Football: The story of the fabulous Robledo boys

Two half-Chilean brothers plunged into Yorkshire village life in the Thirties went on to become footballing legends in England and South America. Richard Williams, whose grandfather was their school headmaster, recounts an extraordinary tale
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The Independent Online
There's a pennant hanging on my wall, stained with age. It carries a picture of a dark-haired man in a white and black football shirt. "Jorge Robledo", it says, and "Colo Colo", which is the name of the biggest football club in Chile. That's where it came from, more than 40 years ago, a gift to my grandfather from the dark-haired man.

I knew about the Robledo brothers before I was even old enough to kick a football. They were mythical creatures, half-English and half-Chilean, and I knew about them because they had gone to the South Yorkshire school where my grandfather was the headmaster. And, as seemed to be the way of my grandfather's pupils, they kept in touch.

So it was big news in the household when two of them, George and Ted, were transferred together from Barnsley, their local league club, to Newcastle United in 1949, and even bigger news when George, the elder of the two, starred in the 1951 FA Cup-winning team, laying on the first of Jackie Milburn's goals in the 2-0 victory over Blackpool. The following year he returned to Wembley to face Arsenal, this time with his brother Ted also in the team, and scored the only goal of the match to acquire his second Cup winner's medal and a lasting place among the legends of St James' Park. Newcastle's team sheets - and Barnsley's, too, come to that - have been full of foreign names in recent years, but in their time the Robledos, although they spoke with Yorkshire accents, represented an authentically exotic addition to English football in the post-war years.

George and Ted are long dead. George's medals are in the museum at St James' Park, donated by his widow, who lives in Chile. Ted's medal is in a London suburb, in the house of a third brother, Walter, who poured a cup of tea the other day and filled in some of the details of an extraordinary saga.

My grandfather had told me a bit about how their mother was not much more than a girl when she left Yorkshire to work in South America, and how she had returned by herself with three small sons to bring up. He told me about George and Ted, and also about Walter, the youngest - who might, he said, have become the best footballer of the lot had he not suffered from poor eyesight in an age before the invention of lightweight contact lenses.

Today, Walter dismisses that notion. He didn't care so much for football, he says. Yes, he played it, wearing glasses. "But when people used to say, `It runs in the family,' that put me off." There is a powerful impression that, irrespective of his feelings for the game, he wanted to make his own independent mark on the world. Which he was to do, with a resolve surely inherited from his remarkable mother.

Elsie Oliver was 18 years old when she left her home in West Melton, a village in the South Yorkshire coalfields, soon after the First World War and travelled to Argentina to take up a position as the governess to the children of an English mine manager. When the family were transferred to Iquique, in the north of Chile, she went with them. There she met and married Aristides Robledo, the mining company's chief accountant, and within a few years she had produced three sons, starting with George, born in 1926, and Edward, who arrived two years later.

Her third child had just been born when she decided to return home. It was 1932, so perhaps her decision was influenced by economic instability induced by the effect of the worldwide recession on the mining industry, and by Chile's political instability. But perhaps, although she never said so, it was something to do with the state of the marriage. At any rate, Aristides stayed behind, never to see his wife or two of his sons again.

George was five, Ted was three, and Walter was six weeks old when they and their mother arrived in Liverpool on the Reina del Pacifico, a liner of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, en route to West Melton. Elsie's parents were both dead by the time she returned, and she took over a shop from which an uncle had sold hardware and timber, turning it into a general store. She brought up the boys with the help of relatives, and when they were too old for the village school she sent them to the George Ellis Senior School at Brampton, where my grandfather, Harold Steer, was the headmaster, and my mother taught English.

Prowess at ball games soon marked George out, along with a fond interest in my mother's younger sister, Elisabeth. In 1938-39 the school team won six championships, thanks largely to his goals. When they posed for the team photograph, with their two football masters, Maurice Field and Fred Kay, and their trophies, my grandfather took his place behind them.

George played a few games for Barnsley and Huddersfield Town as an amateur during the war, and signed professional forms at Oakwell in 1943, when he was 16. Angus Seed, Barnsley's long-serving manager, had spotted his talent. "Angus was a good manager, and he knew players," says Johnny Steele, an inside-forward in that side. "He saw George's potential." On the opening day of the first post-war season, in his league debut, George scored all the goals in a 3-0 defeat of Nottingham Forest.

According to Steele, George was not a natural footballer. But, at just under 5ft 11in, he had a good strong physique, and he was willing to work hard to turn himself into an effective player. "There wasn't a lot of fancy stuff in his play, but he was good in the air and he was an effective finisher. He was a natural sportsman, and he worked hard to become a good player. He was a great fellow, a hell of a nice person."

Ted followed George to Oakwell in 1947. An inch or two shorter, he played right-half. "Another good strong player, no mug," Steele says. But Ted lacked George's outgoing character. "You could tell Ted lacked a father. He used to follow me round, and wait outside the ground for me. Sometimes I couldn't get rid of the boy. I felt like a father to him. But fortune didn't smile on them, did it?"

For a while it certainly did. George had scored 47 goals in 114 Second Division and FA Cup appearances for Barnsley when, in January 1949, an approach came from Newcastle United, the giants of the North-east. They wanted George, and were willing to pay pounds 26,500 to get him. But George insisted that they should also take Ted, who had made only five appearances for the Yorkshire club, and Newcastle agreed.

"George was the one who insisted that the two of them should stick together," Walter remembers. "Ted went along with it, because he was the easy-going type, but really he didn't care." In fact Newcastle got the whole Robledo family. Elsie went, too, and took Walter, finding him a local school at which to complete his studies. The four of them took up residence in a house rented by the club.

George went straight into the side and quickly established a mutually fruitful partnership with the great Milburn, who wore the No 9 shirt. George's team-mates christened him "Pancho", and at the end of his first full season at St James' Park his origins were recognised by a call to join Chile's national team in Brazil for the 1950 World Cup. He played in all three Group Two matches, losing 2-0 in the Maracana to the England of Wright, Finney and Mannion, and going down by a similar score to Spain. So Chile were already out of the competition when they beat the United States - England's conquerors - by 5-2 in Recife, with George opening the scoring.

George was now a hero in Chile, and it seems to have been during one of his visits that he had his sole encounter with his father, the only one of the brothers to do so. In the lives of Ted and Walter, Aristides was never much more than an old wedding photograph.

Besides news of that meeting, George also brought back from South America a pair of the new low-cut rubber-studded boots, but failed to persuade his English team-mates to give up their traditional heavyweight footwear, which they wore at Wembley in 1951 and '52.

By the time of the second Wembley final, Ted had joined his brother in the team. George hit 33 goals that season, to Milburn's 28, including two in a famous 3-0 demolition of Arthur Rowe's Spurs, the reigning champions, at White Hart Lane in the fourth round of the Cup. The final itself was a less splendiferous affair, since Arsenal, captained by Joe Mercer, were forced to play for more than hour with 10 men after the loss of the injured Wally Barnes, their right-back, and both sides were affected by the imbalance. "You're a set of babies," Joe Harvey, the Newcastle skipper, told his team at half-time. "You're feeling sorry for Mercer's lot. You'll feel even sorrier for yourselves if I don't get that cup." Five minutes from time, George ran on to Bobby Mitchell's left-wing cross and headed the winning goal in off the post.

There had been repeated inquiries from Chilean clubs, and at the end of the 1953 season George and Ted set sail, again accompanied by Elsie and Walter, for Chile, to join Colo Colo of Santiago, five times national champions. "They were offered much more money than they'd been getting under the maximum wage at Newcastle," Walter says. "Our fares were paid, we were given a very nice club house, and there were good bonuses." Aristides had died shortly before their return.

George and Ted won two league titles during their five years with Colo Colo, and both of them regularly represented Chile. They appeared together in the side beaten 1-0 by Argentina in the final of the 1955 South American Cup in front of 65,000 people in Santiago's Estadio Nacional. In the records of Chilean football they are listed as "Jorge" and "Eduardo", leading to the assumption that their names were anglicised after their arrival in Yorkshire. Not so, Walter says. They were indeed baptised in Chile, but by a Presbyterian minister who recorded their names as George Oliver Robledo and Edward Oliver Robledo.

Although both men finished with Colo Colo at the end of the 1957 season, they went on to pursue separate destinies. George played a season for the O'Higgins club in Rancagua before taking a job coaching the football team of a US-owned copper mining corporation. Later he moved with his Chilean wife, Gladys, and their daughter, Elisabeth, to the resort of Vina del Mar, near Valparaiso, where he worked as a sports master at an English school, St George's College, while becoming a director of both Colo Colo and O'Higgins. When Chile hosted the World Cup in 1962, he was a member of the organising committee, and acted as a liaison officer with the England squad.

Easy-going Ted, who had married a well-known Chilean dancer, decided to give English football another try, but two matches for Notts County in the autumn of 1957 represented the sum of his attempt. "Ted played in a less glamorous position, and he was not a self-publicist," Walter says. "He was tough, and a hard worker, and his passing was good. A good team man, reliable and accurate. But George was the one who scored the goals." Ted returned to Chile, but his marriage was failing and he began working on oil rigs, eventually finding his way to the Persian Gulf.

Walter had struck out on his own, leaving Chile for the US when his education was over. A job with a mining company in Montana had led to a posting back to Chile, and he prospered. When he wrote to my grandmother on hearing of his old headmaster's death in 1972, it was from a fine London address, in Holland Park.

By that time, however, tragedy had struck his own family. One night in 1970, a few days after after returning to the Gulf from a visit to England, Ted went missing from a ship, the Al Sahn, sailing out of Dubai. There was said to have been a fight with the ship's captain, although no one who knew him believed that the introspective Ted could have provoked such a confrontation. The captain was charged with murder, and acquitted. Walter went twice to the Gulf to look for the truth, but his brother's body was never found and the circumstances of the death remain unresolved.

The formidable Elsie, who had returned to England, died in the mid-Seventies. George, so disturbed by Ted's fate that he could not bring himself to join Walter's investigation, died of a heart attack at home in Vina del Mar in 1989, aged 63. He was full of honours, if not of years, in the country of his birth, and large crowds attended his funeral in Santiago.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Walter about my grandfather, to whose Yorkshire home George Robledo proudly sent that pennant almost half a century ago. "He taught us that we were English, and what it meant," the youngest of the Robledo brothers said. "He taught us discipline and fair play. All the things that were important."

Brothers Ted (left) and George Robledo in 1952 at the height of their fame with Newcastle United, while (top left) the 1938-39 Brampton Ellis School team with George (front row, centre) and headmaster Harold Steer (rear) display their trophies Popperfoto

Left: Jackie Milburn watches as George Robledo (centre) scores to give Newcastle a 1-0 victory over Arsenal in the 1952 FA Cup final. Right: the Robledo brothers (from left) Ted, George and Walter with their mother, Elsie, during their days at St James' Park PA