West Auckland FC- Durham Gala Theatre, Words By Michael Hamilton
PUBLISHED: 14:19 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013
It's exactly 100 years since little West Auckland Town won the first ever World Cup and their heroic tale is being celebrated with a new play at Durham Gala Theatre WORDS BY MICHAEL HAMILTON. PICTURES COURTESY OF WEST AUCKLAND FC
England's 1966 World Cup victory may be our proudest collective sporting moment as a nation - but in a small County Durham colliery village they still talk to this day of a football giant-killing act without equal.
A ragtag and bobtail bunch of pitmen took on the might of the international soccer world and writ their names large in the history books for all time. Not only did they beat the cream of professional international football to lift the World Cup in 1909 - they went back again two years later and repeated the feat, thrashing Juventus 6-1 in the final.
Their amazing against-all-the-odds story was turned into a television movie in 1981 - A Captain's Tale, produced by Tyne Tees Television and starring Dennis Waterman and our own Tim Healy. One of the biggest mysteries is why a lowly side of amateur coalminers was ever entered into the competition for football's elite in the first place.
The famous trophy West Auckland proudly lifted - in front of 30,000 fans in Turin on April 12, 1909 - was the brainchild of the tea magnate and football fanatic Sir Thomas Lipton. He initially approached the English Football Association along with the soccer hierarchies of Italy, Germany and Switzerland. And while the Europeans were suitably enthused, his idea was unceremoniously kicked into touch by the English football establishment.
One theory for the team's eventual entry was that an employee of Lipton had contacts in the Northern League where West Auckland played in 1908 and appealed for them to take the English spot. A more fanciful explanation is that Lipton harboured an ambition to send Woolwich Arsenal to the championship but an instruction to his secretary to 'contact W.A' led to West Auckland being mistakenly approached. But at the turn of the century Woolwich Arsenal had only just been promoted from the Second Division and was a comparatively small and unsuccessful side to the one they later became as the mighty Arsenal.
Whatever the explanation,West Auckland duly travelled to Turin - many players digging into their own pockets to find the cash for the trip. When they arrived they found there was no hotel booked and they had to sleep rough on the steps outside the cathedral. No sanctuary there! But, amazingly, after knocking out Stuttgarter Sportfreunde in the semi-finals 2-0, they beat Swiss side FC Winterthur by the same margin in the final.
They returned as heroes and the whole village turned out to see their victory parade around the green in a horse-pulled cart accompanied by the local brass band - but minus the prize of the trophy. The team had left it on the on the platform at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris as they celebrated their victory with a few too many drinks. The cup followed a couple of days later - forwarded by a French porter.
David Lloyd Thomas, now 93, is the son of David 'Ticer' Thomas who played in that famous team and still lives in West Auckland. He says: 'My father said the entire village turned out to see them come home. It was a rare occasion.' Interestingly, his son Dave Thomas, 58, played for England in the Seventies and set up one of Toon legend Malcolm MacDonald's goals in his record-breaking tally of five against Cyprus in 1975.
So football clearly runs in the genes. However, many locals believe the trophy was jinxed. The players had all run up huge debts to get to Italy and ended up having to pawn the cup to make their money back. In 1912,West Auckland FC went bust and sold the cup to the landlady of the village's Wheatsheaf hotel - in return for a loan of 40.
She later moved to Liverpool and the cup was only 'rediscovered' in 1960. Villagers tracked her down and she demanded 100 to relinquish the trophy. It came home to reside on the bar of the Eden Arms in West Auckland.
But even then the drama wasn't over. In an uncanny parallel with the theft of the Jules Rimet trophy - that England won in 1966 - the Sir Thomas Lipton trophy was also stolen in 1994. Despite the best efforts of local police and a 2,000 reward, it was never found. An exact replica of the cup - worth 20,000 - can today be found in a secure cabinet at West Auckland Workingmen's Club.
Stuart Alderson, general manager of West Auckland FC, says: 'In a village this size you would think somebody would have known something about it, but it never came to light. This anniversary would be the ideal time to bring it back.' In a fairytale twist, the club - currently struggling in the Northern League - has thrown down the gauntlet and challenged mighty Juventus to a rematch to mark their milestone centenary.
Commercial manager Michael Bainbridge says: 'It would be a dream to get Juventus over here. The BBC is very interested in televising it.We would fill the ground in five minutes.We only have a capacity of 2,500.We would need to think about staging it at one of the region's big venues like St. James's Park.'