100 years ago today Falkirk Football Club broke the World Transfer record when the club signed Syd Puddefoot from West Ham United.
To mark this occasion the club has commissioned a unique line of merchandise, as well as a booklet detailing the in-depth story of the transfer written by club historian Michael White. The booklet is available in the club shop, with all proceeds going to the Falkirk Football Heritage Trust.
“When will this folly on the part of football clubs come to an end?”
“What is to be the limit?”
“Is there to be a limit?”
The Football Post 1922
The writer could have been writing in the present day, as another Transfer Window opens, and all eyes will be on Newcastle United, as their mega-rich financial backers endorse a search for the kind of star players who will drive an upturn in their fortunes. Maybe it has always been so, and it is just the march of time that has triggered the increasing fees for footballers.
In the past, the football annuals used to list the Transfer Trail and listed the “firsts” of players who broke the various barriers- £1,000, £2,000. £3,000 and so on until the Monopoly Money men took over.
Scottish clubs have featured at certain stages in the transfer process, but inevitably as the selling club. Only once did a Scottish club feature as the buying club and it was not one of the so-called bigger clubs. The club that held the unique place in the history of Football Transfer Records was Falkirk F.C. who at the time of writing were struggling in the third tier of Scottish Football.
The story of the Syd Puddefoot Transfer is an amazing tale that would never be repeated in these days of social media, wall-to-wall TV and internet coverage, football agents and round-the clock- rumour and speculation.
The events of February 1922 are quite simply incredible, and no scriptwriter could have dreamed up the story behind the transfer of Syd Puddefoot from West Ham to Falkirk. It was one hundred years ago, and it still seems like make-believe.
Along with other football clubs, Falkirk had struggled during World War One, and the line-ups often featured old Brockville favourites and guest players from other clubs, who were in the area on war service. One of the guests who played was Syd Puddefoot of West Ham. He had worked in a munitions factory and was not called up to fight until near the end of the conflict. He joined the Royal Fusiliers. During his period of service, he was posted to Scotland, and was based in Bridge of Allan in Stirlingshire.
While stationed in Bridge of Allan, Puddefoot made six appearances for Falkirk in season 1918/19. He made quite an impact, scoring five goals in his six league appearances. He played against Airdrie, Hibs, Clyde, Dumbarton, Morton and Third Lanark and looked an impressive, powerful and direct centre-forward.
After the end of the war, Football took a while to get back to “normal” and Falkirk’s league positions did not exactly inspire confidence.
There was little consolation to be found in the Scottish Cup either and the cup win of 1913 was becoming a distant memory.
The next piece of news to come from Brockville must have raised hopes that the dream of Scottish Cup success might become a reality. Falkirk had signed Syd Puddefoot from West Ham.
Syd Puddefoot in his West Ham days
Syd Puddefoot was one of the most promising players in English Football and had been with West Ham since he first signed for them as an amateur. The Hammers were his local team, and he soon made an impact rattling in goals in a strong side.
Several big clubs were chasing his signature and inevitably Puddefoot was on his way for a then world record fee. His destination, to the astonishment of the whole footballing world, was Scotland – and Falkirk Football Club!
At that time, the record fee paid for a transfer was £4,600 when Kilmarnock’s Tom Hamilton had moved to Preston North End in 1921. The ever-increasing cost of football transfers was well under way.
There were many rumours surrounding the Puddefoot transfer, some of which I wanted to be true. For the true story, we need to rely on the contents of the Minute Book of the Directors Meetings in 1922. The Minute of the February 9th meeting makes interesting reading.
“The Secretary (manager Willie Nicol) reported the steps taken to secure the transfer of Sydney C. Puddefoot from West Ham United and in connection therewith read the letter received from Puddefoot stating he was likely to be on the transfer list.
The Chairman had signed a statement that the directors were willing to go to the length of £5,000 for the transfer and Messrs. Hamilton, McIntyre and J. Anderson had initialled the statement as agreeing. The Chairman stated that he had called on Mr Robert Waugh but did not get him in. The Secretary and Mr Liddell had gone to London and had arranged the transfer for £5,000, the player to receive £1,000 and his terms £10 per week with a bonus of £2 for a win and £1 for a draw.
Mr. Waugh, during the discussion protested against the manner in which the business had been gone about, having no opportunity of giving an opinion or decision in the matter and wished his dissent to be entered. After discussion, the action of Messrs Liddell and Secretary in signing Puddefoot was homologated, and it was agreed to raise the amount necessary by loans.”
West Ham had asked for a fee of over £4,500, claiming they had already turned down that amount from Tottenham Hotspur. How good a poker player the Falkirk manager Willie Nicol was we will never know, but the asking fee was easily matched and the deal completed- with something to spare. Contemporary accounts refer to the Falkirk manager being accompanied by “some directors,” when in fact, only one had made the journey. Robert Waugh was clearly not pleased at events.
Amazingly, Puddefoot had approached Falkirk first. There was no medicine bag full of cash. The Chairman was not side-lined. The was no unanimity among the directors and there no use of supporters’ money – yet.
Various accounts have suggested the reason for the surprise move. Some said Puddefoot was disillusioned by the overtly physical nature of the game in the English Second Division, while others hint at a more financial reason, namely the maximum wage limitations then in force. West Ham had also spent a considerable sum, rumoured to be around £35,000 on ground improvements and there had been reports that the player had submitted a transfer request. Footballers in England were subject to a wage cap of £9 per week and there was reportedly interest from Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs in signing the free scoring forward. The terms on offer from Falkirk were extremely generous and the £1,000 signing on fee was obviously attractive. How Falkirk had pulled off this deal is beyond belief, and it is clear that they did not have access to funds of that nature.
The row over the funding continued and in the minute of the Board meeting held on February 21st, reference is made to the issuing of more shares.
A sum of £2325 had already been raised from supporter loans and the directors had agreed an interest rate of 6% per annum. Chairman George Chapman had resigned, and Robert Waugh was to be his replacement. It can be imagined that the circumstances surrounding the Puddefoot Transfer were a contributing factor.
Whatever the real reasons, we will never know, but the player knew the Falkirk area well and certainly knew what lay ahead in professional terms. Maybe he felt a successful spell in Scotland could force a bigger move later in his career.
The West Ham programme for their next home game against Hull City tried to placate the Hammers fans by providing an explanation for the acceptance of the transfer fee, but few were convinced.
“The departure of Syd Puddefoot came as no surprise to those intimately connected with him. It is an old saying that everyone has one chance in life to improve themselves and Syd Puddefoot is doing the right thing for himself in studying his future. We understand that he will be branching out in commercial circles in Falkirk and when his football days are over, he will be assured of a nice little competency.”
West Ham F.C. Statement
Meanwhile, back in Falkirk, Puddefoot was paraded around the town in an open-top carriage, and few could believe that Falkirk held the world transfer record for a footballer. Crowds had gathered at Grahamston Station to see the arrival of a player they hoped would bring much longed-for success. His first game was to be a Scottish Cup second-round tie at Bathgate, who were then a Second Division side and doing well.
Thousands of Bairns supporters made their way up the Braes to Bathgate and reports suggest that some had even walked to the game. Expect the Unexpected? Falkirk lost 1-0.
The fans could not believe the result and the journey back to Falkirk was a noticeably quiet one. Bathgate were knocked out in the 3rd Round by Partick Thistle at Firhill by three goals to nil.
The cup defeat was the only real low point of a great season and but for some silly defeats, the club could have finished even higher. They ended up in fifth place, but one more win could have seen them finish third, behind the Old Firm. Still – they had gone through a season without losing to the two big Glasgow teams and that is quite an achievement.