Cables Greats: Two Post-War Goalkeepers

Alf Hobson

When the legendary Liverpool and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Elisha Scott finally hung up his boots and put away his gloves and flat cap in the summer of 1934, after nearly twenty-two years at the club, an enormous void was left at the back of Liverpool’s defence. Arthur Riley had signed for the Reds in 1925 but for the ensuing nine years the remarkable player from Belfast kept him at bay. Scott’s final departure prompted two signings: County Durham-born Alf Hobson in April 1936 and South African Dirk Kemp the following December. Together with Riley, these goalkeepers saw Liverpool through the 1936-37 and 1937-38 seasons and all three made major contributions to Liverpool’s fortunes in the wartime Football League Northern Division. By the end of 1945 another goalkeeper had been recruited: six-feet-four-inches-tall Harry Nickson. Nickson and Hobson both ended their careers between the sticks at Cables.

There was only one Alf Hobson. He was a great man who followed Liverpool right to the end. He never forgot his days at Anfield and through all the years he’d proudly kept his club blazer with the Liver Bird emblem on it.

Hobson’s wife Ruth writing shortly after his death in 2004

Alf Hobson was born in Leamside, County Durham, on 9 September 1913. After early years working as a collier and playing football for Ferryhill Athletic and Shildon Colliery, he signed for Liverpool at the age of twenty-two in April 1936, making his league debut against Stoke City on the following 29 August. He played alongside the likes of Matt Busby and Jackie Balmer for the season’s first twenty-six matches but was replaced by Riley after a disastrous winter spell during which Liverpool played nine, lost seven, drew one, won one and conceded nineteen goals. Hobson played just one match during the 1937-38 season. His contract expired in October 1938 when he was sold for £700 to Chester City, making twenty-six appearances during the ensuing season. He remained on Chester’s books until 1 August 1946 but played much of his wartime football as a guest keeper back at Anfield, appearing in 167 Northern Division matches, three Lancashire Cup ties and one ‘official’ FA Cup match.  He also made wartime guest appearances for Southport and Burnley.

His wartime matches witnessed the emerging talents of the young Billy Liddell and Bob Paisley. A typical wartime match was played against Everton on 30 May 1942. In front of 13,761 spectators, Liverpool won 4-1, with Hobson in goal, Liddell up front and Preston North End’s Bill Shankly making his one and only guest appearance for Liverpool. Though never capped, Hobson did play in one strictly unofficial representative match: for a Football League XI against a British XI at Anfield on 19 April 1941. The great Tommy Lawton was the Football League’s centre forward while the British XI included Stan Cullis of Wolves, George Mutch of Preston and Alf’s old Liverpool team-mates Busby, Berry Nieuwenhuys and Willie Fagan. Not that Hobson’s place was won solely on merit. Manchester City and England star Frank Swift was originally pencilled in for the match but unable to obtain leave from the forces. Nor was it an entirely successful match for Hobson who was carried off with concussion shortly before half time. His place was taken by Wolves wing-half Tom Galley and Billy Liddell came on a substitute. Hobson’s last match for Liverpool took place at Burnden Park on 26 January 1946 in the first leg of an FA Cup 4th round fixture against Bolton Wanderers. In front of almost 40,000 spectators, the match proved a nightmare for Hobson, with Liverpool losing 5-0 thanks to goals from Lofthouse (2) and Westwood (3). His future at Anfield was sealed a month later when Liverpool manager George Kay signed Cyril Sidlow from Wolverhampton Wanderers. Hobson moved to South Liverpool at the end of May 1946 and, aged thirty-five, joined Prescot Cables in February 1948 – just in time to help them win the Lancashire Combination Cup. Alf Hobson married a Liverpool girl called Ruth Stockley and had at least two sons. By chance the website www.photomemorabilia.co.uk features a family portrait of the Hobsons taken at the Jerome Studio on London Road, Liverpool. Hobson retired from football, aged thirty-eight, in 1951, returning not only to his native County Durham but also to his work as a collier. He died in a Durham hospital on 21 February 2004. Aged ninety, he was the oldest surviving ex-Liverpool player at the time.

That two-legged FA Cup match between Liverpool and Bolton Wanderers in January 1946 was also crucial to the career of the other goalkeeper who played both at Anfield and Hope Street. Precious little is known about Harry Wheeler Nickson (also known as ‘Fred’). He was born in Liverpool on Boxing Day 1916. His mother’s maiden name was Clucas and according to Jonny Stokkeland’s Liverpool FC archive Harry was educated at Longmoor Lane School between Orrell Park and Aintree. Of his family life all we know about is his marriage in Liverpool to a Miss Hill sometime between October and December 1945. At some point in his early days he played for Bootle Wednesday, and the Liverpool archive records the fact that he served in Calcutta during the war and played for local team Calcutta Whites 1943-45. He was registered at Liverpool as a twenty-nine-year-old trainee on 8 November 1945 and made ten appearances during the last season of the Football League Northern Division. One such match took place at Oakwell, Barnsley, on Boxing Day 1945 (his 29th birthday as it happened) with Nickson in goal, Liddell on the right wing and Willie Fagan at No.8. 28,464 spectators witnessed a 1-0 victory for the home team. Manager George Kay selected Nickson for the FA Cup 3rd round home and away matches against Chester City on 5 and 9 January 1946. Liverpool won comfortably with an aggregate score of 4-1. For reason unknown Nickson was dropped for the first leg of the next round: the 5-0 hammering by Bolton already mentioned. Nickson returned for the second leg at Anfield on 30 January and aquitted himself well as Liverpool clawed back two goals but were eliminated on aggregate. Harry Nickson’s last match was on 16 February 1946. If the 5-0 defeat at Burnden Park was Alf Hobson’s swan song, this 5-0 home defeat against Manchester United spelt curtains for Nickson. With Sidlow making his Liverpool debut on 21 February 1946, Hobson and Nickson were out.

Nickson played his last match for Liverpool in a reserve match on 22 April 1946. His registration lapsed on 21 December 1945 and he probably joined Cables soon after. He kept goal here for the ensuing two years. He might have played on but for a serious injury in a match against Nelson. In front of a typical 4,000 post-war Hope Street crowd, Nickson broke several ribs and played only one more match before Hobson replaced him. Virtually nothing is known about his subsequent life. Where did he go? What did he do? What we do know is that he died in Ormskirk aged 70 on 12 March 1987.  If anyone reading these pages knows anything further about Harry Wheeler (or ‘Fred’) Nickson, please contact the club.

FROM THE BERT TAYLOR COLLECTION

Nickson on form: Prescot Cables vs Netherfield

‘Harry Nickson, saving all manners of shots, must have made the Netherfield forwards lose heart. He gave an exhibition which chalked one up for the supporters who have always argued in his favour’. In other reports Nickson emerges as a good and popular goalkeeper.

Nickson’s injury

Cables 2 Nelson 2.

‘Play was interrupted while Woodcock [of Nelson] and Nickson received attention from the respective trainers. It was obvious that Nickson’s injury was the more serious. He had received an opponent’s boot in his ribs while making a gallant save. Much to his credit and admirable loyalty, Harry refused to retire and continued to do his best under painful strain for the remainder of the game.’

Glyn Williams