The Sadness of the Master Builder

Death, the War and the Bradford Park Avenue manager Tom Maley
By Alexander Jackson (From The Blizzard Dec 2016)

At Elland Road on 18 December 1915 the Bradford Park Avenue manager Tom Maley was keeping an eye out for a friend before kick-off. As he informed readers of his regular column in the Yorkshire Weekly Record, he had been befriended on his first visit there by a Scottish fan of Leeds City and Celtic, who had seen Maley play for the Glasgow club.

“Every match at Elland Road since then he has turned up. Never do I sit myself on the stand, for then I would miss my Celtic friend…’I thought that was you with the sodger’s coat and bonnet…I am glad to see you,’ he said, and then in his own way, and with a sincerity that couldn’t be questioned, a few words of regret at the loss of my boy.”

The ‘boy’ in question was Tom’s second eldest son, Corporal Joseph Maley of the 9th (Glasgow Highland) Battalion, Highland Light Infantry, who had died from his wounds on 17 May 1915.

The image of a football manager receiving sympathy for his loss from a fan is one of many moving wartime scenes that Tom Maley recounted in his columns for his readers. They shed light not only on the wartime game, which has so often been overlooked, but on something more profound. They give an idea of the emotional impact the war had on one manager, his personal sacrifice and his attempts to support the war effort in the way he knew best, through football. As a manager and a former school superintendent, he was connected to the battle front through scores of former players and pupils. Adrian Gregory, a leading historian of the Home Front, has written that, ‘such is the emphasis on emotional bonds between the soldiers in the most famous literature of the war that the significant bonds with the home front have disappeared from view.’ Maley’s columns help to bring some of them back into view.

In the summer of 1914 Tom Maley could have looked upon his football career with some pride, having successfully re-established himself as a leading manager. Born in 1869, he came from a military background, his father a soldier who had served in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. He already enjoyed a famous place in Celtic’s history as one of its founder members, playing in the club’s first game in 1888. Having trained as a teacher he had entered into the new world of football management with Manchester City after they had been relegated to the Second Division in 1902. There he enjoyed great success, winning the Second Division in 1902-03 and the FA Cup in 1904.

Then disaster struck. An FA investigation into illegal payments to circumvent the maximum wage led to lifetime suspensions for several City directors and Maley. Denying any involvement, Maley returned to Glasgow to become superintendent of Slatefield Industrial School, his football career seemingly over.

But then came a second chance. His ban was overturned and in 1910 he became the manager of Bradford Park Avenue. The club was struggling in the Second Division, but Maley transformed their fortunes and also their kit, changing it to the green and white hoops of his beloved Celtic. In April 1914 Avenue secured promotion to the First Division, only seven years after the club’s creation. A review of the club’s progress called him “The Master Builder”, a testament to his astute signings, often from Scotland. Successful and respected in his profession, proud father to four sons and one daughter, and with his brother William, the celebrated manager of Celtic, Tom Maley might well have looked back at the summer of 1914 as a Golden Age.

The following season was, as many writers would observe, like no other. With Britain’s declaration of War on August 4, the 1914-15 season became highly controversial, with football attacked by, in the words of one football writer, “political cartoonists, kill-joys, conscriptionists, anti-sports, and many others whom the deadliness of the fighting had somewhat unbalanced.” From the outset Maley would argue for the value of sport in wartime as an antidote to the depression of war: “It indicates no lack of loyalty or absence of patriotism does match playing. It fulfils a function and purpose useful.”

Maley also encouraged the war effort in other ways. His son Joseph volunteered early on and soon he and his brother William had two sons each in the services. They were joined by Joseph’s Avenue reserve teammate, the schoolteacher Donald Simpson Bell. Maley recalled that “at the outbreak of war he [Bell] spoke strongly about those who could go, ought to, and didn’t. When he learned that my son had joined up he was mighty pleased.” Despite this, the sight of professional football continuing offended some, with Maley and the directors receiving hate mail. One anonymous letter from London called them “enemies of the country, worse than naturalised aliens, worse than Germans!”

Ignoring the criticism, Maley guided Avenue to their highest-ever finish, a respectable ninth place – above their rivals Bradford City. But at the end of the season the FA announced the cessation of professional football. No one was sure whether organised football would return but Maley still believed in the importance of football to the war effort. This was soon to be tested to the utmost.

As the 1914-15 season came to an end, the British Army set out on its first major offensives, resulting in horrific losses. Nearly 66,000 men were killed in May, the deadliest month of the war until July 1916. Among them was Joseph Maley, killed by shrapnel while on a trench raid. As the son of a leading football personality, his death was covered in some detail by Athletic News on May 31. Amid the praise for his personal character, it noted that his death had “come as a great blow to his father, to whom ‘Josie’ was a son and a companion… All the weary winter through, when trench life was sapping the life of our army, ‘Josie’ was cheery and optimistic. ‘I’m all right Daddy, I’m in the “pink”, doing as you say and as fit as a fiddle.’ Again he would turn to football and say encouraging things when defeat was our portion at Bradford.”

What was the impact of Joseph’s death on Tom? In the short-term he attempted to enlist despite being over the age limit, intimating to readers that only the fact that he was recognised stopped him from being accepted. He spoke at recruiting meetings, preferring to persuade rather than harangue his audience. But most of all, he threw himself into his work.

This response was remarkably similar to that of another celebrated Scotsman, the music hall star Harry Lauder. He lost his only son at the front in 1916 but continued to perform, including for the troops in France. He also penned the popular hit “Keep Right On Till the End of the Road.” This song, with its call to carry on through hard times reflects the spirit of Maley’s wartime efforts – and became the anthem of Birmingham City.

It was this spirit that was visible when Maley rose to speak in favour of wartime football at a meeting of the Football League on July 19. Some clubs wished to shut up shop completely, including the chairman of Blackburn Rovers, who referred to the death of one of his relatives during the course of his speech. Athletic News recorded how Maley rose to speak on behalf of the working men of Bradford.

“They were working all hours. They wanted recreation because they needed to return to their work with new life and vitality. They in Bradford had given men to the colours – men who had been slain and men who had been wounded. He, the speaker, had given his son. Another son was also serving, and they could take the father too.”

This and other speeches turned the tide in favour of organised football. Between September 1915 and May 1919, football was organised on a regional basis in Lancashire, the Midlands and London. Playing before reduced crowds, these games have often been overlooked by historians. Yet to many, including Maley, they were seen as vitally important, not in terms of results, but as their contribution to the war effort.

For Tom Maley, wartime football served an important role in supporting both civilian and troop morale. Moreover, his columns allow us to see the game as an important site for civilians like Maley to connect with soldiers, so often portrayed as completely alienated from the home front. For Maley, the game was central to connecting with all his ‘boys’.

If there was one thing that justified the wartime game above all else in Maley’s eyes, it was the joy that it brought wounded soldiers. Throughout the war years his columns would be peppered with observations on this theme. One typical example is this description of wounded men attending a home game against Rotherham in 1917: “There was a very big contingent of them, and all were very cheerful and bright, and my word, they did enjoy themselves. They made the roof of the stand ring again with laughter, and shout, and how good-humouredly they gave and took banter.”

Maley would often mingle with the wounded, enjoying the badinage he encountered on account of his Celtic sympathies. It also offered Maley a chance to feel closer to the troops and, by extension, his lost son. In his description of the Rotherham game, he went on to mention that one soldier attracted his attention because, “Of his ‘club’… true, he wore the regulation blue, but in his bonnet he wore a badge dear to me – that of the Glasgow Highlanders. He was a Glasgow laddie, and though not by nature or physique a big one, yet he carried with him all the qualifications that mark that grand regiment of which my dear, brave, departed son was so proud and worthy a representative.”

Games also allowed Maley and the fans to reconnect with their players in the forces. Wherever possible, players would play while on leave. The sportswriter James Catton described to readers of the Sporting Chronicle in 1916 that for forward Tommy Little, “Home on leave, his first thought was for a game with his old club. Nay, it was his second thought, for prior to leaving France he found out the grave of Joseph Maley and brought some memento from that sacred spot to his father. If there is one thing that Tom Maley can do it is secure the affection of the players with whom he is brought into contact.”

Soldier-footballers like Tommy Little or his fellow forward Jimmy Smith were often made captain of the side on these occasions and greeted with great applause from the fans. In one game against Barnsley, Maley reckoned the team made a greater effort to get a goal for Jimmy Smith than they did in winning the actual match.

But not all encounters were as enjoyable to Maley. James Catton recounted that on one occasion that “a foolish man at a match asked Tom Maley why he was not at the front… But Mr Maley pointed, on removing his hat, to the silver threads among the brown. Whereupon the thoughtless man remarked, ‘Send your son!’ This was more than a taunt; it was a sore provocation. The father’s heart was roused and the brazen became acquainted with the fire of the Celtic temperament.”

Any joy that could be derived from football during the war, though, had to be weighed against news from the front. Throughout the war Maley kept up a keen correspondence with his players and these letters supported his morale as much as theirs. At the height of the German spring offensive of March 1918, Maley received a letter from his keeper Ernest Scattergood. Depressed by the German advance, Maley’s spirits were raised by Scattergood’s cheerful vein. “Best of all are the closing remarks. In that awful hell… he councils… ‘Keep smiling! Isn’t it wonderful! What spirit!’”

For all of these happy letters there were many that sent tidings of bad news, which Maley relayed to the wider football community. In July 1916 Maley wrote to several newspapers to inform them of the death of Joseph’s friend, 2nd Lt Donald Simpson Bell, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Battle of the Somme. Maley wrote proudly of Bell’s actions and his character, “Poor chap! His hour has come. He has triumphed, and if blameless life and unselfish and willing sacrifice have the virtue attached with which they are credited, Donald is in the possession of eternal happiness, and in his glorious record and great reward there is much to be envied. He was a fine fellow, and a good friend, and while I regret his loss I feel privileged in being able to place him amongst my boys; my big band of heroic and noble boys. God bless them, every one.”

Also among his band of ‘boys’ was Sandy Turnbull, whom Maley had brought to Manchester City and developed into a star player. In 1917 he was reported missing, believed dead. “Peace to his ashes, and to his surviving ones the sympathy deep and sincere of he called ‘The Boss.’”

Then there was Donald McLeod of Celtic and Middlesbrough, also killed in 1917 and whom Maley knew extremely well. Maley would take Avenue to Middlesbrough to play a joint benefit match for the families of McLeod and William Cook. There was also Robert Torrance, centre-half for rivals Bradford City and killed in 1918. Maley had met him shortly before he had joined up, wishing him all the best and calling him a hero. “I most deeply and sincerely sympathise with the bereaved ones, and the grief and feeling I know too well. May they find some solace… in the words of sympathy from the dead hero’s friends.”

There would be one final fatality in 1918 that would affect Maley directly and deeply. On October 19 he informed his readers that “this week my writing is of a sadder topic… I have received word of the death of our former bright and cheerful little centre-forward Jimmy Smith.” Maley’s pain was compounded by the tone of Smith’s last letter to him. “But a few weeks ago I received a letter from him; it was written just a day or so before he met his death… He told me of his intention to get married.”

Within a few weeks of this news the war was over. Like so many others, Maley experienced the joy of victory intermixed with grief for those who could not return. He shared these powerful emotions with his readers on November 16.

“Peace is here. Peace, how sounds the word now? We have sighed and longed for reality, and here it is now! Shout and shout again, ye merry children. Germany defeated, the world saved, and war is over! How we rejoice – ay, even those of us who cannot be privileged to welcome home all our heroes. Tears fall – they do not mark me as unmanly: tears fall – I let them. They are the refreshing showers that prepare for the work of redemption. They are begotten of joy and sadness and typify our life – sorrows and joys for joys and sorrows. God, but it is good news – it is a great day!”

Perhaps overcome by the emotion of what he had written, Maley then attempted to explain himself to his readers.

“I pause now and wonder how these lines will read, as they must and will be read days after this day… my good readers, forbear unkindly criticism: just bear with me as one who has suffered, could feel for sufferers, and, having suffered, could feel for sufferers, and having known much, could join with those similarly placed.”