Ivan Sharpe – the FWA’s Founding Father

 MIKE COLLETT, FWA member and resident historian, has done more than most to revive the name of Ivan Sharpe, one of our founding fathers, back to prominence in the history of the game. Now that the National Football Museum have taken over Ivan’s personal collection of memorabilia from over 60 years as player and journalist, Ivan’s remarkable story and lasting legacy to the beautiful game can be told.  This article by Mike first appeared in BackPass magazine. Our thanks for permission to reprint it:

THE LONG journey to restore the name of Ivan Sharpe to its rightful place in the history of English football, after his phenomenal contribution to the game in the first half of the 20th century, started with a fire at the home of the late Ken Montgomery, the former Sunday Mirror journalist.

At the time the avuncular Scot was the executive secretary of the Football Writers’ Association and had the entire history of the FWA – all of it on paper and none of it backed up on a computer – in a suitcase at his house.

Thankfully, Ken survived the blaze, but the FWA’s historical archive, dating back to the organisation’s foundation in 1947, did not. All the minutes of committee meetings, annual general meetings, members records, past chairmen, photographs, Footballer of the Year dinner menu cards, treasures and trivia went up in smoke.

And remarkably, to all intents and purposes, in terms of the FWA and the wider game in general, so did the name of Ivan Sharpe. The former England amateur international and Olympic gold medal winner was one of the most important figures in the English game as an amateur player, later as an influential journalist and also as the first chairman of the FWA. He was the man who presented Stanley Matthews with the first Footballer of the Year Award in 1948.

But we will come to that later.

Today though, his name is back in the limelight. The National Football Museum in Manchester is collating his own personal archive with a view to a future permanent exhibition and new life members of the FWA are now recipients of the Ivan Sharpe Life Membership Award with his name writ large on their handsome commemorative certificates.

The game may have changed considerably since he was playing it 100 years ago and then writing about it for the next 50 years but the standards he set on and off the field, for both players and journalists, are as valid today as they were then. And Sharpe’s past included tangible links to the very beginning of League football in England, as well as a direct connection to one of the game’s greatest-ever managers.

Born in St Albans in 1889, he was the fifth son of a boot-maker. His father, noticing he was a natural right-footed player, made the young Ivan a football attached to a ten-foot cord which he then tied to his left ankle and sent him out to the backyard to kick it back and forth, again and again for hours on end.

As a result, he ended up with a left foot as strong as his right and went on to play for Watford, Glossop North End, Derby County, Leeds City and Leeds United – one of only two players to play for the two Leeds clubs. He also played a combined 12 times for England and Great Britain’s amateur sides between 1910 and 1914 and in 1912 won the Second Division title with Derby and was part of the British team that won the football gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics, scoring once in the 4-0 semi-final win over Finland.

At 18, he was working as an apprentice journalist covering sport for the Herts Advertiser newspaper as well as the St Albans Times and had been playing locally for the juniors of St Albans Abbey when his talent and speed as a winger came to the attention of Southern League Watford and so impressed player-manager John Goodall that in 1907 he signed him.

Goodall was a member of the ‘Proud’ Preston North End Invincibles who won the double in the League’s inaugural season in 1888-89, lifting the title without losing a match and the FA Cup without conceding a goal, so Sharpe’s association with Goodall provides a path straight back to the very beginning of English League history.

His career as a player continued after the First World War with more than 60 appearances for Leeds City (17 goals) and one for Leeds United and it was while at City that he came into contact with a man destined to have a huge impact on the game in the 1920s and 1930s and beyond, manager Herbert Chapman.

As an amateur at Leeds, Sharpe managed his time playing League football on a Saturday and writing for an evening paper during the week and so by the time his playing days ended his credentials for a journalistic career were well established.

He edited the influential Athletic News and later worked for Kemsley Newspapers and the Sunday Chronicle, editing the pocket bible Football Annual for more than 30 years as well as contributing other articles to magazines and newspapers throughout his life.

He was a man of his time and ahead of his time too. He covered the first Wembley FA Cup final between Bolton and West Ham in 1923, interviewed Benito Mussolini – with a photo signed by Italy’s fascist dictator in his archive – and, according to one source, “had an interview with Adolf Hitler lined up but the Fuhrer chickened out.”

Years before UEFA introduced their goal-line assistants, he wrote in the Athletic News in April 1930 that “a goal judge should be stationed at each goal. The goal judge’s duty is to watch all incidents inside the penalty area at his end and to advise the referee concerning all doubts. The referee, as now, to be supreme.”

I’d suggest we can forgive him if he didn’t actually come up with the idea of VAR at that time as well.

He knew everyone in the game from Stanley Rous to Stanley Matthews, from England team-mate Vivian Woodward, another outstanding amateur of the early part of the century, to the legendary great scorer of old Steve Bloomer, a team-mate at Derby.

In 1958, in recognition of his contribution to the game the Football League bestowed a rare honour by presenting him with an inscribed silver salver as a token of their appreciation of his 50 years involvement with the League.

And as a journalist he rarely toed the party line. He often set the agenda. Even towards the end of his career he had his own view of things. For example, when Spurs won the double in 1961 they were widely acclaimed as the ‘Team of the Century’ but Sharpe saw it differently.

In an article for his old friend Charlie Buchan in his Football Monthly in July 1961, he posited that perhaps the Huddersfield Town team that won a hat-trick of titles in the 1920s, or the Arsenal team that achieved the same feat in the 1930s might deserve the honour more. But could there have been a little bias here perhaps? After all, both were managed by his old Leeds City boss, Herbert Chapman!

“The players of the past may not look so good because of their old-fashioned equipment, but would you judge Alex James because of his long pants? These are matters of opinion of course, but age and experience have given me the advantage of having seen these pre-war teams – half a dozen times or more each season.”

One man who has fond memories of Sharpe as both a child and adult is his grandson, the acclaimed Sunday Times journalist and author Anthony Holden, whose middle name is Ivan, as is that of his eldest son Sam.

“Ivan’s wife Ada died in 1941 six years before l was born, so he lived with us in Southport throughout my childhood and I was very close to him indeed,” he recalls. “When l was still a pre-teen kid, he would take me with him to the games he was covering in the north- west. To keep me quiet in the press box, he would give me pencil and paper to keep count of the fouls, corners, bookings etc.

“l loved hearing him make the transfer- charge calls to file his report within minutes of the game ending – and in that pre-stats era, l would see my very own numbers in the next day’s Sunday Times, which I’m sure is why I too eventually became a journalist – which was not at all what my middle-class parents had in mind for me! His colleagues and friends would also feed me sweets to keep me quiet. Many of them were to die in the Manchester United air crash at Munich, which Ivan missed because he had flu.”

Sharpe produced two hugely influential and popular books, the first a fabulous memoir 40 Years in Football published in 1954, followed by Soccer Top Ten in 1962, detailing his ten favourite players in the positions of goalkeeper, full-backs, wing half- backs, centre half-backs, outside-forwards, inside-forwards and centre-forwards. They are a window to another era, another world of football and they still make for wonderful reading today. He also compiled the Football League Jubilee Book to mark the League’s 75th anniversary in 1963 and was the natural choice to oversee that official publication as the leading football journalist of the day.

As the old scribe Walter Pilkington wrote in his review of Soccer Top Ten for the Evening Post in November 1962: “The agile mind behind this well-stocked memory box has produced a fascinating cavalcade of the English scene covering half a century spent in football at home and abroad. You start reading and before you realise it, the time is 1.00am.”

Sharpe’s agile mind was still active at the 1966 World Cup finals, the last major event he attended and his press card for the finals (below) remains in the archive. Tony Holden remembers going with Ivan to Goodison Park to see the momentous Portugal v North Korea quarter-final, which Portugal won 5-3 with four goals from Eusebio after North Korea stunned the world by going 3-0 up after 24 minutes.

Above – Ivan Sharpe’s press card for the 1966 World Cup

“But he never went to the final because he thought he might have ‘a bloody heart attack’,” recalls Holden. “At times he couldn’t bear to watch and left 18-year-old me to keep an eye on developments at Wembley while he paced tensely around the garden.” England’s subsequent victory over West Germany on that historic July afternoon was the first major tournament success for these islands since Sharpe’s own Olympic triumph with Great Britain 54 years previously.

Great Britain team that won the 1912 Olympic football tournament. Back (left to right): Joe Dines, Ron Brebner, Arthur Berry, Harry Walden, Viv Woodward, Gordon Hoare, Ivan Sharpe, Arthur Knight. Front: Douglas McWhirter, Tom Burn, Henry Littlewort . (Backpass)

He continued writing a column for the Wolves magazine until his death at the age of 78 in February 1968. And inevitably, with his voice stilled as the years passed, so Sharpe’s name and achievements slipped further from public view and deeper into the past. His experiences and writings belonged to another era. The devastation of Ken Montgomery’s fire had extinguished his proud record with the FWA and may well have been lost forever until the winter of 2012 when I was invited to attend the annual Rugby Union Writers’ Club dinner in London.

At some point in the evening I glanced at the dinner menu card and noticed not only were the names of the Rugby Writers’ Players of the Year listed, but also those of their chairmen dating back to their foundation in 1960 and a thought popped into my head. The FWA only ever listed the names of the Footballer of the Year at our dinners, but surely we should also recognise the names of the great journalists of the past who have chaired the world’s oldest football writers’ association. As a member of the National Committee, I raised the matter at our next meeting.

“Its an impossible task” said a colleague, “all the records were lost in the fire at Ken Montgomery’s house. They have all disappeared. There is no way of ever finding the names of all the old chairmen, certainly not from the 1940s and 1950s. Where would you even start to look?”

I thanked him for his advice and completely ignored it. The search was on.

The decision to form the FWA was made on a cross-Channel ferry on September 22, 1947 by a group of journalists on their way home from reporting on England’s 5-2 victory over Belgium in Brussels the day before.

Sharpe was not among them, but Charles Buchan of the News Chronicle, Frank Coles of the Daily Telegraph, Roy Peskett of the Daily Mail and Archie Quick agreed to form the FWA and when they reconvened in London a month later, Sharpe, who was working for the Sunday Chronicle, was appointed chairman. That much was well documented and Sharpe duly presented Stanley Matthews with the first

Footballer of the Year trophy the following May at the long-gone Hungaria Restaurant in London on the eve of Blackpool’s FA Cup final defeat to Manchester United the following day.

Having established Sharpe as the first chairman and being able to talk to many colleagues and friends, it was relatively easy to list every chairman from the late 1970s through to the present day.

All that was now left was to fill in the 30 missing years from the late 1940s onwards. But where to start? Unlike today, the chairman of the FWA, while a leading and highly respected journalist, was rarely quoted in the papers, even when the Footballer of the Year was announced.

However, the chairman’s name was always on the menu cards for the FWA dinners, so I searched for old

menu cards on football trivia sites and eBay – and went to the British Library in London to see if perhaps the chairman was quoted at the time the announcement was made. I couldn’t find any. I looked in old yearbooks, looked everywhere, and gradually the gaps started to be filled in … 1948 Ivan Sharpe, 1949 Ivan Sharpe, 1950 Ivan Sharpe, 1951 Ivan Sharpe, 1953 Ivan Sharpe, 1960 Ivan Sharpe, 1961 … yes, Ivan Sharpe.

There were many others too – 1954 Bernard Joy, 1963 Geoffrey Green, 1964 Alan Hoby, 1967 Sam Leitch, 1968 Frank McGhee, 1970 Peter Lorenzo, 1971 Reg Drury, 1974 Mike Langley and on to the already known chairmen like Ken Jones, Jeff Powell, Dennis Signy and Brian Scovell. The list was coming alive!

By the April of 2017 I had found every past chairman’s name except for one year … 1952. Paddy Barclay, who has just stepped down after three years as FWA chairman, mentioned that he knew Sharpe’s grandson, Anthony Holden, and perhaps he could help and after making contact, Tony said he was in possession of all of Sharpe’s memorabilia going back over 100 years. We duly met at Tony’s flat in London and inside an ancient and battered, but handsome, liner-style suitcase containing Sharpe’s remarkable treasure trove was a newspaper cutting with a photo of him presenting the 1952 Footballer of the Year award to Arsenal’s Joe Mercer.

The Eureka moment! The final piece of the jigsaw – found in Sharpe’s very own suitcase and proving that he was chairman of the FWA for the first six years of its existence from 1947 until 1953, before two more stints in 1960 and 1961. He was chairman eight times in all. No one else comes close.

Norman Giller, resident golden oldie columnist for BACKPASS, remembers Sharpe well too. “I was chief football writer on the Daily Express when Ivan was coming to the close of his exceptional career. I used to bow the knee to him and listen in awe to his kaleidoscopic memories. There is no football writer from my generation who was not influenced by Ivan’s prolific chronicling of the Beautiful Game, whether by his prose or maze of facts and stats. He deserves to be in the same hall of fame as his hero Sir Stanley Matthews. Come to think of it, why on earth was he never knighted? His services to football on all fronts was phenomenal.”

In recognition of Sharpe’s outstanding contribution to the FWA and his involvement for the first seven decades of the 20th century, the FWA marked its 70th anniversary in 2017 by inaugurating the Ivan Sharpe Life Membership Award and included the list of all the previous FWA chairman on its menu card at the Footballer of the Year dinner for the first time. And the archive has now been gifted to the National Football Museum.

Tim Desmond, the museum’s chief executive, told BACKPASS Magazine: “The museum is all about exploring the Game of our Lives, and we were delighted to be approached by the FWA to become custodians of the Ivan Sharpe collection. Our aim now is to conserve and research his fascinating life in football for the benefit of future generations.”

Rising like a phoenix from the flames, Ivan Sharpe’s name will never be forgotten again.




  1. Avatar

    andrew warshaw

    November 29, 2019 at 9:50 am

    Fascinating. amazing research by Mike – not for the first time

  2. Avatar

    Brian Scovell

    December 14, 2019 at 11:10 am

    Many ongratuations to Mike for your enthusiastic research on behalf of Ivan whom I met a few times in the early 1960s. He pioneered most of the ideas of the true spirit of football. Perhaps a publisher might want a book about him?

    Good idea to present the Ivan Sharpe Award to new members but what about ones for the living survivors?

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