Donald Bell, VC: Part 1

24Mar14

Donald Bell was the only English professional footballer to win the Victoria Cross during World War. In part one of this article we look at his football career.

Donald Simpson Bell was born in Harrogate on 3 December 1890 and was educated locally, firstly at St Peter’s School before progressing to grammar school. He became a student teacher at Starbeck Council School, Harrogate, and in June 1908 gained a First Division Pass in the London Matriculation Examination, a qualification which enabled him to gain a place at Westminster College, a Methodist teacher training college based in central London the following year. He had shown promise as a sportsman in his school days, and had played football for Harrogate Christ Church from around 1905. By the time he moved to London he was already established in the line-up for Starbeck, who were initially members of the West Yorkshire League before progressing to the Yorkshire Combination. Indeed, Donald Bell was a regular at left back in the line-up at the beginning of the 1909-10 season when he began his two-year teacher-training course at Westminster.

In his two years at Westminster he was a member of the soccer, rugby, athletics and cricket teams and captained the athletics team to victory in the Inter Collegiate Shield in 1911. However, although he was a regular in the soccer team he was never captain. The team, based at Boston Road in Brentford, played regular fixtures on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Wednesday matches were against other college teams, including St Mary’s, St Mark’s, St John’s and Borough Road, whilst Saturday games were usually against club sides. On days when he did not turn out for the soccer team, he could be found in the rugby XV and he showed considerable talent at both sports.
There is certainly no doubt that Bell intended playing club football for Crystal Palace when he first went down to London as it was reported in the Yorkshire sporting papers that he had signed for the Southern League outfit. However, he certainly didn’t play for the first team, and a comprehensive trawl of The Sportsman newspaper, which includes regular line-ups for Palace reserves, for both the 1909-10 and 1910-11 seasons shows no sign of a player named Bell. The conclusion to be drawn seems to be that while he almost certainly signed forms for Palace, he never actually played for either the first team or the reserves. There is evidence that he returned to North Yorkshire promptly during the college holidays, mostly turning out for Starbeck, although on at least one occasion he played for Knaresborough in a Northern League fixture.

After passing the London University Intermediate Arts Examination in 1911, Bell returned to a teaching post at Starbeck Council School. His football career began to blossom and he signed amateur forms for Newcastle United, FA Cup finalists the previous season. On signing he was described as “a tall, strapping amateur who has seen service with Leeds Reserves and one of the London Colleges.” However, although he played in three of the Magpies’ pre-season trial matches he made just a handful of appearances for the reserve team that season. The reason for this was that he had also signed for Bishop Auckland, Northern League members and FA Amateur Cup runners-up the previous season. His first appearance for the Bishops came against West Auckland in a Durham Benevolent Bowl fixture on 23 September 1911 and he continued with them until they were eliminated from the FA Amateur Cup by Stockton in January 1912. Shortly afterwards he moved back to the Yorkshire Combination, signing for Mirfield United, again as an amateur. The Mirfield team mostly consisted of semi-professional players, but they were enjoying considerable success and Bell went on to gain some consolation for missing out on honours in the North East. He was a member of the side that defeated Halifax Town to win the West Riding Junior Cup in April and also featured in the team that lost out to Bradford City reserves in the Bradford Charity Cup final.

In October 1912 he signed for Bradford Park Avenue, initially appearing for the reserves. On 16 April 1912 he made his bow in the Football League when he deputised at left back against Wolves at Park Avenue and the following autumn he enjoyed a brief run of four consecutive appearances in the line-up. He continued as a regular in the reserves and for 1914-15 was captain of the Midland League side, before enlisting in the West Yorkshire Regiment in November of 1914.

What sort of player was Donald Bell, and how did he match up as a full back? He certainly more than met the physical attributes for the job, standing 6 feet tall and weighing 13st. 8lb. He was fast and could kick long and hard to clear his lines. The Bradford Football Argus noted, “He was of splendid physique, over six feet tall in height, and in every sense a model of a man” and “He fought as he played – zealously, coolly and intelligently.” (16 September 1916) Overall, however, Donald Bell appears to have possessed the physical attributes and abilities required by a top class full back in the period immediately before the war, suggesting that if events had turned out rather differently he might well have gone on to much greater things as a player.

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