Gazing at a cloudless night-time sky is a constant reminder as to how tiny our planet really is in comparison. Whether the stars above glow for all to see, or shimmer in the shadowy darkness, it’s an amazing spectacle. Similarly, my sporting firmament has featured stars that are instantly recognisable long beyond their sporting careers. By contrast, other players briefly shine before fading into anonymity. Football’s own constellation contains stars that stand out from the crowd, one of whom is never forgotten at Derby County. History records that Steve Bloomer once stood head-and-shoulders above his peers, ranked the finest player in his day. Although Bloomer was born in Worcestershire, his parents, Caleb Bloomer and Merab Dunn, moved to Derby when he was still young. It was the beginning of something very special for the young boy prodigy, who is long remembered as one of the legendary figures of late-Victorian and Edwardian football. He would eventually fulfil the dreams of thousands week in week out.
Derby County sat in the wings ready to capture a player blessed with exquisite football skills. The knowledgeable spoke of Bloomer and Rolls-Royce in the same breath such was their polished refinement. Indeed, one scribe was praiseworthy in his opinion: “He is as crafty as an oriental and as slippery as an eel and is much given to dealing out electric shocks to goalkeepers at the end of a sinuous run.” His story as a man is inspirational and his uniqueness within the history of football places him deservedly as the one of the first superstars to take to the field. He was the epitome of the old adage that the first yard in football is all in the mind.
The journey of a lifetime began at St James’ Junior School in the Derbyshire Minor League. Cracking home 14 goals in a single match put his name in the frame as one to watch out for. Virtuoso performances for Derby Swifts from 1888 until 1891 further improved his football CV. Onwards and upwards, a golden career path began to light up the game. John Goodall of Preston North End fame is the man credited with recommending Bloomer to Derby County. Nicknamed Johnny Allgood, Bloomer showered wholesome praise on his trusted friend and feted centre-forward: “Goodall took the greatest interest in me when I was a kid. He coached me, secured me for Derby County, played alongside me and never failed to give me valuable hints and advice.” Bloomer added: “Johnny Goodall was a wonderful footballer, brilliant captain and Nature’s gentleman, but little did I think when all the fuss was made over his arrival from Preston what an influence for good was being brought into my life. I always maintain that no player has ever known as much about football and its methods than this old friend of mine.”
Slotting home four goals past Darley Dale in a friendly fixture set the scene for a future goal bonanza. In Tina Turner style, his tenure at Derby County was ‘simply the best, better than all the rest!’ Appearing to wear rocket fuelled boots, the goals flew in. Being pale-faced, almost ill-looking and slight of stature, it didn’t hinder him in the slightest. Bloomer proved a worthy trooper possessing shooting skills of the highest calibre off either foot. His speciality was a daisy cutter – a low, ground-hogging shot of pinpoint accuracy. Only deadly scoring-machines Dixie Dean and Jimmy Greaves are ahead of Bloomer in goals scored in top flight English football. He did take his fair share of clogging elbows and digging heels, yet nothing could stop this peerless footballer, whose rapier like shot was matched by exquisite, defence-splitting passes, and played in front of massed crowds.
His performance as First Division top striker on five occasions at Derby helped build a great rapport with the County faithful, while applauded a rapturous reception each time he trotted out onto the pitch. Fourteen consecutive years in all as the Rams top striker. It’s a pity the European Golden Boot Award hadn’t been thought of in 1896! In tandem with Aston Villa’s Johnny Campbell, the pair outscored anyone else in Europe. Campbell played an instrumental part in Villa’s championship season, ending up top scorer with 26 to his name. During his time playing for Celtic twice, Aston Villa and Third Lanark, he collected nine winners’ medals, with success coming at each club. He also held the honour of scoring Aston Villa’s first goal at Villa Park.
From 1895 until 1907 Bloomer popped in 28 goals from 23 international appearances. Whipping boys Ireland suffered a 9-0 mauling, Bloomer chipping in with two on his first outing. Playing against Wales on 16 March 1896, he upped the ante. Showing commanding form, Bloomer drilled home five of the best. The hapless Welsh suffered from a further Bloomer onslaught when thumping in four past an overworked goalkeeper in March 1901, and so becoming the first player to score two hat-tricks for England. Eight British Home Championship victories can be added to his impressive credentials. Overall, Bloomer stands in ninth position in the all-time England goal list up to 2013. On the international scene, he became the first captain to lead both amateurs and professionals. An all-round sportsman,he gave outstanding service to Derby County Baseball Club helping the team to secure three championships in the 1880s. An American baseball expert even offered this wholesome praise: “the best second baseman in England.”
Time and tide though wait for no man. At the age of 32, Bloomer waved an emotional farewell to his beloved County in March 1906, the final pages of his supposedly last chapter full of priceless memories. At that precise moment, Middlesbrough were searching for a proven striker and so quickly snapped Bloomer up for £750. Understandably, the terrace fans at Derby were devastated by this. Not one to be work-shy, their former hero continued showing good form. Top scorer in two seasons, he certainly paid back the outlay with added interest. First £1,000 footballer Alf Common proved a worthy team-mate, as well as Fred Pentland (an Englishman who became a top manager in Spain). Scoring 61 goals from 125 outings at Middlesbrough was definitely a job well done. After serving four years at Middlesbrough, Derby then enticed Bloomer back in 1910. An emotional welcome homecoming provided the impetus for a swansong finale, the club having fallen into Division Two for the first time. Back in familiar surroundings, the goals arrived thick and fast: 20 from 28 outings. The following season (1911/12) he assisted Derby County back into Division One as champions, level on points with promoted Chelsea.
Aboard the Queen Mary, a Bloomer mural adorned the luxurious public rooms some 22 years into his retirement. On his day, the great man rivalled cricketer WG Grace and even outshone him globally where Grace was unheard of. The press said of him in 1905: “known throughout the world wherever football is played and being developed.” Bloomer laid a valid claim to be called the ‘most famous sportsman in the world’. Young girls wrote poems in his praise and starstruck boys called at his home for football tips. Before World War One broke out Steve Bloomer departed England for a coaching job at Berlin Britannia Football Club. This was probably the only time that he’d mistimed anything! The German hierarchy imposed a three-year prison sentence on him, to be detained at Ruhleben civilian prison camp. Even there, football remained the number one priority on his activity list.
Bloomer’s health quickly deteriorated in the 1930s, with severe bronchial attacks causing deep concern at Derby County. In an effort to alleviate the suffering, the directors generously paid a passage aboard a cruise ship. Venturing to New Zealand and Australia, he received a warm, sincere welcome at every port of call. Just three weeks back in England, Steve Bloomer suffered a relapse and sadly passed away. On the day of his funeral, the cortège witnessed the largest gathering ever known in the town of Derby such was the high esteem held for their football son.
Liverpool fans sing ‘You’ll never walk alone’. Derby County, to this day, never let their past hero ‘walk alone’, as the club’s anthem ‘Steve Bloomer’s Watchin’ is played on the tannoy, as it has ever since it was officially introduced at a Boxing Day fixture against Newcastle United in 1997. Without doubt, Steve Bloomer established himself as one of football’s brightest stars.
Footnote: On 17 January 2009 a bust of Bloomer was unveiled next to the home dugout at Pride Park Stadium.
Skulduggery in the first ever Northern Union Challenge Cup Final is next.