Friday, October 07, 2011

Forgotten Scotland Players: Barney Battles

Barney Battles.

A name worthy of echoing down the decades. And Scottish football can boast two of them.

Both with a tale to tell.

Barney Battles Senior played for Celtic, Liverpool, Dundee, Hearts and Kilmarnock and was capped for Scotland three times.

In 1896 he went on strike at Celtic because he'd been criticised by a number of journalists. It seems a wonderfully modern reason for withdrawing labour, confirming that football today doesn’t have character enough to even harbour original grudges.

Tragically Barney Battles died in 1905 at the age of just 30 when a bout of ‘flu developed into pneumonia.

Some months later Scotland played Ireland at Celtic Park and the gate receipts were donated to his pregnant wife.

That October she gave birth to a son. She named him in tribute to his father.

Scottish football's second Barney Battles was born. But the game in his homeland would have to be patient.

The younger Barney attended Edinburgh's Holy Cross High School, since amalgamated with St Andrew’s Junior High School into St Augustine’s, before his mother decided the family would enjoy a better life an ocean away.

And so a teenage Barney found himself in Boston.

Perhaps not entirely predictably he discovered an America that offered him the ideal place to launch his football career.

The game has often enjoyed sporadic booms in the States but lacked sustainability. The early 1920s was a boom time as the American Soccer League made inroads in the north east of the country. Immigrant communities offered talent and supporters, industrialists offered sponsorship.

Barney was in the right place at the right time.

He impressed with the Boston Celtics and then, at the age of 19, was offered professional terms with the Boston Soccer Club, known as the Wonder Workers. In his first season he was something of a scoring sensation as the club won both the Lewis Cup and the American Professional Soccer Championship, a mash up competition between the ASL and the older St Louis Soccer League to determine which team could be considered national champions. He scored both home and away in a two legged decider against the Ben Millers.

International recognition was immediate. Battles was picked to play for the United States national team against Canada in Montreal, the hosts winning 1-0.

He continued to impress as the Wonder Workers performed consistently in the ASL and finally landed the championship in 1928.

But by the late 1920s the ASL - which had contributed to soccer becoming America’s second largest spectator sport - was splintering. The economy was careering towards the misery of the Great Depression.

It was time to come home.

Willie McCartney, who would later cross the city and become the architect of Hibs’ Famous Five, had taken over from his father as Hearts manager in 1919. Hearts remained a big club but throughout the 1920s they had struggled to recover from the sacrifices their great pre-war team had made during the First World War.

The manager liked what he saw in the 23 year old Battles. A £9 a week contract was signed and - a tribute to either his celebrity spreading across the Atlantic or because of his famous name - 18,000 turned up to watch him make his debut in what amounted to a match between Hearts and Hearts reserves.

His first competitive game was at Hampden against Queen’s Park. Not a bad homecoming for a footballer. And a fine place to score a first competitive goal for a new club. A goal in his first game, two goals in his second game and three goals in his third game. The young Barney had a certain flamboyance.

What standard of football had he been playing in the States? If his return to Scotland involved a step up in class he didn’t let it show. He scored 31 goals in 28 league games that first season. In the local cup competitions that used to round off the Edinburgh football season he scored a scarcely credible 11 goals in just three games against Hibs. Across all competition he scored 68 times, including five in a league representative match against Ireland.

I’m not an expert on the feats that build a Tynecastle legend but he must have been getting pretty close.

He scored 26 league goals the following season and another seven on a Scottish Cup run that was ended by Rangers in the semi final. He also scored another four for the Scottish League side. In one game. Against Ireland. Again.

How to top that? Barney had an answer. In 1930/31 he missed some games with appendicitis, scored hat-tricks in three straight games and ended up with 44 league goals. Hearts finished fifth that year and scored 90 league goals. Barney came very close to contributing half of that tally.

This was a striker playing something close to fantasy football. Even Scotland’s infamously rubbish selectors had to pay some attention. They did. Amazingly though they chose to give him his only cap right the start of his annus mirabilis.

25th October 1930. Scotland v Wales at Ibrox. A 1-1 draw. Inevitably Scotland’s 42nd minute goal was scored by Barney Battles.

It was to be his only Scotland cap. He had a goal a game record. To offer those maligned selectors an olive branch of understanding it is important that they preferred to pick Hughie Gallacher throughout Barney’s Tynecastle pomp. Gallacher, of course, had an international goals to game ratio of 1.15 across 20 caps.

Sadly, just when it seemed nothing could stop Battles at club level, a knee injury proved more troublesome than his appendix. His appearances for Hearts became more sporadic. Over the next four seasons he retained his goalscoring ability but the fitness to enjoy a sustained run in the team eluded him.

In 1936 he retired from playing. Willie McCartney had already left Hearts and tried to tempt Barney to Easter Road. He refused:

“What would the Hibs or any other do with a player who because of some physical handicap was liable to let them down in the course of the game?

“So I stayed out, having retired from active participation at the comparatively early age of 29.” (London Hearts)

Journalism followed. He opened an eponymous pub in Newhaven - the boy born in Fisherrow who conquered football on both sides of the Atlantic drawn to the coast again - that lives on in the memory of locals of a certain age.

Two international caps for two different countries. And a goalscoring record at Hearts that would have left his father, the doughty defender he never knew, awestruck.

Forgotten Scotland Players number 8: Barney Battles Junior, Hearts. 1 cap.