Harrogate war hero Donald Simpson Bell became the first professional footballer to enlist when the First World War broke out 100 years ago.
Is it time to honour his heroics by renaming this year’s FA Cup tournament after him?
Columnist Tom Richmond, writing in our sister paper The Yorkshire Post, believes so.
Who is the greatest? It is a perennial question where the answer becomes even more polarised when it comes to any discussion about England’s foremost footballer. The ensuing debate invariably becomes the proverbial game of two halves – the merits of the 1966 World Cup talismen like Bobby Moore and Sir Bobby Charlton versus contemporary celebrities like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney.
Yet, in the centenary year of the First World War’s outbreak, there is one other name which should not be overlooked. Step forward Harrogate-born Donald Simpson Bell – the only professional footballer ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross and who paid with his life on the bloody battlefields of the Somme.
A brilliant all-round sportsman who supplemented his wages as a teacher at Starbeck School by signing pro with Bradford Park Avenue in 1913, his sense of duty was such that he had already volunteered for conscription before Lord Kitchener’s ‘Your country needs you’ call-to-arms.
“Please don’t worry about me, I believe God is watching me and it rests with him whether I pull home or note,” wrote Bell in a moving letter to his mother, explaining his charge against a German enemy line that earned him the VC.
The words are even more prophetic because they were the last this modest hero – a hero in the truest sense of the word – ever penned. He was killed five days later in July 1916, and before the letter reached its destination, as the Green Howards launched a counter-attack against German soldiers.
A comrade described the fateful moment: “Bell dashed forward with an armful of bombs, and started to clear out a hornet’s nest of Huns who were ready to take toll of our advancing troops. He advanced with great courage right up to where the enemy were posted. He took careful aim and bowled out several of the Germans. Unfortunately he was hit... for a while he fought on but he was hit again. He got weaker and weaker, and had to relax his efforts. He collapsed suddenly and when we reached him he was dead.”
Why does this matter? This is supposed to be “Football Remembers” week when the sport honours those who did not return from the front line, including Tottenham Hotspur’s Alexander McGregor who died on December 14, 1914.
As commemorations take place to mark the Christmas Truce, an all too brief cessation of trench warfare, it has seen competing sides lining up alongside their opponents in a group photo to recreate the spirit of 100 years ago when British and German soldiers briefly ceased hostilities and showed, albeit briefly, the power of sport.
Yet, while this simple gesture of remembrance has been impeccably observed by those youth teams who continue to embody the best of football, I’ve been left distinctly underwhelmed by the indifferent response to those increasingly mercenary players who ply their trade at the very highest level.
I watched one televised Premier League game and it was clear that many of the footballers had little appreciation for the symbolism of this tribute – or their good fortune at being able to command obscene salaries for kicking a ball about a pitch for 90 minutes.
This week’s games, and controversies, have done little to endear football to me. There was the farce of Jose Mourinho appearing to blame the ball boys for his Chelsea prima donnas capitulating at Newcastle – the self-anointed “Special One” has always been charmless and tactless in defeat.
Then was the delusional Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers’ mangling of the English language when he said, rather unwisely, that his under-performing players would enter “folklore” if they beat the average Swiss side Basle and qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League? They did not. As for ‘folklore’, Rodgers clearly needs a better perspective on heroism.
And then there is the FA’s choice of Theo Walcott to be one of the faces of the ‘Football Remembers’ programme. This is an injury-prone player, already paid £100,000 a week, whose financial demands continue to exasperate Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
I could go on, but there is one solution in play. Given the FA Cup is bereft of a sponsor, why can’t this year’s tournament be renamed “in memory of Donald Bell and his comrades” as the National Football Museum prepares to put Bell’s VC on display?
There are three reaons for this. First, it would enable the Football Association to acknowledge that it was initially wrong to forbid players from signing up.
Second, it would enable the whole of football, and sport per se, to enjoy a greater appreciation of the sacrifices made a century ago in the name of freedom.
Finally, it might help those millionare players so divorced from reality to realise their good fortune to play professional football – a right denied to Donald Bell VC when his country called. I can think of no finer tribute to a modest hero who epitomised the very best of football – in total contrast to so many of the fake heroism demonstrated by today’s so-called greats. firstname.lastname@example.org