FROM BOILERMAKER TO RECORD BREAKER.
THE FIRST THOUSAND POUND FOOTBALLER
Over the years, football has been brought up in the House of Commons more often than you would probably think. Everything from hooliganism, safe standing and Eric Cantona's infamous Kung-fu kick, to extra bank holidays for England World Cup campaigns, have been discussed in Parliament.
But not many discussions amongst MPs have caused as much controversy and disbelief, as the £1,000 World record transfer fee paid by Middlesbrough Football Club for striker Alf Common in 1905.
It may not sound like much today as footballers enter stadiums wearing Beats headphones, with Louis Vuitton wash bags under their arms, which probably cost more. But in 1905, the World record transfer fee was a huge cause for concern for the new national game.
With the average player at the time costing around £400, which the FA had already baulked at after trying to impose a £10 maximum transfer fee six years earlier. The significant jump to £1,000 caused outcry amongst MPs, rival clubs and journalists. It was said at the time that such an exorbitant fee would “inevitably create a new breed of mercenary players”. One even called it “a new type of slave trade, which might one day see transfer fees reaching £2,000 or even £10,000 pounds”. If only they knew.
Alf Common was born 25th May 1880, in Millfield, a suburb of Sunderland, in Tyne and Wear as one of eight children. Young Alf grew up in a large built up area of terraced houses, built for the workers at the nearby docks, where his father worked as a ship riveter. Just a short walk across the river Wear was the Roker area, the home of Sunderland AFC.
A boilermaker by trade, and a member of the trade union until his resignation in 1930, Common played for South Hylton Juniors and Jarrow FC, before joining three time first division champions Sunderland, in 1900. Common, who was 5’ 8”, is described as jovial and a practical joker, who was famous for his attempts to lose weight and stay fit. Despite his weight issues the “ruddy-faced” Common was an aggressive forward, who was deceptively quick and strong on the ball.
Playing centre forward or inside forward, the bustling young striker made his debut in a 2-2 draw away to Wolverhampton Wanderers in September 1900. Common went on to score six goals in 18 league appearances in his debut season as a professional. With Sunderland finishing first division runners up to Liverpool, in the 1900/01 season.
“Money was ruining the game,
and producing players who were mere mercenaries with no loyalties”
The following season saw Common score two goals in four appearances, before being transferred to Sheffield United in October 1901 for £325. Sunderland meanwhile went on to become English champions once again, which saw Common miss out on a league championship medal.
That season did see Common win an FA Cup winners medal, scoring the first goal in the 1-1 draw between Sheffield United and Southampton, in the 1902 Cup Final, in front of 77,000 spectators at Crystal Palace. Before celebrating with 2-1 a victory in the replay a week later.
Common appeared in 67 league games, scoring 21 goals for Sheffield United and was picked to play for England twice, scoring two against Ireland, before requesting to leave Bramall Lane after three seasons.
In February 1904 Alf Common won the first of three England caps, in a 2-2 draw away to Wales. A month later in his second start for the three lions, Common scored two goals away to Ireland in a 3-1 win.
By May 1904, 24 year old Alf Common was seen as one of the best players in the country. And after refusing to sign a new contract, he told the shocked Yorkshire club “he wished to return to Sunderland, where he had business interests”.
With top players at the time going for £400, Sunderland were forced to pay a World record fee of £520 for Common, with United's reserve goalkeeper Albert Lewis also heading to the north east. This was all part of the deal to get around the FA’s lapse “FFP” of the day.
It is unknown if Common did have “business interests” back in his native north east, as this was often cited as a reason to get around the maximum wage. The business interests were often a company associated with a club or owner, where a player could be paid a dividend or a share of profits to get around the £4 per week wage ceiling and the abolishment of bonuses during the time.
What is known, is that Sheffield United did in fact turn down a bid of £400 for Alf Common from Middlesbrough four months earlier, in March 1904. Although Sunderland had paid a record fee for the England striker, it wouldn't be long before Boro got their man.
Common signed for Middlesbrough on Valentines Day 1905, for a new world record fee of £1,000
Common was only back at his hometown club for just over six months, scoring six goals in twenty one appearances, when local rivals Middlesbrough, who were battling relegation, again came calling.
Following the move to Ayresome Park, the club’s new state of the art stadium, which had opened in 1903 at a cost of £12,000, Boro could ill afford the financially disastrous possibility of relegation, and were determined to add more fire power up front.
Desperate to preserve their first division status, Middlesbrough offered the astronomical fee of £1,000, making Common the world record signing twice in a matter of months.
It was also the second time that month that a north east club had broken the transfer record. Newcastle United signed right back Andy McCombie from Sunderland in early February 1905 for £700, smashing Common’s original £520 record.
Amongst the public outcry, Common signed for Middlesbrough on Valentines Day 1905, for a new world record fee of £1,000.
Included in the deal was an agreement for Sunderland to play Middlesbrough in a friendly match, four days later at Ayresome Park, on February 18. It was agreed that Boro would keep the gate receipts and Sunderland would pay their own expenses. The friendly ended 1-0 to the visitors, as Common made his first appearance in a Boro shirt, ironically in front of 1,000 spectators.
There was outcry at the exorbitant fee from Middlesbrough’s rivals, accusing the club of buying their way out of relegation and Sunderland as money grabbers. This led to questions asked in Parliament about sporting integrity, saying it would “inevitably create a new breed of mercenary players” with one MP asking, “Where will it end?”
The national press were also less than impressed with one journalist writing, “We are tempted to wonder whether Association football players will eventually rival thoroughbred yearling racehorses in the market” and another claiming “Money was ruining the game, and producing players who were mere mercenaries with no loyalties”.
The North Eastern Daily Gazette were less critical, commenting that they “look forward to him proving to be a valuable acquisition to Middlesbrough in their fight against relegation” also writing “It is evident that Middlesbrough intend to leave nothing undone to escape from their present dangerous situation.”
Directors Alf Mattison and Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gibson Poole, who brokered the deal for the prolific striker, commented that Common was “a very fine player indeed.”
Despite the condemnation, Alf Common made his full Middlesbrough debut away at old club Sheffield United, on February 25 1905. Common scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot, giving Boro their first away win for almost two years. The Sheffield Sunday Telegraph reported that Common had “earned his enormous transfer fee.”
Following the highly publicised transfer, FA Chairman Charles Clegg, who also happened to be the founder of Sheffield United Football Club was far from happy.
Along with Sheffield United, Clegg was complaining about the injustice of such a large profit being made by Sunderland on a player who months earlier was a player contracted to the Blades. An FA investigation into the finances of Middlesbrough Football Club was quickly launched.
Alf Common for Sunderland
Alf Common won three England Caps, scoring two goals
Common eventually lost the team captaincy and was fined £10 by the club, following “drunken and violent conduct”
Whilst the clubs finances were being investigated, the record transfer appeared to be more shrewd than first thought, as Common contributed four goals, helping Boro win five of their last ten games, staving off relegation from the top flight.
The FA Investigation showed that the previous year's profit to be just over £3000, and with endless rumours rife about financial irregularities throughout the club, no wrongdoing was found associated with the transfer.
However, during the summer of 1905, Middlesbrough FC were charged by the FA for paying illegal bonuses for wins in the FA Cup to players, fining the club £250 and suspending all but one of its twelve directors.
Only Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gibson Poole survived. Months later, with the fine still outstanding, the club facing bankruptcy and suspension from football, Poole stepped in to become Chairman of the club, and personally paid off the debt.
The following season saw Common become team captain and the club’s top scorer with 24 goals, forging a deadly partnership up front with Derby County and England legend Steve Bloomer, who signed for £750 in March 1906.
With the Boro in the FA’s sights, the Bloomer transfer was also investigated and subsequently found Chairman and Conservative Councillor, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gibson Poole guilty of using the clubs income for personal use and for his own political campaign. Gibson Poole was fined £500 in the summer of 1906.
Alf Common eventually lost the team captaincy and was fined £10 by the club, following “drunken and violent conduct” during a trip to Blackpool in September 1907. Following the signing of Jack Hall and the emergence of another Sunderland born forward George Elliot, along with the prolific Bloomer, Common eventually lost his place in the Boro frontline. In later years he was often deployed in defence, replacing the influential Scottish International Andy Aitken, at the back.
During his five seasons with Middlesbrough, Alf Common scored 65 goals in 178 appearances, before departing Ayresome Park and signing for Woolwich Arsenal on 2 July 1910 for £250. One report says, given the clubs financial turmoil at the time, Common was given a free transfer, after he agreed to waive a £250 loyalty bonus. So who knows where the £250 ended up.
Common was thirty by the time he signed for the then south London side and by all accounts struggled with his weight. It's said “Arsenal devised all sorts of physical exercises and strenuous walks to get him slim down, without much success”.
He went on to play for Woolwich Arsenal 80 times scoring 23 goals, and was top scorer during the 1911-12 season, where he scored 17 goals.
However, during the first-half of the 1912-13 season, Common didn't hit the net once and was sold to second division Preston North End for £250, signing for the Lilywhites on 20 December 1912.
Common went on to score seven goals in 21 games helping Preston win the 1912/13 second division Championship. The following season and back in the top flight, Preston faced Sunderland in their opening game and Common scored during a 2-2 draw. Common, who was thirty three by now and would only play a further 12 games before retiring from football in 1914.
Following his retirement from Football, Alf Common went on to become landlord of The Cleaver Hotel and the Alma Hotel (later known as The Beer Engine and the Brown Trout) in Darlington.
Alf Common died on 3 April 1946 at his home at 326 Coniscliffe Road, Darlington, aged 65 years, leaving £1,679 6s. 8d. in his will. He is buried in West Cemetery in Darlington, alongside his wife, and his son, Alfred John Cook.
In 1998, he was selected as one of the Football League's 100 Football League Legends. His keepsakes, England caps and cup winners medals etc. were auctioned by Graham Budd Auctions in London in November 2011.
This article first appeared in Vol 1 of the Boro Mag.
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