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Jimmy Speirs: A hero on the pitch and in battle

Jimmy Speirs

Jimmy Speirs

  • by JONATHAN COATES
 

A VICTORY for Bradford City in tomorrow’s Capital One Cup final against Swansea would be received gratefully by champions of the underdog everywhere.

Unlikely sporting successes tend to have ancillary benefits, too. In this case, one positive offshoot would be that the Yorkshire club would become famous to contemporary football fans for more than an appalling fire that claimed 56 lives at Valley Parade in 1985.

Regardless of the result, another positive ramification of Bradford’s march to Wembley is that it has provided a context for the telling of one of the most magical life stories to have taken form in the pre-War period when so many Scots helped the game in England to grow.

Jimmy Speirs was a Glaswegian war hero, a sergeant in the Cameron Highlanders who claimed the Military Medal for bravery in the field before perishing near Ypres in Belgium in 1917.

He was also, before volunteering, a Bradford City hero; one whose contribution to the lore of the club has never been surpassed. Bradford won the FA Cup in 1911 and Jimmy Speirs was the captain and the scorer of the only goal by which Bradford beat Newcastle United 1-0 at the second attempt. Remarkably, he was one of eight Scots in the Bradford team that day.

“Jimmy Speirs was a man who died a lonely death in a muddy field, but six years earlier he was cheered to the rafters by tens of thousands of Bradford City fans for giving the club their greatest moment,” says Dave Pendleton, author of Glorious 1911, the story of Bradford’s only major trophy up to now. “I think that massive contrast is what adds to the fascination around him – plus the fact we have won bugger all since!

“But he was our captain, goalscorer, a real leader of men and quite a guy – apparently he had made a load of money from rubber shares – who then volunteered to fight for his country. He was a remarkable character.”

Before moving south Speirs was a goalscorer of note for Rangers, Clyde and Maryhill, the winner of a Scotland cap in 1908 and an inside left who was bought for £1,400 by the legendary Herbert Chapman when he was in charge at Leeds City – an eye-watering sum at the time. But his story has been curiously under-told, perhaps because Bradford have so rarely been of national news value.

The Scottish Football Museum has no Jimmy Speirs exhibit, while the SFA begrudgingly notes his international recognition in an online biography, dwelling on the fact that he “never really hit the high spots” during his time at Ibrox. This seems a conclusion based entirely on statistics because subsequent research into his life, character and importance to pre-War football has been revelatory.

The website jimmy-speirs.co.uk is a treasure trove of insight that has been lovingly put together by historian Andrew Pickles, with the help of Speirs’ grandchildren.

This was a footballer who didn’t just make history, but one who kept mementoes of it. Like, for example, his Leeds City player’s ticket, and commemorative menus from two dinners held to mark Bradford’s appearance in the 1911 FA Cup final. One was hosted by Sir William Priestley MB at the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus after the original final at the Crystal Palace ended in a 0-0 draw, and the other by Bradford supporters at the city’s Victoria Hotel after the 1911 replay at Old Trafford, when Speirs’ header settled a needle contest.

Bradford was only an eight-year-old club at the time but there were 66,646 at the replay, with an estimated 30,000 locked out. And the celebrations back in the West Ridings city brought 100,000 out on to the streets to welcome Speirs and his fellow heroes home.

The Leeds Mercury reported: “The Cup has come home and Bradford has gone mad with delight. In the long history of the city there has never been anything to equal the extraordinary scenes which took place this evening.”

As captain, it fell upon Speirs to speak both at a civic reception held by the Lord Mayor, and on the steps at Old Trafford after he had received the famous trophy. He reportedly said that Bradford’s success would do a lot for football in Yorkshire and that he and his team had fulfilled a great ambition; he finished by calling for three cheers for Newcastle United.

Every item of recorded evidence of Jimmy Speirs’ life builds the impression of a gallant individual, a leader of men who put principle before self-preservation. It was to be his undoing.

According to the website, he enlisted for service in a Glasgow recruiting office on 17 May, 1915 – more than a year before conscription. “Even then,” writes Pickles, “Jimmy would have been exempted on the grounds of being married with two young children.” Two years and three months later, Bessie Speirs would be widowed and Jimmy jnr and Elizabeth left without a father. But only after Jimmy had ascended from private to corporal and then sergeant, been wounded by a gunshot to the elbow in France in August 1916 and been awarded the Military Medal the following May, after the Second Battle of Arras. According to reports, Bessie’s last communication from her husband was the dreaded “we’re going over the parapet tomorrow”. His body was found some days later, and he was laid to rest at Dochy Farm New British Cemetery.

Jimmy Speirs scored 29 goals in three seasons at Rangers, ten in his only season with Clyde, 33 in four years at Bradford and 32 for Leeds City in the three seasons that preceded the outbreak of hostilities across Europe. And on one afternoon in Manchester, to Bradford City fans he became immortal.

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22 March 1886: Born in Glasgow, the sixth of seven children.

1905: After spells with juvenile and junior clubs Annandale and Maryhill joins Rangers.

1906: Scores twice in 3-2 win over Queen’s Park in Glasgow Merchants Charity Cup final.

1906: Marries Bessie and they later have two children

1908: Wins only Scotland cap in 2-1 defeat of Wales in British Championship match at Dens Park.

1909: Joins Bradford City.

1911: Bradford are underdogs in FA Cup final against holders Newcastle at Crystal Palace. Following 0-0 draw, skipper Speirs heads only goal of replay at Old Trafford.

1912: Joins Leeds City for £140,000

1915: Plays last match as a pro. Returns to Glasgow to enlist and is posted to Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders

1916: Posted overseas to fight at the Front; sustains gunshot wound to left elbow but rejoins regiment

1917: Awarded Military Medal for “bravery in the field”; promoted to sergeant; reported shot in thigh and crawled to a shellhole. Believed to have died there under heavy machine-gun fire. Body found two months later.

 

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