Soo was the first Chinese footballer in the league and the first non-white player to represent the country
On 14 April 1945, Frank Soo stood on the football pitch at Glasgow’s Hampden Park prepared to play for England in a rare wartime international match against Scotland. Newspapers reported that thousands of football-starved fans had travelled from all over Britain to watch the game. Many had been unable to find accommodation in the city and had slept outside the night before. The 133,000 people who eventually got into the ground saw two great national sides. The Scotland captain was Matt Busby, England’s was Joe Mercer. Among the England stars present that day were footballing legends Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, and Frank Soo.
Anyone who has a passing interest in British football history will recognise most of those names, but they could be forgiven for not knowing who Frank Soo was. At that time he was widely regarded as the equal of all those other great soccer stars but since then he has almost disappeared from football history.
Frank Soo was born in Buxton, Derbyshire in 1914. His parents, Quan and Beatrice, had recently moved there to open a small laundry. Quan was born in Guangzhou in China in 1884 and had met his future wife in Manchester, where they were married in 1908. At this time, there was hostility, and even violence, towards Chinese immigrants in cities like Manchester and Liverpool, most of it stirred up by local politicians. It may be that the young Soo family decided that it was a good time to move away to the safer, and undoubtedly healthier, climate of the Peak District.
It wasn’t long, however, until they moved again and were running another laundry business, this time in Liverpool. Frank Soo grew up in what seems to have been an extremely hard-working, but very happy and healthy environment. The family excelled at sport. Of the six Soo brothers, five of them: Jack, Ronald, Harold, Kenneth and Frank, played football at a high level. Frank signed for Prescot Cables, then a successful and ambitious lower league side, in 1932. Ronnie followed in Frank’s footsteps and also played for Cables a few years later. It’s impossible to know whether he would ever have been as good as his older brother, however, because at the age of only 23 Ronnie was killed when his RAF bomber crashed in Germany in 1944. Kenny, the youngest brother, would later sign for Derby County, but Frank was the best footballer of them all, and by the mid-1930s he had already become a household name in Britain.
After only two months at Prescot Cables, Frank was spotted by Stoke City manager, Tom Mather – the man who discovered Stanley Matthews – and he signed for Stoke in 1933. At first, Frank was known as “the Chinaman,” and newspaper reports always mentioned his Chinese origins, often mistakenly assuming that he had been born in China. Popular right from the beginning of his career, Soo threw himself into Stoke-on-Trent life with gusto, taking part in charity events, representing his team at community events, and above all, winning the hearts of fans with his elegant, skillful, passing style of football. He won the heart of one supporter in particular when a young autograph hunter, Beryl Lunt, the daughter of a local schoolteacher, came to the Stoke City ground to ask for his autograph. They were married in June 1938. It is a measure of how famous Frank was that his wedding was covered by several national newspapers, including the Daily Express.
By this time, both sports writers and supporters were asking why Soo hadn’t been picked for England. He was described by those who saw him play as an “elegant,” “tricky” and “cultured” footballer, who won the admiration of everyone who watched him, and, to this day, people remember him as one of the greatest players that they ever saw. By 1937, he had become captain of Stoke City and one local reporter wrote:
“Soo stood out so high above the others on Saturday that one wonders what he really has to do to be officially acknowledged the best wing-half in England today. He is already unofficially acknowledged to be that on those grounds that have seen him in the last two or three months. His right to international honours has been overlooked in the past in such a way that we are tired of hoping for the best for him. …”
Frank Soo was not the only talented footballer whose career was interrupted by the Second World War, but at the age of 25, it came at a particularly bad ttime. He was at his peak when war broke out. Nevertheless he did his duty and immediately began war work at a Michelin tyre factory until he was called up to join the Royal Air Force. Although he continued to play for Stoke City, Soo also played wartime games for Everton, Chelsea and Brentford, as well as captaining the RAF XI, and finally, he was chosen to play for England. He played in nine internationals, including matches at Wembley and in France and Switzerland. One can only imagine the pride that Quan and Beatrice must have felt at seeing their son line up to play for his country, and be introduced to European royalty and the leading politicians of the day.
After the war, Frank – aged 32 by the time he was discharged from the RAF in 1946 – left Stoke City, following a dispute with his manager about which position he should play in. He moved to Leicester City for a short time, but he was already spending his summers coaching in Scandinavia, and although he went on to have successful periods at Luton Town and Chelmsford City, his playing career was on the wane. He went on to be a very successful coach, mainly in Sweden, including being appointed the national coach of Norway for the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.
He returned to England only very rarely. His wife died, tragically young, in March 1953, and after that he cuts a slightly lonely figure, always moving around Europe, as if he could not really settle down again. He was the manager of Scunthorpe United for the 1959/60 season, where he coached the young Graham Taylor, and returned occasionally on family visits, eventually retiring back to the Stoke area in the 1980s. Like many professional footballers of that era, Frank suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and he died in Cheadle cottage hospital, in Staffordshire in 1991.
The reasons for the disappearance of Frank Soo from football history are hard to understand. Clearly, he spent more than thirty years outside the UK and that must have made a difference, but that does not really explain why he has been overlooked in comparison with other great stars of the time. Sammy Chung, another footballer from a Chinese background (Reading, Watford and manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers), certainly saw him as a role model when he was a young player. He told The Guardian in 2005,
“I saw him play, but I never sat down and spoke with him. That is something that annoys me to this day. I watched him and read about him any time I got a chance. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
In order to write my book, I’ve read dozens of memoirs by footballers who played alongside or against Frank Soo. He is barely mentioned in any of them. Stan Matthews, who wrote five autobiographies, mentioned “Frankie” Soo in only one, and did not talk about him as a footballer at all. Perhaps there was an element of rivalry, but it doesn’t quite explain why he has been so left out.
In 1975 Frank told a reporter that he believed that there was one reason why he had not been picked more often for England: “because of my Chinese blood.” It is difficult to argue with that. He was a brilliant sportsman, a high achiever, and a role model. I think his story is still capable of inspiring young footballers today. Throughout his life, he seems to have been a man of principle who stood up for what he believed in. Perhaps now is the time for football to stand up for Frank Soo, and return him to his rightful place among the great figures of English football. I am hoping that my forthcoming book will be just the beginning of this.
Editorial note: Susan will be at the The Chinese Community Challenge Cup 華人挑戰杯 giving a talk about Frank Soo and her up and coming book.
For more updates about the project follow her facebook page Frank Soo Project