"Alec's great forte as a half back is a dashing, breezy versatility. He is like an intelligent automation, fully wound up and warranted to last through the longest game on record. To watch him at play is to see a man pulsating to his finger-tips wth the joy of life. Swift, rapid movement, fierce electric rushes are to him an everlasting delight. One would think that he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion. He keeps on and on and never flags." - "Giants of the game" in Gibson and Pickford's Association football, published 1906.
Just once in a while you come across something so important that relates to the history of Liverpool Football Club that it makes your heart race. You can't expect every Red to be as thrilled so all you can do is emphasize its importance. A first-hand account of Liverpool FC's daily life in the club's first two decades virtually did not exist and neither a direct quote from the club's first superstar; "the silent man of football"- one Alexander Galloway Raisbeck.
When searching through the British Newspaper archive in January 2013 I discovered a small announcement in the Dundee Courier on 19 March 1915 of a series of articles by "Alick Raisbeck" that were to be published in the Weekly News. The problem was now to find this paper that was being referred to so I sought the help of Steven Horton who is an expert in that field and the newest member of the LFChistory.net team. He tracked the Weekly News down to a library in Dundee where it was stored and got the able staff there to scan these articles for me. Once received our own Chris Wood transcribed the whole thing, a total of 18,000 words, for which I am eternally grateful.
This series amounted to gold dust in my estimation and certainly to other Reds who are interested in the formative years of our club and the life of this man, whom I rate so highly that I believe he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Elisha Scott, Billy Liddell, Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard
as the outstanding figure at the club in his era.
Raisbeck moved from Scotland to Liverpool when the club was only six years old, in 1898. In this series he records his impressions of manager Tom Watson (the longest-serving manager in LFC's history) as well as his teammates, who were clearly often up to no good, and offers great insight into what influenced the outcome of the most important games in which he participated. He notes how well the club was run but does not refrain from criticising the board if needed or even reveal his own weaknesses which makes his articles especially interesting.
"I was born on 26th December, 1879. It’s on the map right enough, but it’s there all the same. My birthplace was Wallacestone, two or three biggins not far removed from Polmont. I don’t think as a family that we could possibly have been locally patriotic, for shortly after I got a glimpse of the place they removed me to Slamannan, and then on to Spittal, so near to what was ultimately to be my football calf ground. I was only twelve years of age when I was given the opportunity of following any particular trade to which I had a fancy, but I followed in my father’s and brothers’ footsteps, and sought for my livelihood in the bowels of the earth."
The Spittal colliery where Alex worked from age 12
When Alex was 12 years of age, one year prior to Liverpool FC's birth, he lived with his parents and three of his brothers and little sister (his parents Luke and Jean had 14 children in total of which 8 survived to adulthood) in a row of houses by the Bardykes "Spittal" colliery which was built on the site of an infectious disease hospital situated halfway between Blantyre and Cambuslang. The name "Spittal" came about supposedly because
of the fine coal dust which made the miners spit a lot to clear their throat. Scotland's economy was based on heavy industry such as mining and it wasn't unusual for children to start working at 12-13 years old in the mines. Alex was no exception but being a coal-miner was a dangerous profession emphasised by the Blantyre tragedy in 1877 when a mine explosion claimed 215 lives, three of the victims were only 12 years old.
Rows of colliery houses similar to which the Raisbeck family occupied in 1891
Alex's father; Luke, died only 55 years of age on 9 November 1893 when Alex was 13.
Football was a popular pastime for the local boys having to make do sometimes with kicking tin cans.
"The local shoemaker flourished exceedingly, for young Raisbeck took to playing football. No matter where the leather went – sometimes the “leather” was of the tin variety, and peeping toes brought me many a rebuke – I went after it until I was considered worthy a place in a Boys’ Brigade team which was sponsored by Livingstone Memorial U.P. Church. The club of course, with which my name will always be associated is Larkhall Thistle. Larkha’, we call it, but give it the more aristocratic touch. Many a time I have been called upon to decide what age I was when I donned the Thistle jersey – Larkhall Thistle, I mean, not Partick Thistle – and for the last time positively, I am to answer this question. I was, almost to a week or two, short of 13 ½ years of age. A place had to be found for me somewhere, and I operated in the Thistle’s third eleven. It was called the Gasworks Eleven. I was reckoned worthy my position in the first team next season, however, and the committee would insist upon my playing at outside right, although they must have noticed my extraordinary tendency to wander into the middle of the field. In my early days I required no instructions about following the ball. It acted as a magnet to me, and hundreds and hundreds of times I was told to “keep my place.” I couldn’t – if it was to be at outside right, and eventually I drifted into the position which I think I may claim to have made my own."
Alexander in traditional clothing (image from the Raisbeck family)
Alex wasn't the only Raisbeck boy in the "Larkies" side as his brothers Willie and Andrew also contributed to the junior side's first silverware in its sixteen year history. Willie later played for Derby County and Sunderland and Andrew was Alex's teammate at Liverpool for a brief spell in 1903-4. Alex was the outstanding talent whom Hibernian were alerted to.
"As far as football was concerned, I seemed to have made an impression, in at least one quarter, for a cousin of Judge Murphy’s took a fancy to me and wasted a penny stamp in communicating the fact. Judge, left half of the Hibs, was reckoned a good judge of a player. I don’t mean that as a pun, but the statement is nevertheless one of acknowledged fact [James was called the Judge because he wore a wig]. One bright evening he wandered into our house. He was an intimate friend, and we never attached undue importance to his unexpected arrival. At the time, I should add, I was suffering from a very sore knee, and I had actually given up all hope of ever playing football again. You can imagine, therefore, my surprise when “Judge” walked in. He had asked so frequently for me that we thought he was only making one of his usual calls. He sat down by the fireside, lighted his pipe and then I was asked whether or no I would go to the Hibs. I resolved to go."
Miners at the Spittal colliery
"Before I did so, however, I had to be persuaded, and it took all my brother Willie’s eloquence to induce me to a decision, which, strangely enough, I had resolved upon in my own mind. I was working in the pits, and you can understand I was not very reluctant to leave the bowels of the earth for a whiff of the open-air and an unexpected association with the Hibs, a club which, since I was a boy, I always had a liking for. Going down the pit at six in the morning, coming up at five, is no joke, and although the terms which I was offered by the Hibs - and accepted - were not exactly on an equality with those which players receive nowadays, they were good enough for me, and the deed was done."
Alex didn't have a tough choice to make really as life in the mines was his only immediate option if football was not to be his profession. He signed for the Edinburgh club on 30 July 1896 wearing its green and white colours as the club was founded by Irish immigrants in Edinburgh (Hibernia being the Latin name for Ireland). Raisbeck played a total of 30 games in the 1896/97 and 1897/98 seasons, scoring four goals for Hibs who finished second and third in the first division during his time there. He was so highly-rated that he was chosen to represent the Scottish league versus the Irish league. Dundee Courier and Argus (published 3 April 1897)
even compared him to Rangers great and Polmont native Neil Gibson, a superb wing half often described as the greatest footballer of his generation in Scotland: "Raisbeck of the Hibernians, is a second edition of Neil Gibson, only he is bigger, and can stand more knocking about than the Ranger." One instance in particular from his time at Hibernian quite literally stuck in Raisbeck's mind as he came close to losing his life at the early age of 17!
ALICK’S BRUSH WITH DEATH
"The Scottish Cup-ties were in full swing and we had gone to Aberdour for special training as was not unusual. When we sat down to dinner, a discussion arose in reference to some knotty problem of the game. On that particular occasion I refer to George Dougal, John Price and Paddy McColl who were at loggerheads on some question and I was asked to settle the dispute. Unfortunately at that very moment I was asked I had taken a spoonful of soup and in my hurry to deliver judgement I hastily swallowed it with the result that a small bone stuck in my throat. I was very nearly choked. Someone ran for a doctor. Every expedient was tried to give me relief, but each was doomed to failure. Paddy Canon, our trainer, kept hitting me on the back, he even dumped my head on the floor still that bone stuck. I grew black in the face. I suffered excruciating pain. Just as Paddy Canon was going down the stairs to meet the doctor he dealt a terrible blow between the shoulders and the bone dislodged itself. I tell you I was glad."
Why Alick? - It is a Scottish variant of Alex (Alec) which is the diminutive of Alexander
A small preface is needed before the next phase of the story. Stoke City were in relegation trouble in the 1897/98 season and ended up fighting for their lives in the Test match system in which the bottom two teams of the First Division took part in a four-team mini league with the two top teams in the Second Division. The general consensus was that two teams out of these four would play in the First Division the next season. Now Alex continues his story...
"Why did I fix up with Liverpool? It has taken me a long time to tell the story, but it has to be remembered that I went to Anfield via Stoke. The “Pottery” team was in danger of relegation; that was in season 1897-98. Their side had to be strengthened somehow, and, by arrangement with the Hibs, John Kennedy and myself were transferred – on loan – for the last two months of the season. The necessary “inducement” was there, but, by the powers, we had to put in some graft these eight weeks. At that time, it will be recalled, test matches were in vogue. Burnley required a point to make them safe, and so did Stoke. When we met the game ended in a draw, and the usual rumour got abroad that the result had been faked. Fortunately, however, for all parties, the League decided to extend their “membership,” and thus the four clubs who played the test matches were admitted to the “Sanctum Sanctorum” of football, thus admitting to the elite Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United. It was sheer nonsense to suggest that the last game was “cooked,” as the saying goes, but the “murmur” was persistently circulated. You would have thought that I would have known something about it if it had been true.
Stoke at the start of the 1898/99 season - Austerberry is in the back row, 2nd left
While I was with Stoke I had evidently attracted the attention of one or two people in the football world. I had a mind, don’t forget, to sign for Stoke, and actually made an appointment to meet Mr. Austerberry, the secretary of the club in Edinburgh. At the appointed hour no Stoke secretary appeared, and in Phil Farmer’s house I met instead Tom Watson. I had never seen the gentleman before, and I shall never forget him. He made me an offer which I could scarcely refuse. If Mr. Austerberry had kept his appointment – which probably was no fault of his own – I would in all probability have been a Stoke, instead of a Liverpool player. In a very real sense I was one of Fortune’s footballers, and probably the luckiest and most profitable of any transaction to which I was a party was when I shook Tom Watson, of Liverpool, by hand, who in turn, in his own peculiar genial way, asked me for a sample of my handwriting, which, in effect, tied me to Anfield for eleven of the happiest years of my life."
The Athletic News reported on Liverpool‘s capture of Raisbeck and his compatriot, George Allan: "Two more important catches for the Anfield club have been effected, and few will say that Allan of the Celts and Raisbeck, of Stoke-com-Edinburgh Hibs, are not good goods. Raisbeck had a name in Scotland as the best centre half in the country, and for Stoke, where he has shown what he can do. And it has happened as I told our readers a week or two ago, Mr. Editor, in commenting on Liverpool’s strength and weakness. Now with these last additions, they should go on smilingly, and I think for the first time in their history they will find themselves stronger favourites than their neighbours for the big trophies of next season."
Hot pot dinner = all the ingredients thrown into a pot to boil, like meat, vegetables, fish, spices...
"The officials of Anfield had a pleasant way of introducing a newcomer and making him welcome. At the commencement of every season the officials treated the players to a ‘hot-pot’ dinner, a dish which is very popular with Lancashire people. At this dinner the officials made it their business to see that the new players were well looked after and made known to all the officials, and often have I heard new players remark ‘that they struck oil when coming to Liverpool.’ The ordinary man in the street may not think that this should have a lot to do with the play of a player, but it has. Why does it invariably take a new player such a long time to find his true form for his new masters? Simply because he is not made at once to feel at home, and finds things strange. Welcome the player with open arms, introduce him all round, and I’ll wager he is not long in giving of his best.’ I’ve experienced it, so I should know."
Next week: The antics Raisbeck and his fellow Scotsmen were up to and the story of Liverpool's first League championship, told by the captain himself.
Written by Arnie ([email protected]
) - Copyright LFChistory.net