Book review: Flying over an Olive Grove: The remarkable story of Fred Spiksley

Flying over an Olive Grove: The remarkable story of Fred Spiksley

By Clive Nicholson, Ralph Nicholson and Mark Metcalf

Review by Paul Brown

A contemporary of Steve Bloomer, John Goodall and William “Fatty” Foulke, Fred Spiksley was one of the most famous footballers of the late-Victorian era, even if his name (often misspelt, during his career and beyond) is not as well-known today. The England and Sheffield Wednesday outside-left scored more than 300 career goals, and won every major honour available to him – the British Home Championship twice with England, and the Football League and the FA Cup with Wednesday.

Spiksley scored a hat-trick on his England debut, against Wales in 1893, and (contrary to official records disputed by the authors of this book) scored another hat-trick on his second England appearance, against Scotland a fortnight later. Spiksley also scored both goals in Wednesday’s cup final win in 1896. The authors have determined that Spiksley’s first cup final goal was the fastest-ever, scored within 20 seconds of the kick-off, five seconds quicker than the official record-holder Louis Saha.

Such efforts to reclaim Spiksley’s achievements indicate the level of research that has gone into this handsome independent publication, which was clearly a labour of love. Clive Nicholson is Spiksley’s great, great nephew. Along with his father Ralph and the football writer Mark Metcalf, he has produced an absorbing biography of a man who was once “the most talked-about footballer in the game”. If Spiksley has since been overshadowed by other Victorian footballers it is perhaps because, like the subjects of most worthwhile football biographies, he was a flawed character.

Spiksley’s key attributes were skill and pace. He was known to play the heavy ball with the outside of his feet, which the authors note was a rare technique at the time. He was also extraordinarily quick – probably the fastest player in the league. His direct style made him a fans’ favourite in what was perhaps the greatest-ever Wednesday side. (The book’s title refers to Wednesday’s Olive Grove ground, where the club played from 1887 until 1899.)

Away from football, Spiksley used his great pace to successfully compete in sprint challenges, claiming prize money and bet winnings. As the book reveals, Spiksley’s fondness for betting would become a problem. He was particularly keen on horse racing, and became addicted to gambling, sometimes missing training to attend race meets. He also appeared in court on charges of illegal bookmaking. Perhaps inevitably, he gambled away all of his money and was declared bankrupt. He was also a womaniser, causing his marriage to fall apart. The acrimonious details of his divorce were reported in newspapers alongside tales of his financial woes, tarnishing his once-great reputation.

Above: Spiksley scoring for England against Scotland in 1893.

In addition to off-field distractions, Spiksley was troubled during the latter part of his career by a serious knee problem that required him to wear a support and blunted his pace. Released by Wednesday, he played briefly for Glossop, Leeds City, Southern United and Watford, before becoming a notably innovative coach. He worked in Europe and the Americas, wrote coaching manuals, and made training films utilising pioneering slow-motion technology. He coached in Sweden, with AIK and the Swedish national team, then in Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Mexico and Peru.

The eclectic latter period of his career makes for fascinating reading. Spiksley was coaching in Germany during the outbreak of the First World War, and narrowly avoided being imprisoned in the Ruhleben internment camp alongside Steve Bloomer and other famous former footballers. He also had a year-long dalliance with the theatre, treading the boards in popular stage show The Football Match. Once again, Spiksley was overshadowed by more famous names. His co-stars included the hugely-popular music hall comedian Harry Weldon – and a rising young performer named Charlie Chaplin. | Red Axe Books, £19.99