Steve Bloomer is 'watching' every time Derby County play, but who was he?
"Steve Bloomer's Watching," they sing form the stands of Pride Park. A bronze bust of the man sits on a plinth built of bricks from the Baseball Ground positioned next to the home dugout. But who actually was he? Casual Derby fans don‟t really know, and even the more well-read followers are in all probability merely aware of his position at the top of the east midlands club‟s all-time goal scoring lists. Other fans may not really care not even when presented with remarkable career statistics of 422 goals in 678 professional games. But Steve Bloomer‟s achievements were much more than that of a prolific talisman and instead his goal scoring feats were simply one facet of an extraordinary life in football unique to the era in which it played out which, in turn, deserves revelation in order to ensure it retains its place in the history of our national sport.
Stephen Bloomer was born in the Black Country town of Cradley in 1874 to tough working-class beginnings. He was raised in Derby from the age of 5 as his parent‟s searched out the opportunities offered by a Victorian town heaving with trade and industry. It was to be a family relocation of great significance for the town‟s first professional football club for whom Steve Bloomer signed a professional contract in 1892 at the age of 18. A dream debut against Stoke soon followed as Bloomer notched his first and second professional goals in a 3-1 win. It was an affirmative start to what was a gluttonous goal scoring career.
For Derby alone he accumulated a staggering 332 goals in 525 appearances at a rate of a goal every one and a half games a tally boosted by 18 hat-tricks. A further 125 games for Middlesbrough were also fertile with 62 goals at a rate of effectively one in every two. Inevitably, such striking prowess was rewarded with International recognition soon enough. Bloomer took to the international scene like the proverbial duck to water scoring a rather steady 28 goals in 23 appearances. A number of caps modest in modern terms but almost unprecedented at a time of few international encounters.
Bloomer was handed the England captaincy in 1902 but his tenure was to begin tragically against Scotland as 26 fans were killed when a section of an Ibrox stand collapsed during play. The game was stopped but not abandoned and Bloomer had to re-lead his teammates out past the rows of dead and injured fans.
Sparkling achievements on the pitch, an England Captaincy and endorsement of numerous retail products made Bloomer one of the most recognisable sporting figures of the time. It is a career model now firmly well rehearsed for the modern day top flight footballers. Bloomer‟s well-publicised appearance was deceptive however. A pale, angelic countenance, slender sinewy frame and small stature (5ft 8ins) on the face of it were not traits which lent themselves to accomplishment on the field.
Yet, Bloomer possessed an armoury which included speed of thought, lightning pace, aerial competence and above all a force and accuracy of shot both revered and un-equalled in the pre-war game. They were abilities that saw him nicknamed "The Destroying Angel." Without doubt one of the most emphatically cool nicknames for a footballer of any era?
After a second spell with Derby time was called on a career, the envy of his peers, in 1914 with Bloomer aged 41. This was a time when a goal scoring reputation un-equalled and subsequent national fame did not provide an income one could retire on. Some of the most modest football achievements today allow for a lavish lifestyle in return, but bloomer‟s sizeable achievements did little beyond paying the bills. It is a reality probably best highlighted by the fact that Bloomer would one day be employed as Derby‟s grounds man at the Baseball Ground. One would need to possess a vivid imagination to picture messrs Rooney or Giggs marking out the Old Trafford pitch to earn a crust.
Football management was the choice of employment Bloomer chose to pursue but opportunities for a man of working-class roots were scarce. Managerial roles were seen as more befitting of men from more distinguished social backgrounds. Consequently, Bloomer took the offer to manage British-founded Britannia Berlin 92 in July 1914. Three weeks later England declared war on Germany, and by November 1914 Steve Bloomer was placed in a civilian prison camp where he would spend the next four years of his life. Bloomer‟s first foray into football management was swiftly curtailed, but remarkably his prison camp experience would not involve an absence of his beloved sport.
Permission was granted for organised football to take place with a „Football Association‟ and subsequent league schedule created. Bloomer captained Barrack 1 to league success in what his most modest of football achievements, but yet by the same token possibly his most significant, providing him and numerous others with an invaluable opportunity to escape their dismal situation.
However small achievement it may have seemed his football ability drew reverence from other habitants and even in the confinement of a prison camp Bloomer garnered fame. Release to Holland in 1918 provided him with a brief three month coaching spell of Amsterdam club Blauw Wit, before being free to return to England following Armistice Day.
Bloomer took up a coaching role at Derby in the now post-war game and even spent a summer coaching in Canada, but his finest managerial achievement would come in the Basque town of Irun. In November 1923 Bloomer took the helm of Real Union Club de Irun, a team that today plies its trade in Spain‟s Segunda Division B. It was an arrival of much notoriety as an established football icon of the time travelled to Spain which, in football terms, was in the early stages of its development both technically and organisationally.
This was no shallow PR stunt as the Derby man provided the small Basque town with Spain‟s biggest prize at the time, The Copa Del Rey. It is a name now assigned to the Spanish Cup, a knockout competition running parallel to the national league La Liga. The Copa Del Rey which Bloomer‟s Real Union clinched involved first winning their respective province‟s league before being entered into an eight team knock-out scenario with the league champions of the other respective provinces.
The unfashionable Basque amateurs dispatched of relative giants Sevilla and Barcelona, on the way to a fairytale final in the Basque city of Sociedad against the nationalist capital club Madrid. Real Union clinched the King‟s Cup 1-0 in what was not just a victory for Real Union but a symbolic triumph for the Basque region as a whole. It was an achievement which indisputably owed a great deal to the standards set by a manger with 31 years of football experience.
Bloomer, a living legend to the people of Derby and household name in England, was now declared „Saint Steve‟ by a jubilant Basque town‟s public. Once again where Bloomer went adulation naturally followed. Bloomer left Irun a year later, returning to Derby and living out the rest of his years in various roles at his hometown club. Real Union were superseded by the regions big cities of Socieadad and Bilbao as professionalism came to the fore. Nonetheless, Bloomer‟s impact on the town, region and Spanish football had been one of great significance.
So in answer to the original question "who was Steve Bloomer?" He was a working-class boy done good, a pale-faced goal machine, an England Captain, a prisoner of war, an inspiring coach, a Basque saint and apparently even a pretty handy baseball player. He led an extraordinary football life, the events of which should not be overlooked and instead should be preserved in the annals of football history. Steve Bloomer was English Football‟s first superstar.
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