Published: 06:00, 09 May 2021
| Updated: 09:01, 10 May 2021
In the early days of association football, Kentish pioneers helped develop the game in Uruguay, Argentina, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Kent-based football history writer and podcaster Chris Lee takes a look back.
For a county perhaps most closely associated with cricket, Kent was actually a leading player in association football’s early development.
A decade later, workers at the Royal Arsenal works in Plumstead formed the Dial Square Football Club. The club moved to North London just before the First World War and forged a successful future as Arsenal FC.
Other early Kentish footballers went further afield, taking their leather balls, inflators and Football Association rulebook with them.
Kentish pioneers in South America
It was overseas, rather than at home, that Kent’s football pioneers left their greatest legacy.
William Leslie Poole, from Bromley, is considered by many to be the ‘father of Uruguayan football’. Poole was a teacher at the English High School in Montevideo and turned out for Uruguay’s oldest football club, Albion FC.
The club played and lost its first match in August 1891 - when it was known simply as ‘Football Association’ - against a team from Montevideo Cricket Club.
It was Poole who opened the club to those outside the close-knit British community and democratised the game among the wider Uruguayan society. Albion FC still wears the red, white and blue of many of its original players’ mother country and now plays in Uruguay’s second division.
Poole was instrumental in setting up the Uruguayan Association Football League, now the Asociación Uruguaya de Fútbol (AUF), on March 30, 1900. Beckenham-born Percy Davidson Chater was the organisation’s first president. Chater was a representative of the Central Uruguayan Railway Cricket Club (CURCC).
The footballing arm of CURCC chose to wear the yellow and black stripes of Stephenson’s Rocket, the world’s first train, and won the first Uruguayan championship in 1900.
A decade later, CURCC’s football branch changed its name to Club Atlético Peñarol. Peñarol now boasts 50 national titles and has won South America’s premier tournament, the Copa Libertadores, five times.
Interestingly - if you are into your football trivia - Peñarol’s fierce rivalry with Nacional is the oldest derby in South America.
I’m not sure if that one will ever come up in a pub quiz, but if it does, you’ll know the answer!
Poole and Chater are both laid to rest along with several other footballing pioneers in the British Cemetery in Montevideo, Uruguay.
A few years earlier in the 1880s, across the border in the city of Rosario in northern Argentina, Isaac Newell from Strood, near Rochester, had introduced football to students at his school. In 1903, Newell’s son Claudio founded a football club for former and current students – Newell’s Old Boys.
The club wears the red and black halves – the red for England and the black for Germany, the home country of Isaac’s wife. Newell’s Old Boys has developed several great players, including Lionel Messi, Gabriel Batistuta and Mauricio Pochettino.
Former Spurs boss Pochettino won the Argentine championship in the early ‘90s with Newell’s under Marcelo Bielsa’s coaching, now manager of Leeds United.
Gillingham FC fan Adrian Pope has been campaigning for a statue of Isaac Newell to be erected in Strood to recognise his significant legacy.
"In 2002, I was living in a town called Eldorado, on the Argentine side of the Paraná river that forms the border with Paraguay, when I - a teacher from Kent - learnt that the greatest Argentine football club outside the capital, Newell's Old Boys, bore the name of an English teacher from Kent,” Pope tells me.
"It has been my ambition for some time to find a fitting way to remember Isaac Newell, the Strood-born 16-year-old émigré who became one of the founding fathers of Argentine football.
"He was born in a house next to the Medway, opposite Rochester Castle, and I hope one day a bust of him will stand there."
Kentish influence on the continent
Kent clubs were heavily involved in early cross-Channel encounters, probably due to easy access to shipping links. In 1896, Tunbridge Wells played three games in Brussels and one in Bruges, winning all by significant margins. They toured four more times between 1897 and 1901 and didn’t lose a single game.
In 1913, the Tunbridge Wells team travelled to the Netherlands to play an emerging club that was just over a decade old and beat the Dutch side by three goals to one. That club’s name was Ajax Amsterdam. Maidstone United also toured the Netherlands in the 1890s.
Due to the location of Sheerness as a port on the way into the Thames, Sheppey United also played early visiting overseas sides. In September 1896, a team from Duisburg in Germany came to play Sheppey United in front of 1,000 spectators.
At the time, English newspapers mistakenly reported this team to represent ‘the German Football Association’ when actually the German FA – the Deutscher Fußball Bund (DFB) – was still four years away from its foundation.
Sheppey United dispatched the visitors 9-0 and the German side didn’t improve – they lost their next match 15-0 down the road at Chatham. The Germans endured another 9-0 reverse at Millwall, rounding off their torrid tour with a 13-0 defeat against an XI at Crystal Palace.
While the county might be light on league football clubs just now, with Gillingham as its sole representative, Kent can at least claim to have played its role in helping the game grow on two continents.
Kent-based Chris Lee runs the football culture, travel and history website and podcast, Outside Write. His debut book Origin Stories: The Pioneers Who Took Football to the World is out now via Pitch Publishing