wsc301 Steve Menary on how the Great Britain team will have a past triumph to live up to when they take part in the Olympics this summer

A century is a long time for any side to wait to reclaim a trophy that once seemed their own. But should Great Britain's controversial Olympic team win gold in London this summer, that will be the gap between their titles. Great Britain won the first proper Olympic football event – and the first proper international tournament – in 1908. They had home advantage and faced mostly weak opposition in the six-team tournament. Holding on to the title four years later was surely the GB side's finest achievement.

Although the other three home nations had been invited to field separate teams in London, only England took part in 1908 and 1912. The tournament was restricted to amateurs, who could still be found playing at the game's highest level. Due to the maximum wage, turning professional was neither lucrative nor entirely safe, as evidenced by the fate of GB's goalkeeper in 1912.

Two years after picking up his medal in Stockholm, Ron Brebner died of injuries sustained during a Football League game for Leicester Fosse, the forerunner of Leicester City. Careers were short and serious injuries were not uncommon. Brebner, who worked as a dentist, had been a back-up in 1908 to Horace Bailey, an England international and a ratings official with the Midlands Railway in Derby. In Stockholm, the situation was reversed, with Brebner first choice and Bailey forced to sit and watch.

Other GB players in 1912 who were good enough for the Football League but preferred to remain amateur included Ted Hanney and Walter Bailey of Reading, Gordon Hoare of Glossop North End, Ivan Sharpe of Derby County, Harry Walden of Bradford City and Hull City's Ted Wright. There was also Arthur Egerton Knight – more commonly known as AE – at Portsmouth.

The team's star was probably the greatest amateur never to turn professional: Vivian Woodward. Like Bailey, he was a full England international. He had captained GB to gold in 1908 while at Spurs. By 1912, he was playing sporadically – when his work as an architect allowed – for Chelsea.

Prior to the Stockholm Games, the Swedish organisers had been concerned about how many fans would attend the 11-team tournament, but 14,000 watched the hosts crash out 4-3 to Holland in the first round at the new Olympic stadium. More fans turned up to watch GB's first-round match than saw Woodward's side claim gold on home territory four years earlier.

Hungary, their first round opponents, would embarrass England's professionals years later and they nearly did the same in Sweden. Hungary were awarded a penalty, which Brebner saved. Walden rifled home an equaliser from 20 yards and then scored again as the referee missed a handball by the Bradford player. The heat of the Swedish summer was oppressive and at half-time the GB side stripped off and jumped into a cold bath to cool down. With Hanney unable to continue due to injury and substitutes a thing of the future, GB were down to ten men. Woodward put his side 3-0 up soon after the break and set up four more goals for Walden to secure a place in the semi-final.

The GB team in Stockholm did not include any players from England's most famous amateur side, Corinthians, the club for Oxbridge alumni that had dominated the England team in the late 19th century. After a rift over the role of professionals in the game, a tranche of amateur clubs led by Corinthians quit the FA in 1907. But Woodward did not join them. He played with the professionals but still held Corinthian ideals, viewing new developments  such as the penalty kick as ungentlemanly. Those beliefs would surface in GB's semi-final.

Against expectations, GB's opponents Finland had shocked Italy 3-2 and then beaten Russia 2-1 to advance to a meeting with the holders. But any chance of further progress ended quickly. A shot by Sharpe was deflected into the net to put England ahead in the second minute. Walden slotted home five minutes later and the Swedish referee awarded GB a penalty soon after. Woodward could not countenance scoring in such a fashion so he told the taker, AE Knight, to kick the ball over the bar. Knight obeyed, to the surprise of the Finnish keeper. Although the Finns rallied, GB eased through 4-0, with another goal from Walden and a fourth from Woodward.

Two days after seeing off the Finns, GB were back in action. To claim another gold medal, they faced a rematch of the 1908 final with Denmark. The Danes' star player was, like Woodward, playing in his second Olympic final. Nils Middelboe would later become one of Chelsea's first major overseas signings, but unlike his English contemporary, he would never win Olympic gold.

Walden opened the scoring after ten minutes and Hoare wrong-footed Danish keeper Sophus Hansen for a second. Anton Olsen replied immediately, but Denmark were reduced to ten men when Charles Buchwald was left with a broken arm after a challenge with Woodward. The Danes fell further behind when Hoare headed home an Arthur Berry cross, before Berry himself dribbled brilliantly round Hansen for a fourth.

At half time, the Crown Prince of Sweden descended from his box to check on Buchwald, to the surprise English fans in the 25,000-crowd, who were not used to such close royal contact. In the second half, Middelboe switched wings with Olsen, who scored again to reduce the deficit. The ten-man Danish side poured forward but Brebner's goal was not breached again. GB held on for another gold.

As King Gustav V of Sweden handed out the medals, Walden, who later became a music hall star, simply replied: "Thanks King". At the end of the ceremonies, the Crown Prince returned to the pitch to mix with the players. Expect Prince William and a bevy of politicians to do the same at Wembley on August 11 if a revived GB team win gold again.

From WSC 301 March 2012

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