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Bloomer, Stephenfree

(1874–1938)
  • Tony Mason

Stephen Bloomer (1874–1938)

by W. H. King, c. 1905

W. W. Winter Photographers Ltd / Derby Evening Telegraph

Bloomer, Stephen (1874–1938), footballer, was born at Bridge Street, Cradley, Worcestershire, on 20 January 1874, the son of Caleb Bloomer, an iron puddler, and his wife, Merab Dunn. The family moved to Derby when Bloomer was five. He learned to play football at elementary school where, although not formally part of the curriculum, the game had been introduced by enthusiastic young teachers. He played local recreational football and was signed by Derby County, at a wage of 7s. 6d. a week, after scoring four goals in one match for their reserves. He was to be the club's leading scorer for fourteen seasons. Yet he did not look the part of the athlete. Harry Newbould, secretary of the Derby club in the 1890s, said that when Bloomer first turned out for them he was 'pale, thin, ghost-like, almost ill-looking' and some of the crowd laughed when they first saw him (Rippon, Derbyshire Life, 61). But he was strengthened by the regular training which the Derby club had recently introduced. In his second full season Bloomer's nineteen goals helped Derby to third place in the first division, the highest the club had achieved. By 1895 he was scoring spectacular goals for England.

Before 1914 football heroes were essentially local, their prized qualities loyalty, reliability, and steadiness. Professional footballers were part of the urban social fabric. The Football Association (FA) cup final drew the biggest crowds and it was the competition between clubs which fed parochial and civic pride and provided the players with some hard-won celebrity. Every town had its football team and every club its local heroes and Steve Bloomer was one of them. Although he spent four seasons late in his career with Middlesbrough, Bloomer was synonymous with Derby County, for whom he played from 1892 to 1906 and again from 1910 until his retirement at the age of forty in January 1914. He played 474 league games for Derby, scoring 293 goals, and 50 FA cup ties with another 38 goals. He also scored 28 goals in 23 international appearances for England, a record which remained unbroken until 1956.

Contemporaries were particularly impressed by his speed off the mark, which was allied to a rare ability to shoot straight, with both feet and from any angle or distance and, crucially, with little backlift and using the boot close to the toe rather than the instep. It was this element of surprise which enabled Bloomer to get in shots at goal where others could not. He was not a great dribbler but an inside right who could not only bring his wing partner into the game but also provide the penetrative through pass for the centre-forward. Ivan Sharpe, who played with him, thought he had 'rare judgement, inspired raiding and passing and sudden shooting' (Sharpe, 22).

Bloomer tended to be impatient with the faults of more ordinary footballers and would point out their shortcomings, both on the field and off, in blunt and pungent terms. That his professional life was not without its frustrations is also suggested by the number of times he was admonished by the Derby board of directors for insobriety and neglect of training. He was almost certainly one of those players who lost money when the maximum wage was introduced in 1901, which could hardly have improved his attitude.

In common with many other professional footballers of his era, Bloomer did not find life after football easy. It was his bad luck to have accepted the position of coach to the Britannia sports club in Berlin in 1914. He arrived three weeks before war broke out and stayed for another three and three-quarter years as an internee in the notorious Ruhleben camp, where he helped organize the sporting competitions which did so much to maintain morale among the inmates.

In the 1920s Bloomer coached briefly in Canada and Spain and had jobs with Derby County and British Celanese. He also did some football reporting for local newspapers. He married, in Derby on 19 August 1896, Sarah (1875–1936), daughter of Herbert Walker, bootmaker. They had four daughters, two of whom died in early childhood.

Bloomer's own health deteriorated in the 1930s, when he suffered from asthma and bronchitis. In 1938 a group of local sportsmen raised £500 to send him on a cruise. He died three weeks after his return, on 16 April 1938, at the Great Northern inn, Junction Street, Derby, the home of his daughter and son-in-law. His funeral on 20 April was spectacular, the cathedral packed with admirers from the world of football, and large crowds lined the route from there to the Nottingham Road cemetery.

Although his football career was spent mainly playing for Derby, where he lived for most of his life, Steve Bloomer was one of the first footballers to be recognized as a national sporting figure. In 1904 he had been selected for England for the twenty-first time, then a record. The FA presented him with a portrait of himself, in oils, to mark the occasion, a unique honour for a football player, although Bloomer might have preferred money. He was one of the small number of professional footballers to be included in Burke's Who's Who in Sport (1922). More recently, in 1994 his grandson sold nineteen of his international caps for £8050 in order to fund a commemorative plinth which now stands in the Fishmarket in Derby and marks the goal-scoring achievements of a man whose name will always be linked with the town.

Sources

  • A. Rippon and A. Ward, The Derby County story, 1884–1991 (1991)
  • A. Rippon, ‘Steve Bloomer’, Derbyshire Life and Countryside, 49 (Sept 1984)
  • I. Sharpe, 40 years in football (1952)
  • A. Mason, ‘Our Stephen and our Harold: Edwardian footballers as local heroes’, European heroes: myth, identity, sport, ed. R. Holt, J. A. Mangan, and P. Lanfranchi (1996)
  • minutes of meetings of the board of directors, Derby County FC, 1898–1902, Derby County football club
  • Derby Evening Telegraph (16 April 1938)
  • Derby Evening Telegraph (20 April 1938)
  • Evening Telegraph [Derby] (26 Oct 1994)
  • A. Gibson and W. Pickford, Association football and the men who made it, 4 vols. [1905–6], vol. 4
  • J. Davidson Ketchum, Ruhleben: a prison camp society (1965)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • P. Barnsley, ‘Steve Bloomer’, The Blackcountryman, 22/3 (1989), 25–31
  • P. Barnsley, ‘The Steve Bloomer memorial’, The Blackcountryman, 30/2 (1997), 29–30

Likenesses

  • W. H. King, photograph, 1905, repro. in Derby Evening Telegraph [see illus.]