Two south London boroughs have managed to produce a profusion of footballing talent, from Neil Sullivan to Callum Hudson-Odoi, from Jason Cundy to Wilfried Zaha. Here, DAVID MORGAN looks back to the days when he was manager of one of the best schoolboy squads in England
Nearly 40 years ago, back in the days when children went to school without having to wear masks, and sports teams of healthy youngsters were able to compete with one another without having to worry about their “bubbles”, I was a teacher who helped to manage one of the best sides in England.
The English Schools’ Trophy was regarded as the FA Cup for boys. Towns, cities, boroughs and districts, from Penzance to Penrith, from Kent to Kendall, would enter a side in this prestigious under-15s competition. And in November 1985, in that season’s fifth round, there was one of the most memorable of games, at Plough Lane SW19, the home of Wimbledon FC, when Merton faced Croydon.
Local communities could certainly relate to the English Schools’ Trophy. St Helier, the estate on the borders of Sutton and Merton, had its own team until education authority reorganisation. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were some big hitters, too. In 1932, 47,000 people turned out at Maine Road, Manchester City’s old ground, to see schoolboys from Manchester and Southampton play the final of the ESFA Trophy. The match ended in a draw.
In 1948, 40,776 were at Anfield to see Liverpool and Stockport in the second leg of that year’s final draw 3-3 on aggregate. Even in the 1980s, crowds for the latter stages of the competition could still reach four figures.
For some youngsters, the pinnacle of achievement was to play football for their school team. I can even remember running home after one junior school match to tell my family I had scored a hat-trick!
For the more talented though, there was an opportunity to represent your town or your borough, perhaps even going on to play for your county. Whatever the level you played, there were always rivalries.
Back in 1985, the rivalry between neighbours Merton and Croydon was strong.
Most district games would be played on school pitches. Croydon often played at Coombe Farm, near Lloyd Park, while Merton used school grounds like Wimbledon Chase as well as pitches at Nursery Road. On one famous frosty sub-zero Saturday morning, there was not a game of football to be found anywhere in south London, save the Merton v Sutton game which was played on the pitch above where the Northern Line runs between Morden and South Wimbledon. Under soil heating at its best!
English Schools’ Trophy matches, though, were often played at “proper” grounds. Merton used Plough Lane. Croydon used Selhurst Park, Croydon Arena or Whyteleafe’s ground.
Games of this importance would be watched by scouts from all the London clubs, weighing up the potential of a new crop of players. To be fair, none of those playing at this level would really be new to the pro scouts, as most had been tracked and noted since they were in primary school. Wimbledon and Crystal Palace were the destination for many talented local players.
Back in 1985, this particular local derby had its edge, too. Merton were the current South-East England champions, having beaten Brighton 2-0 at the end of the previous season at the old Goldstone Ground. Croydon came into the game on top form having dispatched Gravesham, Ouse Valley and Blackheath with impressive scores in previous rounds.
Merton had reached that stage by defeating Tonbridge, Guildford and Newham.
For team managers, though, it was never a straightforward process to get the best team on the pitch on a Saturday. Injuries apart, there were lots of situations where you might be deprived of a player.
Teacher: “You are not playing for the district team because your behaviour has simply not been good enough.”
Teacher: “You are not playing for the district team because you aren’t trying hard enough with your work.”
Parent: “I am not letting (name of player) play for you today as (insert domestic reason or excuse as applicable).”
Parent: “I am sorry that (name the player) can’t play for you today because they have woken up unwell.”
Occasionally the reverse happened. A player might be selected but the coach discovers later that they shouldn’t really have played at all. There is one story where a headteacher opened his local newspaper only to find a goalscorer’s name headlined as a match-winner, when the player in question was off school supposedly with an illness. When summoned to school for an explanation, the parent explained that there had been a rapid improvement in her son’s health and she thought she would take him along to see how it went.
Back then, both Merton and Croydon had good football pedigrees. Croydon had reached the final of the national competition in 1979, losing the two-legged final to Bristol.
Both boroughs had won London and Surrey Cups multiple times over the years. Croydon beat Blackheath to win the under-16s Hawke Trophy in 1979, the same year that Merton beat Barking to win the under-13s Pear Trophy.
The 1980s was also the time when Wimbledon FC were on the up and up. Success oozed from every corner of their tiny ground as the former non-league cup giant-killers rose up through the divisions of the Football League. The 1984-1985 season was their first in the old Second Division.
The Merton schools’ team that day absorbed that positivity in the ground and comfortably won the match 3-1. It was to be a springboard for that group of players to go on to reach the final, losing 2-1 to Doncaster over two games. More than a thousand people came to watch the second leg played at Plough Lane.
A successful run to the final in this competition meant a huge commitment from everyone concerned. Merton had away games at Wigan and Corby. The final games brought the total of matches played to 10.
A few players from that Merton-Croydon encounter went on to have a career in professional football. From the Merton ranks, goalkeeper Neil Sullivan played in the 1998 World Cup finals for Scotland. Jason Cundy played three times for England under-21s together with a career with several clubs including Chelsea and Tottenham before launching out into the media world.
Although not playing on that day, Graeme Stuart was a part of that Merton squad and he went on to win the FA Cup with Everton. In the Croydon team that day was Adam Locke, who went on to play for Southend, Colchester and Bristol City.
It is remarkable how many footballers have gone on to play professionally who attended schools in the two boroughs. Creating a fantasy team could prove an interesting exercise over a pint (when we are allowed again).
Merton may have had the edge a while ago, but Croydon players can be found in many current Premier League and Championship teams.
There are many more eligible players, but here are two suggested teams to get the discussions started
Any Croydon team would have an abundance of possible managers.
Roy Hodgson, Lennie Lawrence and Bobby Houghton, who managed Malmo to the 1979 European Cup final, were all at John Ruskin School at the same time. There’s also Keith Millen, who went to Shirley High and managed Bristol City.
Croydon schools’ team had to wait until last year for national glory, when they reached the ESFA Trophy final. Due to play Sefton, the game was one of many to fall foul of the coronavirus pandemic regulations, leaving the teams to share the trophy. Merton have not been able, as yet, to return to the successes of yesteryear.
As sporting activities return for young people, we must hope that the joy of playing sport has not been lost. Schools and clubs need their teachers, coaches and organisers more than ever so that they can plan those opportunities for as many as possible to play, to run, to tackle and to score.
Fitness levels might have dropped, competitions put on hold, but hopefully there’s a renaissance of sport for young people just around the corner.
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