By Vince Cooper

There are many tales of sporting polymaths (a person skilled in many subjects) who graced the football pitch. The likes of C.B. Fry, Max Woosnam and Benjamin Howard Baker, and later Denis Compton show that many players were proficient in more that one sporting area. Fewer are those who made their name in another area of the ‘arts’ along with showing skills on a football pitch.

One such is Colin Veitch, a true great who led Newcastle to three league titles and an FA Cup win  and was an England international. Veitch was also a leading light in the creation and growth of the footballers union and he was also active in the dramatic world, co-founder of the People’s Theatre, became a friend of playwright George Bernard Shaw who stayed at his home when visiting the area, starred in the early days of radio drama and was a football journalist.

Colin Campbell McKechnie Veitch was born in Byker, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (within a couple of miles of St James’ Park) on 22 May 1881, the youngest of four sons to James, a relieving officer (an official appointed by the parish to deliver relief to the poor) and Sarah Jane. He started playing football at Heaton Science and Arts School, becoming the first captain of the Newcastle Schools team in 1895 and then continued playing the game when he went to Rutherford College whilst playing for local teams including Malcolm Rovers.

On the football pitch Veitch’s versatility was apparent from an early age. He played full-back for his school side, inside-left for a boys’ club team and centre-half for the Newcastle City boys team he skippered,

George Bernard Shaw

At the same time as he was honing his football skills, young Colin continued to study in other areas too. As well as learning to play various musical instruments he was also a keen dramatist and would later co-found, along with brother Norman, Newcastle’s People’s Theatre (originally called the Clarion Dramatic Society) becoming chairman of the theatre, and he was an accomplished actor and director whilst also becoming a composer and conductor.

In 1899 Veitch joined Newcastle United as an amateur. He made his debut in a 1-0 defeat to Wolves and quickly earned a regular place in the side although he didn’t turn professional for four years.  Though he preferred playing at half-back he underlined his versatility by appearing in every position for United except in goal and at outside left.

Newcastle had only recently been promoted to the top flight, and under unusual circumstances. The bottom two in the 1st Division, Stoke and Burnley along with the top pair in the 2nd, Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers, played a series of ‘test matches’ to determine which two would play in the higher league in the following campaign.

In the final match Stoke and Burnley. If the men from Turf Moore lost they would be relegated and Newcastle promoted, a draw would keep them up. The result was a goalless draw with the ball spending more time off the pitch than on it, the crowd booing incessantly and refusing to return the ball and at one time, three being on the pitch.

The Football League decided after the match to increase the size of the 1st Division from 16 to 18 giving both Newcastle and Blackburn promotion whilst allowing the bottom two to stay up also.

Veitch was soon made captain and he became he was the leader of the first great Newcastle side. In the 1903-04 season the team finished 4th in the table, five points behind The Wednesday. The skipper’s influence on first-team matters grew when he was asked to join the selection committee, helping to pick the first team.

Champions 1904-05

In 1904-05 Newcastle took the crown for the first time, pipping Everton by a point. In the FA cup they saw off Plymouth Argyle, Spurs, Bolton and The Wednesday to reach their first-ever final. Veitch, playing inside-left, led the team out at Crystal Palace but they fell to a 2-0 defeat to Aston Villa in front of 101,117 fans, denying them of the double.

Newcastle faltered slightly in the next – 1905-06 – season, finishing 4th in the league. They reached a second cup final in succession, this time losing to Everton due to a solitary goal from Sandy Young. This time Veitch played centre-forward.

In February 1906 Veitch was selected for his country for the first time. He was picked at centre-half for the 5-0 win over Ireland at the Solitude Ground in Belfast. He kept his place for the season’s other two matches, a 1-0 win over Wales and a 2-1 defeat to Scotland at Hampden Park.

In the following campaign Veitch was only reserve for the 1-0 win over Ireland at Goodison Park with Billy Wedlock preferred at centre-half. For the other two matches he was chosen to play left-half alongside Wedlock as England drew 1-1 with Wales at Craven Cottage and 1-1 again, with Scotland at his home ground, St James’ Park.

For Newcastle 1906-07 brought a second league title as they finished three points clear of Wedlock’s Bristol City. Veitch’s hopes of leading his team out for a third successive season at the Crystal Palace ended early when they suffered a shock first round defeat, ironically at the hands of Crystal Palace then of the Southern League.

Veitch leads his men out

In 1907-08 Newcastle made it back to the FA Cup final, and were strongly fancied to carry off the trophy against second division Wolverhampton Wanderers. Veitch and his team had already seen off Nottingham Forest, West Ham United, Liverpool, Grimsby Town and Fulham to reach the final scoring 18 goals with the defence, marshalled by Veitch and Billy McCracken, conceding just twice.

Billy McCracken of Ireland  Colin Veitch of England’ and Jimmy Howie of Scotland

It was McCracken, along with Veitch, who came up with the concept of the ‘offside trap’. At the time three defenders had to be between the forward and the goal for him to be onside. The ‘trap’ would see McCracken sitting deep before moving forward at the last minute causing frequent offsides. The concept worked, eventually spreading across football and leading to a decline in goals – and crowds – until the rules were eventually changed and the number of players lessened from three to two. 

But in that final it wasn’t third time lucky. The Reverend Kenneth Hunt put Wolves in front and George Hedley doubled the lead. Although James Howie halved the two-goal advantage Billy Harrison restored it and Veitch suffered his third cup final defeat.

The 1908-09 season saw the title return to St James’ Park with Newcastle finishing seven points clear of runners-up Everton. In the FA Cup the team made it to the semi-final where they were beaten 1-0 by Manchester United at Bramall Lane.

For Veitch the season brought his 6th, and final England cap when, after being left out in favour of local man Evelyn Lintott for the 4-0 win over Ireland at Bradford, he played at Nottingham’s City Ground as England beat Wales 2-0.

Though still only 27 this proved to be the last time Veitch was chosen for his country, as the selectors, no doubt influenced by his growing involvement in the Players Union chose to ignore him and all others who were prominently involved.

In September 1909 Harry Beswick of ‘The Clarion’ newspaper interviewed Veitch after United played Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. After describing his playing style as ‘dapper, precise and geometrical’ the pair discussed the newly reformed Association Football Players Union of whom he was now chairman.

In June of that year the FA had ordered that all players leave the AFPU and had banned a number of those who refused. Veitch led the struggle to have the men reinstated and after protracted negotiations with him the FA agreed. The Newcastle skipper was widely praised for his part in the sides coming to an agreement and the Evening Telegraph said ‘Colin Veitch is largely the cause of a truce being declared in the football war’.

He would continue to serve in the role of chairman of the AFPU until his retirement from the game.

During the interview Veitch, a committed socialist, said he was hopeful that he could win a number of rights for his fellow players through the Union including freedom of contract and a percentage of transfer fees

After so many near misses Veitch, and Newcastle must have wondered if they would ever get their hands on the FA Cup. Finally, on 28 April 1910, they got over the line. They had to battle in the early stages, edging past Stoke after a replay but then beat Fulham, Blackburn and Leicester Fosse to reach the last four where they were paired with Southern Leaguers Swindon Town. A crowd of 33,000 at White Hart Lane saw goals from Jimmy Stewart and Jack Rutherford secure a 2-0 win.

Veitch and Barnsley skipper Tommy Boyle

So it was off to the Crystal Palace again with Barnsley the opponents this time. Again Veitch’s men were hot favourite and again they failed to break the Palace hoodoo, although at least they didn’t lose this one! Harry Tufnell put the Yorkshire team in front eight minutes before the interval and for a long time it looked like another disappointment was on the cards. But Rutherford popped up with an equaliser seven minutes from time to send the teams to Goodison Park for a replay.

On 28 April 1910 in front of 50,000 fans Newcastle and Veitch finally won the coveted trophy thanks to a pair of goals from centre forward Albert Shepherd.

A dispute with United in 1911 which looked for a while like it might end his time with the club was eventually resolved and Veitch continued at St James’ Park leading the team to yet another cup final where they lost 1-0 to Bradford City in an Old Trafford replay after a goalless draw in the first match.

The 1911 Cup final appearance was the last attempt at major honours for Veitch and the outbreak of the 1st World War brought his playing career to a close. He played 322 times for the club scoring 49 goals.

During the conflict Veitch served as a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery and when it was over he returned to Newcastle, taking over a newsagents. He returned to St James’ Park as a coach before in 1924 becoming Secretary/manager of Newcastle Swifts the nursery team that produced many top players for United until he was sacked when the club was disbanded in 1926.  He then had a spell as manager of Bradford City but resigned after two years after deciding management was not for him.

Described as ‘a man of outstanding intellectual attainment with a charming personality’ he turned down an offer from the Labour Party to stand as an MP. 

He also continued working with the Players Theatre and became choirmaster for the Clarion choristers. In the 1930s he worked for The Chronicle newspaper as a journalist and at one time was banned from St James’ Park for his forthright views on the club’s performances.

In 1938 Veitch was in Switzerland with second wife, actress Greta Burke (his first wife, singer Minnie Paulson had passed away in 1923) recuperating from pneumonia when his condition worsened and he died in Berne on 27 August. At a service when his ashes were scattered over the garden of remembrance at Newcastle crematorium, the Clarion choristers sang g]his favourite piece, ‘The Long Day Closes’ and, it was reported, ‘many were shedding tears while they sang’. His obituary in the Guardian said that ‘his name was synonymous with honesty and good fellowship’.

Captaining United to three league titles and skippering them in five FA Cup finals is probably more indicative of Colin Veitch’s football abilities than the meagre haul of six England caps which were surely limited by his role in fighting for players’ rights. But he was much more than a footballer and holds a unique position in the game’s history as the only one, surely, who was also a playwright, actor, director and chorister. The People’s Theatre is still going strong to this day, standing as testament to the Veitch brothers’ efforts.

Almost 80 years after his death Veitch was voted in 4th position in a poll conducted by the Chronicle to name the ‘100 Greatest Geordies’ (the top three were Jackie Milburn, Bobby Robson, and Catherine Cookson with Alan Shearer at number five), showing the enduring place his has in the club’s, and indeed the city’s, history.

Few if any footballers, especially those of international standard, can claim to have had as interesting and varied a life as that of Colin Campbell McKechnie Veitch.