Revealed: football's first foreign star

Jonathan Thompson
Thursday 12 September 2013 05:07

His shorts would have been voluminous and he was paid in pennies. But Walter W Bowman can now take his place at the head of an illustrious band of footballers. The Canadian, according to new research, was the first foreigner to play professionally in English football - way back in 1892, when Thierry Henry's £50,000-a-week wage was just a gleam in his great-grandmother's eye.

Foreigners now dominate much of English football. Players from 116 other countries have subsequently made a living from playing the sport here, with 457 overseas stars appearing for English clubs last season alone.

But Walter Bowman was the original. It was in 1888 - the year of Jack the Ripper - that Bowman, then 26, first arrived in Britain, touring with the Canadian national side.

The team, in which he played as a right-sided forward, was lauded by the English press for their "clever and scientific football".

Four years later, Bowman made history when he returned to England to become the first foreign player to appear in the Football League, making his debut for First Division Accrington.

Bowman went on to sign for Manchester City - then known as Ardwick - in the following year. They became City in 1894, and Bowman stayed with them for a number of years, playing in a talented side that included the legendary Jimmy Ross and Billy Meredith, the Welsh "Wizard of the Wing".

The story of Bowman is told in a new book, England, Their England, by Nick Harris, a football writer with The Independent. Harris has painstakingly combed the record books to uncover 1,700 overseas-born professionals who have played in the English Leagues over the past 115 years.

"Bowman was evidently a good player, because he was playing in a side with people like Jimmy Ross and Billy Meredith - the closest football came to having real stars in those days," said Mr Harris.

"It's not so much that Bowman has been forgotten, it's just that nobody during his time here identified his relevance as the first foreign professional player in the country. Football was a very new thing at the time, and people were living in a completely different world."

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