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A history of footballing cricketers

The West Indies warm up with a game of football at Lord's in 2012
The West Indies warm up with a game of football at Lord's in 2012

These days the only time you see cricketers playing football is during pre-match warm-ups, but that hasn't always been the case.

While looking through the MCC Archive I found that before the professional era the two sports had a rich intertwined history, dating back to the beginnings of the national sides in England.

England's first ever football captain Cuthbert Ottaway was an esteemed cricketer. He represented MCC, Middlesex and Kent, playing at Lord's three times in the annual Gentlemen v Players fixtures.

In 1872 Ottaway toured North America alongside WG Grace, in a team captained by the then MCC Secretary Robert Fitzgerald, whose scrapbooks we keep in the Archive.

Denis Compton

Perhaps the most famous cricketer who played football was Denis Compton - representing Arsenal.

Compton’s career for Arsenal spanned 18 years, initially joining ‘the Gunners’ as a 14-year-old in 1932. The following year, he was engaged on the MCC Groundstaff at Lord’s, as the letter below reveals.


A letter from MCC Secretary inquiring about Compton's footballing talent

This letter, written when Compton was 15, was addressed to Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman from MCC Secretary William Findlay, who was enthused to hear about the youngster’s cricketing prowess.

In 1950 Compton helped Arsenal win the FA Cup

Compton scored on his league debut for Arsenal in September 1936, having made his first-class debut at Lord’s for Middlesex four months earlier. The next summer he made his Test debut for England.

In 1947 he missed the start of the football season as he helped Middlesex win the County Championship, and he then went on to play 14 times for Arsenal as they won the Division One title the same season – quite a remarkable double!

But juggling cricket and football for Compton was often tricky. However, Arsenal were willing to let Compton play for England on overseas tours, such as the 2-0 series win on the 1948/49 MCC tour to South Africa.

In 1950 Compton helped Arsenal win the FA Cup, beating Liverpool 2-0; MCC and Middlesex teammate Gubby Allen was in the stands at Wembley watching on that day.

The programme and team sheet from that match are available to browse in our online catalogue, as they were kept in Allen’s scrapbooks.

Willie Watson

Willie Watson was another successful cricketer with a career in football to boot (pardon the pun).

Born in Yorkshire, he played in 23 Test Matches and was part of the victorious Ashes-winning side in 1953, scoring 109 against Australia at Lord’s to help England obtain a draw.

Watson was also capped by the England football team four times and was part of the squad which travelled to Brazil for the 1950 Fifa World Cup, although he didn’t play.

Thirteen cricketers have achieved the distinction of playing for England in football and cricket, but Watson is the only one has been selected to represent England at a major international tournament.

In 1954 Watson became manager of Halifax Town, although he left in 1956 just two years on, where aged 36, he played in two Tests as England won the Ashes - including the Lord's Test that summer.

After playing his final Test in 1959, he was appointed vice-captain of the MCC touring team to New Zealand in 1960/61, where his leadership skills were praised in this letter from the MCC Secretary Ronnie Aird to the President of Leicestershire County Cricket Club.


Ronnie Aird's complimentary report on Willie Watson's captaincy ability

The reports show that Watson was definitely management material!

And the lure of football was too much for Watson as in 1964 he returned to Halifax as their manager.

A game of two halves

The relationship between football and cricket hasn’t always been so cordial, with MCC reportedly fearful of the popularity of football and its impact on the crowds who would otherwise come to watch cricket.

In 1933 MCC President Findlay asked Sir Frederick Wall, Secretary of the FA, if football matches could be moved to six o’clock on Saturdays to avoid clashes with cricket.

Also, MCC minutes reveal that in 1955 they asked the FA to move the date of the FA Cup Final to April so it would not coincide with the beginning of the cricket season.

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