We have no lasting conscience of them now. They played in baggy clothes and heavy boots, thrilling thousands upon thousands every week with their artistry and tenacity. Their captivating style and humble grace made them champions in the eyes of the fans that idolised them unfalteringly. In observing their easy way with the ball, reputations based on strength, speed and accuracy were nurtured and augmented in the minds of those that watched their stiff-collared heroes from the terraces.
This was the late-1930’s, a time when Britain was yet to feel the prolonged anguish and suffering of a second world conflict. Events of significance were reported and transmitted from source to destination slowly and deliberately. Newspapers dutifully used their carefully chosen words to inform and enlighten every man, woman and child while the wireless radio painted pictures of its own in the collective subconscious.
This was how football fans learnt of the weekly sporting battles involving their favourite players, their team and their opponents. What couldn't be heard or read had to be suggested by other means, and here the photographic and painted illustrations of the simple cigarette card played their part.
Players like Ronnie Dix who broke the record as the youngest scorer in the league at 15 years 180 days while at Bristol Rovers.
Players like Eric Stephenson of Leeds United who, we we’re told, “is interested in the Boy’s Brigade Movement and is a Lieutenant in the 30th Leeds Battalion.” Stephenson, a Major in the Gurkha Rifles, died six years after this card was printed during active service in Burma.
Players, too, like Fulham’s Michael Keeping who started out at Southern League Southampton in 1924 and finished his playing career at Craven Cottage in 1939. After the war, he spent two years as coach of Real Madrid.
Every man jack of them learned the game, honed what skills they had, suffered the pain of injury and sweated in their pursuit of glory long before their stories could be told to a worldwide audience. And what stories they had to tell.
Yet just because their images live on in black and white, there’s no reason to label them as a by-product of football history that has nothing in common with the modern game. We’d be watching these players on our TV screens now if time and technology were better matched.
They’d all be celebrating their 100th birthday around now had they lived to the present day, and for that reason we issue a reminder to all football fans that we should never forget the football heroes of yesteryear.
Seek out their names, remember their faces but above all, do your utmost to keep their spirit alive.