Book Review: The Wanderer
The Wanderer by Susan Gardiner
Published by Electric Blue Publishing
Frank Soo is famous as the first player of Chinese descent to play professional football in England. His career spanned either side of World War II and he is probably best known for his time at Stoke City, operating as a right-half/right winger on the opposite wing to future knight of the realm Stanley Matthews and using it as a launch pad to play nine times for England.
Those appearances in the national jersey occurred during the conflict, so hold the status of ‘wartime’ or ‘victory’ internationals, the ‘official’ nature of which can be debated, while Soo took part in an FA Services XI’s match in Paris in September 1944, The echo of General Patton’s tanks still resonating as they proceeded eastwards.
Soo left Stoke after the cessation of hostilities having featured for a host of clubs as a guest during the war — Everton, Chelsea, Millwall and Brentford among them. Having been appointed Potters’ captain for the 1939-40 season, his timing could not have been more unlucky — only three fixtures were fulfilled at the start of that campaign before the country’s footballing youth was whisked away. With the authorities’ realising that football could act as a real morale booster in such troubled times, Soo conducted his military training in the unlikely surrounds of Butlins Holiday Camp in Skegness even if this again presented an opportunity to play around with a ball — and his inclination to wander started from there.
At Leicester, the club Soo joined after leaving the Potteries, his team mates included the Basque Emilio Aldecoa and future England boss Don Revie and he wound up his playing career with spells at Luton and Chelmsford City before managing a host of clubs, most of them in Sweden and including both Norwegian and Swedish national teams.
Such peregrinations explain the title of Susan Gardiner’s biography of Soo, published via her own Electric Blue Publishing and a fascinating insight into the life and career of a unique figure it is too. Gardiner’s previous books have generally revolved around her beloved Ipswich Town as well as the Suffolk city more generally, so this constitutes a serious branching out one can only imagine the amount of work it has entailed ploughing through regional newspaper archives, biographies and first-hand accounts from Frank Soo’s descendants.
With a handsome photo selection in the middle, the book includes a preface from Soo’s great-niece Jacqui and a fascinating foreword that ponders Soo’s relationship with Matthews. The Liverpool-born Chinese man merits scarcely a mention in Matthews’ autobiography and while there is no evidence of any rivalry or hostility between the men, this is one of several agonisingly dangling questions surrounding Soo as a man.
Soo’s relatives contest that a racist cartoon depicting Soo as a coolie in The Leicester Mercury led to the end of this England career but Gardiner has been unable to unearth the offending image. Ostensibly an ordinary man whose main off-pitch hobby was the distinctly unstartling one of golf, racism was no doubt present throughout the player’s career, but the level of vitriol seems to have been trumped by Soo’s genuine popularity. Great anecdotes are unearthed and the press is quoted liberally but the book has only a certain amount of evidence to work with as to what Soo was really like — as a coach, he was a disciplinarian whose ban on alcohol and the Swedish stick sport bandy went down about as well as a herring plate at a vegetarian convention while the death of his wife Freda from an overdose of barbiturates hint at something darker — Soo was to outlive Freda by four decades.
Numerous interviews with The Daily Worker and an unwillingness to stay in the shadows over contract negotiations and player pay highlight Soo as a the representative of a proud Liverpudlian tradition of sticking up for the small man although there’s no record of how he responded to Mao’s revolution of 1949 and later in his career, a sizeable contract when he joined Scunthorpe as a manager did cause resentment. Overall, however, Soo’s time in the sport is an important one in the history of Britain’s ethnic minorities in football and the author is to be congratulated for bringing his history back into our collective consciousness.