Football Statues XI: Because symbolism is never out of fashion

What a kerfuffle about big bronze blokes (hardly any women) there is in Britain today. For those who don’t know, the movement to bring down statues of difficult figures of the past hit Bristol, in the West of England, when Edward Colston was toppled into the river and the arts centre named after him is due to be renamed. All of this is because of his links with slavery 200 years ago.

Winston Churchill, glorious Prime Minister during the Second World War, held some quite racist views and thus there was a movement to remove his statue too. Led by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, a group of blokes sought to protect it and ended up clashing with police. They were not wearing any masks and didn’t keep their social distance, which is vital in the Covid Era. 

Image credit: Flickr

Rather than write more about this culture war against the past, I would like to celebrate figures from British football and have compiled a Statues XI. Many were set up by fans or by clubs to thank great figures from their history, from Arsenal to Carlisle.

Goalkeeper, Full-Backs and Half-Backs

We’re going 2-3-5 in this Statues XI. For the goalkeeper we have two superstars of the pre-Sky Sports era vying for a starting place. Sam Bartram played for Charlton Athletic over 500 times in the era before the abolition of the maximum wage. Even Gordon Banks, standing outside the Britannia Stadium as both a statue and a bust, would defer to Bartram in spite of Banks being England’s greatest ever goalkeeper.

Full-back is not the most glamorous position but produced some legendary players. Ray Wilson is found along with three famous West Ham United players (one of whom to be discussed shortly) in Barking. The man who played on the left at Wembley Stadium thus deserves his Statues XI berth, as does a non-playing member of the 1966 squad. Jimmy Armfield, positioned outside Bloomfield Road, was a humble one-club man whose career stretched from 1954 to 1971. He was also a pillar of BBC commentary team until his death. 

Both players pip their national team manager Alf Ramsey, who can be found outside Portman Road in Ipswich, in our XI, though fans of Glasgow Rangers will without hesitation go for John Greig. In an era dominated by the Lisbon Lions, Greig nonetheless won five First Division titles and six Scottish Cups in the 1960s and 1970s, captaining the team in the Cup Winners Cup run of 1971/72. He also managed the club for five seasons between 1978 and 1983 and he is worth his weight in bronze. Still alive as he approaches 80, and Rangers’ Honorary Life President, it must be an odd sensation for Greig to see himself in statue form outside Ibrox.

Alf Ramsey’s own captain, Bobby Moore, is an automatic choice in the middle of the defence. As well as being included with Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst and Ray Wilson in Barking, his form greets visitors to Wembley Stadium, where he gives his name to the corporate hospitality section. Moore replaced the Wolves and England captain Billy Wright in the national side. Outside Molineux tourists wishing to see the best players from Portugal – including Rui Patricio, who has a statue in Leiria – will see one of the best of centre-halves in statue form. 

If Wolves fans went to the Emirates to see the Arsenal they would ask people who was that bloke with his arms in the air that looks like a donkey. It’s Tony Adams, sealing Arsenal’s league championship in 1997/98. Overcoming alcoholism and setting up the Sporting Chance clinic is as important to Adams as his success on the football pitch. 

Cut down in his prime, Duncan Edwards was a strong midfielder who put Dudley on the map even before Lenny Henry did. I am positive Lenny will have a statue in the Birmingham town, not too far from their most famous son. Moore, Adams, Edwards: you wouldn’t lose a match with them in your team. 

Other Statue XIs may include the following wearing 2-6: Emlyn Hughes, the Liverpool and Question of Sport team captain whose memory lives on in Barrow-in-Furness; Billy Bremner, who welcomes fans to Elland Road; and Fred Keenor, the Welsh full-back who does the same to Cardiff City fans a century after making his debut for the Bluebirds. A survivor of the Somme, he was captain of the 1927 FA Cup winning team. 

Wide Players

The two wingers, at 7 and 11, pick themselves. Stanley Matthews can be found outside the Britannia Stadium in Stoke, where he began his career in 1932 and ended it in 1965, whereupon he was the first footballer to be a Knight of the British Empire. On the opposite wing is the Preston Plumber, Tom Finney, captured in a famous pose in The Splash, which stands outside Deepdale. Both men had huge mutual respect for one another in an era when Northern teams like Blackpool, Preston North End and Wolves were on a level financial playing field with the Southern softies. 

England captain and Inter Miami executive David Beckham – unlike Finney and Matthews not Sir David – has no place in this XI even though his time at Los Angeles Galaxy was celebrated in a statue in 2019. James Corden had a bit of fun when his team at The Late Late Show unveiled an ugly, big-chinned version which appalled David and had the production team in fits. If you want to see a big chin, by the way, head to the Ricoh Arena where Coventry chairman Jimmy Hill (not Sir Jimmy, oddly) stands.

Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone is unlucky to miss out on a place in this XI. The wee man has statues of him outside Celtic Park and in his own memorial garden in Lanarkshire. Jim Baxter, beloved of Rangers and Nottingham Forest, has a statue in his birthplace of Hill of Beath, in Fife, after fans raised the necessary funds. Scott Brown, the Celtic captain, was another famous son of the village who will surely have a statue one day to celebrate his team’s sustained success in the 2010s. He will probably be captured mid-tackle.

Front Three 

It’s tough to ignore the claims of the 1968 European Cup winning frontline who stand in front of Old Trafford. How many tourists have had their photo taken with Best, Law and Charlton, the Holy Trinity? 

Yes there are memorials to Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry – though not Patrick Vieira or Nicklas Bendtner – at the Emirates, while Alan Shearer is cast in bronze outside St James’ Park. Those Newcastle fans had previously seen Jackie Milburn play: Wor Jackie, who helped Newcastle to glory in 1955, has statues outside his old home ground and in his old hometown of Ashington. Bobby and Jackie Charlton, Wor Jackie’s cousin, also came from the pit village; the Charltons’ mum Cissie was born a Milburn, the daughter of Tanner Milburn and cousin of Jackie.

What about the similar claims of the two giant Middlesbrough forwards George Hardwick, captain of England and Great Britain, and pre-war goalscoring titan Wilf Mannion? Or the ‘Lion of Vienna’, Bolton Wanderers player Nat Lofthouse? He stands proudly outside the Reebok Stadium, where his name was invoked during the team’s financial troubles during 2019/20 which has seen them relegated to the fourth tier. 

We’re spoilt for great statues of great strikers. What about the claims of Dixie Dean, the prolific Everton forward, or Peter ‘Ossie’ Osgood, the Chelsea legend? Stan Mortensen scored a hat-trick in the 1953 FA Cup Final, the so-called Matthews Final. Blackpool’s new owners would recognise his genius, as would any fan of England before Sir Alf’s era.

Managers and Miscellaneous

Talking of managers, what would Brian Clough have to say about all this? He isn’t just stood in Nottingham Old Square Market in his adopted city but in his home town of Middlesbrough in Albert Park too. Like Cloughie, Bobby Robson is so beloved at both Ipswich Town and Newcastle United that fans can smile at his statue at both stadiums.

There are many candidates for this XI’s manager. Graham Taylor sits on an iron bench outside Vicarage Road in Watford, Bob Stokoe smiles outside Sunderland’s Stadium of Light where it is forever 1973 and John King can be found at Prenton Park in Tranmere.

Ted Bates is Mr Southampton: player, manager, club president and board member. He died in 2003 and a statue was put up in his honour in 2007 outside St Mary’s. Like the Cristiano Ronaldo statue which followed, it was lampooned as a poor likeness and was replaced. Outside Craven Cottage in Fulham, after the infamous Michael Jackson statue was put up by his friend Mohammed Al-Fayed, Johnny Haynes stands at the gates of the stadium, in front of the stand that bears his name in the stadium where thousands chanted his name.

Haynes famously became the first £100-per-week footballer. This was the era which meant Blackpool and Preston and Wolves could not compete with clubs in big cities like London and Liverpool, where there are statues to great civic heroes. As Caitlin Moran said in a Times articles, in smaller cities like Wolverhampton there is one high street and thus only one place to put a great man. In ‘Wolvo’ they have two statues: Lady Wulfrun, who is only spotted by ‘the skaters’ when they smoke weed; and the ‘Man on the ‘Oss’, Prince Albert on his horse Nimrod, unveiled by a grieving Queen in 1866. ‘His head was regularly accessorised with a traffic cone,’ writes a lady who may well have a statue of her own one day.

Up in Carlisle, birthplace of Hunter Davies, Hughie McIlmoyle can be spotted outside the town’s football ground, Brunton Park. The statue marked the centenary of the football club: old-fashioned number nine McIlmoyle remains a club legend after his three spells there in the 1960s and 1970s either side of time spent at Wolves and Middlesbrough. He scored the most goals in the 1963/64 Fourth Division season, a feat matched by the likes of Ronnie Moore (1975/76), Richard Hill (1986/87) and Steve Bull (1987/88). Bull is surely due a statue too, but then where do we draw the line, or pause the marble?

Derek Dooley played for and managed Sheffield Wednesday before being fired. So fierce was his animosity for his old employer that he let his allegiance to the blue team in Sheffield fall away. The city’s Blades made him Commercial Director and he stayed on the board rising to CEO and Chairman. Dooley was respected in the entire city but the statue stands outside Bramall Lane, not Hillsborough. It is not far from that of Joe Shaw, another one-club man who played over 700 times for the Blades.

William McGregor might well be the only football administrator with a statue (sorry David Berstein, Greg Dyke and Sir Chips Keswick…). Outside Villa Park, fans can gather beside the man who founded the English Football League. Similarly symbolic is the statue of Arthur Wharton at St George’s Park, recognising the first black footballer who died in 1930 having played a handful of times for the likes of Preston North End and Stockport County. 

My favourite statue is in Baku, Azerbaijan. Tofiq Bahramov ran the line at the 1966 World Cup Final and was certain that Geoff Hurst had scored England’s third goal when the ball bounced down over the line. Bahramov aka The Russian Linesman set the gold standard. We should name VAR after him, like tennis does with Hawkeye.

If you go down to Doha today, you can see Headbutt. Installed in the Pompidou Centre in 2012, it celebrates the last action on any football pitch in the career of Zinedine Zidane. Expect fans to flock towards it in 2022, if the World Cup goes ahead, on their visit to the Arab Museum of Modern Art.

Some art is very personal. Roy Sproson made over 800 appearances for Port Vale between 1950 and 1972, not missing a game in a three-year period in the 1950s. Only 13 players have made more appearances in English football than him, of whom only two are one-clubbers: Jimmy Dickinson of Portsmouth and John Trollope of Swindon Town. Was Robbie Williams one of the Vale fans who helped raise funds to erect a Sproson statue? Will we see statues to the likes of fellow 700+ Club members John Burridge, Terry Paine, Graham Alexander, Neil Redfearn, David James or Peter Shilton? 

Finally, and less flippantly, the most poignant statue of all. Dylan Tombides grew up in Perth, Western Australia, before coming through the West Ham academy. He died of testicular cancer in 2014 aged 20, having appeared for them in an emotional League Cup match in 2012 a year after diagnosis. The club retired the number 38 shirt, support the DT38 Foundation and named a Learning Centre after Tombides at their Chadwell Heath training ground. He’s one of their own, after all.

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Jonny Brick

Jonathan Brick is a writer based in Watford, UK. His eBook A Modern Guide to Modern Football is out now.