The story behind West Auckland Town’s claim to be two time World Champions is a really fascinating one and tells of a time when English teams playing matches outside of the United Kingdom, were rare indeed.
The story starts with Sir Thomas Johnstone Lipton, a self made millionaire from his grocery stores and tea merchants. He was a keen sportsman himself, being a regular competitor for the Americas Cup. He was awarded the honour of a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order and had honours bestowed upon him throughout Europe and America. The City of Nîs in Serbia made him an honorary citizen for his work in the catastrophic typhus epidemic of 1915. Earlier he had been honoured by the Italian government and ever humble he asked what he could do in return. The reply from King Victor Emmanuel III was a request to organise an international football tournament to be contested in Turin in 1909.
Sir Thomas Lipton
The FA’s of England, Germany and Switzerland were contacted and asked to provide a suitable club to take part. The English FA flatly refused permission for any Football League team to compete so it would be an amateur team that was sent over as they did not need the acquiescence of the Football Association. Quite why the honour fell to West Auckland is shrouded in mystery. Local myth suggests Woolwich Arsenal were Lipton’s ideal choice but the letter went astray and was sent to another WAFC instead! More likely is the theory that a trusted employee of Lipton had links to the Northern League and one of their sides was to be selected to represent England.
West Auckland were a team of coal miners and were struggling in their league in 1909. Even though the players’ pit wages would be stopped during the tournament they readily made the trip to Turin.
In the semi final West Auckland defeated Stuttgarter Sportfreunde 2-0 to set up the “World Cup Final” with the representatives from Switzerland, FC Winterthur. The Swiss had overcome a Torino XI (mixed from Torino and then amateur side Juventus) by two goals to one. The men from County Durham beat Winterthur 2-0 in the final with goals from Bob Jones and Jock Jones. The team including memorable names like Charlie “Dirty” Hogg, “Tot” Gubbins and “Ticer” Thomas.
Two years later West Auckland returned to Italy to defend their trophy. FC Zurich were Switzerland’s representatives this time and West Auckland won their semi-final 2-0. In the other semi final Juventus beat Torino.
In the final they drubbed Juventus 6-1 with goals from Bob “Drol” Moore 2, Fred Dunn 2, Andy “Chips” Appleby and Joe Rewcastle. Interesting only two of the team from 1909, Bob Jones and Charlie Hogg, played in both tournaments as the others simply could not afford to lose their wages for a second time.
It was this second competition and the cost of travelling over that actually put West Auckland in severe financial trouble upon their return the north east. A condition set out by Thomas Lipton stated any club winning the trophy twice consecutively could keep it. Heavily indebted, the club actually folded in 1912 and in order to clear their debts, the club reluctantly put the trophy up for sale. It was duly sold for £40 to Mrs Lanchester, the landlady of the Wheatsheaf Hotel which was the club’s headquarters at the time. The club reformed in 1914 and competed in local leagues. It was 1934 before they returned to the Northern League on a permanent basis.
In 1960, Mrs Lanchester was still alive and agreed to sell the trophy back to the club for £100. The trophy was displayed in the Eden Arms owned by Syd Douthwaite, West Auckland’s secretary. However, after the Jules Rimet trophy was stolen in Westminster in March 1966, the trophy was locked away for safekeeping for several years before coming back out of storage for display in the Working Mens Club on Front Street.
In January 1994 the trophy was stolen and despite the offer of a sizeable reward it was never recovered. A replica was funded by public donations and was recreated by Jack Spencer of Sheffield. It remains on display in the Working Mens Club but in a specially constructed security casing. Ironically the original trophy nearly never made it back to England in the first place. The 1909 team managed to leave the trophy on the platform of the Gard du Nord station in Paris and returned home empty handed. Fortunately the club was reunited with their trophy a couple of days later.
In August 2009 the current West Auckland Town team returned to Turin to take part in a rematch of the final against Juventus. The Northern Leaguers were pitted against the under 20 side of the Italian giants and were promptly hammered 7-1. Sadly the club reported that Juventus were less than hospitable towards them, providing them with bowls of crisps as a post match meal and presenting them with a blank plaque and two books on flowers at half-time of the match.
In October 2013, after several delays, a statue commemorating the centenary of this remarkable story was unveiled on the village green, a lofty goal kick away from West Auckland’s Darlington Road ground. The two bronze figures of a footballer and a coal miner sit on top of a stone plinth using stone from the Dunhouse quarry. The two figures share the same face and the height of the kicking foot is said to be the exact height of the mine shaft at the West Auckland Colliery where the players worked in horrendous conditions. The statue cost £167,374 and is the work of sculptor Nigel Boonham. The magnificent statue was jointly unveiled by Sir John Hall, actor Tim Healy who starred in a TV drama “A Captain’s Tale” about the West Auckland story, long before his success in “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”, and ex-England international David Ticer Thomas. It was his grandfather, who bore the same name, who captained the first Auckland team in Italy.
The story of this amazing period in Northern League football is recounted in a display in the covered terrace at the Darlington Road ground. It is truly refreshing that a club is so reverential to its history, three cheers for West Auckland Town.