Stoke City Legends: Eric Skeels

(Editor’s note: We are absolutely delighted to be hosting this new series from Martyn Cooke. Martyn is a Post Graduate Teaching Assistant at Manchester Metropolitan University and is a PhD student exploring the sporting history of Stoke-on-Trent. He’s on twitter @cooke_martyn. In this series, Martyn uses his powers as a historian to profile the true greats from our club’s past)

The 1960s and 1970s were undoubtedly one of, if not the, most successful period in Stoke City’s history. Tony Waddington was appointed as first-team manager in 1960 and masterminded almost two decades of continuous success the Victoria Ground which included winning the Second Division title in the 1962/1963 season, reaching two consecutive FA Cup finals in the early 1970s and winning the League Cup in 1972 – the club’s only major trophy to date. Stoke were widely regarded as being one of the most entertaining teams in the country during the early 1970s, with Waddington implementing a swashbuckling, exciting brand of attacking football. The team assembled was filled with stellar names including Sir Stanley Matthews (who re-joined The Potters in 1961 as a 46-year-old to lead a promotion push), World Cup winners Gordon Banks and George Eastham, and club legends such as Jimmy Greenhoff, Alan Hudson, Terry Conroy, Denis Smith and John Ritchie to name but a few. It truly was a ‘golden era’ for the Stoke supporters.

However, within every successful team, there is always an unsung hero – an individual who may not receive the same amount of recognition and plaudits as some of their attacking counterparts, but who are equally as important on the pitch. For Waddington’s Stoke team of the 1960s and 1970s, this role was filled by Eric Thomas Skeels, who would go on to become the club’s all-time record appearance holder, playing 597 competitive matches across an 18-year career at the Victoria Ground.

‘He had not liked to tell us his real age in case we thought he was too old’

Skeels was born and raised in Eccles, Lancashire, and initially played for his local club Stockport County as an inside-forward within the junior teams. His arrival at the Victoria Ground was somewhat fortunate, although there are various accounts of how he eventually came to sign for Stoke. It appears that in 1958 Skeels had been set to sign professional terms with Birmingham City and all that was required was for the appropriate paperwork to be signed off. [1] However, the move fell through when the manager, Arthur Turner, resigned suddenly following an internal dispute in which the chairman had appointed a ‘joint manager’ without his knowledge. This left Skeels, then a youngster, with the prospect of being left without a club.

One account suggests that Skeels wrote to Stoke manager Frank Turner requesting a trial, which was politely declined. [2] However, a few weeks later it was Turner’s assistant at the time, Tony Waddington, who was tipped off about the youngster’s potential by Herbert Chapman’s son and decided to hand the inside-forward an opportunity to prove himself. The talent of Skeels was instantly recognisable, but there would be some confusion to overcome first before he was offered a deal. Waddington later explained:

“When we signed Eric he told us he was 18 but had lost his birth certificate. We played him in a FA Youth Cup game against Wolves and we lost, which was fortunate! It turned out that Eric was 20 and two years over the age limit. He had not liked to tell us his real age in case we thought he was too old’. [3]

Despite the confusion, Skeels was assured that he had a future at Stoke and in November 1958 he signed a contract. [4] He would become an integral part of the club’s success over the following 18 years.

Although he began his career as an inside-forward Skeels became something of a utility player and was used in every outfield position during his career with The Potters. However, it would be as a defender, half-back and defensive midfielder that he would make his name in the professional game. [5]

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‘Skeels, another defender who never seems to have a bad game’

It took Skeels just over 15 months to progress through the intermediate and reserve teams before being handed his first-team debut in March 1960 against Charlton Athletic. He made just two further appearances during the 1960/61 campaign but the following season he quickly established himself as a central component of the team. [6] Waddington succeeded Taylor in 1960 and, with Stoke initially facing the prospect of sliding into the Third Division, he decided to adopt a pragmatic approach. He introduced what became known as the ‘Waddington Wall’, a tactical innovation where the back four were protected by two defensive midfielders and nine players were brought back behind. At the time it was a new concept and Waddington later commented that “it wasn’t pretty, but it was effective”. [7]

Within the ‘Waddington Wall’ Skeels was able to cement himself as a first-team regular. His defensive talents came to the fore and his ability to mark dangerous opponents out of the game made him invaluable in a system that prioritised defending. More importantly, he stood out among his peers due to his consistency, reliance and faultless application. In February 1961, the press described Skeels as “the most notable discovery of the season” and he became known as “Mr Dependable” due to the quality and consistency of his performances. [8]

Stoke avoided relegation in the 1960/61 season and the re-signing of Stanley Matthews in 1961 provided the impetus which enabled Waddington’s side to clinch the Second Division title in 1962/63. The First Division would prove to be a more challenging arena for The Potters and the remainder of the decade was characterised by mid-table finishes with the sporadic flirtation with relegation. The highlight came in 1964 when Stoke reached the final of the League Cup, which was then only fours years into its existence with the winner decided in a two-legged tie, with Leicester City providing the opposition. However, despite playing out a hard-fought draw in the first leg it was The Foxes that ultimately lifted the cup, winning 4-3 on aggregate due to a 3-2 victory in the return leg at Filbert Street. Stoke supporters would have to wait a little longer until the club would taste success in the same competition eight years later.

During the 1960s Skeels was almost ever-present in Waddington’s team and missed just seven matches during his first seven full seasons following his breakthrough into the first team. [9] His consistency and reliability were his greatest attributes and it is clear that his manager and teammates had complete faith in his ability regardless of what position he played or the opponent that he faced. In January 1965, when asked how Stoke intended to stop Manchester United’s Dennis Law ahead of a league fixture Waddington instantly replied:

“We’ve got just the chap to stop him … Eric Skeels. We always use him against dangerous inside-forwards like Greaves, Haynes and Douglas. Skeels sits on them, shadows them all over the field, is a sound tackler, and disciplined himself to the job”. [10]

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Such plaudits were not just forthcoming from his manager. In February 1967, Geoff Hurst spoke in glowing terms about Skeels and commented that he “had the greatest respect for him”. The then West Ham United striker continued “Eric Skeels, another defender who never seems to have a bad game – at least against me! – yet who seldom gets all the praise he deserves”. [11]

If the late 1960s had been a period of consolidation in the First Division for Stoke, then the 1970s were the halcyon days for Waddington and his side. The pragmatism of the ‘Waddington Wall’ was replaced by a new attacking philosophy which saw the team become regarded as one of the most exciting in the country. The Potters assembled an all-star side that was brimming with talent, experience and confidence with the attacking innovation of Alan Hudson, John Ritchie and Jimmy Greenhoff combined with the defensive resilience of Gordon Banks, Dennis Smith and Mike Pejic. Stoke reached two FA Cup semi-finals in consecutive seasons in 1970/71 and 1971/72, losing on both occasions in controversial circumstances to Arsenal, and won the League Cup in 1972.
In this new look, star-studded team that utilised an attacking, swashbuckling style of football Skeels remained an integral part of the side. He was affectionately nicknamed ‘Alfie’ by his fellow players, a reference to his little dog that appeared to follow him wherever he went and he commanded the respect of his peers in the dressing room. [12] He was described by the press as an “outstanding personality” who was a “reliable, tough-as-teak centre-half who is often an under-rated player”. [13] Skeels’ toughness was later recalled by Jimmy Greenhoff who described one game in which it transpired that the defender had broken a bone in his foot, yet still played out the entirety of the match regardless and without complaint or fuss. [14]

Sadly, Skeels would miss the 1972 League Cup final, an unfortunate footnote in what is perhaps considered to be the greatest occasion in Stoke’s history. In August 1971 he had fractured a bone in his leg when playing against Leicester City, yet he demonstrated remarkable will power to return to fitness in time to play a starring role against West Ham United in the League Cup semi-final later that season. [15] Having secured a runners-up medal in the same competition eight years earlier it is safe to assume that Skeels would have been chomping at the bit to ho one step further and lift the trophy. However, Waddington opted to omit him from the squad selected to play at Wembley, leaving him having to be content with watching the club’s most iconic historical moment unfold from the stands.

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‘His contribution deserves much greater recognition and appreciation’

In June 1976 Skeels was granted a free transfer as he headed into the twilight of his playing career and brought an end to an eighteen-year spell at the Victoria Ground. He had made 597 competitive appearances for Stoke, becoming the club’s all-time appearance record holder, and scored seven goals, although more importantly, he played a crucial role in one type most successful periods in the club’s history. Following his departure, Skeels joined the Seattle Sounders who were competing in the fledgeling North American Soccer League and who had also signed Geoff Hurst. His time across the Atlantic was short-lived and by September 1976 he had returned to England where he signed for Third Division side Port Vale, making five appearances. After retiring from professional football Skeels owned a couple of different pubs and also appeared sporadically for non-league side Leek Town. [16]

A reoccurring feature of Skeels’ career at the Victoria Ground was that he was something of an unsung hero who rarely received the plaudits that he deserved and yet who played a crucial role that facilitated the club’s success. He was overlooked in 2008 when Stoke announced their ‘Greatest Ever Eleven’ as part of their 150th anniversary celebrations, although admittedly the selection of any such side is an unenviable task that is bound to leave many deserving individuals shawn of recognition. However, the perception of Skeels as an unsung hero perfectly encapsulated what he was to the club – he did the hard, defensive graft that allowed his attacking colleagues to flourish and, ultimately, enabled the team to succeed. Although other players around him during the 1960s and 1970s may have received the plaudits and the credit, Skeels’ contribution was invaluable.
When I agreed to produce this Stoke City Legends Series, I was faced with the unenviable task of deciding who I would write about first. Do you go for goalscoring legends and prestigious creative innovators? Do you write about modern superstars or look for the far-back historical anomalies? Or do you simply cover one of those renowned figures that have already been extensively discussed in the existing literature?

Ultimately, I opted for Skeels because there was something about his story and character that resonates with me, as I am sure it will other Stoke supporters. Here was a man who was unselfish, modest and who was prepared to apply himself to the best of his ability in order to ensure that the team succeeded. He was tough, resilient and was happy for others to take the plaudits safe in the knowledge that it was the success of the club that was the most important factor. His contribution deserves much greater recognition and appreciation – I hope that I have done his story justice!

Eric Thomas Skeels – Stoke City Legend.

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Martyn Cooke

[1] Lowe, S. (2001) Stoke City: 101 Golden Greats. Desert Island Football Histories.
[2] Matthews, S. (2000) Stanley Matthews – The Way It Was: My Autobiography. London: Headline Publishing; Matthews, T. (2005) The Who’s Who of Stoke City. Derby: Breedon Books.
[3] Leonard, J. (2018) Tony Waddington: Director of a Working Man’s Ballet. Dunnington: Pitch Publishing.
[4] Matthews, T. (2005) The Who’s Who of Stoke City. Derby: Breedon Books.
[5] Lowe, S. (2011) Stoke City: A Nostalgic Look at a Century of the Club. Yeovil: Hayes Publishing; Matthews, T. (2005) The Who’s Who of Stoke City. Derby: Breedon Books.
[6] Matthews, T. (2005) The Who’s Who of Stoke City. Derby: Breedon Books.
[7] Lowe, S. (2011) Stoke City: A Nostalgic Look at a Century of the Club. Yeovil: Hayes Publishing.
[8] ‘Stoke’s Cup Star’, Newcastle Journal, February 16, 1961, 41.
[9] Lowe, S. (2001) Stoke City: 101 Golden Greats. Desert Island Football Histories.
[10] ‘Sportlight’, Daily Mirror, January 19, 1965, 20.
[11] ‘Great Respect’, The People, February 5, 1967, 21.
[12] Lowe, S. (2011) Stoke City: A Nostalgic Look at a Century of the Club. Yeovil: Hayes Publishing.
[13] ‘Inconsistent Stoke’, Coventry Evening Telegraph, January 11, 1969, 38.
[14] Leonard, J. (2018) Tony Waddington: Director of a Working Man’s Ballet. Dunnington: Pitch Publishing.
[15] Lowe, S. (2001) Stoke City: 101 Golden Greats. Desert Island Football Histories; Matthews, T. (2005) The Who’s Who of Stoke City. Derby: Breedon Books.
[16] Matthews, T. (2005) The Who’s Who of Stoke City. Derby: Breedon Boo

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