Pre-season tours: when football clubs embarked to play friendlies abroad
It’s the mid-1920s and your club is going on a summer tour. What could go wrong? Time away from home to play football with the guys. Nothing bad is going to happen, is it? All you have to do is go on a steamer across the ocean. No problem, that’s how the Brits embarked on globe-trotting tours before throwing a ball among the natives.
Scottish clubs in particular traveled the world a century ago, some ending up in Buenos Aires, others in Africa. After their first Scottish Cup final on 24 April 1937, Aberdeen opted to visit Africa. Before leaving, they lost 2-1 to Celtic in front of a British club record crowd of 146,433 at Hampden Park, with the antidote to their defeat being a trip to Southampton to board the Stirling Castle Ship for a two-day trip. weeks in Cape Town.
Keeping the players in shape on long trips like this was imperative, so they held daily training sessions on one of the decks. Outside of these sessions, players were expected to adopt their best demeanor and were even required to wear formal attire to maintain a professional demeanor.
Going to South America was even more of an experience than going to Latin Africa, taking an extra week to get there. Everton and Tottenham became the first professional clubs to play in Latin America, as professionalism had yet to reach the southern hemisphere.
Everton finished the 1908/09 season second in the top flight, but after a summer schlep around the world – which included two months on a ship – their form began to go south as they, uh, were flowing at 10e the next year.
The Toffees’ trip included many stops: Lisbon, Madeira, Cape Verde, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, while Spurs nearly missed the trip, having missed their train due to an accident at London Waterloo.
Arriving later than expected, they had to leave Southampton to take the HMS Araguaya by chartering a tug. Once they arrived at the boat, the players passed the time by holding a derby contest and attending a costume ball to mark Argentina’s Independence Day.
These tours, while hard on the players, helped the regions they visited. Everton’s journey to Latin America left a notable legacy in Chile, with a group of youngsters from the port of Valparaiso establishing their own club named after Everton. The leader of the group was David Foxley, whose grandparents emigrated from Liverpool to set up a flour mill. The club still exist today as CD Everton and were Apertura champions in 2008.
Exeter City’s tour of South America in 1914 is widely credited as the kickoff of the Brazilian national team. The Greeks set sail on May 22, 1914, with 15 players making the 18-day voyage from Southampton to Rio de Janeiro. It didn’t take them long to make an impact, with the whole team arrested almost immediately after swimming at a beach where swimming was prohibited – and it was only the intervention of a British diplomat that stopped them to be sent back to England.
On these tours, star clubs from across the city were brought together to show the region’s best representation. In Rio on July 12, 1914, a Brazilian side made their debut at the Estádio das Laranjeiras, Fluminese’s home stadium, against Exeter – showing their already superior ball skills and natural flair to defeat their English rivals 2-0. After the final whistle, the Brazilian players were carried on the shoulders of the crowd, proclaiming them national heroes, while a crestfallen Exeter was exhausted from the heat and their long journey at sea.
The port of Hibernian brought the European game to Scotland’s shores and has a dubious reputation as the birthplace of Scotland’s only shipwrecked club. One of the people at the center of the calamity was former Chester City and Preston North End player David Morris, who became a shipbuilder at the end of his career. Morris had always had an affinity with ships and was spotted by a Raith Rovers coach when playing for the Newtongrange Star in the early 1920s while working on the docks.
This Raith side were known as one of the best passing sides in the country, finishing third behind Celtic and Rangers in the 1921/22 season, and aimed to show off their skills with a 1923 summer tour of Copenhagen, which she continued the following year. for the Canary Islands.
The 13-person group – made up of players, executives and managers – boarded the SS Highland Loch at Tilbury Docks along with many other passengers and, reportedly, a shipment of meat bound for Buenos Aires. Reports indicate that the atmosphere on the ship was jovial, as the players sang, played cards and talked about the sights they would see in Vigo, the first port where they would dock. There was a wild storm blowing and massive waves hit the ship just off the rocky coast of northwest Spain.
Players kept calm and did as they were told, getting into the lifeboats, with Keeper Raith – a former Royal Navy sailor in World War I – helping people get down to safety . Once in the lifeboats, players discovered less than favorable conditions until they reached the small village of Villa Garcia. Here they encountered local fishermen who could not understand them and having left their money on the abandoned ship, the players suffered the ignominy of being left alone in their pajamas and dressing gowns.
The besieged group headed for the seaport of Vigo, the administrative center of the region. Coincidentally, their sunken ship, Highland Loch, had been refloated and had arrived in Vigo port at the same time. The forepeak had taken the worst hit, part of the bulkhead was broken and the port hold keels were torn out, with half the crew ending up in Corrubedo harbor and the other half in Vilagarcia after five hours of drift in the Ria de Arousa.
Rather than wait for repairs to occur, a ship named Darro rounded up the team and took them to Las Palmas, where Rovers won all six matches on the tour. Despite their success on the pitch, Raith’s nautical misadventures forced them not to embark on another summer tour the following year.
Fortunately for most players and club officials, clubs began flying commuter aircraft when Europe finally emerged after World War II and excursion ships were withdrawn as a means of realistic transportation. And as jets became more readily available, football found the world was opening up to them – making jaunts to play friendlies in distant lands much more common. Whoa, Bangkok!