DUBAI: Before Bobby Moore and the gleaming Jules Rimet. Before Garrincha, Pele and Jogo Bonito ("the beautiful game.") Before Italy’s two World Cups in a row. And before Uruguay claimed the first ever FIFA crown in 1930.
There was a different World Cup, and more mysterious winners. And they came from the North-East of England.
West Auckland Town Football club may not be familiar to many football fans around the world, but they can lay claim to being football’s first ever world champions.
Now, a UAE-based media company is rebooting their remarkable story for a modern audience.
Established in 1893, their brush with immortality would come in 1909, when the club was invited to compete for the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, a four-team tournament in Turin, Italy.
The home nation was represented by a Torino selection made from players of the two local clubs, Juventus and Torino. From Switzerland, there was FC Winterthur, from Germany Struttgarter Sportfreunde.
The renowned tea merchant Sir Thomas Lipton, who ran businesses in Italy and Britain, was keen to have a team representing England in what he saw as football’s “First World Cup”. Legend had it that after the English FA showed no interest in the competition, the invitation was erroneously passed on to West Auckland instead of the more salubrious, and initials-sharing Woolwich Arsenal.
Various other stories exist as to how West Auckland got the call up and Martin Connolly, the former village Sub-Postmaster, goes into great detail in his new book “A Miners Triumph."
What history did record is that West Auckland, a team made up mostly of coalminers, beat the Swiss club 2-0 in the final, and football had its first ever “world champions”.
Two years later, the team from County Durham retained the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy after beating Juventus 6-1.
The rise of Olympic Football and the FIFA World Cup, as well as the emergence of Uruguay as the undisputed best team in the world, meant West Auckland’s achievement quickly became a footballing footnote.
But try telling that to the fans and management of the club.
Dubai-based businessman and Newcastle native Russell Howes, through his creative agency Moving Adverts, is attempting to retell the story of a club that now plays in Northern Football League, the ninth tier of English football.
“I was first told of the story in Dubai by a UAE business partner also from North East England,” says Howes. “I was immediately hooked on this success from our home region and him and I decided to try and get the story to Ridley Scott to see if the world famous movie director, also from our area, would help us make the story into a blockbuster.”
A football-themed addition to a body of work that includes Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator may not have materialised, yet, but the club and its supporters can still point to the World Cup: A Captain’s Tale, an ITV film that was released ahead of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, starring Dennis Waterman of Minder fame.
However, there is room for a new telling of the tale. Indeed, a short documentary about the club’s history, Our Cup of Tea, was released in late 2019, thanks to Moving Adverts.
“Working alongside a Dubai-based video production company to tell one of the greatest stories in football history is a real privilege,” director Robert Kilburn said. “While the tale of the Lipton Cup was a partial focus, we are also telling the story of the club and the changes it has been through and is currently going through. We are looking to make the story of West Auckland a global one and getting it the recognition it deserves.”
Howes, in collaboration with the likes of Kilburn, a winner of several awards for short documentaries, including two Regional Royal Television Society Awards last year, is determined to raise the profile of the club by actively seeking investment, sponsorships and, potentially, international friendlies around the world.
In addition Howes was determined to get support through the documentary as well as a focused social media campaign.
In every sense, the club was work in progress. In June, 2019 the club embarked on a refurbishing project, with parts of the ground, the Wanted Stadium, knocked down for renovation.
And despite the halt to all football activity during the coronavirus crisis, Howes has maintained his ambitious plans for Auckland Town - a comprehensive do-over for the club, on the pitch, in the old stands and in the media. Through his business contacts, in Dubai and Newcastle, he is hoping that interest in the club will follow in time.
“The club deserves to have its historic profile raised," he said. "And with our efforts to rebuild the story on social and other digital platforms, I see huge opportunity for small investment from Gulf countries to offer exponential PR opportunities in the UK and Europe, and for individuals and Middle Eastern companies looking to raise their profile primarily in the UK. We can offer the type of PR that couldn’t be bought for the cost of the sponsorship packages. Early movers would be in a prime position to benefit.”
With Newcastle United reportedly the subject of a major takeover from the Middle East, interest in the North East has risen in this part of the world in recent times.
And while West Auckland Town obviously cannot command interest like the St James’ Park club, it does have its own history and charm.
Mark Carruthers, a journalist that covers non-league football for The Chronicle newspaper in Newcastle, paints a picture of a welcoming club proud of its history.
Visit this corner of Durham, he says, and you won’t be allowed to forget who are football’s first ever world champions.
“The sense of history is all too evident when you visit West Auckland Town,” Carruthers said. “The Wanted Stadium is hidden away in a quiet corner of the town, but the nostalgia flows around one of North East non-league football’s more picturesque grounds.”
“The iron gates, the prominence of the club colours yellow and black and the wonderful display of the two World Cup wins give a feeling something special is around.”
Stories of the those “World Cup” wins, and what followed, are plenty.
A period of financial hardship brought about by the costly Turin trip of 1911 saw West Auckland hand The Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy to the landlady of the Wheatsheaf Hotel, the club’s headquarters, as security; it was not until 60 years later that they could afford to buy it back. Then, in 1994, it was stolen and had to be replaced with a replica.
Incredibly, Jack Greenwell of Crook Town, another County Durham club, and a guest on the West Auckland team that won the 1909 Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, went on to play for Barcelona 88 times before managing the Catalan giants over two periods (1917-23 and 1931-33). Only the legendary Johan Cruyff has managed the current Spanish champions longer.
The club’s heritage might have been lost to many football lovers over the last century or so, but not to those who rare closest to it.
“Whenever we have the opportunity we try and promote the club through talks, TV programmes, radio interviews. We feel proud to tell our story and of being part of it all, “ said director Stuart Alderson. “The ardent fans are passionate about the club and are proud to relate the story. We even got to promote the World Cup by changing our road signs on entry to the village with the caption ‘First World Cup Winners’ which should intrigue drivers passing through.”
In 2009, the 100th anniversary of conquering world football, West Auckland travelled to Turin for a friendly against a Juventus XI, but what was meant to be a joyous celebration of a forgotten history ended being a bit of kick in the teeth for the club.
The visitors lost 7-1 to an U20 Juventus team, their return to Italy turning out to be less welcoming and celebratory, on and off the pitch, than had been expected.
Perhaps Maurizio Sarri’s current team, with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo on board, might wish to right that wrong with another rematch more than 10 years on.
Alderson has been a director at Auckland Town since 1969, a time by which England had emulated his club’s achievement of becoming world champions, to a little more fanfare perhaps. After a five-decade association, he appreciates exactly what the club means to him and the surrounding area.
“The football club is the lifeblood of the village,” he said. “When the club is successful the village benefits. We start each season with enthusiasm for success and although we are nearly rans we pick ourselves up and start all over again with the same enthusiasm. We live, eat and breath the club every day to try and keep it going through all adversities.”
Even after all these years, not to mention the club’s unique history, he continues to look to the future.
“Our plan is to continue to strive for success and, if affordable, to climb up the football pyramid with a ground to match.”
He does not dwell on the disappointment of the Juventus match of 2009 or another possible rematch, and the long-term health of the club remains his number one priority.
“Anything which brings attention to the club is good,” he said. “But this [another Juventus match] would not be at the top of my list if it meant excessive expense for the club, if these monies could be put to better use.”
Similarly, manager Gary Forrest feels, alongside his players, a responsibility to keep the history of this club relevant, while ensuring the focus stays very much on more immediate, tangible concerns.
“We know the legacy we carry and what it means to the local community,” he said. “We beat modern day Juventus and although fortunes have differed over the years our passion is never compromised.”
Indeed, while Juventus cruised to a record seventh Serie A title in a row in 2018-19, West Auckland Town finished eight in the 18-team Northern League. But the desire to take the club forward are stronger than they have been in years as evident by the rebuilding work on the ground and the ambitions that Howes has put in place.
“The mission is to get our history known to all football fans around the world and develop the club season on season to reach the heights it deserves,” Forrest said.
After a poor start to the 2019-20 season, the new year saw a relative upturn in West Auckland Town’s form, and as the Northern League came to a premature end because of the current lockdown, the club sat in 9th place in the table after 29 matches.
That hasn’t stopped the club from playing its part in the community.
At the start of April, as Covid-19 brought life to standstill, the players and staff at West Auckland donated the players pool of £3,000 ($3,657) to the National Health Service (NHS), making them one of the early movers in football to offer a charitable gesture.
Just how the game, especially in the lower reaches of the English football pyramid, will look when it returns remains to be seen. Bigger challenges await on and off the field once a semblance of normality returns to life and football.
But, in a football-mad part of the world, West Auckland, a club that endured for over a century, will once again look to rise.
With Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, the North East of England is home to some of the most passionate football supporters in the country. West Auckland’s significantly smaller fanbase is made up of dedicated local residents as well as, very often, followers of the big three who live in the village.
Sunderland season ticket holder Rob Raine is one of them.
“Due to living in the village of West Auckland, I always try to attend if I'm not at a Sunderland game,” Raine said. “Last season I attended 26 West Auckland games both home and away, including league, FA Cup and FA Vase games.”
The 2018-19 may not have brought great success, but the vibe around the club, especially on big cup occasions, remains a positive one.
“There's a nice friendly atmosphere around the club on a match day with a real buzz when the FA Cup/ FA Vase games are in town generally due to an increase in crowd numbers.”
And it’s not simply a case of enjoying a day out in the village either. Big away days in the FA Vase or FA Cup tend to see a decent amount of travelling support.
“I genuinely look forward to watching West Auckland,,” Raine added. “It’s nice to know that it's a club with a unique history that a lot of people are unaware of, outside of the local area, other than through a documentary-style movie that starred Dennis Waterman called ‘A captain's Tale’. Mentioning that West Auckland represented England in an early form of cross-country competition and winning against Juventus is always a nice conversation starter.”
Carruthers, who covers West Auckland’s matches, has particular praise for the club’s passionate local following.
“Their supporters, although not big in numbers, are passionate and the sense that the club ‘belongs’ to their town is prominent,” he said. “They are fiercely loyal, very vocal and relish the challenge of backing their club when they take on any outsiders that dare to face them.”
When West Auckland kicked off the 2019-20 Northern League Division One season against Ryhope CW last August, pitch side hoardings bearing Howe’s Moving Adverts were on display for the first time at the Wanted Stadium. But attention is not restricted to the Middle East. Already there has been interest from as far as Las Vegas, were a group of football-loving investors have also provided funding and sponsorship.
Not many teams can claim to be World Cup winners, never mind being the first World Cup winners. And not many football fans are aware of the remarkable story of West Auckland. That, with a little bit of investment, PR and luck, could be about to change.
“The global pandemic has brought hardship to many and this is no different to our sponsors and partners,” he said. “However we continue to develop, the new clubhouse is currently under construction, determination is the lifeblood of our historic club. Once football resumes we will be back fighting to take West Auckland to the level it belongs.”