Stoke City Legends: Freddie Steele

 

It is said that the most valuable commodity in football is goals. It may be one of the most overused clichés in the game, yet it is one that is underpinned by a mixture of empirical evidence and common sense. Research has demonstrated that since the mid-1940s the number of goals scored in matches contested in the top-flight of English football has been steadily declining – on average, modern supporters are likely to see 2.5 goals per games or, alternatively, a goal every 36 minutes. [1] In essence, the rarity of goals is what makes football so special, yet it also means that the most valuable and sought-after players in the world are those that can find the back of the net with regularity and consistency.

One of the first truly great Stoke City goal scorers of the twentieth century was Frederick Charles Steele who, during the 1930s and 1940s, was widely regarded as being one of the finest centre forwards in the country. To say that he was prolific in front of goal would be something of an understatement. He still holds a variety of club records including having scored more goals in the Football League (140) and FA Cup (19) than any other Stoke player whilst his tally of 33 league goals which were plundered during the 1936/37 season has never been matched. Steele, like so many other players of his generation, lost the prime years of his playing career following the outbreak of the Second World War yet he still managed to notch up a total of 220 goals for The Potters in 346 appearances. [2]

If we accept that goals are the most valuable commodity in football, then Steele’s goal-scoring feats make him one of the greatest players in the history of Stoke City.

FS1.jpg

“Steele on his day is one of the finest, if not the finest, marksman in the country”

Freddie Steele was born in 1916 and was a local lad who was raised in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. He was educated at a school just around the corner from the Victoria Ground and he quickly emerged as one of the most talented young players in the area, with his ability making him stand out from his peers playing in the junior football leagues across the area. [3] In 1931, Steele was spotted by Stoke City manager Tom Mather, who became renowned for his ability to identify talented young players and maximise their potential, and he immediately sought to convince the inside-forward to join the club. However, then only 15 years of age, Steele was not eligible to sign a professional contract, yet such was the manager’s belief in the teenager that Stoke were determined to keep him out of the clutches of other Football League clubs. [4]

It was agreed that the youngster would work in Mather’s office whilst also playing for the club’s nursery side, Downings Tilleries, with a guarantee that the player would be offered a professional contract when he came of age. [5] Stoke used this tactic, to great effect, to ensure that any talented local players who were too young to sign a contract would work for the club in another capacity, thus developing an affinity and sense of loyalty that limited the chances of them being tempted away. To emphasise how highly Mather rated Steele’s potential, the only other youngster working in his office at that time was a sprightly winger called Stanley Matthews. [6]

In June 1933, Steele formally signed for Stoke and he made his debut against Huddersfield Town in December 1934. A few weeks later he opened his goal scoring account in a 3-0 win against West Bromwich Albion, who often found themselves on the receiving end of his clinical finishing, and from that point onwards the goals never seemed to stop. [7] However, it was once again Mather who would make a decision which would come to define Steele’s career. The youngster had always played as an inside-forward, at that point in time it was a more creative role where the primary responsibility was to create chances for the lone striker, but the manager opted to convert him into an out-and-out centre forward. It was a decision that would open the proverbial goal scoring floodgates.

At the age of just 21 Steele set a new club record for the number of league goals scored in a season after finding the net an astonishing 33 times during the 1936/37 campaign. This included five hat-tricks and a five-goal haul against West Bromwich Albion in February 1937 which eased Stoke to a 10-3 victory. [8] Such goal scoring feats saw him lauded by the press, with one report confidently stating that “Steele on his day is one of the finest, if not the finest, marksman in the country”, whilst it was not long before he also received international recognition. [9]

The young centre forward made his England debut in October 1936 against Wales and was one of three Stoke players subsequently selected to face Scotland at Hampden park in April 1937. Steele later reflected that the “most thrilling memory” of his football career was “hearing the roar of the Hampden Park crowd” that day with an estimated 135,000 supporters in attendance. [10] He made a positive start to his international career and he was chosen to represent England in an end of season tour of Scandinavia in the summer of 1937. Steele scored seven goals in the three matches that had been arranged with his finest moment coming in Stockholm where he netted a first half hat-trick that helped the side secure a 4-0 win against Sweden. [11] Upon his return to North Staffordshire he was greeted by over 20,000 well wishes with the Staffordshire Sentinel reporting that his performances had “brought added prestige” to his club and that “it is doubtful if any English centre forward had been more consistently successful on the continent than Steele”. [12] He would win a total of six caps for England, scoring eight goals, but his international career would be cut short by injuries and the Second World War.

FS2.jpg

“Whenever the ball came to him, reporters in the press box sharpened their pencils in anticipation”

The phrase ‘natural goal scorer’ is undoubtedly overused in the modern game, but it perfectly encapsulated Freddie Steele’s Stoke City playing career. He was prolific in and around the eighteen-yard box and possessed a tremendously powerful shot that he would direct with clinical, lethal accuracy beyond opposing goalkeepers. The striker was renowned for being able to play with both feet with equal ease whilst also possessing a devastating turn of pace which allowed him to race away from defenders – he could reportedly run 100 yards in 11.5 seconds! [13] In his autobiography Stanley Matthews spoke in glowing terms about Steele’s ability, commenting that:

“Whenever the ball came to him, reporters in the press box sharpened their pencils in anticipation. In the penalty box he was lethal, clinical and merciless, firing shots from the tightest of angles and the smallest of spaces. In just about every game he played for Stoke, Freddie turned in a masterpiece of strength, endurance, polish and skill that more often than not at some stage left the net billowing”. [14]

The press were equally as generous in their praise, describing how “he can get ‘em from all angles … he has a terrific shot and directs the ball with power to unexpected spots”. [15] Despite only standing 5 foot 10 inches Steele was just as dangerous with his head as he was with his feet. He had a prodigious heading technique and it was noted that “he could jump as if he had bedsprings in his boots” and that he “could head a ball harder than some players could kick it”. [16] In short, he was the complete centre forward.

Prior to the start of the Second World War Steel was undoubtedly one of, if not the, best young centre forward in the country, so it came as a major surprise when in late-1938, at the age of 23, he signalled his intention to retire from playing. He had picked up a knee injury in October 1937 following a collision with Charlton Athletic goalkeeper Sam Bartram, an issue that would continue to reoccur throughout his career, and by December 1938 he was struggling to recover his confidence and was reported to be suffering from depression. [17] Stoke faced the prospect of losing their star centre forward, an England international and one of the most clinical goal scorers in the country.

The solution came from left field. After a suggestion was made to a Stoke director by a friend, it was agreed that Steele would undergo a course of psychological treatment, including hypnotism, from a medical specialist based in Staffordshire in an attempt to help the player revive his confidence and, ultimately, his interest in the game. It was something of a quirky story and it attracted the interest of the press from across the country. In February 1939 the Sheffield Daily Telegraph published a detailed account and revealed that:

“Half a dozen visits to the specialist worked wonders in Steele – restored his confidence removed his inferiority complex and stopped him brooding on his loss of form. … Since his treatment he had scored nine goals in four matches [having only found the net nine time previously that season]”. [18]

The Stoke manager, Bob McGrory, who would have been delighted at the centre forward’s startling return to form after the treatment, commented that it “has been a remarkable success … there is no doubt about it”. [19] Steele refused to comment on the story himself, although it certainly appears to have saved his career. However, a brewing conflict in Europe would disrupt English football and alter the lives of thousands of players across the country.

FS3.jpg

“In theory, his best years were behind him …”

In September 1939, Britain formally entered the Second World War. During this period the Football League was temporarily suspended and replaced with regional divisions, due to fears over extensive travelling, the congregation of large crowds and the prospect of German bombing raids, whilst large numbers of professional football players enrolled into the armed forces. Freddie Steele continued to play for Stoke City when possibly and made 95 appearances during the war despite his military commitments and continuing issues with his knee. Many players were able to continue their playing careers during the conflict although their appearances were sporadic and dependent on where they were stationed in the country, what their role was and when they were granted leave. However, Steele, like many others, lost the prime years of his career and we will never know how much more of an impact he would have had on the game if English football had not been disrupted by the war.

It was during the mid-1940s that Steele also began to make his first tentative steps into coaching. He was reported to have worked with one of Stoke’s youth teams and was also an “instructor” alongside Neil Franklin at a one-day “football training school” for local schoolboys which was held at the Victoria Ground. [20] In the summer of 1946, Steele spent the close season in Iceland where he stepped in as manager of KR Reykjavik for five matches whilst also being selected to manage the Icelandic national team for one game in July 1946. He returned to England in time to re-join The Potters ahead of the start of the new campaign and later spoke fondly of his time in Iceland – he had planned to return the following summer, but this never materialised. 

By the time that peace had returned to Europe and English football began to regain a semblance of normality Steel had turned 30. In theory, his best years were behind him and there would be no resumption of his international career, which had begun so promisingly before the war. However, in quite remarkable fashion the centre-forward demonstrated that he had lost none of his prolific tendencies in front of goal when nationwide football resumed. During the 1945/46 ‘transitional season’, which was the first campaign following the end of the war in which many players and facilities had yet to be demobilised, Steele scored 49 goals in 43 appearances. [21] The following season the Football League formally recommenced and he scored a further 31 goals as Stoke came within one game of winning the First Division title, although that particular year is more markedly remember for the controversial sale of Stanley Matthews. Steele would remain at the club for two more years, but injuries and his age saw his influence greatly diminish – the 1946/47 season would be his final truly great goal scoring campaign. 

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“The best centre-forward … in the history of Stoke City”

In June 1949, with a new generation of young players emerging at the Victoria Ground, Freddie Steele departed the club to begin his managerial career (his first couple of appointments would be as a player-manager). He had scored a total of 220 goals for Stoke City in 346 first team appearances, set numerous club records in the process and was one of the club’s greatest players of the twentieth century. His departure coincided with a downturn in the club’s fortunes, although it was one of many prevalent factors, and within four years The Potters had slipped into the Second Division. 

Steele carved out a notable, if not especially prestigious, managerial career within the lower echelons of the Football League which included a spell at Mansfield Town before two separate stints as manager of Port Vale. In fact, he oversaw one of the most successful periods in The Valiants’ history which saw the club win the Third Division and reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1953/54. [22] However, that is a story for a different time.

It is difficult to describe just how good Freddie Steele was. To some extent, his goal scoring record speaks for itself, yet numbers alone only tell a partial story and it does little to demonstrate what an explosive, dynamic and exciting players he would have been to watch. It is intriguing to consider what more he would have accomplished had it not been for the outbreak of the Second World War and prior to the conflict he was undoubtedly one of the best goal scorers in the country and looked set to become an integral part of the England team. Alas, we will never know.

It is perhaps fitting to leave the final words to Stanley Matthews who stated, quite simply, that Frederick Charles Steel is “the best centre-forward … in the history of Stoke City”. [23]

Martyn Dean Cooke

References

[1] Anderson, C., & Sally, D. (2014) The Numbers Game. London: Penguin Books.

[2] 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.

[3] ‘Men at the Helm – Freddie Steele’, Liverpool Echo, March 14, 1953, 16.

[4] Lowe, S. (2001) Stoke City: 101 Golden Greats. Desert Island Football Histories.

[5] Matthews, T. (2005) The Who’s Who of Stoke City. Derby: Breedon Books.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] ‘Sensational Football at Stoke’, Staffordshire Sentinel, February 4, 1937, 1.

[9] ‘Harry Hibbs Thinks …’, Sports Argus, January 21, 1939, 6.

[10] ‘Thrilling Moments of Local Sportsmen’, Staffordshire Sentinel, November 4, 1947, 4.

[11] Lowe, S. (2001) Stoke City: 101 Golden Greats. Desert Island Football Histories.

[12] ‘Stoke Players Success’, Staffordshire Sentinel, May 22, 1937, 13; ‘Great Welcome to Steele and Johnson’, Staffordshire Sentinel’, May 28, 1937, 13.

[13] Matthews, T. (2005) The Who’s Who of Stoke City. Derby: Breedon Books.

[14] 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.

[15] ‘Harry Hibbs Thinks …’, Sports Argus, January 21, 1939, 6.

[16] 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.

[17] 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.

[18] ‘Psychology put Player Back on Form’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, February 9, 1939, 1.

[19] ‘Psychology put Player Back on Form’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, February 9, 1939, 1.

[20] ‘One-Day Soccer School’, Staffordshire Sentinel, October 18, 1948, 1.

[21] Matthews, T. (2005) The Who’s Who of Stoke City. Derby: Breedon Books.

[22] Kent, J. (1990) The Valiants’ Years: The Story of Port Vale. Staffordshire: Witan Books.

[23] 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.

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