Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Nigerian? They all played football for their respective countries and Prescot Cables! The Englishman was St Helens-born Jack Bamber, the Scotsman long-standing Liverpool captain Don McKinlay, and the Nigerian Elkanah Onyeali, a talented young striker who played for Prescot Town after spells at Tranmere and Holyhead.
McKinlay was born in Glasgow on 25 July 1891 and learned his craft with local team Newton Villa before Liverpool manager Tom Watson signed him, aged nineteen, on 27 January 1910. He made his debut the following April in a remarkable match against Nottingham Forest that Liverpool won 7-3. The highlight of McKinlay’s sixty appearances for Liverpool before the Great War must have been the FA Cup Final against Burnley at Crystal Palace on 25 April 1914. Despite seven Scots in its line-up, Liverpool lost 1-0. When the football league resumed after the war McKinlay became a key figure in Liverpool’s defence. He was appointed captain in 1921 and during the ensuing seasons led the team to two successive championships (1921-22 and 1922-23). It was during his first championship season that he won two caps for Scotland: against Wales at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham, on 4 February 1922 and a month later on 4 March against Northern Ireland at Celtic Park, Glasgow. McKinlay was primarily a tough, hard-tackling defender but, like his spiritual descendant at Cables Harry Grisedale, he was capable of moving up front and scoring goals, especially from free-kicks. ‘McKinlay ran up, and with a fierce drive such as he alone is capable of sent the ball flying into the left-hand portion of the goal,’ the Liverpool Echo reported on a match against Oldham on Boxing Day 1922. ‘In the matter of shooting nothing is more remarkable than the way Donald McKinlay continues to score goals’. His most remarkable goal came at West Ham on 16 January 1926 when he hoofed it in from ten yards inside the Liverpool half: a distance of sixty to seventy yards! Though McKinlay never maintained his wartime rate of 24 goals in 136 matches, his official career total of 34 in 434 is good enough for a defender scoring only four times from the penalty spot.
After nineteen years of faithful service, McKinlay’s contract at Liverpool ran out in July 1929. He was quickly snapped up by Cables, playing for them during the 1929-30 and 1930-31 seasons. He featured mostly at left-back and served, I suspect, as an inspirational captain. He held strong views about captaincy:
“In my day I had full control on the field and if there was any decision on changing of positions, I took it. … I told my players: ‘If I have to say anything to you, [don’t] answer me back and don’t start sulking’.”
Looking at photographs of McKinlay in his prime it is easy to compare him with some of the great captains of later Liverpool eras, notably Liddell, Yeats, Smith, Hughes, Hansen and Gerrard. When Don McKinlay wasn’t working as a publican in Liverpool after retiring from the game he enjoyed a round of golf and playing the drums. He died on 16 September 1959 aged 68.
One of McKinlay’s fellow defenders during Liverpool’s glory days of the early 1920s, as tall and imposing as himself, was Jack Bamber. The two men also played together at Prescot Cables during the 1930-31 season and Bamber succeeded McKinlay as captain the following year. Jack Bamber was born in Peasley Cross, St Helens, on 11 April 1895, the son of a glassworks grinder named Robert Bamber and his wife Mary. After four seasons of youth football with St Helens Recs and Heywood, Bamber was signed by Liverpool in 1915, scoring two goals in 72 matches. It was during this time that he made his one and only appearance for England, playing at left-half against Wales at Ninian Park on 14 March 1921. He was transferred to Leicester City in 1924, staying there until 1927 (seven goals in 113 appearances) before moving to Tranmere (one goal in 86 matches). He died in St Helens aged 78 on 26 May 1973.
‘He was the first black fella I ever saw in the flesh’ is how one Tranmere fan remembers Elkanah Onyeali. In 1960 he was a nineteen-year-old electrical engineering student from Nigeria newly arrived at Birkenhead Technical College in search of football action at the weekends. As a talented young centre-forward, he’d already played in seven full international matches for his country. He was signed by Tranmere and, during the ensuing season (1960-61), scored eight goals in thirteen appearances. Having failed to attract the attentions of Liverpool and Everton, he spent some of the following season at Holyhead Town before arriving at Hope Street later the same season. His first big success was probably the hat-trick he scored against Lytham in a 9-0 Cables thrashing. Onyeali stayed just over a year, emerging as the leading scorer during the 1962-63 season. But for the fact that his course of studies had finished and he was wanted back home, he would doubtless have achieved the same distinction the following season. He was known for his speed, a quality that led fellow Nigerians to dub him ‘Mercedes’.
Little is known about Elkanah Onyeali after his return to Nigeria. By the time he left England he’d already played his last game for his country (against Ghana in April 1961). After making his international debut in October 1959, he’d appeared eleven times and scored eleven goals for Nigeria, most notably against Dahomey (now the Benin Republic) in November 1959 when he netted four times. He was the first Nigerian to score more than twice in a match and his record of four goals in a single game stood for 32 years. Whatever he did in Nigeria for the rest of his life, he certainly made his mark as a family man. Soon after his death on 11 August 2008, aged 69, his nephew Vincent posted the following notice on a Tranmere fans website.
“My uncle … was a great man. A man who was loved by so many. A man who lived his life the way he thinks life is all about. A peace maker. A loving father. A man who lived by his words.”
In a recent poll of Nigeria’s top fifty all-time footballers, Onyeali stands at No.30. He remains an inspiration for all black African footballers seeking fame and fortune in Europe.
Originally published in 2012