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Obituary: Harry Keough, footballer of Scottish descent whose US team knocked England out of 1950 World Cup

Born: 15 November, 1927, in St Louis, Missouri. Died: 7 February, 2012, in St Louis, aged 84.

He broke English hearts 62 years ago… though the odd glass may have been raised in Scottish hostelries to toast postie Harry Keough, his part-time footballing buddies and their achievement in pulling off one of the biggest shocks in the entire history of world football.

Keough was one of the last surviving members of the United States “soccer” team that went to the World Cup finals in Brazil in 1950 with one of the worst records in the sport, conceding an average of more than six goals a game in their most recent matches. They were a bunch of sporting nonentities, just ordinary guys who enjoyed a kick-about in their free time.

England were a pantheon of sporting legends, one of the best teams in the world, the so-called Kings of Football, with a squad that included Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Tom Finney, Jackie Milburn, Billy Wright and Alf Ramsey. These were the superstars of the day.

England had won their first match World Cup finals tie against Chile, while the US lost to Spain, a game in which Keough was chosen as captain – not because he was the best player or possessed inspirational leadership skills, but because he could speak Spanish and it was thought that might be useful.

England were better than Spain; they were regarded as the favourites both in South America and back home in England. This was the first time they had put their reputation on the line and deigned to enter a World Cup, but they had recently beaten the holders Italy 4-0 and Portugal 10-0.

A massacre was on the cards and the Americans knew it. They had recently played Italy too and lost 7-1, one of the rare occasions on which they had scored. Their keeper later revealed the aim was to restrict England to four or five goals. A 5-0 defeat would be a good result.

But the US did score first against England and as time wore on in the second half the English had still to score their equaliser, let alone the four or five that would have given the Americans a sense of moral victory against superior odds.

With the minutes ticking away, the Americans began to think the unthinkable. Was it possible they might actually hang on and win? “We began to shore up everything,” said Keough, who played right-back on the day.

“Everybody played a little harder and, you know, things just came out our way,” he told ITV matter-of-factly in an interview after the two countries were drawn together again in the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.

News was a slower business in those days and when the result first reached England some papers supposedly refused to print it because they thought it must be a mistake.

Keough felt great sympathy for the fallen idols at the time. “Boy, I feel sorry for these bastards,” he said. “How are they ever going to live down the fact we beat them?” The truth is they weren’t.

Born in St Louis in 1927, Keough was of Irish and Scottish stock and he showed an aptitude for a wide range of sports at school. In his late teens he enlisted in the US Navy and was based in California, where he played football for one of the best local teams.

After leaving the Navy he returned to St Louis, took a job as a postman and remained with the US Postal Service for 35 years. He began playing for the St Louis Kutis amateur soccer club (though it went through several name changes) and made his debut for the national team in 1949 in a draw with Cuba.

The US qualified for the 1950 finals after finishing second in a local qualifying group of three (behind Mexico, ahead of Cuba). England were among the top seeds; the US were in the bottom pot.

The win over England became the subject of books and documentary and feature films, including The Game of Their Lives, in which Scottish actor Gerard Butler played the American goalie. It was belatedly dubbed the Miracle on Grass.

“They didn’t ever dream we could beat them,” said Keough. “Neither did we, for that matter.”

The US lost their next match 5-2 to Chile and were out, but their place in football history was secured.

Keough made 17 appearances for the national team between 1949 and 1957 and was part of the squad for the Olympics in 1952 and 1956. He also played in subsequent World Cup qualifying matches, though the US did not reach the finals again in his time. His only goal for his country was in a match they lost 5-1 to Canada.

As a club player he spent his entire career with the St Louis team (in its various guises) and won the National Amateur Cup seven times. He also enjoyed success as a coach, guiding St Louis University to five national titles in the 1960s and 1970s. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.

He is survived by his wife Alma and three children.

The spectre of the 1950 game was repeatedly raised before England played the US at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The Americans were a much more polished outfit this time, though England were expected to win. They drew, but finished behind the US on goal difference, which meant England got Germany instead of Ghana in the next round and were duly hammered.

BRIAN PENDREIGH

 

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