By Keith Brookman
Football is a game often much maligned for its problems, both on and off the field, but when it comes to celebrating triumphs or mourning tragedy then the game and the wider football family lead the way with dignity.
A prime example of that would be Leicester City Football Club. Just two years ago I think it’s fair to say that they had the whole football community on their side as they clinched the unlikeliest ever Premier League title.
Fast forward to Saturday 27th October 2018 and once again the football family rallied around that same club when it was discovered that their owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others had been killed in a helicopter crash shortly after taking off from the King Power Stadium little more than an hour after Leicester and West Ham United had played out a 1-1 draw.
That same weekend, former Spurs and England star Glenn Hoddle suffered a heart attack and a Brighton and Hove Albion supporter died in hospital after being taken ill ahead of his side’s Premier League game against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Once again, support for all concerned came from the football community, the type of support that often gets overlooked when we see sensational headlines regarding either pitch invasions or trouble in the stands/on the terraces.
Football is the people’s game and almost every weekend at some match or another, at whatever level, you will, more likely than not, catch a minute’s applause, impeccably and enthusiastically observed as a mark of respect for a lifelong supporter/club official of one of the two participating clubs.
It’s just the football family embracing ‘one of their own’ and serves as a great comfort to those who might have lost loved ones in the week(s) leading up to the game.
Last weekend, this weekend and probably next weekend as well, the football family will come together to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War and tomorrow, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, those who perished, or were wounded in that conflict and the many other wars of attrition since, will be remembered.
Poppies will be worn, silences will be observed, and the Last Post will be sounded at games up and down the country as football remembers.
It’s probably pertinent to ask why football should remember the end of the war to end all wars (it didn’t, of course) and why, as the sacrifices made by so many 100 years ago fade into the mists of time, we seem to remember them more as each year passes.
The horrors of the Great War still resonate with everyone who reads about it, or watches grainy footage of the hopelessness of a futile conflict that claimed the lives of so many young men, from this and so many other countries.
Men from every profession signed up to go to war, many of them under age, many from the same villages/towns who formed what were known as the Pals Battalions, of which there were more than 50.
There were also two Football Battalions, the 17th and 23rd Service Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment, and whilst it remains unknown how many footballers gave their lives in the war, it is estimated that there were at least 300 English and Scottish professionals out of the 2,000 or so players known to have enlisted, killed in action.
It would appear that footballers were good soldiers, given the comments of Colonel Henry T. Fenwick, Commander of the 17th Battalion, who said; ‘I knew nothing of professional footballers when I took over this Battalion. But I have learnt to value them. I would go anywhere with such men. Their esprit de corps was amazing. This feeling was mainly due to football – the link of fellowship which bound them together. Football has a wonderful grip on these men and on the Army generally.’
Among the 4,000 Bristolians who were casualties of the World War, it is known that five players who had appeared in the colours of Bristol Rovers perished; they were John Hardman, Walter Gerrish, Joe Hulme, Albert Rodgers and Harry Phillips, whilst reserve team player William Brewer was also killed.
One Rovers player who survived the War was goalkeeper Peter Roney, who had appeared in 178 Southern League games for the club between 1909 and 1915.
He served in the Machine Gun Corps and witnessed many atrocities during his time on the front line and was a broken man when he returned home after the war. Newspaper reports indicated that what he had experienced affected him psychologically (today it’s almost certain that he would have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD).
He never played for Rovers again, but the club made a collection for his benefit in a game against Norwich City, one of his former clubs. He never made old bones, though, dying in 1930 at the age of only 43.
Each year a short Remembrance Service takes place at the Memorial Gates at The Memorial Stadium, a monument to the rugby players of Bristol who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars. It was a tradition established by Bristol Rugby Club when they played at the stadium and that has been continued by Bristol Rovers.
The football and rugby clubs come together every year to remember the fallen and local clubs and a nominated school, are among those represented. The service has been attended by more and more people as the years have passed.
There have been on the pitch commemorations also, and again the tradition seems to grow each year. Wreaths laid in the centre circle, while members of the Royal British Legion and the Armed Forces stand, together with supporters of both sides, heads bowed as that hauntingly beautiful tribute to the fallen, ‘The Last Post’, rings out across The Memorial Stadium as everyone reflects and remembers.
This year will be no different, I’m sure.
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.’*
*Extract from The Fallen, by Laurence Binyon
Historical references regarding Bristol Rovers players courtesy of Stephen Byrne. Thank you.
All photos courtesy of Neil Brookman and JMP