The player with the Common touch

The Northern Echo: ON THE BALL: Sunderland and Middlesbrough star Alfred Common ON THE BALL: Sunderland and Middlesbrough star Alfred Common

There was outrage in 1905 when Middlesbrough paid £1,000 for the services of Sunderland player Alfred Common. Were clubs creating mercenaries with no loyalties? Keith Proud looks back on the man who played for England before retiring as a Darlington publican, and on his friend and teammate, Steve Bloomer.

'WE are tempted to wonder whether Association football players will eventually rival thoroughbred yearling racehorses in the market, " mused a newspaper journalist in 1905 on hearing that a northern football club had broken all previous transfer records by paying £1,000 for the services of one player.

The club, only six years old at the time, was Middlesbrough. The player, bought from Sunderland, one Alfred Common.

In 1899, the Football Association had considered limiting transfer fees to £10 but eventually felt unable to do so with the result that really good players were soon demanding and getting £400 to move clubs.

Many football fans and sports writers were horrified at this new practice.

Money, they claimed, was ruining the game and producing players who were mere mercenaries with no loyalties.

Some even called it "a new type of white slave trade which might one day see transfer fees reaching £2,000 or even £10,000".

Alf Common, who usually played at inside forward or centre forward, was born in Millfield, a suburb of Sunderland, on May 25, 1880.

Playing initially for South Hylton Juniors in a village between Sunderland and Houghton-le-Spring, he was soon taken up by Jarrow, on the south bank of the River Tyne.

After a brief stay there, in 1900 he joined Sunderland AFC, which had by then been a member of the Football League for ten years. Between 1892 and 1902 they won the league three times.

Common's stay with Sunderland was brief, because in October 1901 he was transferred to Sheffield United for £325.

During that season, he scored the opening goal in United's FA Cup final win, a game replayed after an initial draw with Southampton at Crystal Palace.

In February 1904, he won his first England international cap and scored a goal in the game against Wales, which ended in a 2-2 draw.

Only weeks later he was capped again and scored in England's 3-1 victory over Ireland.

In his three seasons with Sheffield United he made 79 appearances and scored 24 goals.

In May 1904, Common decided against signing for a further season with Sheffield on the grounds that he wanted to play for Sunderland again.

He moved back there in the summer of 1904, Sunderland paying Sheffield £520 for the services of the 24 year-old, who was considered one of the country's best goalscorers.

As part of the deal, Sheffield's reserve goalkeeper, Albert Lewis, also joined Sunderland's ranks.

For some reason, Common did not settle back at Sunderland and after only six months and 21 games, in February 1905, the 13-stone, "tubby", ruddy-faced, 5ft 8in tall forward moved to Middlesbrough in its new stadium, Ayresome Park.

The transfer fee was £1,000, a fortune, but money well-spent in Middlesbrough's opinion because the club was in serious danger of being relegated from the First to the Second Division.

On February 25, 1905, Common took to the field for his first Middlesbrough outing in an away game against Sheffield United.

Just after half-time, he successfully took a penalty to give Middlesbrough their first away win in two years.

The club, which had started in 1876 as a vehicle through which the town's cricket team could enjoy exercise during the winter months, but which had won the FA Amateur Cup in 1895 and again in 1898, had turned professional permanently in 1899.

It had been promoted to the First Division in 1902 and now, thanks to Alf Common, held on to its valued place there.

At one stage, Common captained Middlesbrough, but the honour was withdrawn after he was involved in some drunken disorderly conduct.

He stayed with Middlesbrough until 1910 when, aged 30, he moved to Arsenal, playing against Manchester United in his first game for them.

In the 1911-12 season, starting as an inside forward before becoming more of an attacking player, he was the club's top scorer with 17 goals.

During the first half of the following season, Common scored no goals at all and was sold for £250 to Preston North End in December 1912.

In the first match of the next season, he scored for Preston against Sunderland, after which he played only 13 more games before retiring from football in 1914 at the age of 33.

MOST of the rest of Common's life was spent in the victualling trade, first as licensee of the Cleaver Hotel, in Darlington's Skinnergate, for 11 years, followed by a further 18 at the Alma Hotel (more recently known as the Beer Engine and the Brown Trout) in Cockerton, from which he retired in 1943.

He died aged 65 on April 3, 1946, at his home, 326 Coniscliffe Road, Darlington.

A year after joining Middlesbrough, Alf Common had welcomed a new teammate who was already, and still is, one of football's greatest legends. Steve Bloomer arrived at Ayresome Park from Derby County for a fee of £750 and formed a famous on-field partnership with Common.

So highly-regarded was he by Derby that the song "Steve Bloomer's Watchin" has become the club's anthem, sung before every home game.

Stephen Bloomer was born in Cradley, Worcestershire, on January 20, 1874, and moved to Derby when he was five.

As a youngster, Bloomer played in the Derbyshire Minor Football League and on one occasion scored 14 goals in a single game. He then played for Derby Swifts between 1888 and 1891, before briefly playing for Tutbury Hawthorn in April 1892.

However, his appearance for this club in a cup competition was declared illegal as he had already signed professional forms with Derby County, with whom he would spend the majority of his playing career.

His starting wage was 7s 6d (37.5p) a week. On his debut, Derby's club secretary commented that he did not look like an athlete, that he was "pale, thin, ghost-like, almost ill-looking".

Some of the Derby crowd laughed when they first saw him, but regular training soon changed his appearance.

At Derby he was the top scorer in the First Division on five occasions - in 1896, 1897, 1899, 1901 and 1904. He was also the leading Derby County scorer for 14 consecutive seasons and scored 17 hat-tricks in the league.

He joined Middlesbrough in 1906 and stayed with them until 1910 when he returned to Derby, playing his final match on January 31, 1914, just after his 40th birthday.

During his times with Derby County, he played 474 league games, during which he scored 293 goals. He scored a further 38 during his 50 cup ties.

Between 1895 and 1907, Bloomer appeared 23 times for England, scoring twice in his debut against Ireland, who were defeated 9-0.

He scored 19 times in his first ten matches for England and eventually finished his international career with 28 goals.

In 1896, he scored five goals against Wales and put four more past them in 1901, becoming the first player to score two hat-tricks for England, and was also the first to score four goals for England twice.

His record of scoring 28 goals in 23 England appearances stood until 1926.

In July 1914, while Alf Common took to life behind the bar after his retirement from the game, Bloomer made a critical error of judgement by accepting the job of coach with the Britannia Berlin 92 Sports Club, in Berlin, arriving in the German capital just three weeks before the First World War broke out and, as an alien, spent almost all of the next four war years as an internee at the Civilian Detention Camp, on the racecourse at Ruhleben, six miles from Berlin.

At the outbreak of the war, there were about 5,000 British subjects living in Germany along with the crews of several merchant ships either captured at sea or trapped in German harbours.

They were sent to Ruhleben and after a while, the prisoners began to manage their own internal affairs with no objection from the Germans, who adhered to the Geneva Convention.

Letters, books, sports equipment, craft material and even a printing press were allowed into the camp.

This led to the production of two magazines, which show how the prisoners, or "campers" as they referred to themselves, tried to recreate normal civilian life.

Sports reports and results of games played in the camp also appeared.

Bloomer was one of several former professional footballers among the detainees. Another was a former Middlesbrough team mate Fred Pentland, who later went on to become one of the most successful managers ever at Spain's Athletico Bilbao.

Together they helped to create the Ruhleben Football Association, which had both cup and league competitions and as many as 1,000 supporters attending the bigger games.

The teams adopted the names of established teams, and in November 1914 Bloomer captained a Tottenham Hotspur Eleven.

He also played cricket at Ruhleben, once scoring 204, and won the Old Age Handicap 75 yard race at the "Ruhleben Olympics".

After the war, Bloomer coached football in various parts of the world but asthma and bronchitis brought on a serious deterioration of his health during the 1930s.

So well-liked was he in Derby, that in 1938 a group of local sportsmen paid for him to go on a cruise - but he died only three weeks after his return.

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