‘Defenders Who Keep Me Guessing’ by Tom Cheetham of Queen’s Park Rangers F.C.

Last year, Colin Woodley kindly sent me a fascinating article regarding Tommy Cheetham that had appeared as part of a series in ‘Football Weekly’ in 1936. No others from the series have yet surfaced, but I did get my hands on another periodical that features the legendary centre-forward. The following article appeared in ‘Topical Times’ in 1938, week ending 22nd January:

‘As a centre-forward, I say nearly every defender keeps me guessing, especially the defensive centre-half. In my brief soccer career – I’m in my third season with the Rangers, my only league club – I’ve faced some of the most experienced defenders in the game.

True, all my football has been played in the Third Division, but I’ve had to answer several questions put to me by such players as Jack Nelson, of Luton, Jimmy Wallbanks, of Millwall and many others. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my tussles with these stars.

One of the best is Jack Nelson. I was in my first season in league football when we played the clever Luton side. I was somewhat raw, but even that did not account for the bad display I had against Nelson. Standing well over six feet, he towered above me (and I’m no midget), and all balls in the air were rightly his. He was scrupulously clean in all he did, but throughout the match he was never more than a couple of yards from my side,

He was equally strong on the carpet, and try as I knew I simply could not leave him standing. I tried rushing out into an open space for the ball. When it came to me I would feel confident that I was away at last. But suddenly a long leg would reach out and take the ball from my feet with almost ridiculous ease. Yes, Jack is a grand player, and Luton fully deserved the point they took away from Shepherd’s Bush. They held on to a goalless draw.

The most outstanding match in my memory is the English trial match of a year ago. I was in pretty good form all season, but no one was more surprised – and delighted – than myself when I was told I had been picked to play in the Possibles side. I was naturally anxious to pull out the best of which I was capable, and perhaps over-eagerness had something to do with my ordinary display. But don’t forget that I had had very little experience indeed, and, further, had never before played in football of this class.

Those two facts helped a lot, no doubt, to keep me in subjection. Alf Young did the rest. I have often heard Alf described as the finest defensive pivot in the game, and he certainly had me all nicely wrapped up. So close did Alf stick to me, in fact, that even the bleak air of Manchester didn’t make me feel cold.

I had two first-class inside-forwards playing alongside me. The fair, fragile figure of Eastham and the sturdy form of Len Goulden were constantly weaving their way into position before drawing Young from me, and then slipping me the ball. But the tall Huddersfield pivot’s powers of recovery are almost miraculous. Quiet and studious, he seemed to have an uncanny knowledge of which way I was going with the ball, and somehow always contrived to be in my path. The nonchalant ease with which he relived me of possible scoring chances left me a bewildered man. I did manage to elude him once, and put the ball in the net past Holdcroft, but the referee adjudged me offside.

It isn’t always the opposing centre-half that has me guessing. I have played several games against really inspired goalkeepers. You know, the sort that read your thoughts seconds before you put them into action.

In Coventry City’s promotion year they came to play us at Loftus Road, and forced us to concede them a point, no goals being scored. Our boys, however, fully deserved both points, but Morgan, in the City goal, played brilliantly. Time after time one or other of our forwards would get right through and fire from almost point-blank range. But still he remained invincible. Our own supporters rose to him at the end of the game. An ovation he thoroughly merited.

Teams such as Brighton set a centre-forward more than one problem. The sturdy, dominating figure of Stevens, with his strong tackling is a difficult enough obstacle, but when his fine defensive qualities are added to the brilliant positional play of the thin, lanky right-back King they are almost unbeatable. Not only is King on the right spot at the right moment, but his exceptionally long legs seem to cover every square inch of the penalty area. Players like this should be handicapped. They don’t give a forward a chance.

Quite a different type of player is Jimmy Wallbanks, the dour little Millwall centre-half. Jimmy may be small in stature, but he’s a giant in the football sense. Unlike Nelson and Young, the fair, tousle-headed Lion is a terrier. He has to be, for as centre-halves are measured these days, Jimmy has to have something to make up for his lack of inches. When I first played against this hard-as-nails pivot I thought I was going to be in for a fairly easy afternoon. I seemed to tower above him. I suppose at the most he is only 5ft 7ins in height.

But after we had only been playing a short while, I began to wonder whether he had springs attached to his heels. The manner in which he got up over my head to a high ball was nothing short of amazing. In addition, he is tremendously speedy, and I believe he has actually won prizes for sprinting.

He gave me my hardest afternoon ever. There is nothing stereotyped about Jimmy. He never gives up. He will clear a stray ball that looks anything but his with a breath-taking piece of acrobatics. Believe me, when we walked off the field at New Cross, I felt as stiff as a statue ! We were beaten two-nil, and deservedly so.

After that little packet, you can easily imagine that when we visited New Cross again this year I was all set for another do-or-die struggle. And I didn’t fancy my chances very much. But either Jimmy had an off-day or I played above myself. Remembering my previous experience against this bustling centre-half, I was determined to keep moving in an effort to find one or two open spaces.

Harry Lowe and Fitzgerald, our inside-forwards, saw to it that the ball was sent away from the centre and into an open space where I could run on to it. This scheme worked, and we ran out easy winners by 4 goals to 1. I scored 1.

One of the poorest games I have played was against Newport County at Shepherd’s Bush this season. Although Low kept a close watch on me, I was given enough chances to win the match. Joe Mallett, our new inside-forward, had settled down nicely, and he drew the centre-half away from me on several occasions before slipping the ball to me. But nothing would go right. Shots either went past the post or straight at Pearson. It was just one of our off-days.

But we more than made up for that lapse when we visited Bristol in the first round of the English Cup. For the first fifteen minutes the game was fairly even, but after that our boys simply overwhelmed the Rovers. We scored 8. It might just as easily have been 28 ! The Rovers made great efforts to put our scoring machine out of action, even going to the extent of a colossal switch-round of positions. I had the satisfaction of scoring a hat-trick, as did Paddy Fitzgerald, our strong, foraging inside-left. On that day’s play we could have beaten almost any team in the country.

Centre-forward ? Yes, I like it. I enjoy these tussles with my friendly-enemies – the “stoppers” of football. He is trying to do the best for his side. So am I. May the best man win !’

The ‘Topical Times’ was published by DC Thomson in London. It began in a newspaper format in 1919 and it’s supposed to be the first weekly newspaper to include extensive football coverage.

My copy of number 949 didn’t include the ‘4 great photos of football stars’ unfortunately, but glancing at the league tables, I noticed that the R’s were top of the Third Division (Southern Section). The leaders of the old First Division were Brentford !

Steve Russell

2 thoughts on “‘Defenders Who Keep Me Guessing’ by Tom Cheetham of Queen’s Park Rangers F.C.

  1. Great find and article. Not sure if ghost written but very articulate man if not. The expressions and language miles away from the neolithic utterances of some players today. Pure poetry!
    Great read.

  2. Together with George Goddard, Stan Bowles and of course Rodney, Tommy Cheetham was one of my Dad’s all time favourite Rs players. Nice article guys – thanks for sharing!

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