John Porter4 Comments

THE VIKINGS

John Porter4 Comments
THE VIKINGS
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On the 5th May 1963 a crowd of 3,000 witnessed the first ever 'international' fixture to be played in England on a professional football ground on a Sunday. The venue hosting this historic fixture was Brentford's home ground Griffin Park and the visitors were a French semi-professional club called Stade Portelois, the town team of Le Portel near Boulogne .

The 'home' side that day was Viking Sports Football Club, an amateur side based in nearby Greenford, Middlesex, and a member of the Amateur Football Alliance Nemean League. To many observers today, the identity of the ‘hosts’ in such an historically significant fixture may seem surprising, especially considering the club's amateur status. However, the match at Griffin Park was only a single example of the Greenford amateurs remarkable tradition of participating in international fixtures, both at home and abroad. In fact, the game against Stade Portelois (a surprising 3-1 victory to Viking Sports) was the club's 14th match played against foreign opposition. By the time of the club's demise in 2003, Viking Sports had played in an astounding 92 matches in 14 countries across Europe, making the Greenford club one of the most prolific touring clubs in English amateur football history.

Viking Sports was founded in 1945 by Roy Bartlett, and the club grew out of an occasional works club assembled at Roy's workplace during the Second World War, the A.E.C factory in Southall.  With the end of the war in 1945, the club acquired its name, 'Viking' (the suffix 'Sports' would emerge later with the formation of affiliated sister clubs such as judo and fencing) and played its first match under this aegis in a 13-0 defeat to the 342 Squadron Air Training Corps at Ravenor Park, Greenford. It was only three years later, in 1948, that the club, then only members of the Ealing Youth League, played its first overseas fixture, a 6-3 defeat to S.K. Furness of Belgium. The club was arguably one of the first English football clubs to play in Europe following the war.

It was during the 1950s that the club truly began to take shape. No longer merely a local youth side as the founding players grew older, the club accelerated through the five divisions of the Dauntless League, and, after gaining admittance to the Amateur Football Alliance, similarly steamrolled through the three divisions of the Nemean League. In 1953 the club hosted their first foreign visitors, Fleurbaix of France. The match took place at Southall Football Club's ground, Western Road, with Viking Sports running out 2-1 victors.

However, it was the 1960s that saw the club embark on a series of ambitious overseas tours, establishing a tradition that would become an indelible mark of the club’s identity. After two years of meticulous planning the club visited the Cold War Soviet Union in 1965. The club took on professional club Desna Chernigov at the all-seater Yuri Gagarin Stadium in front of a crowd of 6,000, losing the game 10-1. The crowd were very fair, acknowledging the young Viking team and the loudest cheer was for the consolation goal scored by Malcolm Knott.  

The Viking coach was given a police outrider escort and the tour party granted a fantastic civic reception in the evening hosted by the Chairman of the City Soviets. The 4500 mile overland coach journey was rounded off with a match against Neheim-Huston, champions of Westphalia Germany for the past 8 years and a return game with Stade Portelois, drawn 2 – 2

At the suggestion of the Football Association another major tour was arranged 3 years later with an intended destination of Bulgaria and Rumania. Up to that time there had been little sporting contact with that part of Eastern Europe, well behind the 'Iron Curtain', and they were anxious to resume sporting contact at non-professional level The political situation was extremely delicate, particularly in Czechoslovakia where democracy was being introduced tentatively. Never-the-less, the tour went ahead. 

The overland trip included a match against German side Waldneil, which Viking won 3-2, before traveling on to meet Sokol of Czechoslovakia, where the honours were shared 2-2. That same night the Russian-led ‘Warsaw Pact’ cooperation forces invaded Czechoslovakia, resulting in the club being marooned behind the 'Iron Curtain'. For two days the club was trapped in Olomouc, 60 miles south of Prague, and surrounded by hostile forces. Finally the tour had to be abandoned and by devious routes the party escaped to the safety of Austria after a 300 mile hazardous coach journey to the border, encountering combat-ready 'Warsaw Pact' forces en-route.                  

However, not put off by their experiences in Czechoslovakia, the club hosted Czechoslovak giants T.J. Dinamo Kobilisy at Hounslow FC on the 19th November of 1967 - probably the first team Eastern European team allowed to leave their country during that period. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the visitors proved too strong for Viking Sports, running away with an emphatic 7-1 victory.

The year 1968 saw another ambitious tour, this time to Yugoslavia, and included yet another over-matched game against impressive Yugoslavian side Rijeka  at their beautiful Adriatic sea shore Kantrida stadium. Having only been relegated out of the Yugoslav first division the year before, the side boasted two full internationals and one Under 21 and had just returned from a two week training programme in the mountains and a preparatory 3-0 victory over Olympia Lubliana. Trailing 6-0 at half time and with players collapsing in temperature in excess of over 100 degrees, Viking Sports battled on to a brave 10-0 defeat. So bad were the conditions that many of the Rijeka players even helped carry their amateur counterparts off the field at full time to a standing ovation from the sporting crowd and players.            

Yet, Viking Sports’ battling qualities that day, their determination to carry on regardless of the heat and the overwhelming quality of their opposition, brought them plaudits from the Rijeka management. Arriving at Viking Sports' hotel after the game, an entourage of officials from the Yugoslavian club enthused about the amateurs' sheer guts, claiming that it was a lesson their own stars would do well to heed. The club President even promised to inform Sir Stanley Rous, 6th President of UEFA, of Viking's never-say-die attitude that day. The message most certainly got through as Sir Stanley later became a friend of Viking Sports and even attended club functions,  including the club's Silver Jubilee  Dinner in 1985.

Back home the club went from strength to strength, moving into their own ground in 1966 at Avenue Park, just off the A40 Western Avenue, and gaining election first to the Middlesex League in 1969 and later the Hellenic League in 1980 and the Isthmian League in 1991. Alongside notable domestic triumphs, such as the Hellenic League Championship in 1986 and acceptance into the FA Cup in 1992, the club also nurtured a number of local talents who would go on to make their names in professional football, including Alan Devonshire of West Ham and England,  Peter Shaw or Charlton Athletic and Les Ferdinand of QPR, Tottenham and England.

However, sadly, the 1990's were a difficult period for Viking Sports, with the club suffering poor results on the field and ever dwindling home attendances. However, most destructive perhaps was the gradually diminishing off-the-field support, an essential component vital to the existence of any amateur football club. In 1989 a disastrous fire started by vandals  totally destroyed the clubhouse and dressing rooms. A name change to 'Greenford Viking', presumably to help link the club to its geographic base, did little to help the slide and the club sadly folded in 2003.

Yet, it is the touring exploits of this amateur football club from Greenford that surely deserve some recognition, and not simply because of the incredible volume of games it managed to arrange during its 58 year existence. Remarkably, the period of Viking's activities coincided with some of Europe's most tempestuous periods in modern history- during the aftermath of the Second World War and amidst the turbulence of the ensuing Cold War, when the continent's borders were being drastically remapped. The club's singular, uncomplicated passion to simply play football matches across Europe, contributed in no small way to the reestablishment of suspended football links and tangibly demonstrated the redemptive power of football. For that reason alone, Viking Sports FC, should surely be remembered.

Follow John on Twitter @JohnPorterSport.  Thanks to afrowolf for the image.

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