Sunday 11 September 2022

A Very Brief History of German Domestic Football Before The Bundesliga

When 1. FC Köln clinched the league title in April 1964 they held the distinction of being the first ever Bundesliga champions. Being the inaugural winners of Germany’s first-ever national division, as German football finally entered the modern world Köln became its first victor ludorum of this new era.

Of course, football in Germany existed before the formation of the Bundesliga, much like fans in England will tell you that football did not just begin in 1992 with the formation of the Premier League. But whereas, at least in terms of format and structure, not much really changed when the English top flight reformed under a different guise, in Germany it was a very different story. The Bundesliga brought a proper national division to the country for the first time in its footballing history - completely changing forever the way German domestic football would be structured.

Before the Bundesliga came along, German football consisted of various regional league systems with an end-of-season knock-out tournament involving each regional top flight (Oberliga) winner to determine the country’s national champion. Until after the war when professionalism began to creep in, these regional leagues were generally amateur. There had been talk of creating a professional national division for some years prior to the Bundesliga’s formation but bickering amongst clubs and regional associations had stopped such a competition from being introduced sooner.

Okay, when Germany split in two after the Second World War, the DDR (East Germany) were able to introduce a fully nationwide division as early as 1949. However, in the BRD (West Germany), at least, they would continue under the old system of regional divisions for a further 14 years. This was 61 years after Germany crowned its first ever football champion and some 76 years after the Football League was introduced in England, for example.

Founded in 1874 by a group of Englishmen living in the city, the Dresden English Football Club was the first such club to be founded in Germany and quite possibly the first outside Great Britain. Sixteen years later after the sport had spread across the country, representatives from 86 clubs formed the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB) which became the nation's official football association. The first German Football Championship took place three years later in 1903 with six teams eventually participating. 

For that first edition of the new national championship, ethnic German clubs from outside the country were eligible to take part and one such side Prague-based DFC Prag entered and reached the final. Once the DFB joined FIFA the following year, however, foreign clubs were no longer permitted so Prag would never get the chance of revenge for their 7-2 loss to VfB Leipzig in Altona. VfB were predecessors of the modern-day fourth tier Regionalliga Nordost side 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig, once a big name in the DDR. Having existed under various different guises before and since, Lokomotive were losing UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup finalists in 1987. 

Leipzig would win two more championships over the next ten years and twice more finish runners-up. Over that same period BFC Viktoria, predecessors to the current Viktoria Berlin side relegated from last season’s 3. Liga, reached four finals and won two of them also. There was also success for the city of Karlsruhe too, with Karlsruher FV’s 1910 triumph coming a year after near neighbours Phönix Karlsruhe were crowned champions. Karlsruher FV currently play tenth-tier football whilst Phönix Karlsruhe later became Karlsruher SC who currently play in the 2, Bundesliga.

It was  1. FC Nürnberg, however, who became the first club to really dominate German football. This came through winning five titles during the 1920s and led to the nickname Der Club (the club) in recognition of their success. It is a nickname they still use today despite not having won a league title since 1968 and currently residing in the second tier.

By the 1920s various regional leagues and tournaments had been formed from which, of course, the winners would take part in that end-of-season national championship. League numbers and formats would vary over the years before becoming more settled after the war.  The end-of-season championship also used various formats itself ranging from a complete knock-out tournament to using a short group stage format for the first round of the competition.

At one point during World War II, there were as many as 31 regional league structures. This was when German territory was at its largest in part due to Nazi invasion and occupation. Under the Nazi regime that came into power in 1933, the different regional top flight leagues were known as Gauligas. This period was noticeable for the fact that three teams from Vienna in Austria, then under Nazi control, reached the final of the end-of-season championship. Of Admira Wien, First Vienna, and Rapid Wien, however, only the latter of the three managed to become champions. Rapid came from 3-0 down to win 4-3 over favourites Schalke 04 in the final. In more Austrian success, Rapid Wien and First Vienna both became German Cup winners during this time by winning the Tschammer-Pokal which, formed in 1935, would later become known as the DFB-Pokal. Despite losing the 1941 championship final to Rapid and also a further two finals during the Nazi regime, Schalke were definitely the most successful side during this era, however, winning six championships over a 12-year period.

Whilst Nürnberg and later Schalke had seen periods of dominance, no one would team dominate the post-war pre-Bundesliga era in the same way. Although, Borussia Dortmund did win the first three of their to date 8 titles during this 16-year period, including the last ever final in 1963. Of course, one team noticeably absent during this time and as yet not once mentioned are FC Bayern München. Indeed Bayern, currently by far the most successful German club of all-time, clinched only one of their record 32 titles during the pre-Bundesliga era defeating Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 in 1932 just before the Nazis came to power. Later, Bayern did not reach the Bundesliga until 1965 two seasons after its beginning. Their first Bundesliga campaign saw city rivals 1860 München win what is still their only national title to date. Bayern themselves secured their first Bundesliga crown three years later.

As stated it was Borussia Dortmund who were the final side to win the old German championship. 1. FC Köln were defeated 3-1 in the final played in Stuttgart but, as we know, they made up for that defeat the following season by becoming inaugural Bundesliga winners. The country’s 16 best sides had been selected to join the brand new national professional league whilst the highest level regional Oberliga divisions were to continue on as part of a new second tier. Those Oberliga divisions would remain at that level until the 2. Bundesliga was created 11 years later, initially split into North and South sections.

Sunday 4 September 2022

Jackie Milburn: When The Geordie Hero Became a Superstar Across the Irish Sea In Belfast

It was arguably Tommy Hammill who was the hero of the match but it was in many ways player-manager Jackie Milburn’s night. After all, Milburn’s Linfield side had not only managed an impressive 3-3 draw against top quality English opposition. But not only that, the visitors to Belfast’s Windsor Park that evening, for what was an exhibition match, were Newcastle United the side where ‘wor Jackie’ (our Jackie), as he was affectionately known to the Geordies, had previously become a living legend. Now he was a Linfield idol, however, and as the Belfast Telegraph would exclaim the following morning: “Few other players, if any, have won the hearts of Northern Ireland's soccer public as has Milburn.”

Jackie Milburn is a name synonymous with Newcastle United and his 200 goals in all competitions for the Magpies was a club record that stood for almost 50 years until a more recent star by the name of Alan Shearer, once the world’s most expensive footballer, broke it. But, of course, it is not just at Newcastle United, where he won the FA Cup three times, that Milburn holds legendary status.

In June 1957, after 14 years of playing football for the club based just 17 miles from his hometown of Ashington in Northumberland, 33-year-old wor Jackie moved across the Irish Sea to increase his earnings as player-manager at Belfast side Linfield. Three years later he would leave having won both an Irish League title and an Irish Cup, whilst also having helped Linfield become the first ever Northern Irish side to win a European Cup match when he scored both goals as they defeated IFK Göteborg 2-1 at home

Such was his popularity that the Linfield faithful who clearly idolised Milburn, in his name coined a terrace chant to the tune of Geordie anthem ‘The Blaydon Races’.

Before he joined, Milburn had impressed those at Linfield whilst partaking in a couple of exhibition games at their Windsor Park home, including one match played in front of 35,000 spectators for the opening of the stadium’s new floodlight system. After witnessing those performances the powers that be soon enquired about his availability to move across the Irish Sea on a permanent basis. By offering an increase in wages from £17 per week to £25 alongside a £1,000 signing-on fee and a four bedroom house, they were eventually able to get their man and the rest was, as they say, history.

The Irish League had seen big name stars before, usually players past their best and winding down their careers whilst earning a few extra pounds before retirement. Jackie Milburn, however, was definitely the exception to the rule on that front - wor Jackie was certainly no has been when he arrived at Linfield. His performances on the field in the previous season showed he very much still had lots to offer Linfield and Northern Irish football, whilst United’s shock £10,000 asking price, which nearly scuppered the deal, showed they weren’t prepared to part with him that easily. The dismay amongst United fans at his departure also showed that they felt he could still have been a major asset to their beloved black and whites.

Milburn became not just the most commanding player in the Linfield side but by far and large the most dominant in the whole Irish League. Such was his dominance that after that aforementioned European Cup win against the Swedes the Belfast Telegraph argued that “If any of his fellow forwards had possessed the same ability the opposition would have been hit for six”

When wor Jackie found the net from the penalty spot in the game against Newcastle, the following morning the Belfast Telegraph reported that it was his 100th goal for Linfield. Nowadays, however, the records only show that he scored 68 goals in 64 league games. But, of course, he would have no doubt scored many more outside those league matches. 

That match against the Tynesiders came in February 1959 in what was Milburn’s second season in Irish football with Linfield riding high and heading for the title. Milburn was in sublime scoring form and would end the campaign as the league’s top goalscorer just as he had done the previous season of 1957-58 despite having missed numerous games through injury towards the end of the campaign.

Despite a fifth placed league finish and a defeat in the cup final, Milburn had been voted Ulster Footballer of the Year and was seemingly the league's best performer in his first season at the club. When one match report in the Belfast Telegraph during that campaign opened with “MAGNIFICENT... THAT IS THE ONLY WAY I can describe Jackie Milburn's display last night” it was hardly anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, in another game, a 6-2 away win at Portadown, Milburn found the net four times and away at Cliftonville he scored another three as the visitors won 7-1.

Prior to the start of the 1958/59 season, there was talk of new training methods at Linfield and an increased emphasis on ball control. This was inspired by what Milburn had seen at that summer's World Cup in Sweden where he was scouting for the Northern Ireland national side. Despite these fresh ideas, however, it was actually classic Milburn goalscoring that was the key to the Blues’ success that season.

A crowd of 15,000 were in attendance for the opening game of the season at Windsor Park in mid-August to see a 4-1 win for the hosts. Milburn was on the scoresheet with a typical Milburn drive.

Milburn scored a hat-trick against Ards at the end of the month with the Saturday evening sports paper Ireland's Saturday Night describing his performance as “magic”. That was nothing, however, compared to the six goals he scored in a 9-1 victory over Crusaders less than a month later. This was not just magic this was “Milburn’s finest individual performance since he came to Windsor Park from Newcastle United.” 

Linfield truly were a free scoring side and although Milburn may have been the star player many others were able to find the net too and like Milburn sometimes several times in the same match. An October 8-3 win at home to Cliftonville saw Milburn only manage to find the net once with Tommy Dickson scoring five times whilst in a November affair described as “farcically one-sided”, Milburn scored twice but Jim Gibson four times as Linfield won 8-1 away at Distillery. Milburn had his side playing dominant attacking football and that season it really paid off.


However, Linfield were not the only team in fine form and they were three points off top at Christmas. There had been a couple of defeats on the road and the first home defeat would come at the end of January whilst a defeat at arch rivals Glentoran would follow later in the campaign. But those few difficult moments aside there was no stopping the Blues and Milburn as the season wore on and every match seemed to deliver Milburn’s best performance yet.

“MILBURN has never done a better afternoon's work for Linfield than he did today” were high words of praise given to Milburn in those Saturday night sports pages after a February hat-trick that helped Linfield see off Portadown just days before that visit of Milburn’s old pals from Newcastle. 

“Linfield’s performance was of which all in the Irish League can feel proud,” was what the Belfast Telegraph had to say about that meeting with the Geordies as their excellent league form also shone through against far more illustrious opposition than they were used to facing. That sublime form continued a few days later when they were once again back in League action.

Shortly after facing the Magpies, a 4-2 win over Ards saw Milburn score two well taken goals. Linfield followed that up with a 6-2 win at Glenavon but it was Tommy Dickson who was the star of the show, scoring five as Milburn failed to find the net in what was a rare quiet afternoon for him. 

As you can obviously see, yes when he wasn’t scoring, Milburn still had a side who were usually rampant in front of goal but he was never off the scoresheet for long. In another brilliant performance in front of goal, Milburn again scored twice against Bangor in late March as the season drew to a close.

With the championship seemingly never in doubt, an early April 4-0 victory at Cliftonville secured the league title as Milburn scored a lone goal from the penalty spot. Milburn and his Linfield side had been in outstanding form for virtually the whole season and impressed crowds up and down the country - it was a very much well deserved league triumph. 

Sadly, Linfield would not repeat the feat the following season though Milburn missing much of it through injury did not help. However, he would return later in the campaign to help his side to Irish Cup glory. But there was no such luck in the European Cup sadly when, before his injury, that home victory against IFK Göteborg was followed by defeat in the second leg that saw them bow out 7-3 on aggregate.

But up against a side that amongst their ranks had two players, Bengt Berndtasson and Sven Owe Ohlsson, who had been part of the Sweden squad that reached the World Cup final a year earlier it was always going to be a tough ask.

After his return, Distillery were defeated 5-3 in the semi-finals of the Irish Cup and although Milburn failed to find the net he would score two goals in the final as Ards were destroyed 5-1.

Milburn left Linfield after that cup final triumph bringing an end to a successful three seasons at the club. He would go on to briefly play non-league football back in England before retiring as a player and having a short spell as manager of Ipswich Town. 

The rumours at the time were that Milburn left Belfast due to his wife's ill health which is ironic as she would go on to far outlive him. Whilst Jackie died of lung cancer in 1988, Laura passed away barely more than a month ago aged 94. Neither will be forgotten.

These days Geordies rarely see the likes of Milburn adorn their famous black and white jersey whilst in Belfast, I’m not sure they’ve ever actually seen the likes of him since! 

Some of the information in and researched for this article came from the British Newspaper Archive (