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Marehay Coal Miner who captained England

Marehay Coal Miner who captained England
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COMPARISONS with the modern game can help illustrate Alf Strange’s achievements in football. A skilful right-half, he was a member of the Sheffield Wednesday team which won the First Division championship – equivalent to the Premier League – in two consecutive seasons, 1928-29 and 1929-30, were never out of the top three for five years and only in one season until 1936.

That would have meant qualification for the Champions League on half a dozen occasions had it existed. Wednesday also won the FA Cup in 1935, although injury deprived Strange of a winners’ medal.

Adjustment was also needed in periods of change. The 1925 alteration of the offside rule made it necessary for the player to have only two, instead of three, opponents between him and the goal when the pass was made. Centre-forwards such as Dixie Dean and George Camsell ran amok in their new found freedom. It took time before Arsenal’s innovative manager Herbert Chapman perfected the W-M formation – the classic 2-3-5 replaced by 3-4-3  with a stopper centre half, which would have involved Strange as one of a four-man midfield.

Similarly, at international level, Strange faced challenges. He won 20 caps with England between 1930-33, captaining the side on three occasions, and earlier played in three Football League representative teams. Had England entered the initial World Cups in 1930 and 1934, it is likely he would have been in both squads. For such a player today the financial rewards would be astronomical; as it was he never earned more than £8 per week with Wednesday and £6 for an international – still considerably more than the average working wage.

Alfred Henry Strange was born at Marehay on 2 April 1900 and after leaving school worked at Whiteley Colliery. His early soccer was played with Peasehill Rovers, Codnor Rangers and Marehay Colliery as a free-scoring centre-forward. It was after Marehay had won three consecutive Butterley Company Shield trophies that he graduated into league football.

He played for Wednesday Reserves (Wednesday did not become Sheffield Wednesday until 1929) against Nottingham Forest Reserves at Hillsborough, scoring two goals. But both Wednesday and Derby County considered him too small for a centre-forward. It was Joe Roper, a Ripley businessman and a great supporter of football and cricket in the town, who recommended him to Portsmouth.

He signed as a centre-forward at Fratton Park in December 1922, helping them to win the Third Division South title in 1923-24. Strange then moved to Second Division club Port Vale in 1924, where, playing mainly at inside-left, his excellent ball control and powerful shots impressed the fans. In February 1927, he was transferred to Wednesday. Progress was slow, with five goals in just 13 First Division games in the latter half of the 1926-27 campaign and only 17 appearances in 1927-28 – the year of Wednesday’s great escape from relegation as they took 17 points from their last ten matches (two for a win, one for a draw) to stay up.

The turning point came when Billy Marsden, the regular left-half, was taken ill and Strange dropped back to take his place. When Marsden returned, Strange was switched by manager Robert Brown to right-half and so began his partnership with Marsden and centre-half Tony Leach. Strange was an ever-present when Wednesday won the title in 1928-29 and missed only one game when they retained it in the following season. He played 42 games in 1930-31 and was a regular in 1931-32 and 1932-33 as Wednesday took third place.

Hereabouts, his exploits on the cricket field deserve a mention. He was on Derbyshire’s staff as a right-hand batsman and right-arm medium-paced bowler in 1926-27, appearing in second eleven matches for several seasons and acting as a substitute fielder in Championship matches. He was also a force with Butterley in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire League, notably in 1936 when he hit 133 not out against Loscoe.

By now Alf Strange was a family man. His wife, formerly Miss Elsie Cuttell, was a Ripley girl, having worked at a chemists, Wain’s, in the town. They had three children, Don, Dorothy and Margaret (always known as Peggy, now Mrs Peggy Merrett).

Strange made his international debut before 87,375 people at Wembley against Scotland on 5 April 1930. Alongside him were three of his club colleagues, Ernie Blenkinsop, Billy Marsden and Ellis Rimmer, who scored twice in England’s 5-2 victory. More highlights followed: captain against France and Belgium during a European tour in May 1931 and then against Wales. He was also in the England side which defeated the great Austrian team 4-3 in December 1932 but his finest hour came in Rome’s National Stadium on 13 May 1933 when 50,000 spectators saw England draw 1-1 in their first meeting with Italy, who were to win the World Cup the following year.

Italy took an early lead before Cliff Bastin equalised. Injuries hit England but they hung on to save the game. Charles Buchan wrote: “I shall always remember Strange’s great display when, with an injured player at centre-half, England held Italy to a 1-1 draw. In his quiet way he played a big part in checking the raids of the Italian forwards.”

At a reception afterwards, Benito Mussolini gave Alf Strange his autograph – Alf said he had obtained it for his daughter Peggy – and asked him where he got all his stamina from.

His final appearance for England came against France at White Hart Lane in December 1933 when he set up a goal for Camsell in a 4-1 victory. Soon afterwards a broken leg proved a major setback. A further injury restricted him to a single league game in 1934-35 and he moved down a division to Bradford, where his career ended in 1936. His closing years were spent with Ripley Town and he also played for the Raleigh Cycles team and then for Corsham United in Wiltshire. “Corsham was his final team,” said Mrs Merrett. “He was employed on munitions work in the war and my husband Jim played alongside him on these occasions.”

After the war, Strange was appointed manager of the Southern League side Bedford Town in April 1945, a position he held until resigning in January 1947. He returned to Ripley and worked at Denby Hall Colliery, also buying a pleasant house at the Codnor Gate end of Nottingham Road, Ripley, where he established a poultry farm.

My own contact with Alf Strange consisted of a couple of interviews carried out at his home in the early 1970s. I found him to be a most pleasant conversationalist, very much a man of the area – matter of fact, straightforward and to the point, in keeping with the Ripley mining stock of his generation. Mrs Merrett confirms this point.

“That’s just how my dad was. He took life very much as it came and never lost his local roots. I remember when he was with Wednesday, he would walk to Ambergate Station to catch a train to Sheffield. That’s how it was in those days, for few people had cars or knew how to drive them.”

When I visited him, there was natural pride in displaying his collection of England caps, almost matched by his pleasure in showing me around his poultry farm. I remember we sat for a while on a lovely summer afternoon and a stray hen wandered by. Alf picked it up and spoke of the great players of his day, such as David Jack and Charlie Buchan, saying that the Scottish forwards Alex James, Alan Morton and Hughie Gallacher had given him the most trouble. He also rated Derby County as a good side. “Sammy Crooks was one of the best wingers of his time but our left-back Ernie Blenkinsop usually had his measure. But Sammy could be outstanding and we played in a lot of games together for England.”

After a string of anecdotes relating to the matches of his day and opinions on the then-current scene – he thought highly of Bobby Charlton but felt the game lacked ball players in comparison with his day – the conversation switched to managers and Herbert Chapman in particular. Chapman won league titles and FA Cups with Huddersfield Town and Arsenal and some football historians rate him the best-ever.

“The England team was chosen by an FA Committee but Herbert Chapman took over as manager for some games, including the match against Italy in Rome. It makes you wonder what he could have achieved if England had appointed a full-time manager as they did later on. We hadn’t played many overseas internationals but he really knew how the game worked on the Continent. For his new tactics, you had to have players capable of making them work or stopping the other side making them work. We liked to think we were capable of that at Hillsborough but once Chapman had got the team he wanted, nobody could live with Arsenal over a whole season. They used to call Arsenal boring or lucky but this was rubbish. Just look at his Arsenal side with fast wingers like Joe Hulme and Cliff Bastin, who could cut in and score goals in addition to getting the ball across.”

Certainly Chapman’s sudden death at the age of 55 in January 1934 was a severe blow to the game.

Alf Strange died suddenly aged 78, on 3 October 1978 and the following year a room at Ripley Leisure Centre was named the Alf Strange Room in his honour. And there just could be a further legacy in that his great-great grandson, 12-year-old Adam Clark, has joined the Mansfield Town Academy.

But perhaps we should leave the last word to Chapman. Writing of his ideal side from the early 1930s, he selected Jack and James as his inside-forwards with Dean in the middle. His selection for right-half was Alf Strange.

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