Charlie Crowe: Wing-half and stalwart of the great Newcastle side of the early 1950s

Saturday 20 March 2010 01:00

Charlie Crowe was an effervescent bundle of footballing fervour who gave his all for Newcastle United when the Magpies were a buoyant power in the land during the decade immediately following the Second World War. The highlight of the diminutive Tynesider's career was helping to lift the FA Cup in 1951, and while he had fallen out of favour temporarily when they recorded a second successive Wembley victory a year later, in 1955 he was selected for their third final in five years, only to cry off through injury. His death leaves Vic Keeble, Newcastle's centre-forward in that game, as the sole survivor of the famous trio of triumphs, which still stand as the Magpies' most recent successes in major domestic competition.

There was nothing of the artist about Charlie Crowe. Rather he was a defensive wing-half without the slightest pretension to grandeur. He relished the midfield rough-and-tumble, habitually hurling himself into challenges on far brawnier opponents with astonishing gusto, frequently winning the ball against improbable odds and then delivering it, simply and sensibly, to a colleague of more subtle inclinations. The regular beneficiaries included the left-flank trickster Bobby Mitchell, the pacy and prolific marksman Jackie Milburn and the crafty schemer Ernie Taylor, each one a far more gifted individual than the yeoman Crowe, but each also touchingly eager to acknowledge wholeheartedly his honest and crucial contribution.

As a character, too, Crowe was widely appreciated. He was warm and witty, full of stories and even inclined to banter with fans during a match, cheerfully fielding enquiries about his beer intake the previous night or what he might have for dinner when he went home. Once, while doing his National Service at a local colliery, he suffered a slight accident to a finger and soon afterwards, as he took a throw-in, a wag in the crowd roared: "How's your finger, Charlie?" It became a familiar catchphrase, to be repeated in thunderous unison for several years on the terraces at St James' Park.

Crowe was raised in the working-class district of Walker-on-Tyne, playing his schooldays football for Victoria Jubilee and Newcastle Boys, then stepping up to youth level with Wallsend St Luke's and the Heaton and Byker Boys Club. After leaving school in the late 1930s he worked as an office boy for a local shipping company and as a pattern-maker in a factory before turning professional with Newcastle United in 1944, making his first-team entrance in an emergency wartime encounter with Stoke City in September 1945. That day the Magpies won 9-1, the rookie Crowe shining in direct opposition to Stanley Matthews, then the most famous footballer in the world.

His senior debut followed later that season in an FA Cup tie against Barnsley, but then his progress stalled, partially through a succession of niggling injuries. Thus he barely featured as Newcastle were promoted to the top flight as runners-up to Second Division champions Birmingham City in 1947-48, but he ousted Norman Dodgin to become established at left-half in 1949-50, then enjoyed his most successful campaign in 1950-51.

By the spring of that season the Magpies had fashioned a golden opportunity to become the first club in the 20th century to win the League and FA Cup double, but once a place at Wembley was secured their form fell away disastrously and they finished fourth. Some believed the players were distracted by the prospect of playing in what was then the biggest game in the football calendar, but certainly the commitment of the ebullient Crowe never seemed to waver.

Come the big day, when Blackpool were the opponents, he was faced once more by the hero Matthews, by now a veteran and seemingly carrying the hopes of every neutral supporter in the land. Totally unfazed, the indefatigable Geordie was hugely instrumental in frustrating the great man, and Crowe's close friend Milburn scored both goals – one of them as spectacular as any witnessed at the stadium, before or since – in a stirring 2-0 win.

After returning home to a rapturous reception from some 200,000 followers – "Welcome hyem, canny lads!" proclaimed a banner at Newcastle Central Station – Crowe asked permission to borrow the trophy to show it to some fans. United agreed, assuming the precious silverware would be restored within hours, but he kept it for a two-week tour of Tyneside pubs and clubs, the risky jaunt being discovered only after a picture of Crowe and the former Magpies idol Hughie Gallacher displaying the cup near Gateshead was published in the local newspaper.

As he prepared for the next season, the 26-year-old midfield dynamo was looking forward to further success as a member of Stan Seymour's thrilling team, but a rude jolt was in store. Soon he lost his place to Ted Robledo, missing out on the 1952 Wembley showpiece, in which Arsenal were beaten 1-0. At first Crowe was nonplussed and requested a transfer, but Seymour was anxious to keep him, eventually reaching agreement after promising him 100 tickets for the final and a guaranteed berth on that summer's tour of South Africa.

Thereafter Robledo went home to Chile and the local man returned to the line-up, though vying for his place with the Irishman Tommy Casey. During 1953-54 he enjoyed a spell as captain following a ballot of the players after the regular skipper Jimmy Scoular was injured, and in 1954-55 he returned to something like his best form.

But after the Magpies reached the FA Cup final yet again, Crowe experienced what he described as "the most disappointing day of my life." A week before the Wembley meeting with Manchester City he sprained his ankle during a League game with Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Milburn urged him to play in the final, promising that the rest of the lads would "carry" him if he broke down – substitutes were not permitted in those days – but he knew that would be unfair on his club, so he withdrew and was replaced by Casey. Recognising Crowe's devotion, and the major part he had played in getting the Magpies to Wembley, Newcastle struck a special medal for him, which offered some consolation for missing the 3-1 victory and illustrated the esteem in which he was held.

However, in February 1957, aged 32, he was freed to join Mansfield Town, and he thrived briefly at Field Mill, skippering the Stags and earning selection for the Third Division (North) representative side before injury precipitated his retirement in the summer of 1958. Later that year he was offered a coaching job back at St James' Park by the new Magpies manager Charlie Mitten, but he rejected the pay on offer and decided to continue guiding the fortunes of non-League Whitley Bay until 1960.

Qualified as a coach, Crowe worked for the FA and in 1967 was offered the reins of Zamalek in Cairo, only for the arrangement to be scuppered by an escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Outside the game, he ran a pub in Longbenton on Tyneside, represented a building firm, was a manager for Scottish and Newcastle Breweries and finished his working days as an accommodation officer for the DHSS at Longbenton. He compiled two books, A Crowe Amongst The Magpies (1998) and Charlie Crowe's Newcastle United Scrapbook (2001), and in 2009, after he had fallen prey to Alzheimer's Disease, they were re-published to raise money for a scanner appeal spearheaded by his daughter Lesley. The equipment is needed by the Newcastle Magnetic Resonance Centre for research into the illness which claimed the life of one of the best-loved of all Tyneside footballers.

Ivan Ponting

Charles Alfred Crowe, footballer; born Walker, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 30 October 1924; played for Newcastle United 1944-57, Mansfield Town 1957-58; married (two daughters, two sons); died North Shields 27 February 2010.

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