By Dhrubo Alam
In 1932, Tom Smith, a local councillor and Rotarian, formerly of Tufnell Park, from London, England, founded a football club named Islington Corinthians (now defunct) in order to raise money for local charities. He gave north London a side that would excel in amateur football; in a period when Arsenal dominated the professional game. It played in the Metropolitan Midweek League, facing the might and glamour of London neighbours Arsenal and Chelsea, though with their reserve teams. Interestingly, they often upset them, like a 3-2 victory over Chelsea Reserves in the 1934-35 season.
The Islington Corinthians played the Chinese Olympic team in a friendly at Highbury, London in 1936. The Chinese team was actually compiled with the best ethnic Chinese players from different parts of China as well as South-Eastern Asia. Moreover, they have made a long preparatory tour of Asia and also toured Europe after they exited from the Olympics. The Corinthians won the match by 3-2.
After the match, the visitors extended a casual invitation to visit their country for a rematch. This hatched the idea of a full-blown world tour and worked as a catalyst of which became part of football folklore. In reality, they already had some experience of foreign tours, playing Ajax and Sparta Rotterdam in 1935 and 1936, respectively. While they were rapidly making a name for themselves in the amateur football scene, this tour would make the Islington Corinthians really stand out among the other clubs in history.
The tour spanned the 1937–38 football season and they went on to play in 14 countries, Netherlands, Switzerland, Egypt, India, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Japan, Hawaii, the United States and Canada. They took part in 95 games, winning 65 of them, quite an amazing feat, considering the amount of travelling the team faced between the matches.
The World Tour: European Leg
A team was assembled with 19 young amateurs, most of whom were unmarried. Smith accompanied the team as the tour manager while former Tottenham Hotspur centre-half Horace “Harry” Lowe was the coach. Islington Corinthians crossed the English Channel on 4th October 1937 and landed in The Hague, Netherlands. They opened their tour with a 0-0 draw with VUC. Playing consecutive games in three days, in the other two matches, they won one and drew one. Next stop was Switzerland where they tasted their first defeat against FC Winterthur in Zurich. But they overcame their disappointment on the next day and picked up a convincing win over FC Berne.
Finishing the European leg, they made their way across the Suez Canal to Egypt. The members would first experience the enthusiasm of the crowd and local officials in Alexandria which would continue for the rest of the tour. They played their first match in Cairo on 22nd October, a 1-1 draw against Cairo XI. In the second match, two days later, King Farouk I was present in attendance as Islington Corinthians picked up a hard-fought victory.
Al-Zalamek were Islington Corinthians’ next opponent. Despite the quality of their opponents, Islington Corinthians had no problems in confirming yet another win, as they got a few days of rest before the match. But as their players were crumbling with injuries, they suffered a heavy 4-1 in defeat in the last match in Port Said.
THE INDIAN WINTER
Leaving Egypt, Islington Corinthians started their Indian leg of the world tour which would become their busiest schedule. They landed in Bombay (present Mumbai) on 11th November 1937. They were invited to a lavish luncheon at the famous Taj Mahal Hotel in the city and had a brief stop. Then they travelled to the Eastern city of Calcutta (present Kolkata) where they would play out the most vital matches of the tour.
On 13th November, after a gruelling train journey, they reached the city. By the afternoon of the same day, they faced Mohammedan Sporting Club; the strongest football team in India back then. They were the winner of an unprecedented five consecutive league titles between 1934 and 1938 and also the winner of 1936 edition of IFA (Indian Football Association) Shield. As expected, Islington Corinthians struggled and could only manage a goalless draw.
Whatever might be the result, this was the first time during the tour that the team played in front of a huge crowd of about 50,000. Apart from the crowd, the team members were greeted by the flower-bearing well-wishers at each and every station. In the end, tired and exhausted players rather got fed up with the garland and rose petals. But the felicitation did not just end there. Most of the dignitaries, Maharajahs and Zamindars arranged dinner banquets, luncheons or receptions and presented the team with various gifts.
They did not have any respite from travelling. After the match against Mohammedan in Kolkata, they had to take a train on the same day to go to Jamshedpur (present-day capital of Indian State of Jharkhand) for their second match on the next day. Amazingly they did not book a place to stay at night and slept in the bogies of the train which was kept aside in the station! Obviously they did not sleep well and missed the scheduled reception from the Jamshedpur Sporting Association at 9 am. The ceremonies had to be started an hour later, and the match started at noon. The place was overcrowded as special trains had to be run for the travelling spectators.
Even after the gruesome journey, the Islington Corinthian showed their might this time around versus All Blues (a selection of players chosen by the association). Though the match was locked at 2-2, in the last ten minutes the visitors ran riot and scored thrice. The final score was 5-2. They played another match there on the next day and won again.
On 16th November, Islington Corinthians were put up against the local favourites, Mohun Bagan. Mohun Bagan was one of the most popular and best-known clubs in India; they created history by becoming the first Indian club to win a major trophy – the IFA Shield in 1911. The Islington Corinthians is documented as the first foreign side Mohun Bagan had played against although they regularly met a number of India based British teams by that time. The match was well contested but finally, the visitors won, by a goal to nil. According to the news reports, Beniprasad and Sommontho Dutta from Mohun Bagan had a really good match; and the Bengali team missed few chances and also hit the crossbar.
The following day, an IFA XI stood against them. This team was selected by the Indian Football Association (IFA) and made up of the best players from all the leagues around India. Also, they had their own practice matches against teams like Mohammedan and rest of IFA players. Legendary forward Samad was included in the team. The travelling team survived the hurdle and drew the match, 1-1. On a different note, Samad was also a member of some of the other selected sides and played a few more matches against the same opposition.
As expected, in the midst of the trip and matches, they were invited to a luncheon at the Great Eastern Hotel where they met the Maharajah of Santosh and Pankaj Gupta, two of the most important personnel and forefathers of football in India.
Completing the Kolkata leg (though they came back to play an unscheduled and unofficial match); the team came to East Bengal, nowadays known as Bangladesh. They played two matches versus Dhaka Sporting Association (DSA). Back in those days, Dhaka not only had a very competitive league and a shield competition (both were held regularly), but also very strong clubs like Wari and Victoria. In the first match with DSA team (a team consisting of players from Dhaka League), the visiting team tasted their first and only defeat of the India tour. Pakhi Sen, a local from Dhaka who played for Wari Club scored the only goal of the match and won it for DSA. Anyway, in the following match, the touring team won with the same margin. But Pakhi Sen had become a part of the folklore of Dhakai Football since then.
The team also played matches relentlessly in Mymensingh, Kishoreganj, Comilla, Chittagong and Rajshahi, winning at all frontiers, one after another. The match at Chittagong had an official record for attendance in a football match with 77,000 people watching the game.
Islington Corinthians’ tour of India can be termed as extremely successful from the results ensued. They won 25 of the 31 matches played, losing only once at Dhaka (they won the unofficial match too). They not only travel in large cities but also to towns and frontier places like Dhaka, Chittagong, Mymensingh, Jamshedpur, Varanasi etc.
LATER PART OF THE ASIAN TOUR
They played a few matches in Myanmar after their Indian exploits. Their next major leg of the Asian tour started from the Malayan peninsula. They played matches in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Penang, Alor Star, Ipoh Seremban and Malacca. The most exciting match of this leg came against Singapore when Islington Corinthians clawed their way back from a 2-0 deficit to squeeze out a 3-2 win thanks to a late long-range effort from their most prolific forward Sherwood. They ended this leg with a 7-1 thrashing of Johore. They were also hosted by the Sultan of Johore in a luncheon. Overall, in the Malays, they won 14 out of their 16 matches and scored an impressive 51 times. As a matter of fact, the Corinthians were enjoying life on the tour in the Malayan leg and were playing their best football.
From the Malay Peninsula, Islington Corinthians travelled to Vietnam and the Philippines. In the end, finally, they reached the country, China, which gave them the invitation to visit and generated the idea that snowballed into a world tour. But times had changed since that match, and the men from Islington found themselves in the middle of one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history, World War II. By then Japan had launched a full-scale war on China. It was a miracle indeed that in this extremely volatile situation, they were able to play any football at all.
In Hong Kong, they won 4-2 against Combined Police and Club XI. The match in Macau against a Macao XI ended in a one-all draw. In Shanghai, they were almost arrested by Japanese soldiers for violating curfew but were let off but only after informing them that they were scheduled to play in Japan as well! The largest crowd for a football match to that point in Shanghai turned up to watch them as they faced Shanghai XI. But tired and struggling on a slippery pitch, the team slumped to a 3-0 defeat.
In early April 1938, Islington Corinthians became the first English team ever to play in Japan. 50,000 spectators were in attendance in the Meiji Shrine Stadium where the match took place. Islington Corinthians succumbed to the pace of the Japanese players of All-Kanto XI. The home team inflicted a 4-0 loss to the English amateurs, the heaviest in the world tour.
THE TEAM IN THE US
Away from the warzone in Japan and China, luckily they could safely make their way across the Pacific Ocean to a quieter atmosphere in North America. In the USA, they defeated San Francisco All-Stars 3-2, Los Angeles All-Stars 4-1 and scrapped a goalless draw against Douglas Aircraft SC. The world tour ended with matches in Canada. The Canadian leg started on 7th May and ended on 27th of the same month with them playing a dozen games. During this period they also visited Hollywood sets, met with movie celebrities like Heather Angel, David Niven and were hosted by Victor McLaglen in his nightclub.
RETURN TO ENGLAND AND DEMISE OF THE CLUB
There were not many high hopes for their world tour. It was expected in England that it would barely last a month. But when they did make their way back home, the Islington Corinthians were hailed as heroes. William Pickford, president of the Football Association, praised their achievement saying, “You have kicked the football round the world, and put British sport on the map throughout the world”.
Despite their success on and off the field, the tour was a financial disaster for the club. It lost a fortune and many players lost their jobs. Some of the news reports described them as flat broke and penniless. In spite of the situation, in 1939, the club again made a short tour of Iceland and played five matches. Unfortunately, their plans to tour South Africa were scrapped due to an escalating World War II. As anticipated, the club didn’t survive the war and was defunct by 1940.
Islington Corinthians was an ordinary team with extraordinary intentions. Many other amateur and pro clubs have undertaken similar international tours, but the journey they were about to embark upon was of a scale that had never been seen before or since. The tour had taken the football team as an ambassador of the English, across the globe; literally playing in over four continents. They had played 95 games in total, won 65 of them and lost only 8 matches while scoring an awe-inspiring 237 goals. The record is truly remarkable considering the fact that they were almost always on the road between matches and had very little preparation time to get accustomed to the varying nature of pitch and opponents.
The Islington Corinthians trip was largely forgotten in football literature and has been overlooked by the mainstream media until Around the World in 95 Games was published by Rob Cavallini. People may often think that football is more popular across the world because it is intrinsically appealing than rugby, baseball, or any other sports; which is essentially not true. It is because of people like Tom Smith and football teams like Islington Corinthians. Neither the length nor their performance was the greatest feature of their world tour but the fact that instead of losing a pile of money, they were motivated by the pure philanthropic intention of spreading the beautiful game where no English teams had set their foot before.
*The Writer- Dhrubo Alam, Deputy Transport Planner, Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA)
**This article was previously published in Daily Star on 16 July 2018