrough, and the two of them used to train around Croft – people would see them running round the area.
“And I think they were quite naughty boys. My mum would say that Alf ‘was full of the devil’.” Nothing malicious, of course, just high jinks.
By coincidence, in 1998, Middlesbrough FC relocated its training park to Rockliffe at Hurworth, which is just a good goalkick from Alf’s home, and the club’s former manager Steve McClaren used to regularly be seen following in Alf’s footsteps on training runs around the area.
Alf retired from professional football at the outbreak of the First World War, and, like many footballers, became a pub landlord. He ran the Cleaver Hotel in Skinnergate, Darlington, which boasted that it was “the athlete’s house”, and then the Alma in Cockerton. Because of the force of his personality and his footballing achievements, he was a local celebrity until his death in 1946.
“I was born a year after and I grew up very much in the shadow of my grandfather,” says Ann, who was Alf’s only grandchild. “He was considered a character and a hero in the area, and my mother, Gladys, was often taken to Ayresome Park and Roker Park where for me as a child, it was an odd sensation because people were talking about him as if he were still alive.”
Alf’s sporting gene has skipped several generations, but his great-grandchildren – Ann’s children – have inherited his ability to entertain. His great-granddaughter, Emma, works in TV and is a member of the current National Champion Ladies Barbershop Choir, while his great-grandson is the acclaimed actor Jamie Parker, who is currently starring in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre in London having really made a name for himself in Guys and Dolls at the Savoy Theatre.
ALF COMMON died on April 3, 1946, at his home of 326, Coniscliffe Road, Darlington – a house his great-nephew Don Colclough remembers visiting as a child. “My mother was Alf’s niece, and I remember playing cricket on the back lawn, where he had a swinging settee we used to swing on when visiting,” he says.
ALF COMMON is most associated with Roker Park, Ayresome Park and, of course, the Alma Hotel. The Alma was built in about 1860 by John Prior – the terrace next to it in Cockerton is still called Prior Street.
Mr Prior named his pub after the Battle of the Alma on September 20, 1854, during the Crimean War when an Anglo-French force defeated the Russians (the Alma was actually a river whose name means “apple” in Tartar).
However, Mr Prior’s son, James, didn’t like such a militaristic name so changed it to the Jubilee Hotel only for new landlord, John Wharton, to change it back in 1878.
In 1969, the Whitbread Brewery bought the Alma and in 1979, after a refurbishment, changed the name to The Brown Trout. This was, said the brewery, “to bring it more into keeping with Darlington”.
It survived as the Trout until 1993 when, after another £60,000 refit, it became the Beer Engine – a name which stuck until it closed in 2009. The pub was then radically redesigned and now contains two shops with accommodation above.
With many thanks to everyone who has helped with this article.