By Vince Cooper
Whilst Viv Anderson is rightly feted as the first black England international his place as the first non-white to wear the national team’s colours would have been taken over 35 years earlier if wartime matches were not classified as unofficial.
On 9 May 1942 England travelled to Ninian Park to meet Wales in a wartime match and appearing alongside the likes of Tommy Lawton, Eddie Hapgood and Cliff Britton was Frank Soo of Stoke City. Soo’s teammate Stanley Matthews was also originally in the XI but R.A.F duties kept him out of the line-up. The Welsh team ran out 1-0 winners but Soo impressed enough to win plenty more caps in the war years.
Frank Soo was born in Buxton in Derbyshire on 8 March 1914 the son of a Chinese father, Our Quong-Soo and an English mother, Beatrice Whitham.
The couple were running a laundrette in Fairfield when Frank was born but later moved to Liverpool and it was here that the family settled.
Frank had an older brother, Norman and they would later be joined by Phyllis, Ronald, Jack, Harold and Kenneth (who would spend some time on Derby County’s books).
Whilst playing for local youth clubs Norwood and West Derby and also standing out for Liverpool boys, Frank came to the attention of Everton and Liverpool but surprisingly, neither made a move to sign him and he instead joined Prescot Cables whilst starting out working life as a clerk.
It was while playing for the Lancashire Combination side that he came to the attention of Stoke City manager Tom Mather who paid £400 for his services in January 1933, beating off Aston Villa, Everton and Liverpool who were also reportedly interested in his signature.
For the remainder of the 1932-33 season and during the early part of the ‘33-‘34 campaign Soo learned his trade with the Potters’ reserve team in the Central League whilst the first team were busy winning promotion to the top flight. Indeed the reserves were attracting crowds of between 8,000 and 9,000 to their matches and the Birmingham Daily Gazette claimed that the increased attendances were; “largely due to Soo”, whilst writing in the Liverpool Echo, Louis T Kelly said that he: “Looks like turning out a rare piece of China pottery”.
Such were his performances that by October 1933 the calls for Soo’s inclusion in the first team were growing and at 19 years of age he was given his debut at Middlesbrough in early November. The Potters suffered a 6-1 drubbing but the debutant emerged with credit.
He kept his place for the next two matches but was then sent back to the reserves, re-emerging on Christmas Day for his first win, a 2-1 victory over Leicester City. He was then a regular until a 5-1 February defeat to Derby County saw him dropped again, a decision that upset many fans. This was summed up by a letter from ‘An amazed supporter’ to the Stoke Sentinel which began; “I should like to ask the Directors of Stoke City if they are treating the sporting public of the district fairly by leaving out that brilliant young player Frank Soo”.
Soo reappeared in the first team for four matches at the end of a campaign playing a total of 16 times as City, with Stanley Matthews producing magic on the wing, established themselves in the top flight with a mid-table finish.
The 1934-35 season proved a difficult one for Soo. He fought a mostly losing battle with Harry Davies for the inside-left spot in the Stoke line-up and his cause wasn’t helped when he was involved in a car crash along with teammate Joe Johnson.
He made just nine appearances during the campaign as the Potters again finished in mid-table and there were a number of enquiries for his services from other clubs but City refused to sell and there were better times around the corner for the man referred to as ‘The Smiling Chinaman’.
The 1935-36 season proved to be one of the best in City’s history and Soo played a major part in it.
He was again left out of the line-up to start the campaign but having been switched from inside-left to left half and after some impressive early performances for the reserves Soo was called into the side for the September match with Liverpool. Despite a defeat there he kept his place and was a key member of the team that finished a highly creditable 4th, nine points behind champions Sunderland but just a point away from 2nd place.
Of course the 1930s were a completely different time for people of colour than today and in many ways Soo was stereotyped as already evidenced above. But he never took his ethnicity into account and encouraged others to do the same.
The 1935-36 season had ended badly for Soo when he suffered a fractured left leg in the last match against Liverpool but after working hard throughout the summer to regain fitness he was ready to go for ‘36-‘37 and played in the opener, again opposing his hometown team.
Stoke lost that and failed to build on their excellent previous campaign, dropping back to finish 10th. Another injury, coincidentally against Liverpool again saw Soo drop out of the team and his replacement, Jock Kirton did so well that when he returned two months later, it was at right-half playing directly behind the mercurial Matthews. Despite the position change he continued to enhance his reputation and was described in one newspaper report as being; “A model wing-half who, though light in weight is extremely strong”.
Now firmly ensconced in his new position Frank had, perhaps his best season to date in 1937-38. He was ever-present for a Stoke side that struggled through much of the term, eventually finishing 17th and calls for him to be given an international cap grew but continued to be ignored. During the season he played inside-left, left-half and right-half and there were rumours that the constant positional changes had made him unsettled at the club, rumours he was quick to deny. “I am as happy with Stoke as I would be with any other club,” he said, adding; “It is nonsense to suggest that I am dissatisfied because I have been playing in a position other than my recognised place in the team”. To prove his value to the club manager Bob McGrory awarded Soo the captaincy towards the end of the season.
The summer of 1938 proved momentous for Soo off the pitch as he married Beryl Lunt. The couple met after Beryl, an ardent football fan, sent her autograph book for the Stoke players to sign.
The Potters enjoyed a much better season in 1938-39, finishing ten places higher and Soo was again ever-present and was awarded a benefit by the club.
The 1939-40 season started well for Stoke – who had cancelled their planned tour of Germany and Poland during the summer – and their skipper as they recorded a 4-0 win over Charlton. But after just two more matches Football came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the 2nd World War.
Soo and his England teammates board a plane (photo credit: The Mercer family)
When hostilities broke out Soo took a job working in the Michelin tyre factory in Stoke which enabled him to continue playing for City. In 1941 he joined the R.A.F. working on the technical training of air crew.
As well as appearing for Stoke, he guested for a number of clubs including Chelsea, Everton, Newcastle, Reading Millwall, Brentford, Port Vale and Blackburn Rovers.
Soo in the line-up for a match against Scotland at Hampden Park
In 1942 he was finally called up for that first England appearance and he would go on to win a further eight caps, ending as he had begun with a single goal defeat to Wales. In between he had been a member of England teams that beat Scotland 6-1, 6-2 and 3-0 and also played in the 8-3 win over Wales at Wembley in 1943. He also played in representative matches for the F.A. XI and the R.A.F.
The F.A XI v The Army 1944
In March 1944 Soo was chosen to play for an F.A. XI against The Army at his home Victoria Ground. As he took the field he was unaware that younger brother Ronald had been officially listed as killed. Ronald, also in the R.A.F. had been missing for eight weeks after taking part in a bombing operation over enemy territory. Soo’s parents had been informed of the tragic news two days before the match but withheld it from Frank until after it had finished when wife Beryl broke the news.
Flight Sergeant Donald Soo. Killed in action in 1944.
In early 1945 Soo, now 31 and having suffered a breakdown in communications with manager McGrory who had become annoyed over the player’s lack of availability on a number of occasions during the war, decided it was time to try his luck elsewhere and asked City for a transfer.
The local Sentinel newspaper published a number of letters from fans asking Stoke to keep the player but the board eventually granted his request and in September he joined Leicester City where he was reunited with former Potters boss Tom Mather, for £4,600.
Soo’s time at the Victoria Ground came to an end having made close to 300 appearance including wartime starts.
Despite being given the captaincy on his arrival Soo’s stay at Filbert Street was brief and disappointing. He made just 16 starts for the Foxes and was chosen for England one final time, for a match against Belgium were he had to withdraw injured with Billy Wright moving to right-half to take his place before, soon after being demobbed he asked for a move and was sold again.
In his Luton Town days (photo credit: Susan Gardiner)
After Derby County made a bid and Soo said he would like to move to either London or Scotland, the next stop proved to be to Luton Town with Leicester making a tidy £400 profit on the player by selling him for £5,000.
At Kenilworth Road, Soo’s experience and skill helped guide a young team to mid-table safety in the 2nd Division. He spent two years at the club before dropping down to non-league football and ending his playing career at Chelmsford City.
Moving into management Soo had a long globetrotting career on the sideline. His first job was with Finnish club Helsingin Palloseura. He then spent time in Italy (where he stayed for almost a year with Padova before leaving after the sudden death of Beryl), Sweden – where he worked at five different clubs and lived for many years -, Norway, Denmark and England where managed Scunthorpe United whom he led to 15th place in the 2nd Division in the 1959-60 season, as well as coaching the Norwegian national team at the 1952 Olympic Games.
Known as a strict disciplinarian and one who worked his players hard (the Norwegian players nicknamed him ‘The Slave Driver’), in 1958 Soo was signed by top club AIK Solna (Stockholm) in Sweden who paid 2nd division side Köping 15,000 crowns (around £1,000) for his services. AIK were threatened with relegation at the time of the move but they eventually drew clear of the foot of the table.
After finally ending his coaching career in 1966 Soo retired and returned to England to live in Stoke. After developing dementia he was moved to a care home in Cheshire where he passed away in 1991 at the age of 67.
When the area around Stoke City’s former home at the Victoria Ground was turned into housing the developers decided to name one of the roads Frank Soo Street in honour of the player and his impact on football in the area whilst the Frank Soo Foundation runs the Chinese Community Challenge Cup, a 5-a-side tournament and has organised games all over the United Kingdom promoting football to the Chinese and Asian community.
Frank Soo was a truly seminal figure in English football and his place as a pioneer has largely been forgotten. He was clearly an excellent player and, with a ready smile and winning personality, proved a big hit with fans. But his place as the first player of Asian descent to make it to the top will last forever.
Soo’s rise to the top perhaps should have opened the floodgates for more players of Asian descent to rise to the top in the same way that the likes of Viv Anderson and Laurie Cunningham (and Clyde Best before them) did for black players 40 years later.
When he passed away in 1991 a letter to the Sentinel newspaper stated that; “He was one of the finest players to play for Stoke City.
”If he was playing now he would have been a sensation”, the letter continued. “He was a gentleman both on and off the field, never abusive towards referees or violent towards other players”.
Along with this, Frank Soo was a pioneer. Initially thought of as something of a novelty, his high standard of play and tremendous work ethic could, and perhaps should, have opened the door for more English players of Asian descent to make their mark in top-class football. Perhaps there’s still time.
Google are celebrating Frank Soo and his contributions to football and the Asian community today (9 May 2020) You can view their Frank Soo doodle by visiting the Google UK homepage on:
And find out more about The Frank Soo Foundation here: https://www.thefranksoofoundation.org.uk