Jimmy Stephen: Stalwart footballer for Portsmouth and Bradford Park Avenue
He got the better of Stanley Matthews when Scotland beat the RAF 7-1 in 1944 at Hillsborough
Jimmy Stephen was one of the last links with the Portsmouth team that won the Football League championship in 1949-50. He was also the oldest surviving player to have represented Pompey, Bradford Park Avenue and Scotland, who he captained on his international debut in 1946, when he combined the post-war return to competitive football with service as a “Bevin Boy” in a Yorkshire pit.
A quick mover and sharp tackler who excelled in either full-back position, Stephen divided his war between playing for Bradford and Scotland and working in an engineering plant which manufactured munitions. His transfer to Portsmouth in 1949, nine months after he helped the Yorkshire side take Manchester United to a second replay in the FA Cup, cost his new employers £15,000, a world-record fee for a full-back.
The acclaim and the caps were a far cry from where the 5ft 9in Stephen grew up, in the fishing village of Johnshaven in north-east Scotland. At the age of 15 he played a season of junior football (a term which refers to the level of football played, not the age of the participants) alongside his older brother George for Johnshaven Dauntless in the Montrose and District League.
His school’s headmaster knew David Steele, Bradford’s Scottish manager, and in 1938 a trial was arranged with the Second Division club. On his first day, Stephen recalled, the trainers “ran me ragged”. On the second, he was called into Steele’s office and asked to sign amateur forms. He would train with the professionals in the morning and perform groundstaff chores during the afternoon, for which he was to be paid £2 10s a week.
When Stephen turned 17 he was offered a full-time contract. A week after his birthday he was promoted to the League side at home to Luton. Bradford lost 3-0, with the newcomer scoring an own goal, although he kept his place in the 2-2 draw with Millwall. In between the two games, putting any disappointment in sharp perspective, Germany invaded Poland and Neville Chamberlain announced in a wireless broadcast that Britain was at war with Germany.
In fact, those appearances were expunged from the record when the 1939-40 season was suspended. Barely a week later the blanket ban on football was lifted and Stephen became a fixture in Bradford’s defence in wartime league and friendly matches. He went on to play for the club in 195 such matches – one more than his total of League appearances for Bradford and Portsmouth either side of the war – and also guested for Halifax, Huddersfield and Middlesbrough. In 1944 he was in the Bradford team that drew 32,810 spectators to Park Avenue for the visit of Blackpool, making them the only club to have their record attendance in wartime.
Stephen, playing at right-back, had the misfortune to turn in Matthews’ cross for the decisive goal in Blackpool’s 2-1 win. He faced the “Wizard of Dribble” on five occasions in wartime internationals which drew vast crowds to Wembley, Hampden Park and Villa Park. England won each time. He did, however, get the better of Matthews later in ’44 when Scotland trounced the RAF 7-1 at Hillsborough.
Soon after the war came Stephen’s stint as a “Bevin Boy” (young British men were conscripted to work in the coal industry by Ernest Bevin, the Minister for Labour and National Service in the wartime coalition). With his friend and team-mate Len Shackleton, who later played for England, he worked as a miner at Fryston Colliery, near Castleford.
Stephen won his Scotland caps during that period, in defeats by Wales in 1946 and ’47, skippering them in the first match. He undertook his National Service in the RAF, and in 1949, having played for them against the Football League, he was approached by the Portsmouth manager, “Bow-Tie Bob” Jackson, offering “top money” to join them.
The deal went through – he was on a princely £6 per week – yet because Stephen was based at St Athan, in Wales, and was not due to be demobbed until February 1950, he had not even met most of his new colleagues before an injury crisis forced Jackson to summon him to Fratton Park in November ’49. A 2-2 draw against Sunderland, who included Shackleton, proved his only appearance as his new club retained their League title.
He completed a century of appearances for Portsmouth before leaving in 1955, going on to play non-League football for Yeovil, Bridgwater, Newport (Isle of Wight) and Waterlooville before working in the timber industry. The family remained on the South Coast, his daughter Lesley becoming a Portsmouth season-ticket holder, and until his death Stephen lived at Southsea, where the community held a party in his honour when he was too ill to accept an invitation to attend a Garden Party hosted by the Queen in May this year.
James Findlay Stephen, footballer: born Fettercairn, Kincardineshire (now Aberdeenshire) 23 August 1922; played for Bradford Park Avenue 1939-49, Portsmouth 1949-55; two caps for Scotland 1946-47; married firstly Mary (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), secondly Joan (deceased); died 5 November 2012.
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