Despite the recent impact of players from the Far East on the Premier League, very few British-born players of Asian origin have featured at top level, and only one has ever worn an England jersey. He was Frank Soo, and he played for England in a series of wartime international matches and represented the FA Combined Services in two other matches. During the six seasons leading up to World War Two he played for Stoke City alongside Stanley Matthews and Eddie Steele.
But he started his career here at Prescot Cables.
Frank Soo was born in Buxton, Derbyshire on 12 March 1914, the son of a Liverpool-based Chinese sailor called Our Quong Soo (he later owned a laundry in Liverpool) and his English-born wife Beatrice née Whittam. He was the second of six children. Little is known about his short tenure as an eighteen-year-old wing-half at Cables. According to the Daily Express of 1 November 1933 (the day of his debut at Stoke City), Frank worked at the Prescot Wire Works during his short time at Cables. According to Neville Walker (From Slacky Brow to Hope Street), he’d been signed by Cables’ secretary Bob Rogers but spent only two months at Hope Street. In this time he replaced Cables’ captain James ‘Paddy’ Kane and attracted the attention of the Stoke City manager Tom Mather, who signed him in January 1933 for £400. During the ensuing six seasons he developed into ‘the idol of the crowd at Stoke’ (Daily Express) and, operating in the inside-left position, made 185 appearances for the club, scoring ten goals and playing with the great Stanley Matthews on the right wing and alongside Stoke’s talented and temperamental centre-forward Freddie Steele. Like many players of his generation his career was severely curtailed by the outbreak of war in September 1939. By the time competitive football resumed, Mather had enticed Soo to Leicester. With no appearances made for the East Midland club, the player moved to Luton Town a year later, scoring four goals in 71 matches, and Chelmsford City in 1949 (ten goals in 82 appearances). His first-class career totals: nineteen goals in 326 performances.
Like most top-flight players Soo made guest appearances for a number of clubs during the war, including Everton, Chelsea, Millwall, Brentford and Reading. But it was the wartime England and FA Combined Services international matches that marked the climax of his remarkable career. Between November 1939 and April 1946 England played thirty-five ‘unofficial’ international matches. Most were against neighbours Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales with grounds chosen to attract spectators from across the war-torn land. Not just Wembley, Hampden, Ninian and Windsor Park, but Anfield, The Hawthorns, Villa Park, Maine Road, Molyneux, St Andrew’s, Nottingham’s City Ground, St James’s Park and the Racecourse, Wrexham. Soo played ten times for England and twice for the FA Combined Services XI, appearing alongside such legends as his Stoke team-mate Stanley Matthews, Joe Mercer, Tommy Lawton, Stan Cullis and Raich Carter. His first match was on 9th May 1942 at Ninian Park when Wales beat England 1-0. Sixteen months and three further clashes with Wales later (varied opposition was yet another wartime shortage), Soo faced Wales again, in September 1943, this time at Wembley in front of an 80,000 crowd. England won 8-3 in a match remembered now because it included the great Stan Mortensen’s international debut – playing for Wales! (Players were also in short supply!) For Soo, the highlights of these ‘home’ international matches must have included the games at Hampden Park on 22nd April 1944, a closely-fought 3-2 victory for England (this just a few weeks after his brother Ronald had been killed in action), and the 6-1 trouncing a year later. Both matches were played in front of 133,000 spectators. With no proper league programme available, crowds flocked to these matches, and not just at Wembley and Hampden: over 54,000 at the Hawthorns in October 1945, 60,000 at Maine Road in October 1943 and nearly 66,000 at Villa Park in February 1945. Frank Soo played in three of the five ‘Victory Internationals’: against France on 26th May 1945, Northern Ireland on 15th September and, finally, Wales on 29th October. He also played in an unofficial match in Bern marking the Swiss FA’s 50th anniversary (21st July 1945). His appearances for the FA Combined Services XI comprised a match against a France XI at the Park des Princes, Paris on 30th September 1944 and, on the following day, a similar fixture against a Belgium XI in Brussels. Sadly, Frank was never selected to represent his country after the war and, since his ten appearances were all unofficial, never capped.
If his career as a player took him no further than Paris and Brussels, his two decades as a manager saw action from Scunthorne to Stockholm via Italy, Norway and Israel. Soon after retiring as a player in 1952, he took the helm at Padova Calcio before appointment as the Norwegian national coach. The rest of his career saw him managing a string of mostly Scandinavian teams, including IFK Stockholm, Malmo, Fredrikstad and IB Copenhagen. Towards the end of his career he also coached the Israel national team. After twilight years running a newsagents Shop in Hanley, Frank Soo died in Cheadle, aged 76, on 25th January 1991. A far cry from a packed Wembley or Hampden Park.
In his heyday Soo possessed the good looks of the actor Bert Kwok. He was remembered recently by an ageing Stoke City fan as a ‘cultured and neat’ player and compared favourably with his Stoke City junior, the fondly-remembered Neil Franklin. He was certainly a great inspiration to that other Anglo-Chinese player Cyril ‘Sammy’ Chung, who played in the 1950s for Headington (later Oxford) United, Reading, Norwich and Watford.
“I saw [Frank] play, but I never sat down and spoke with him. That is something that annoys me to this day. I watched him and read about him any time I got a chance. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Frank Soo remains the only English international player of Chinese origin. His footsteps are still there if any Anglo-Chinese boys wish to follow them.
(Originally published in 2012, additional information added, 2014)