This is a special Reading the Game to coincide with the anniversary of a seismic, but often overlooked moment in the history of the England Men’s Football Team. The book I’m reviewing is The Wanderer: The Story of Frank Soo by Susan Gardiner. Frank Soo made his England debut on 9th May 1942 – 80 years ago today – and The Wanderer is a biography of the first person of colour to wear the Three Lions.
Not that you’d know that if you relied on the official lists of caps awarded by The FA. Matches played during the Second World War and the Victory Internationals played immediately after the conflict aren’t classified as Full Internationals so, although Frank Soo played in nine of these fixtures between 1942-45, he isn’t listed as an England player.
The Wanderer seeks to shine a light upon the story of a player and coach who, according to Susan Gardiner is “in many ways the forgotten man of twentieth century football”. But given Soo’s relative obscurity, how best to do that?
It would be fair to say that Gardiner researched her subject meticulously; this shines through in the extensive quotes from newspapers which add detail and colour at various points, the careful chronicling of Soo’s family background and the appendix detailing every Football League match Frank Soo ever played.
However, research alone does not a good book make, so it helps that Gardiner writes with both fluency and emotion. The result is a concise story, told in a way that is sympathetic to Soo without being sycophantic.
In many ways, The Wanderer is, to mangle a football cliché, a “book of two halves”. The first half covers the player’s upbringing in a family led by a Chinese father and English mother, first in Derbyshire and then Liverpool. The young Soo is plucked from the relative obscurity of Prescot Cables (a club close to my heart) by Stoke City, for a fee of £400 (or about £30,000 today). Over 13 years at the Victoria Ground, Soo frequently played out of position and his willingness to adapt his game for the good of the team helped him to become Club Captain. Gardiner writes that Soo and his wife Beryl were something of a ‘golden couple’; popular, charismatic, and successful in their respective fields (Freda was a hairdresser with her own business.)
As World War Two progressed, Soo played as a guest for numerous clubs as well as playing Representative and International football. As Soo’s fame increased, so his relationship with Stoke City’s manager, Bob McGrory deteriorated.
By April 1945, the second, more melancholy part of the tale had begun. Soo submitted a transfer request, but his subsequent spells with Leicester City, Luton Town and Chelmsford City were short and sometimes tempestuous. During this period, Frank and Beryl spent time living apart after her father died and she returned to Stoke-on-Trent. Having taken some first steps into coaching towards the end of his playing days, Soo became the manager of St Albans City before embarking on a career so nomadic it inspired the title of the book.
There can’t be many managers who have gone straight from the Isthmian League to Italy’s Serie A, but Frank Soo did, leaving Hertfordshire to take over at Padova in 1951. However, in April 1952, Beryl passed away suddenly. This shock seems to have aggravated a restlessness within Soo which had been present since his final days at Stoke. Over the next 14 years, Soo coached 11 different clubs and was a sort of proto-Bielsa, in that he made great physical demands of his players and often achieved short-term success, but never spent very long in one place. There was a season in the Second Division at Scunthorpe United but in the most part, our hero coached in Scandinavia and settled there, before returning to Stoke in the 1980s.
The overriding impression I got of Frank Soo from The Wanderer was that he was a determined and principled man, but possibly not a happy one. There can be little doubt from this book that Soo was a superb player and an extremely hard-working coach who was possibly ahead of his time. But I also felt a sense of sadness and injustice on Frank Soo’s behalf; I was upset that he was treated shabbily by Stoke City, didn’t receive proper recognition for his brief international career and didn’t seem to find peace of fulfilment in coaching. Saddest of all was that Frank Soo developed dementia towards the end of his life and the game he loved almost certainly was a factor in that illness.
It is a tribute to Susan Gardiner’s writing that all these emotions were stirred up on behalf of a player I never saw and of whom I’d never heard until I moved to Knowsley. The Wanderer is a terrific book; it is well-paced, sharply focussed and a compelling portrait of a man and an era which made history. I owe The Wandering Tractor a thank you for recommending this book to me and reviewing it on his own website.
The Wanderer is published by Electric Blue and is available from Amazon, Waterstones and can almost certainly be obtained via your friendly neighbourhood bookseller if you ask nicely. Anyone with an interest in football history will find this a rewarding read.