Fred Spiksley: One of English football’s great unknown characters

For Fred Spiksley, a career in football was just the beginning of a fascinating and truly unique life. By the end he had done it all: played and scored for England, acted alongside Charlie Chaplin, escaped from a prisoner of war camp and coached football throughout Europe.

No one who knew him was particularly surprised. Spiksley was a character; a gambler and a womaniser who spent most of his spare time at racecourses, betting the money he made from football on horses.

And he was often successful. Spiksley’s relatives recalled one occasion when he returned from a day at the races with a suitcase stuffed full of £5 notes. He set about ironing each note, to remove any creases.

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Spiksley came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1870, in the working-class town of Gainsborough, where he played football on the curb stone streets as a child. His father was a boilermaker in a local factory, and Spiksley was expected to follow a similar career path.

As a youngster, though, his ambition was to be a professional jockey. He was diminutive and nimble enough to do well. But his parents, concerned by the dangers of the sport, nudged him in a different direction.

Spiksley began an apprenticeship as a compositor at a local newspaper, which was owned by the main sponsor of football club Gainsborough Trinity, Charles Caldicott. It was agreed that the teenager would work six days a week for the next five years, by which time he would have the skills required to move into full-time employment.

Things did not go so smoothly, though. Spiksley’s inherent rebelliousness soon got him into trouble. Just two months into the apprenticeship, he asked Caldicott if he could take half a day off to go to the races. The answer was an emphatic no, but Spiksley went anyway. When he returned to work the following day, he was sacked.

It left him in a difficult position. He was 17, without any skills and seemingly without any prospects. But by then he had developed into a highly accomplished footballer. He was signed by Gainsborough Trinity, who disregarded the complaints of those who said he was too small: Spiksley was just 5ft 3in but was leagues ahead of his teammates technically.

The youngster impressed at Gainsborough, scoring at a rate of more than a goal a game, and by 1891 he had earned a move to Sheffield Wednesday. Spiksley spent most of his career with the Yorkshire club, establishing himself as one of the best outside-lefts in the country.

“For what he did for Wednesday, the club ought to erect a monument in his honour,” team-mate Ambrose Langley wrote in 1925. “There was one thing Fred used to do extraordinarily well and that was making friends with the opposing defenders. In the friendliest way he would point out to them that they were all in the game to make their living and how rough play really did nobody any good. [Then] he would tie them up with his juggling and dribbling. Cunning fellow!

“He could pull the wool over their eyes. A great feature of Fred’s play was his ability to keep the ball close to his toe while dribbling, and I have never seen a man who could stop and start again so quickly as Spiksley. He was not a hard shot, but invariably accurate, and his skill made such openings that high-powered efforts were unnecessary. Spiksley made Wednesday, and Wednesday without Spiksley was not very much, I can tell you.”

Spiksley could have chosen to move to one of the bigger clubs of the day – Aston Villa or Sunderland perhaps – but he remained loyal to Wednesday. It was, some speculated, partly because his favourite race track was only a few miles down the road.

By the end of his 12-year spell at the club, Spiksley had scored exactly 100 league goals. He excelled on the international stage too, famously scoring twice on his England debut against Wales in 1893. And he played a prominent part in England’s victory over Scotland at Richmond Park the same year. At a packed stadium – so busy, in fact, that reporters could not see what was going on – Spiksley scored a hat-trick, with Princess Mary of Teck watching on from the sidelines.

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The glory days did not last forever. Towards the end of Spiksley’s career, his gambling habits began to cause problems. Increasingly, his focus appeared to be on the racecourse, not the football pitch, and he was hampered by a series of bad injuries. After brief spells with Leeds and Watford, he retired as a player in 1906.

It seemed likely that he would immediately go into coaching, but Spiksley had never done things conventionally. He applied to be manager of Watford and was rejected because of his refusal to stay away from horse racing. So he turned to acting instead, taking part in a hugely popular drama called ‘The Football Match’.

Spiksley found himself taking to the stage alongside future stars; Chas Chaplin – soon to be known as Charlie – and Stan Laurel were both involved. For Spiksley, though, it was a one-off. He did not make the transition to Hollywood.

Spiksley returned to football, where he embarked on a coaching career that took him to the United States, Mexico, Peru, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. He won league titles with Nürnberg and AIK Stockholm and was popular wherever he went. As a manager, Spiksley was innovative; he intended to coach even the most limited players so that they reached their maximum potential.

In 1914, while Spiksley was at Nürnberg, his work was cut short. The First World War broke out and he was arrested and taken to a prisoner of war camp.

“We were placed in solitary confinement, and the treatment we received was terrible,” he wrote. “We were bullied about by the warders. One piece of black bread, almost uneatable, and water was the only food I had for four days.”

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Spiksley’s wife, with the help of an American consulate, negotiated his release, but when he arrived at Lindau, a German town close to the border with neutral Switzerland, he was informed that he could not leave the country if he was fit to fight. Spiksley, typically cunning, set about deliberately dislocating his knee, so as to fool the military doctor who assessed him.

When he made it home, Spiksley spent the remaining years of the war working as a munitions officer. He continued to coach, spreading his ideas about how football should be played. And in 1948, he died doing what he loved most.

On a hot July day in the Tattersalls Enclosure at Goodwood, with a winning betting slip still in his grasp, Spiksley was taken ill and passed away. More than 70 years on, he remains one of English football’s great unknown characters.

Fred Spiksley: One of English football’s great unknown characters
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