Sam Carney1 Comment


Sam Carney1 Comment

Given the overwhelming presence of foreign footballers in English football, it might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that it took 110 years for a non-British or Irish player to net a century of top-flight league goals. Dwight Yorke scored twice for Manchester United against West Ham in December 1999 to reach the landmark, which has since been passed by an additional five players, including Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie and Didier Drogba. Earlier that year, the smiling Trinidadian, in the form of his life, had hit three against Leicester City. With that treble, Yorke moved onto 84 top-flight goals in total, surpassing the previous record of 82, set by a Chilean-born forward in 1953. Prior to the bedazzling white teeth of Yorke, the most prolific foreigner in English football was a man from Iquique, who, strangely enough, had learnt his footballing education in Yorkshire.

George Robledo was born to a Chilean father and an English mother, in Iquique, a port city best known for its association with 19th century saltpetre mining in the notoriously dry Atacama Desert. After a socialist coup d’état in the South American country in 1932, Robledo’s Yorkshire-born mother moved with her sons to Brampton, a small village in between Barnsley and Rotherham. Robledo was just five; his younger brother Ted, who would also later become a professional footballer, was three. Despite the geographical and cultural differences between the Robledos’ old and new homes, Chile and Yorkshire shared a common occupation, with George spending much of his post-school years down the coalmines, earning an income whilst playing as a part-time amateur for Huddersfield Town. The onset of World War II meant George never played first-team football for the Terriers who, at the time, enjoyed hallowed status in the game, having won three league titles and an FA Cup under the stewardship of Herbert Chapman in the 1920’s. Instead the eldest Robledo would cut his teeth at local side Barnsley, with whom he signed professional forms in 1943, at the age of 16.

Unlike many of the mercurial talents who embellish today’s game, Robledo was not a flair player, instead relying on the physical strength that was the hallmark of English forwards at the time. As Johnny Steel, who played with Robledo at Barnsley, told the Independent in 1999, "There wasn't a lot of fancy stuff in his play, but he was good in the air and he was an effective finisher. He was a natural sportsman, and he worked hard to become a good player. He was a great fellow, a hell of a nice person." Robledo made his league debut for Second Division Barnsley at the start of the 1946/47 season, showing just what Steel meant by the term ‘effective finisher’ as he netted a hat-trick in a 3-2 defeat of Nottingham Forest. The following season, Ted Robledo, a right-half, followed his brother to Oakwell.

 In January 1949, after the eldest Robledo had scored 47 goals in 114 appearances for Barnsley, an approach was made by newly promoted First Division club Newcastle United. There was, however, a hitch to the proposed transfer. The North East club were willing to pay £26,500 for the services of Barnsley’s forward; this would have been a British transfer record at the time. However, George would not budge., unless, that is, his brother was allowed to move to St James’ Park as well. Ted had only played five times for Barnsley and, as a footballer, wasn’t in the same league as his sibling. But George was adamant: "George was the one who insisted that the two of them should stick together," youngest brother Walter Robledo recalled some years later. "Ted went along with it, because he was the easy-going type, but really he didn't care." So the transfer fee of £26,500 eventually covered both George and Ted, with the remainder of the Robledo family also uprooting, as the club found them a house and provided the rent. Robledo spoke no Spanish, instead preferring a strong Yorkshire dialect. But, at Newcastle, he effectively became the first foreign star in English football. Not that the Newcastle team of the time was devoid of quality; also featuring in the Geordies’ attacking line-up was the legendary Jackie Milburn, second cousin to the Charltons, and the Scottish winger Bobby Mitchell, with Joe Harvey, Newcastle’s longest serving captain and manager, as well as a former sergeant in the Army, adding an air of leadership and discipline at half-back. It was to be, perhaps, the last truly great black and white side until Kevin Keegan’s tenure in the 1990’s.

Robledo scored five goals in his first half-season at St James’ Park, including a winner in the North East derby against Sunderland, which did nothing to harm his reputation amongst the Magpies’ fans. A year later, after another successful season at club level, Robledo was selected for Chile’s 1950 World Cup squad. Interestingly, the South Americans had been drawn in the same group as Robledo’s adopted England, who had finally deigned to enter FIFA’s burgeoning competition. Chile were defeated 2-0 by the English, although George (Jorge to his teammates) hit a post, allegedly provoking a response of "Steady, George, you're not playing for Newcastle now, you know”, from one of the England defenders. Robledo then scored in Chile’s consolatory 5-2 defeat of the USA, making him a hero in his homeland. Robledo went on to make 31 appearances for the Chilean national side, establishing himself 30 years before Messrs Ardiles and Villa made headlines as fancy Latin imports at fashionable Spurs.

Back in domestic football, Robledo hit 14 goals in the top flight in 1950-51, as Newcastle finished fourth in the table. In the FA Cup, the Magpies saw off Bury, Bolton Wanderers, Stoke City, Bristol Rovers and Wolves to reach their first final in two decades. At Wembley, Robledo became the first South American to appear in English football’s showpiece event, playing a starring role alongside Milburn, who bagged a brace to defeat Blackpool and send the cup north. A year later, the Magpies were back to defend their crown, but this time George, and his brother, were at the very centre of public attention. In 1927, en route to securing the League championship, Hughie Gallacher, a dimunitive forward still seen by some as Newcastle’s best ever, scored 39 goals in all competitions. A quarter of a century on, the Magpies’ new hero emulated that great feat, becoming the first ever foreigner to win the Golden Boot. Robledo scored 33 league goals in a campaign that also saw his brother break into the Newcastle team for the first time. With Newcastle at Wembley for the second time in 12 months, the siblings started the match against Arsenal, who had just surrendered a late season lead to hand the title to Manchester United. With several players returning from injury, Arsenal struggled to impose themselves on the game. Wally Barnes was taken off with a twisted knee shortly before half-time and, despite a rousing team-talk at the break from captain Harvey ("You're feeling sorry for [Joe, the Arsenal skipper] Mercer's lot. You'll feel even sorrier for yourselves if I don't get that cup") the final looked to be heading towards a goalless stalemate. That was, until Newcastle’s most prolific marksman intervened. With just six minutes left on the clock, Mitchell found space on the left-hand side, swinging a high ball towards the back post. As the ball evaded the desperate leap of an Arsenal defender, Robledo timed his run impeccably, heading himself into Wembley folklore - the ball careering in off the post - with Gunners’ keeper George Swindin only able to stand and watch.  In front of 100,000 spectators, including the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the man from Iquique had secured victory and Harvey walked up the Wembley steps to receive the famous old trophy yet again.

 The Robledos’ would enjoy one more season of English football, with George adding another 18 goals to set a landmark that would take generations to overhaul. Home, in the shape of Chilean giants Colo Colo, was the next destination, the South Americans offering significantly more money in the age of the maximum wage. Even in the 1950’s, players were swayed by economic motivations. George and Ted won two league titles during five years with Colo Colo, and both of them appeared regularly for the Chilean national team. In the records of Chilean football they are listed as "Jorge" and "Eduardo", misleading titles given the fact that, as Walter Robledo recalled, they were baptised in Chile by a Presbyterian minister who recorded their names as George Oliver Robledo and Edward Oliver Robledo.

George Robledo died, aged 63, in Vina del Mar in 1989. Almost two decades earlier, his brother Ted had gone missing from a ship sailing out of Dubai. His body was never found; his disappearance never solved. It was an incident that haunted George until his dying day - the brothers had traveled everywhere together. George’s funeral, in Santiago, attracted huge crowds; it was to be a worthy send-off for a man who, despite all his achievements, never forgot where he came from. The 1952 Final is his - and Ted’s - immortal contribution to English football; it represents the first trophy to be secured through the significant contribution of an overseas player.  

Sam is @samcarney19.