The USA’s Unlikely World Cup Hero

Ed McIlvenny shakes hands with the England captain Billy Wright

These days there are no surprises in football. Unexpected discoveries are rare in the World Cup because we’ve been watching most of the players week-in week-out on the sports channels. But it wasn’t always like that: players used to come from left field to grab our attantion, and one of the most obscure was came briefly to light in 1950.

Incredibly, a player rejected by Wrexham a year earlier was captain of the side which pulled off one of the greatest shocks in World Cup history, and England were the victims!

Like most things the French invented, the World Cup was something the English took an instinctive dislike to.  Whether their motives lay in a desire to maintain their aura of invincibility-remember, a team from outside Britain didn’t win in England until 1953-or because the game’s inventors simply felt that the tournament was beneath them, England did not bother to enter any of the three pre-war World Cups.  However, they decided to give it a whirl in 1950, sending a squad to Brazil, and showed that they were modernising by appointing their first ever team manager, Walter Winterbottom.

Media coverage was sparse, but it was a strong side that crossed the Atlantic, containing Billy Wright, Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Wilf Mannion, Alf Ramsey and Stanley Matthews.  Little did they know that lying in wait for them was their nemesis.  Not Brazil, Argentina or holders Italy, but a team of part-timers drawn from amateur football and captained by a Wrexham reject!

Eddie McIlvenny arrived at The Racecourse in March 1947 from Scotland, where he had played for the exotically-named Klondike Athletic while working on the Strathclyde docks.  He made five appearances in his first season at The Racecourse and managed just  three games the following campaign before he was released.  A trial with Oldham Athletic came to nothing so the unemployed player emigrated to Philadelphia, where he played for the local side, the Nationals, became an American citizen, and was selected for their 1950 World Cup squad.

That squad was a motley bunch.  McIlvenny was the only one who made his living from the game; amongst the other were a meat-packer, a cook, some students, a teacher and a pattern-cutter in a factory which made women’s cardigans.

Their recent form did little to encourage optimism either.  They lost 9-0 to Italy in the 1948 Olympics and 11-0 to Norway on their way home, not to mention a 5-0 loss to a Northern Ireland XI which featured five amateurs!

The contrast was also clear in the manner of the two sides’ qualification.  England hammered Northern Ireland twice on their way to winning the Home International Championship, which was used as a qualifying group. Meanwhile, the USA  were pasted 6-0 and 6-2 by Mexico, but two of the sides in their three-team group would go through, so a draw and a win over Cuba, their first for fifteen years, allowed them to squeak through.

The USA side line up against England

Having qualified, the squad was augmented by the likes of McIlvenny; players who had appeared in the lower leagues of English, Polish and Belgian football.  They had two warm-up games to get to know each other, and those encounters hardly boded well: in one of them they lost 5-0 to the Turkish team Besiktas, despite the fact that the visitors substituted many of their team at half time to allow them to catch an earlier plane home!

The other warm-up game was against a touring side from the English F.A., made up of players who had not been chosen for the England squad and were exhausted by a fourteen hour journey from Canada, not to mention a schedule of thirteen games in a gruelling month.  The result was a triumph for McIlvenny’s team: they only lost 1-0!  To put their delight in context, their goalkeeper, Frank Borghi, was a hearse driver who wanted to be a baseball player and didn’t take himself seriously as a footballer.  He was nick-named “The Six Goal Wonder” by his team-mates because of his ability to keep the other side down to six goals a game!

England started their World Cup campaign soundly enough, able to leave Stanley Matthews out of the side but still beat Chile 2-0.  Meanwhile, the USA had shown spirit in their opening match, leading 1-0 against Spain with ten minutes left only to run out of steam and lose 3-1.  This capitulation was perhaps understandable as the majority of the side was drawn from the local leagues around St. Louis, which played thirty-minute halves!

This gutsy effort didn’t change anybody’s expectations for their next match, against England.  Odds of 500-1 against an American win were offered by one London bookie, and he would have delighted to hear of their preparations for the game!    Convinced they had little chance the following day, the American players stayed out partying until the early hours!  They raised eyebrows when they arrived for the match, some wearing Stetsons, others chewing on cigars.  Even Bill Jeffrey, the American manager, admitted “We ain’t got a chance against your boys….We’ve got to take it on the chin…we came to Rio to learn.”

Meanwhile, Winterbottom ignored the advice of the press and opted not to rest any of the players who had beaten Chile.

While the rutted Belo Horizonte pitch didn’t do England any favours, they started off in the expected manner, dominating the Americans and creating chance after chance.  The problem was, none of them would go in!  Roy Bentley, the English centre forward, hit the post and Jimmy Mullen blazed over a virtually open goal.

Also, Borghi had a blinder, as much by luck as judgement as Billy Wright later wrote of him making three saves with his face!  Wearing an odd outfit of short sleeves and knee-pads, he made a good early save from Mannion, pushed a Finney header over the bar and then saw England pepper his goal with inaccurate shots, missing chance after chance.  A frustrated England complained of “Gremlins in the goal”

Then, in the thirty-seventh minute, the unthinkable happened.  McIlvenney, the Wrexham reject, took a throw-in to Walter Bahr, whose hopeful shot was heading straight at the keeper until forward Larry Gaetjens ducked in front of him to head it home!  It was a bizarre goal.  Many felt that the shot hit Gaetjens rather than it being a deliberate action, but no matter: the USA were ahead, and the partizan Brazilian crowd went wild!

Gaetjens scores the winner

England reacted furiously, but were repelled by a stubborn defence and a midfield marshalled superbly by McIlvenny.  At his side, McIlvenny had a remarkable lieutenant, perfectly suited to such a rearguard action.  Charlie Colombo playing in boxing mittens, swore, spat and chopped any Englishman who dared to come near him.  As the second half wore on and both sides became increasingly desperate, Colombo rugby tackled Mortensen.  Conspiracy theorists claim the Italian referee spared him a sending off to help eliminate one of his nation’s main rivals, although as it turned out, Italy were eliminated that day!

The English pressed continually in the second half, but their frustration only grew as their attacks were repelled.  A Mullen header appeared to have crossed the line, but the linesman gave no goal, in contrast to 1966!  Reliable statistics are hard to come by, and the match was not filmed, but The People’s reporter reckoned England hit the woodwork eleven times!

Fifty-three long minutes passed, the Americans clinging desperately to their lead and the hope that they would not suffer another late collapse, until the final whistle finally blew.  The victors were chaired off the pitch while, in the words of legendary football journalist Brian Glanville “newspapers burned on the terraces, a funeral pyre for England” as they slinked off the pitch, ashamed.  It was the first time an England side had worn blue shirt, and unsurprisingly the last as well!

There had been little interest in the match in an America preoccupied by the Korean War and, on a sporting front, the breakdown of the racial segregation of baseball.  However, the remarkable result gave the American press the opportunity to crow, one New York paper leading with the headline “England Have Been Beaten By the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck Team”, while another dubbed it “The Game That Shook  the World.”

One Brazilian paper carried the scoreline on its front page and nothing else, although the most violent response came from England.  The Daily Worker called it “probably the worst display ever by an England side”, while The Daily Mail described the outcome as “the biggest soccer upset of all time”.  Indeed, a telegram reporting the score to the English newspapers was questioned as a misprint on the assumption that it should have read 10-1!

The English did have a last shot at redemption, but lost their final group match against Spain 1-0 to go out of the competition.  The USA ended their campaign with a 5-2 loss to Chile which left them bottom of their group, but no doubt delighted by what they had achieved.

The fates of the American side were mixed to say the least.  Most of the squad went back to their old way of life, working and playing in part-time obscurity in the US, but McIlvenny’s heroics earned him the most unlikely of transfers, to Manchester United!  Not bad considering he’d not been good enough for Wrexham!  He played in the first two games of the 1950-1 season before reality kicked in, and Matt Busby didn’t allow him another appearance before releasing him.  The fact that he left Manchester United for Headington United suggests Busby had gambled on a player who wasn’t quite up to the level required at Old Trafford, and he ended his career as player-manager of Waterford in Ireland.

By contrast, the goalscorer Gaetjens returned to his native Haiti, an island in the grip of voodoo forces and dark politics, and revealed his support for the opponent of notorious dictator Papa Doc Duvalier.  A month after Duvalier declared himself President for life, Gaetjens was forced into a car at gunpoint and never seen again.  It was just four fourteen years since he had scored the goal which stunned the football world.

McIlvenny’s rags to riches and back again story has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood  epic, and that was exactly what it became last year, but with some bizarre alterations.  Scotsman McIlvenny was clearly not what the studio executives had in mind as an all-American hero, so he was turned into an American and the captain’s armband given to one of the other players when the movie “The Game of Their Lives” was made.

Perhaps the studio would have profited from a more honest approach: the film sank without trace, making five time less in its first weekend than a film acted in Hindi released in the USA on the same day.

McIlvenny never played for the USA again, and eventually settled in Eastbourne, where he died in 1989 aged sixty-four.  His name is not well known, but maybe that’s appropriate: after all, his story hardly follows a conventional script!

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