BY SUSAN GARDINER
Stanley Matthews, once regarded as the most famous footballer in the word (at least in England and until Pelé came along), wrote five autobiographies. The man whose life story I’m writing, Frank Soo, barely gets a mention in any of them. In fact, he appears, briefly, in only one – three of them were, in any case, updated rehashes of Matthews’ 1948 autobiography, Feet First.
Frank’s absence puzzled me. He and Stanley Matthews had so much in common – they loved to play on the wing, albeit usually on opposite sides of the pitch, they were both elegant players but their talent – however lightly worn – was the result of dedication, hard work, and eschewing the beer and fags culture of so many of their contemporaries. Someone told me that, as teenagers waiting for their chance to get into the Stoke City first team, they even ran the line together at reserve matches. Yet, Frank is conspicuous by his absence from those Matthews’ memoirs. He is mentioned in passing, but not once does Matthews talk about Frankie Soo, as he called him, as a player. There’s no description of his style of play, his contribution to the Stoke and England sides that both men were part of. It doesn’t seem possible that Matthews deliberately excluded him from his books for racist reasons. The man had taken genuine risks to flout South African apartheid laws and coach a team of young black players there. One of the many biographies about Stan is called The White Man with the Black Face. It didn’t seem to be because there was any personal animosity between them either. On the rare occasions that Matthews does mention Frank, it’s all very congenial. They’re touring abroad together. He and Frankie have the camaraderie of being “Stokies” abroad. So why the absence from Matthews’ memoirs, when he is so generous about other players of his time, like Mercer, Mortensen, Lawton and Stoke City goal-machine, Freddie Steele?
I have been able to come to only one conclusion about this. Perhaps subconsciously, Stanley Matthews edited Frank out of his footballing memories because of professional rivalry, perhaps even jealousy. I say that because, having had my interest in Frank piqued by the contrast between his obvious talent as a player and the lack of progress he made in his career, I’ve learned just what a brilliant footballer he was. Stan Mortensen, another contemporary, wrote of Frank: “Everything he did was hall-marked, and he seemed incapable of a clumsy movement.” Many Stoke City fans who watched both Matthews and Soo play for years thought Frank was the better player. Although several footballers of that time probably should have played at a higher level, or been picked more for England, nowhere does this seem to have been more of an injustice than in the case of Frank Soo.
Having discovered Frank, it became an increasing source of irritation to me that so much of the information that is available about him is factually incorrect. Everything, from books about the history of his clubs, to Wikipedia, to well-meaning efforts to raise awareness of his achievements as the first England international of Chinese origin, repeat the same mistakes, about his parentage (his father was born in Canton, his mother in Lancashire), his birthplace, even his name. So I initially started to do research with the intention of at least setting the record straight, but the more I found out about Frank Soo, the more I wanted to know, the more intriguing his story became.
Frank Soo was never the “Hong Yi” or “Hong Ying” Soo that many of these sources claim. Born near Buxton in 1914, where his parents ran a laundry, he was christened at St. Peter’s parish church in Fairfield. Like all his siblings, Frank was baptised in the Church of England and given a Christian name, Frank. It’s not short for anything. He was always just Frank or Frankie Soo. It’s easy to see how the mistake about his identity was made. Someone called Hong Y Soo was born to Li Soo, apparently a single mother, in Liverpool two months before Frank’s birth in Derbyshire. Frank was also brought up in Liverpool. It was hard to disentangle the two until I finally acquired both birth certificates and it turned out that Hong was a girl. That clinched it, really.
I took a chance and contacted someone in Liverpool who I hoped was a relation of Frank’s and I was lucky. It was his nephew. He confirmed that I was correct about Frank’s identity and the mix-up clearly irritated him too. I was so overwhelmed by the pride and pleasure that my suggestion of writing Frank’s story received and the help he gave me, that I decided that I would write it, come what may. By which time, I was hooked anyway.
The Soo family did not remain in Derbyshire for long. They briefly moved to Sheffield, then settled in the West Derby area of Liverpool, an area that a local historian described as where West Derbeaians “imbibe the history and tradition of soccer with their mother’s milk”. The Soo family must have been quite an addition to the area. Frank’s parents, Quan and Beatrice, ran a laundry, in which Frank, and presumably his five brothers and one sister, also helped. Several of the brothers were talented footballers – his youngest, Kenneth, signed professional forms for Derby County much later. Pictures of West Derby teams of the early 1930s show Frank in what would become a characteristic pose; arms folded and beaming broadly. He was spotted early on as a potentially talented footballer and signed for Lancashire Combination League side, Prescot Cables, where he was probably also employed in the offices of the engineering firm who ran the team, British Insulated Callender’s Cables. He was not there for long. The astute and ambitious secretary-manager of Stoke City, Tom Mather, having already signed Stanley Matthews as a schoolboy, made sure he also brought the young Frank Soo into his improving side. In January 1933, Stoke were on the verge of returning to the First Division for the first time in ten years. Mather had built one of the Potters’ most successful squads, and a team that was renowned for the elegance of its passing football. He knew that Frank would fit right in and help him win the Division Two title.
Unfortunately for Frank, Mather moved on in 1935, leaving the club in the capable but abrasive hands of player-coach, Bob McGrory. The new manager clearly admired Soo, but was single-minded in his approach to players. What he said, went. Other players remember Matthews and McGrory shouting at one another in the manager’s office, and Frank was not one to submit to unfair treatment either. He stayed at Stoke but was deeply unhappy to be played out of position at inside left rather as an out-and-out winger. Although McGrory made Frank Stoke City’s captain, they never really saw eye to eye. Described by Potters’ historian Simon Lowe as having an “almost pathological dislike of star players”, McGrory certainly made a habit of treating them so badly that, one by one, they left the Victoria Ground.
The Second World War began when Frank was probably at the height of his powers and was only 25-years-old. As with many players, it’s impossible to know how much impact the six or seven-year disruption had, but obviously Frank lost what might have been the prime years of his club career. At first he continued to play for Stoke while working in a local factory, but when he joined the RAF, he was moved around the country and it became difficult to get back to the Potteries in time for home matches. Although he played for a number of top sides as a “guest” player – including Everton, Brentford, Chelsea and Newcastle United – and was picked for England to play in nine Wartime and Victory Internationals, by the time he was demobbed, he was coming to the end of his playing career. After a final dispute with the manager ended with him being sent to play for Shrewsbury Town, Frank decided it was time to move on and signed for Leicester City, then managed by the man who had brought him to Stoke – Tom Mather. It was not a happy time for him, however, and after playing for Luton Town for two seasons, Frank finally ended his playing career at Chelmsford City, where he appears to have been a huge hit, both personally and professionally, although not without the usual conflict with his club’s directors. At all his clubs, it is evident that he wanted to be treated with respect. A likeable character, with an obvious sense of humour, there was an iron-willed side to him and if he felt that he was not being treated fairly, he dug his heels in.
Frank retired from playing in the early 1950s and was already establishing himself as a coach in Scandinavia, where he would spend most of the rest of his working life, when his wife, Beryl, died in tragic circumstances. Perhaps it was this that drove him to ply his trade abroad for so many years, or he may have been disenchanted by the treatment he received at the hands of the British press. It’s certainly the case that he had experienced racism first hand in England. Despite the newspaper headlines changing over the years from invariably referring to him as Chinese or a “Chinaman” – his war service appears to have brought with it a change to “RAF and England player” – he was still on the receiving end of some unpleasant stuff. This must have hurt after he had served his country in the RAF and played for England. I think attitudes towards Frank Soo did improve over the war period, but there seems to be no other credible explanation for his ultimate lack of success – relative to his merits – in football than racism. A player who was so talented should have had more opportunities to play for his country than the nine “unofficial” caps he was given. Frank certainly believed this. In an interview with the Stoke Sentinel, when he came back for a visit to England from Sweden in 1975, he said that he felt that his “Chinese blood” was the reason he was not awarded more international caps.
Whatever the reason, Frank appears to have found it impossible to settle anywhere. He coached Calcio Padova in Italy, the Norway national side (which he took to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics), and many teams in Scandinavia. He was rarely at a club for more than a season. Even when he returned to manage Scunthorpe United – where a very young Graham Taylor was a youth player – he only stayed for a year before a spell at St. Albans. By 1963 he was back in Sweden at IFK Stockholm. Such an itinerant life is difficult to research and write about. It almost seems as if he could not settle, something was pushing him to keep moving on. Yet, wherever he went, he did well, and he seems to have been a hugely likeable man, although my attempt to translate reports of him as a coach in Sweden have come up with the consistent use of words like slavdrivare, which need no translation. His reputation was that of hard work and ruthless ambition, but that was left on the training ground. He was a popular man. Although he still changed clubs frequently, he spent over twenty-five years coaching in Sweden before returning to England in retirement.
It’s hard to discover what happened then. I’ve been told he lived in the North Staffordshire village of Wetley Rocks, but also that he had a newsagents’ shop in Hanley in the Potteries. He certainly stayed with members of his family in Liverpool for some of this time. Whatever happened, Frank ended up suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, like so many ex-players of that time. He died in a cottage hospital in Cheadle, North Staffordshire in 1991, but was a patient in St. Edward’s, a psychiatric hospital in Cheddleton for some time before that. It may be apocryphal – I found it on the forum page of the Oatcake website, so, you know – but one Stoke City fan whose relative was in the same hospital probably provides what is, for me anyway, the most poignant story about Frank from that time: “When we used to visit my granddad there would be about five or six patients. One bloke would constantly go up to Frank, patting him on the back, and shouting ‘Frankie Soo, the greatest player Stoke and England ever had’. Frank never said a word, he used to sit there with a big grin on his face”.
From what I have learned about Frank and his football career, I have little doubt that his own assessment of the reasons behind his lack of opportunities for his national side and that his career was hugely affected by racism. There are two things that I would like to see put right: that the Wartime and Victory international matches that Frank, and others, played in are recognised by the Football Association as full caps, and that his status and reputation as a supremely gifted player is acknowledged and recognised properly. If any of his former clubs would like to put up a statue, that would be great too. Even now, publishers appear to regard his story as being too obscure or niche to appeal to today’s football supporters. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. That is why I’m trying to raise money via crowdfunding to publish his biography, The Wanderer. I’ve researched many aspects of his life and written about a third of it, but I hope with the help of the Soo family, who are rightly proud of him, to produce something to do the story of Frank Soo justice. It is truly no less than he deserves.
The Wanderer: Frank Soo, football’s forgotten genius will be published later this year. If you can help fund it, please visit crowdfunder.co.uk/frank-soo-footballs-forgotten-genius
You can also contact Susan via Twitter @susan1878