Pre-season tours: When football clubs were setting sail to play overseas friendlies

It’s the mid 1920s and your club is going on a summer tour. What could go wrong? Time away from home to play some football with the lads. Nothing bad is going to happen, right? All you have to do is go on a steamship across the ocean. Not a problem, this was just how the British embarked on globe-trotting tours before rolling out a ball among the natives.

Scottish clubs, in particular, travelled all over the world a century ago, with some ending up in Buenos Aires, others in Africa. After their first Scottish Cup Final on 24th April 1937, Aberdeen elected to visit Africa. Before going, they lost 2-1 to Celtic in front of a British club record crowd of 146,433 at Hampden Park, with the antidote for their defeat a trip to Southampton to board the Stirling Castle Ship for a two-week trip to Cape Town.

Keeping the players in shape during long voyages like this was imperative, so they held daily training sessions on one of the decks. Away from those sessions, the players had to be on their best behavior and even had to wear formal dress to uphold a professional demeanour.

Going to South America was even more of an experience than Latin Africa, taking a week longer to get there. Everton and Tottenham became the first professional clubs to play in Latin America, since professionalism hadn’t made it to the Southern Hemisphere yet.

Everton finished the 1908/09 season in second place in the top-flight, but after a summer schlep around the world – which included two months on a ship – their form started to go south as they, er, sank to 10th the following year.

The Toffees’ trip included many stops: Lisbon, Madeira, Cape Verde, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, while Spurs darn near missed the trip altogether, after missing their train because of an accident in London Waterloo.

After arriving later than planned, they had to leave Southampton to make the HMS Araguaya by chartering a tugboat. Once they finally made it to the boat, the players passed the time by running a derby sweepstake and taking part in a fancy dress ball to mark the Argentinian independence day.

These tours, while being hard on the players, helped the areas they visited. Everton’s trip to Latin America left a notable legacy in Chile, with a group of youths in the port of Valparaiso setting up their own club named after Everton. The leader of the group was David Foxley, whose grandparents emigrated from Liverpool to set up a flour mill. The club still exists nowadays as CD Everton and were Apertura champions in 2008.

Exeter City’s tour to South America in 1914 is widely credited as kickstarting the Brazilian national team. The Grecians set sail on 22 May 1914, with 15 players making the 18-day journey from Southampton to Rio de Janeiro. It didn’t take long for them to make an impact, with the entire team getting arrested almost straight away after swimming at a beach where bathing was banned – and it was only the intervention of a British diplomat that stopped them from being sent back to England.

On these tours, city all-star clubs were put together to show off the best representation of the area. In Rio on 12 July 1914, a Brazilian side debuted at Estádio das Laranjeiras, Fluminese’s Stadium, against Exeter – showing off their already-superior ball skills and natural flair to overcome their English rivals 2-0. After the final whistle, the Brazilian players were carried off on the crowd’s shoulders, proclaiming them national heroes, whereas a crestfallen Exeter were left exhausted by the heat and their prolonged sea journey.

The port of Hibernian brought the European game to the shores of Scotland and has the dubious claim to fame of being the birthplace of Scotland’s only shipwrecked club. One of the people at the centre of calamity was a former Chester City and Preston North End player, David Morris, who became a shipwright upon the end of his career. Morris had always had an affinity with ships and had been spotted by a Raith Rovers coach when he was playing for Newtongrange Star in the early 1920s, while working at the docks.

That Raith side were known as one of the best passing sides in the country, finishing third behind Celtic and Rangers in the 1921/22 season, and aimed to showcase their talents with a 1923 summer tour to Copenhagen, which they followed up the next year for the Canary Islands.

The 13-person party – consisting of players, management and directors – boarded the SS Highland Loch at Tilbury Docks with many other passengers and, reportedly, a consignment of meat bound for Buenos Aires. Reports say the atmosphere on the ship was jovial, as players sang, played cards and talked about the sites they were going to see in Vigo, the first port they’d dock at. There was a wild storm blowing and massive waves struck the ship just off the rocky coast of Northwest Spain.

The players kept their calm and did what they were told, getting into the lifeboats, with the Raith goalkeeper – a former seaman in the Royal Navy during World War One – helping people get off safely. Once into the lifeboats, the players discovered less-than-favourable conditions until they reached the small village of Villa Garcia. Here, they met local fishermen who couldn’t understand them and having left their money behind on the abandoned ship, the players suffered the ignominy of being left stranded in only their pajamas and dressing gowns.

The beleaguered party made their way to the seaport of Vigo, the administrative centre of the region. As if by fate, their sunk ship, Highland Loch, had been refloated and arrived at the Vigo harbor at the same time. The forepeak had suffered the worst blow, part of the bulkhead was broken and the port bilge keels had been torn away, with half the crew ending up in the port of Corrubedo and the other half in Vilagarcia after five hours drifting in the Ria de Arousa.

Rather than waiting for the repairs to happen, a ship named Darro gathered the team and took them to Las Palmas, where Rovers won all six tour games. Despite their success on the pitch, Raith’s nautical mishaps meant they chose not to embark on another summer tour the following year.

Fortunately for most players and club officials, clubs started flying by commuter jets as Europe eventually emerged after World War Two and the tour ships were retired as a realistic means of transport. And as jets became more readily available, football discovered the world opening up to them – making jaunts to play friendlies in far off countries much more common. Hola, Bangkok!

Pre-season tours: When football clubs were setting sail to play overseas friendlies
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