Stiffy the Goalkeeper
Lazy, drunken and corruptible, the first footballing hero of the stage could hardly have been less heroic
"I used to keep goal and was well-known to fame,
As the greatest goalkeeper and Stiffy's the name,
The man who made all centre-forwards sit up,
When we fought in a friendly, the League or the Cup…"
So sang Harry Weldon, aka Stiffy the Goalkeeper, the most famous fictional footballer of the period before the First World War. Stiffy was a nationwide success, but he was also a rarity. In Victorian and Edwardian England, footballers as fantasy figures hardly featured at all in print, on stage or on film, which might seem odd given the wild enthusiasm with which the game and its heroes were treated up and down the land.
Nationally, the working class had no fictional voice. Writers, even those journalists working on popular newspapers then feeding the burgeoning soccer appetite, were middle-class in origin or aspiration and the middle class had great difficulty in coming to terms with professional football. The governing body of the game, the Football Association, had agonised for some time before consenting, in 1885, to allow paid players to appear in its, until then, strictly amateur competitions. The Football League, founded in 1888 to provide football clubs with a regular series of fixtures, and thus the principal 'employers'' organisation, was run by men who preferred to exploit the suspicion, even the disgust, that professional players appeared to engender in official breasts. They were thus able to restrict professional players in terms of their pay and freedom of movement, almost as a condition for allowing them to exist at all.
Not surprisingly, the soccer professional struggled to attain respectability, being condemned for a variety of reasons ranging from the stain his calling inflicted on 'pure' amateur sport to the pernicious effect the paid game supposedly had on its wider working-class audience, leading them into indolence, gambling and alcoholism. Professional players could never be 'official' heroes of the realm. Soldiers and sailors, statesmen and explorers might be moulded into role models for the young but never men being paid to play a game. Unlike in the United States, where the pro-baseball player personified a variety of cultural and historical ideas close to the hearts of the American people, in Britain, the professional footballer remained marginalised and ignored in imaginative, creative terms, fit only for children's literature.
In parallel with the pro-football game, the music hall (that unruly offspring of the dramatic stage) also struggled for some time to be considered respectable in the eyes of officialdom. Its practitioners and stars were condemned in remarkably similar fashion to professional footballers: accused of encouraging, within the precincts of the halls, all forms of licentious activity while at the same time bringing the noble art of thespianism into disrepute. Just as pro-footballers were inferior versions of the amateur game, so music hall artists remained in the shadow of the 'legitimate' theatre.
For the professionals in the halls and in football grounds up and down the country, the consequences of these attitudes were fairly similar: arrogant treatment by management and agents, poor contractual arrangements and very little personal control over their professional lives. Perhaps it's no surprise, therefore, that it was in the music hall that football would first emerge as a suitable subject for truly popular entertainment in a show that would celebrate exactly those aspects of their respective worlds that caused the most official displeasure.
At the turn of the twentieth century Fred Karno was an impresario and writer just beginning to establish himself and his production company as a force in the entertainment world. Very early on, he had glimpsed the influence football could have on the success of a show. In 1905, he and his co-writer Fred Kitchen produced a knock-about sketch called "The Bailiff", which had inadvertently created an early football terrace chant. The main character had a catch-phrase, "Meredith, We're In!" which was taken up by the young apprentices and manual workers then thronging the terraces. The Meredith in question was Billy, probably the most talked about player in the history of the game up to that point.
At the height of his fame, having helped Manchester City to the FA Cup in 1904, Meredith had spectacularly fallen to earth following accusations of bribery. He was suspended for a year and a half, during which time he was sensationally transferred to Manchester United. His official disgrace, however, hardly dented his terrace reputation and his return to the field of play was, in late 1906, eagerly awaited in football-mad Manchester, if not the country at large.
It was at this moment that Karno and Kitchen chose to write "The Football Match" which opened at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, in December 1906 — just a few weeks before Meredith was due to run out at United's Bank Street ground for his return. Meredith's involvement in bribery and match-fixing had created an establishment anti-hero. The central theme of "The Football Match" would also be match-fixing and bribery and the principal character was destined to become one of the game's great fictional anti-heroes.
An early review of the Karno sketch sets the scene: "An attempt to bribe certain members to lose the match is afoot, and the attempt is watched by a detective, who bears no resemblance to any detective ever seen at Scotland Yard, and whose idea of finding out the delinquents is to watch the action closely from the fragrant precincts of the smoke-room. The chief person to be bribed is Stiffy, the goal-keeper, whose integrity, however, in spite of his many oddities of conduct, is proof against temptation. What his prowess may be on the field does not really matter; it is enough for the audience that his true vocation is that of a comedian and the extent of his fitness for the stage is demonstrated with ample effect by Mr Harry Weldon."
Harry Weldon was an up-and-coming music-hall comedian. Born in Liverpool and a staunch Evertonian, (the theatre critic Hannen Swaffer wrote that Weldon's creation of Stiffy the Goalkeeper was "inspired by his almost maniacal allegiance to the Everton Football Club") he could also play the game himself. He founded, organised and captained a team made up of Fred Karno employees, whose exploits against other music-hall sides raised almost £500 for charity in 1909 alone. Weldon even supplied the theatrical paper Performer with the team's record for the year: "23 matches played, 14 have been won, 2 drawn and 7 lost."
Weldon would befriend scores of professional players, including Billy Meredith and the majority of the two Manchester sides. He would boast that on the opening night of a one-man show in 1909 over forty football pros sent him telegrams of support. He later wrote, "Between the football pro and myself there has always been a bond of friendship in fair weather and in foul weather and my only ambition is to always remain 'one of the lads'."
He was a particularly good friend of Jimmy Crabtree, the ex-Aston Villa player who would appear on stage in the first version of "The Football Match". "Two years prior to his death he presented me with his English Cup medal obtained when Villa won the Cup in 1897," Weldon wrote just after Crabtree died from the effects of alcohol abuse in 1908. "I shall never forget his words as he handed it to me at his hotel in Aston. 'Harry, lad,' he said, 'I'm giving thee this medal on one condition; that is, that tha' never parts with it to anybody but me.' The medal still hangs on my watch chain. Where I go, it goes." As he developed his Stiffy character, Weldon would slowly acquire more discarded artefacts from his soccer pals: on stage he would wear the giant goalkeeper 'Fatty' Foulkes's shorts, a shirt once worn by Preston North End legend John Goodall and boots that had been given to him by Billy Meredith himself.
But what was so unique about Stiffy? According to one of Weldon's biographers, "There isn't anything funny about a goalkeeper at a Cup tie or league match — at least, I never met anybody who thought there was until I met 'Stiffy'."
Perhaps the key to the character was just that — he was a goalkeeper, a position already noted for being occupied by eccentrics. Indeed, Sheffield United and Chelsea's Fatty Foulke, could easily have been a Karno creation. He was, in an almost literal way, larger than life: weighing 15 stones when he signed for Sheffield United, he had managed to put on an extra seven stones before he moved to Chelsea in 1906. He even had his own a catch-phrase: "I don't mind what they call me as long as they don't call me late for lunch." Foulke wasn't the only keeper regarded as an eccentric: LR Roose, Harry Trainer, Albert Iremonger — all were considered a little bit odd. There was also Jack Hillman, a former Manchester City keeper of considerable bulk, who had been embroiled in the Billy Meredith scandal and who had himself been banned for a season in 1900 for accepting bribes.
In football, a goalkeeper can be a hero, but he is also much more at the mercy of fate than any other player. Before the First World War, keeping goal could be a high-risk job, subject to man-handling and serious injury. Weldon played on the bathos of such a position, the sweet sorrow involved. A critic at the time wrote, "The first time I saw Stiffy I laughed until my sides ached. Harry Weldon was new to the stage in those days but he created a character that was pathetically ludicrous. Poor Stiffy, the forlorn hope — ill-used and abused, and yet the saviour of his side…"
While a gifted comic, Weldon was careful not to give the impression that he was mocking Stiffy or the football world in which he existed. "Stiffy was a character study – full of burlesque, perhaps, but never satirical," Swaffer wrote. "A lesser comedian than Harry Weldon would have failed to have realised the character and, instead of applauding, the gods would have hissed. That was the beginning of Weldon's popularity."
Weldon's knowledge of the game, his keen eye for the quirks and habits of professionals, lent his interpretation an insiders' perspective that was well appreciated by players who were among Stiffy's greatest fans, filling the front rows at every performance and eager to make guest appearances on stage.
Yet Stiffy was hardly a portrait of the best that professionalism could offer. He was clearly a 'dud' player and his training consisting largely of drinking and eating. Indeed, drink was very much in evidence in "The Football Match" and there was certainly no sense of shame about it: the reviewer for Smith's Liverpool Weekly wrote in February 1907, "See Stiffy the marvellous goalkeeper train, bar-bell in right hand and jar of beer in left. Three up and three down with bar-bell and then some beer. How well he finishes a 50 yard sprint with the beer in sight."
The rest of the pro-players in the play were depicted as rough diamonds. Laughs were derived from their social awkwardness in the company of directors and financial backers, their capacity to drink and eat huge quantities, not to mention their skill at breaking training curfews. Their wives, meanwhile, were presented as heavy drinkers and sexual predators — nothing new there.
What's more intriguing is that Stiffy's morals were more than a little unclear. In the pre-First World War version of the show, the Birmingham Daily Post reviewer wrote, "Harry Weldon as Stiffy the goalkeeper, ultimately sells the match for a gallon of beer," while the Sheffield Telegraph wrote, "Stiffy betrays his side and loses the match through his bad goalkeeping…" Later reviews, however, suggest his integrity, "in spite of his many oddities of conduct" remained proof against temptation.
What is certain, however, is that Weldon, through his burlesque character, was calling into question the nature of success, the desire to win at all costs. As one of Weldon's obituarists wrote in 1930, "He was one of the most inveterate of anti-romanticists, for no hero's glory was safe from his tarnishing." "Stiffy's Song" was set partly to the tune of Handel's "See The Conquering Hero Comes," but in contrast revealed his wonderfully anti-heroic qualities:
"Hark to the shouting, Stiffy is the man they're cheering
Stiffy is the best goalkeeper that ever let a ball go through
They said this morning that by a hundred goals they'd beat me
But they didn't know the man they had to deal with
'cos we only lost by forty-two."
The essence of the show's success, however, was that no matter how ludicrously it was depicted, it presented to the audience the world of the professional footballer as seen from within. Slapstick humour aside, this was a play about football and all its aspects. From the training quarters at the local public house (some professional teams still used pubs as headquarters) where the audience was treated to the spectacle of players going through their exercises, to the turnstiles outside where hundreds of extras from the Manchester streets were employed to create a sense of expectation, to the dressing-room prior to kick-off, and thence onto the pitch itself: no aspect of a typical Saturday football afternoon was excluded. A great deal of "eccentric acrobatics and comic tumbling" was exploited, but throughout the audience was being given, according to one reviewer, "an interesting peep into the immediate preliminaries of a match".
For this, Fred Karno must take all the accolades. "The Football Match" would establish him as the supreme music-hall producer. Prior to his success, the stage had appeared to be an unsuitable setting for a sport that gloried in spectacle, colour, noise and excitement. The early cinema was also poorly equipped to handle the ebb and flow of a game like soccer, but Karno surmounted all the technical difficulties with ease.
For "The Football Match", his biographer recalled, "Karno had a huge panoramic cloth made to go right round the back of the stage with a great crowd of spectators painted on it. Ordinarily, nothing on earth looks as lifeless as a painted crowd of people. It has been done frequently, and the effect was usually to kill the 'effect'… But mark where the cleverness of Karno came in. He engaged a big crowd of live 'supers' to stand in the foreground on a raked 'ground row', the big ones at the front and the little ones at the back standing higher up the rake than the tall ones. The perspective effect was perfect. The living spectators merged into the painted ones so artfully that the public didn't know that they were not alive. Further, to heighten the illusion, on the painted cloth he had loose arms that waved white handkerchiefs and threw little hats excitedly into the air when a goal was scored. This effect was gained by very powerful electric fans placed out of sight of the audience behind the 'ground row'. A football match was played on the stage and the enthusiasm of the crowd was indescribable. It was a Cup Final played twice nightly with matinees as well." There was even, apparently, a simulated rain storm to end act one, "which looked as though the actual wet afternoon outside had suddenly broken furiously through the roof."
The match itself, the climax to the piece, featured various popular former players, whose early appearance on stage set the overall tone of the evening. A reviewer for the theatrical paper The Age wrote, "In the composition of the teams, some one-time famous players were introduced, namely, Jimmy Crabtree and Billy Athersmith (late of Aston Villa), and Fred Spiksley (late of Sheffield Wednesday); when they appeared on stage with the referee announcing them by name, the applause was almost deafening but the function of this trio was not to give an exhibition of the game against the less experienced company of comedians, (the Middleton Pie-cans) who were playing their own game for the audience; they added a touch of realism, and served to give the play just a suspicion of definite form. Goals were scored, and easily; but the chances against the Pie-cans, one may take it, are nullified by an arrangement, quite in keeping with the spirit of the piece, that no matter how many goals may be scored on either side the result shall be announced as a draw, no score."
Karno's "Football Match" with Stiffy as star thus saw a unique coming-together of two nascent professions to produce a memorable theatrical event. In fact, the links between the two professions were, for a time, quite strong. Both had emerged at around the same time, the 1880s, when music halls and football grounds were being rapidly constructed in great numbers. Their respective Unions (The Variety Artistes Federation (VAF) and the Association Football Players' Union (AFPU)) were formed within a few months of each other in 1906 and 1907, and only a year or so separated militant action on behalf of their specific aims. At first, neither group was concerned about money; their grievances related rather to questions of status, both contractual and social, than with salary levels.
As the twentieth century began, however, both sets of performers experienced negative changes in their economic situation, as their pay and conditions deteriorated dramatically. In the music hall, casual agreements and engagements began to be replaced by contracts which quickly became the instrument both for disciplining and expressing 'ownership' of entertainers, who began to perceive proprietors' actions as 'aggressive policy'. They objected to the power of hall proprietors, "sitting in conclave over a glass and a cigar" considering them as a "huckster would merchandise", speaking of their "market price as a butcher would of cattle".
This is remarkably similar to the experience of professional footballers in relation to their situation vis-a-vis the transfer market. What's more, footballers at the top of the profession saw a dramatic fall in their salary levels in 1900, due to the institution of a £4 maximum wage, which they had found forced upon them by their employers, the Football League.
Both unions were also concerned with the well-being of the less-well-known individual artiste/player who struggled to make ends meet. In 1907, the VAF launched a campaign against certain theatre managers in order to get them to agree to better terms of employment as outlined in a charter. They also instituted a charitable fund, death benefits, legal assistance and pensions, all intended to encourage the "steady, sober and reliable performer". In fact, when "The Football Match" opened in Manchester in January 1907, the VAF had members outside the theatre demonstrating against music-hall managements whom it considered were "exploiting" performers. Within a month, pro footballers, led by Billy Meredith, had established the AFPU. It, too, pressed for profession-wide accident insurance, death benefits and legal assistance: it was an insistence on providing the latter to its members that saw the APFU come close to being banned entirely in 1909 following strike threats.
The two unions certainly supported one another from very early on. During the 1909 football dispute, music-hall artistes held charity football matches to raise funds for the Manchester United players (led by Billy Meredith) who had been locked out. Both Unions would hold summer sports meetings involving prominent stars to raise funds for themselves: the VAF held its first Federation Day at Crystal Palace in June 1907 where Harry Weldon competed in the 50-yard handicap. The AFPU held three very successful summer sports meetings a couple of years later, also to raise funds and was well-supported by their thespian comrades.
"The Football Match" kick-started various illustrious stage and screen careers, none more so than that of Charlie Chaplin who got his first big stage break in "The Football Match" in January 1908 when, at London's Coliseum, he played the villain who attempts to bribe Stiffy to throw the match. ["Are we alone?" asked Chaplin, "No," said Weldon. "Who's here?" asked Chaplin. "Me," said Weldon.] Chaplin later claimed he'd upstaged Weldon at one point and been severely reprimanded for stealing laughs in the show. He wrote, "For the life of me I couldn't understand what it was all about. Karno had sent me out to 'get the laughs', and all I got for getting them was a clip on the ear."
Harry Weldon would play the character of Stiffy the Goalkeeper some 900 times for Karno up and down the country before incorporating the creation into his solo act and transforming him in later years into a boxer as well as a number of other characters. Weldon became one of the highest paid performers in variety but suffered the same fate as his sporting hero, Jimmy Crabtree, dying of drink-related problems in 1930. Fred Karno would go on to become one of the variety industry's greatest impresarios, earning himself millions before going bankrupt in the late 1920s.
As for Stiffy, he would re-emerge in the interwar years as a vehicle for another star comedian, Sandy Powell of "Can You Hear Me, Mother?" fame. Powell had admired Weldon immensely and was also a keen player for charity. In Powell's version, ex-football stars such as Chelsea's George 'Gatling Gun' Hilsden donned greasepaint and performed their soccer tricks. By 1931, however, the character and the sketch were unrecognisable from the Weldon version and commanded little of the original's nationwide success.
After "The Football Match", there would be little subsequent development of fictional football characters either on stage or in the cinema. Occasionally, a professional player might appear as a romantic lead, or revered hero, but nothing would be revealed of professional football life, the nature of the trade, its stresses and strains, certainly no examination of the players' roles in the lives of working people.
Why this should be so remains an enduring mystery, given the imaginative hold the game has had on the British psyche for more than a century since Stiffy trod the boards, proclaiming:
When Stiffy's between the sticks,
When Stiffy's between the sticks,
He can stop any kind of ball,
A football or a brandy ball,
And Vivian Woodward says, when I start me monkey tricks,
What's the good of trying to score,
When Stiffy's between the sticks?