By Tony Attwood
Ralph James Evans Birkett was born in Dartmouth, Devon, (or according to other sources Newton Abbot, or Ellacombe Torquay neither of which are far away) on 3 January 1913 (or 9 Jan in other sources). Birth certificate evidence appears to support Ellacombe.
He first made his name playing for the 3rd Division (south) side Torquay United – who had recruited him from non-league Dartmouth United (now Dartmouth AFC) as an amateur in 1930. There is also a note on one site that says he also played for Middlesex County boys. That may be true but it seems unlikely as all the other references are to an exclusively Devon upbringing.
He first played for Torquay in March 1930, at a time of some difficulty for Torquay, as the club were reportedly in considerable debt at the time. In January that year the roof of the grandstand was destroyed in a heavy storm and they were rescued to some degree when Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City played friendly matches at Torquay to help raise money for the reconstruction. This sort of help seemingly was not uncommon in football at the time – and you may recall Arsenal playing a series of games against Northampton (Chapman’s first managerial club) after a fire burned down their grandstand.
Ralph’s first appearance for Torquay was in a 7-0 win against Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic (now AFC Bournemouth), which was all things considered an utterly extraordinary result. Torquay had lost six and drawn two of their last eight games, while Boscombe (as their supporters at the time liked to call them) had suffered just one defeat in the last six. The league table prior to the game showed Boscombe in 6th and Torquay 19th out of 22. Worse, two of the three clubs below Torquay had games in hand over Torquay.
And just to complete the strangeness of the score, Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic had already beaten Torquay twice this season – once in the league and once in the cup.
The following season Torquay’s fortunes picked up with Ralph in the side, and for a while they seemed to be pushing for promotion, although a poor run at the end of the year saw them slip back to finish 11th.
In 1933, after 95 league games in which he scored 19 times for Torquay, Ralph Birkett moved to Arsenal for a fee of £1,588, thus being one of Chapman’s last signings. The aim was to make him a replacement for (or backup for) Joe Hulme and he made his debut on 2 September 1933 against Sheffield Wednesday, at Hillsborough. In all he played 15 times in the side that won the second of the three titles in a row, sharing the number 7 position with Hulme and Beasley.
It is interesting to consider that this meant that in the Arsenal squad there was also Ray Bowden who had come from Plymouth and the incomperable Cliff Bastin who came from Exeter. It would be nice to think the guys got on and formed a Devon Club! Or maybe it was a south west club as they also had Eddie Hapgood from Bristol and Ray Bowden from Cornwall.
But it was not to last as in his second season, Hulme and Beasley again kept him from the position, but this time Kirchen (who had a run at outside right) also proved difficult to dislodge and he only got seven first team appearances and two goals (although he did win a London Combination champions medal) and scored a goal in the Charity Shield match.
He then moved to Middlesbrough for £2,000 in 1935 (£5000 in some sources) and made his debut for them on 16 March 1935 against Preston North End. On 19 October Birkett played in the England match against N Ireland which England won 3-1. He impressed in this match and was selected to play for a second time but was injured. He was replaced by Stanley Matthews who then occupied the slot for England thereafter.
In July 1938 Ralph moved to Newcastle United (for £5900 according to the source that has the £5000 transfer fee for him going to Middlesbrough) where Ray Bowden was also playing, but the war stopped the league after three games of the 1939-40 season and that curtailed his career. He did however score 35 goals in 93 appearances for Boro and scored 3 goals in 24 games for Newcastle in the league.
During the war, it is reported that he served as a Physical Training instructor in the Army and made guest appearances for Darlington, Fulham, Chester, Middlesbrough, Chelsea and Reading.
According to one report he retired from football in 1941 – but that seems very early as he was just 28 and the source that cites this is the one that is out of phase with all the others over his early days, so I tend to discount it. However he was serving in the armed forces and may have been injured. He did make one further appearance for Torquay United in 1945, in a friendly – at which time he was 32.
In 1978 he returned to south Devon an ran a haulage company in Dartmouth (or Paignton). He and his wife had a son Don Birkett who married Mary Birkett. In later life he returned to Devon and live in Brixham where he died in 2002 aged 89.