Sunday, 19 January 2020

The £5,500 Man: The Story of Warney Cresswell Once The World's Most Expensive Footballer

If you take what is currently the most expensive transfer of all-time, the current world record, and divide it by roughly 35,000 well that's what we are talking about. In more simple terms that is £5,500 and it might not seem a lot nowadays but in 1922 it was a world record transfer fee. For those of you, like me, born and raised in North East England you may also be fascinated to know that two of our local clubs were involved in the deal, what may surprise you, though, is that the selling club involved were the predecessors of current step three (seventh tier) non league side South Shields. 

Warneford 'Warney' Cresswell was born 5 November 1897 in the town of South Shields on the southern side of the mouth of the River Tyne. A talented schoolboy footballer, Cresswell started his senior career playing football north of the border in Scotland before joining the army and ending up in a prisoner of war camp during the Great War. Cresswell was repatriated at the end of the war and in 1919, aged 21, signed for his hometown club South Shields who had just joined the Second Division of the Football League. Shields had done well to sign the player in the face of stiff competition from local rivals Newcastle United of the First Division, and fellow second tier side Tottenham Hotspur for whom Cresswell had guested eleven times during the war.

Sometimes described as the 'Prince of Full Backs', Warney Cresswell was known for his skilful tackling and his ability to accurately clear the ball. Cresswell was also considered by many a gentleman and when he broke one player's leg after an accidental nasty challenge, he later turned up at the hospital with a packet of tobacco for his opponent, admirable behaviour that did not go unnoticed at the time. 

Cresswell played 104 league and cup games in defence for Shields over the course of three seasons and in his final season at the club, they finished just six points off promotion to the First Division. In March 1921, two days after featuring for a Football League XI against the Scottish League at Highbury, he made his international debut for England against Wales in Cardiff. He remains to this day the only player to have played for England whilst attached to any of the various incarnations of South Shields Football Club. In total over the course of his career he played seven times for his country with his final international match coming some eight and a half years after his first, this, it must be pointed out, in an era where national sides generally played fewer games than they nowadays do.

After almost three seasons at the club, Cresswell left Shields' Horsely Hill ground for the bright lights of Roker Park. The club had initially denied Cresswell was set to leave, as rumours of a £6,000 transfer to either Burnley or Everton circulated, but in March 1922 Cresswell did leave the club although not for Merseyside or Lancashire. Cresswell ended up five miles down the road at local First Division side Sunderland. The actual price paid by Sunderland's manager-secretary Bob Kyle was £5,500 and although slightly lower than earlier rumoured amounts it was nonetheless a massive fee for the time, so massive in fact that it was actually a world record! That record was not broken again until Bob Kelly joined him at Sunderland for £6,500 some three and a half years later. The Black Cats as they are known finished as First Division runners-up in 1922–23, six points behind champions Liverpool. Points wise they came closer to the title, in Wareny's second full season, in 1923–24 but actually finished third behind champions Huddersfield Town, and Cardiff City in second. The club then finished seventh, before consecutive third place finishes with the club ending those two seasons nine and then seven points behind champions Huddersfield and Newcastle respectively. During his time with the club, Cresswell played in eight Tyne/Wear derbies and found himself on the losing side only twice with some of his defensive displays in these games described as 'superb' and 'magnificent'.

In 1927 Cresswell was on the move again as he left the Sunderland to join Everton having made 190 appearances in all competitions during his time on Wearside. Now aged 30, his £7,000 move was this time not a world record. Alongside goal machine, Dixie Dean Cresswell helped Everton win the First Division title in his first season at the club. His second and third seasons were not so enjoyable, however, as Everton finished 18th and then rock bottom 20th which brought the ignominy of relegation. Two successive league titles followed as the club made a successful return to the First Division as Division Two champions at the first attempt before pipping Arsenal to the First Division title in the following 1931-32 season. The next season after that title winning one saw the club drop to eleventh but they did end that campaign by winning the FA Cup. Cresswell was said to be the best player on the pitch in the Wembley final and his performance was described by the Manchester Guardian as "an almost perfect display". Matt Busby playing for opponents Man City, however, claimed his team were so poor that a "Sunday School team" could have beaten them, he did though describe Cresswell as a "formidable" player. 14th and 8th placed league finishes followed before a 16th place finish in 1935-36 in what was Cresswell's final season as a professional footballer. Retiring aged 38 he had made 306 appearances for Everton and after his death was inducted into the clubs Hall of Fame.

Warney Cresswell's younger brother Frank also played professional football. Centre Forward Frank played briefly alongside his brother Warney at Sunderland before Warney left for Everton. In 1929 Frank Cresswell joined West Bromwich Albion having made 13 appearances in total for the Black Cats. Frank played 30 times for West Brom before two spells at Chester City with a brief sojourn at Notts County in between. Frank made in all 213 appearances for Chester and after his first season with the club, they were elected to the Football League having finished second in the Cheshire County League behind Port Vale Reserves. It was not just Warney Cresswell's brother who played football, either, his son did too. Although centre half Corbett Cresswell finished his career with only fourteen Football League appearances to his name, he was part of a Bishop Auckland side that won the FA Amateur Cup three seasons running during the 1950s.

After his playing career, Cresswell went into management, although his spells in charge of Port Vale, Northampton Town, and Dartford were all largely unsuccessful. In his life after football, he ended up managing a pub in Sunderland called the Sheet Anchor Inn. Warneford 'Warney' Cresswell died on 20 October 1973. 

Nowadays largely forgotten, Warney Cresswell was once upon a time one of the biggest names in British football and considered by many, not just one of England's star full backs but the 'Prince of Full Backs'. Not bad for the son of a marine engineer from South Shields.

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