These are not exactly the best of times for West Auckland Town Football Club. They finished 16th in the First Division of the Northern League last season, below the likes of Billingham Synthonia, Norton and Stockton Ancients, Bedlington Terriers and West Allotment Celtic. Still, unlike the English national team, they have won the World Cup twice – or the Sir Thomas Lipton World Football Trophy, as the forerunner of today's global competition was known.
How a village team from County Durham came to lift the Lipton Trophy as England's representatives in an international tournament in Turin in 1909 was told on the small screen in 1982 in The World Cup: A Captain's Tale. The Tyne Tees TV dramatisation featured Dennis Waterman in the starring role of Bob Jones, who led his team of fellow pitmen to victory ahead of professional clubs chosen to represent Italy (Torino), Germany (Stuttgart Sportfreunde) and Switzerland (FC Winterthur).
The West Auckland players had to pawn furniture and wedding rings to pay for the trip to northern Italy. They returned in 1911, thrashing Juventus 6-1 in the final. As two-time winners, they were allowed to keep the magnificent Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy. It was stolen in 1994 but a replica stands on display at West Auckland Workingmen's Club.
"It's an amazing story, quite unique," says Dave Thomas, taking a break from fishing by the banks of the River Test in Hampshire. "I'm very proud of my family's history in it." Thomas is a West Auckland lad, one of two notable right wingers to come from the village in the rural Wear Valley. The other was Sir Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill's successor as Conservative Prime Minister in 1955.
Thomas won eight caps for England as a twinkle-toed right winger. He made an instant impact on his debut, delivering a pin-point cross for Mick Channon to score in a 3-0 win against Czechoslovakia at Wembley in October 1974, the first game of Don Revie's reign as England manager. Thomas had made his top-flight debut for Burnley at 16, was one of the stars of the classy Queens Park Rangers team pipped to the title by a solitary Liverpool point in 1976, and also played for Everton, Wolves, Vancouver Whitecaps, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth. He never got to play in the World Cup finals but his beloved grandfather and namesake was one of the West Auckland World Cup heroes.
David Rhys Thomas – or "Ticer" Thomas, as he was known – was a tough, skilful wing-half who made such an impression when the part-timers won the inaugural Lipton Trophy that he was offered a coaching job in Italy. He was portrayed in A Captain's Tale by David Bradley, who had played the boy Billy Casper in Kes.
Quite how Ticer Thomas and a team lying third from bottom of the Northern League table came to represent England in 1909 is not entirely certain. It was the Glasgow-born tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton who had the idea of staging a world football tournament in Italy, 21 years before the launch of the official World Cup. He had hoped that Woolwich Arsenal would represent England but when the Football Association refused to allow any clubs to take part, he turned to the WA of West Auckland instead – in all probability because one of his employees was friendly with a referee in the Northern League.
"I grew up hearing tales about how West Auckland won the World Cup," Dave Thomas says. "My grandad was a wonderful man. I was very close to him. He lived with us in West Auckland, in the same house where my mam and dad still live today. He used to watch me play and he always said to my mam and dad, 'He'll play for England.' Sadly, he didn't live to see it happen. I was 13 when he died."
Dave Thomas is 59 now, still fit and sprightly in his retirement from PE teaching, despite suffering from glaucoma and being registered blind. A father of two and grandfather of four, he now lives in West Sussex with his wife Brenda, with whom he has taken enthusiastically to the sport of carriage driving – not exactly a common pastime for a former professional footballer. "We absolutely love it," he says.
Ticer Thomas's grandson cannot say that he won the World Cup, or a version of it, but he did score the winner against West Germany at Wembley in 1966. "That's right," he says. "For England schoolboys. I'll never forget the date: 30 April 1966. There were 90,000 at Wembley and I was fortunate enough to get the winning goal. We beat West Germany 2-1. I never thought then that England would win the World Cup final against the same country in the same stadium three months later."