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GCR Books

Alf Common – an unexpected signing

Continuing the series that covers all eleven players who played for Woolwich Arsenal in the first match of the season 1910/11.

Alf Common

Alfred Common joined Woolwich Arsenal for the 1910 season, aged 30.   The official list shows that he played for South Hylton, Jarrow, Sunderland (joined in 1900), Sheffield United (joined 1901 – transfer fee £325 – he went on to score in their Cup Final win), Sunderland again and Middlesbrough, before doing three years at Woolwich.  Even when he left in 1913 he hadn’t finished as he went on to Preston.

Common was one of the players whose activities beyond football can in part be seen through their football.  Born in 1880, the son of a riviter, he got the first of his three caps while at Sheffield United aged 24, but then, at the height of his career he refused to re-sign for Sheffield, because, as the books and web pages now put it, “he wished to return to Sunderland where he had business interests”.

In those days of the maximum wage “business interests” among players were common – they were in fact the way around the maximum wage.     With the player only working at the club in training sessions in the morning, these could be legitimate, such as running a tobacconists shop of an afternoon.  But they could also be slightly further removed from reality.  They might have a “share” in a business owned by the club, which paid a regular dividend.  A job might have been found for a relative – and that job might exist, or might not.

Whatever the state of play with Alf Common despite his huge success at Sheffield he want back to Sunderland who paid £500 for both him and the goalkeeper A Lewis.

What makes the business interests seem slightly askew is that within six months he was off to Middlesbrough for £1000 – the first ever £1000 transfer which was an absolute sensation at the time.  It was such a leap in price, and so unexpected (£350 was the going rate for a top player at the time) that there was even an investigation into the dealings, although there was nothing wrong.

What made the whole thing even more bizarre is that Middlesbrough had only been in the league five years and there was a lot of talk about underhand dealings at every level in the club.

Of course Sunderland and Boro are not that far apart – about 35 miles in fact – but that was hardly a commuting journey after training in the days before cars and tarmac roads.  So the business interests seems to have been a ploy.

However Middlesbrough was shortly after convicted by the FA of paying illegal bonuses for wins in the FA Cup to players during 1904 and 1905. None of the players was found guilty but eleven out of the twelve directors were thrown out of football.

With the maximum wage clearly in disarray as far as the top players were concerned the FA also tried to regain the power that they had seen slipping from them ever since Woolwich Arsenal went professional.  They argued that  ‘buying and selling players is unsportsmanlike and most objectionable’ and following Alf Common’s transfer they constructed a new rule to take place on 1 January 1908, that transfer fees were to be limited to £350.  The clubs however had no interest in following the rule and just ignored it, and eventually it was withdrawn.

Whatever the background however the transfer in footballing terms was a success, as Middlesbrough avoid relegation that had looked certain, and he went on to score 58 goals in 168 games.

Business was not overtly stated when Alf Common came to Woolwich Arsenal, but he may have wanted to set something up in London.  He played either at number 8 or 10 (the two inside forward positions) but in January 1912 he switched to centre forward (number 9) following the long term injury of J Chalmers who had been occupying the position.  The move to centre forward was unusual, given that Common was 5 feet 8 inches tall – (the same as Arshavin).  Worse he was also getting quite tubby.  Even 100 years ago centre forwards tended to be a little taller and a little leaner.

His demise came in the relegation year of 1912-13 when he failed to score in his 12 games and was sold to Preston.  He retired from football in 1914 and moved on to being a publican in the Darlington area, dying in 1946 aged 65.

His goal scoring record at the top of his career was

  • Sheffield  United played 79 scored 24  Ratio:  30%
  • Middlesbrough played 178 scored 65  Ratio: 36%
  • Woolwich Arsenal played 80 scored 23  Ratio:  29%

More Woolwich Arsenal

And don’t forget the book: “Making the Arsenal”


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