Author Susan Gardiner has just released a book on British Chinese footballer Frank Soo, entitled ‘The Wanderer: The Story Of Frank Soo’. Speaking to Resonate, Gardiner discusses her research and the importance of remembering Soo.
Frank Soo was the first Chinese footballer in the league and even played for England, making him the first non-white player to represent the country. However, his name has been lost in the depths of history and despite his talent, his name will fail to ring any bells with even the most seasoned football fanatic.
Why Frank Soo? What about him interested you?
SG: I write about the history of football, among other things, and I noticed his name in something I was reading and wondered why I had never heard of him, so I looked him up online. I later found out that a lot of the information that is online is factually incorrect but there was enough there to make me feel intrigued as to why someone who had achieved such great things in football was virtually unknown now. The more research I did, the more interesting he turned out to be. Then I managed to contact a member of his family – his nephew, John Soo – and realised that it was important to tell his story to as wide an audience as possible.
How did the idea of a book come out?
SG: There was just so much of a story to tell. Originally, I was thinking along the lines of a magazine article or maybe even a series of articles, but the more research I did the more I felt there was enough interesting material for a book. I also began to feel quite passionately that Frank Soo deserves to be back in the narrative of football history where he belongs and a book will do that far better than an article or a blog can.
Your book was funded through crowd funding, why crowdfunding and what were the challenges presented through crowdfunding?
SG: It was purely because of the lack of interest from mainstream publishers. This is my fourth book and the first three were commissioned by a publisher so I thought I’d be able to sell the idea to a sports publisher really easily. An example is one publisher who replied to my submission that the subject was “too niche.” I was really annoyed by this. There have been biographies of some fairly obscure footballers published, people who didn’t achieve anything like as much as Frank Soo did, so why was he not considered to be a good subject? I decided on crowdfunding because I wanted to make sure I had enough to finance what was quite expensive research – he spent over 30 years in Scandinavia, for example – but actually the greatest benefit of crowdfunding for me was the publicity.
SG: It attracted a massive amount of interest and put me in touch with quite a few more members of the Soo family. In the end, I did receive interest from a couple of publishers but by that time I had a very clear picture in my mind of what I wanted the book to be like and I didn’t want to compromise. I’ve set up a small, indie publishing company, Electric Blue Publishing, and I’ve found a way to distribute it worldwide so I’m happy with the decision I made.
Did you encounter any difficulties doing research on Frank Soo?
SG: It was very hard! The main problem was that there are very few people left alive who actually met him, let alone saw him play, so that made it difficult to find out first hand what sort of a person he was. Another problem was he spent so much time in other countries, so finding out about his time as manager of Padova in Italy, or his long period coaching in Sweden, was a real challenge. I started to learn Swedish so that I could translate the newspaper articles that I found about him and I also had to translate the Italian ones too. In that sense it is the toughest research I have ever done.
Who was Frank Soo?
SG: You’ll have to read the book!
Frank was a very impressive person, I think. He seems to have made an impression on every one he met. He had immense personal charm and was an extremely skilful footballer. I could list his achievements – the first professional footballer of Chinese heritage in England, the first and only Chinese footballer to play for England, alongside the great names of the game like Stanley Matthews and Tommy Lawton, Captain of the Royal Air Force football team during the Second World War, the manager of Norway at the 1952 Olympic Games, head coach of the national side of Sweden. I think there’s much more to him than that though.
He was an inspirational figure, who brought a new style of professionalism to the game of football as both a player and a coach. When he was playing during the 1930s and 1940s, he was regarded as a hero and a role model and he was a household name, just as famous as Stanley Matthews. He deserves to be restored to that place.
Just how good of a footballer was he?
SG: He was one of the best players of his time. He was an elegant, creative winger, but not a prolific goal scorer. People loved to watch him play. Joe Mercer and Neil Franklin, both England internationals themselves, picked him in their all-time teams and I think it’s better coming from those people who actually saw him play. These are just a few, typical descriptions:
SG: Stan Mortensen (Blackpool & England): “As a feeder of forwards, he was perhaps neater than the other three [George Farrow, Billy Wright and Joe Mercer], but perhaps not quite so destructive when it came to breaking up the other side’s moves. Everything he did was hall-marked, however, and he seemed incapable of a clumsy movement.”
SG: Western Daily Press, 1935: “This sleek-haired inside-right was a fine dribbler, and his habit of tricking the Bristol men by throwing the ball up behind to a teammate as he was on the move often confused the home defence.”
SG: Sentinel, 1938: “Soo stood out so high above the others on Saturday [a 0-2 defeat at home to Leicester in which Frank scored] 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.”
Why do you think he wasn’t remembered in football folklore?
SG: That’s a big question, with a complicated answer, I think. Some of it is certainly connected with the fact that he left England in 1951 to coach in Italy and rarely returned until he retired. He managed Scunthorpe United for one season, but British football was very insular then and the press gradually lost interest in him. I think it would have been different if he had stayed coaching in England. That doesn’t explain everything, however. I read a lot of books covering the period when Frank Soo was at the height of his fame and he is barely mentioned in any of them.
SG: It’s quite bizarre, especially when you compare it with the adulation he received at the time. It is very hard to understand why he almost became invisible and, it has to be said, I do think it’s connected with the fact that he was partly Chinese. Frank Soo thought that was the reason why he was not picked for England more often and he was in the best position to know. I don’t think he would have disappeared quite so completely from football history if he had not been perceived as being “different” – although that isn’t the only reason. I hope that people will make up their own minds when they have read his story.