Britain’s Greatest Sportsmen – Part 1: Max Woosnam


Numerous lists have been constructed over the years ranking the greatest British sportsmen of all-time; from polls of the British public to lists compiled by ‘experts’. The likes of Bobby Moore, Ian Botham, Steve Redgrave, Bradley Wiggins and Jackie Stewart are regularly near the top of the list, all of whom have been knighted. However, when it comes to Britain’s greatest all-round sportsmen, the four men we will cover over the next month come out streets ahead. We start with Woosnam, won gold in the tennis at the 1920 Olympics, won the doubles at Wimbledon, compiled a 147 break in snooker, scored a century at Lords and captained both Manchester City and England.

Woosnam, who was the son of a wealthy priest who served as the Archdeacon of Macclesfield. Born in Liverpool in September 1892, Woosnam spent much of his early life in the small village of Aberhafesp, located 5 miles west of Newtown with a population of just over 500 people at that time. Woosnam attended Winchester College as a young man and it was there that he learnt the true extent of his sporting abilities. He captained the schools golf and cricket teams, as well as playing for the school’s football and squash teams. He was chosen to represent a Public Schools XI team at Lords in 1911, where Woosnam hit 144 and 33 not out against the Marylebone Cricket Club.

The same year that he hit a century at Lords, Woosnam enrolled at Cambridge University. Having moved up a stage in terms of sporting pedigree, he still looked a class act, and established himself as a genuinely outstanding all-round sportsman. He began captaining Cambridge’s football team, and represented the universities cricket, lawn tennis, real tennis and golf teams. It was whilst at university that Woosnam’s ability as a footballer became clear. He signed for the great Corinthian’s side in 1913, and appeared a few times for Chelsea in 1914. In the summer of 1913, he traveled – along with the rest of the Corinthian’s team – to Brazil, for a tour of the country. This was a common practice for Corinthian’s, who had already toured South Africa, Canada, the United States, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Denmark and Germany. In Brazil, Woosnam scored against Paulistano of Sao Paolo, one of the great Brazilian teams of their day, and quickly made a name for himself with the London club.

So successful was the tour that Corinthian’s arranged another the following summer. In the summer of 1914, the Corinthian’s team set sail for South America once more, but as they embarked on the final stages of their journey, they received the news that war had been declared at home. The players stopped in Brazil for a walk around Rio before embarking on their return leg far earlier than anticipated. The Corinthian’s team had to contend with German U-Boats and torpedo fire on their return to England. Upon return, Woosnam enlisted almost immediately, and was soon sent to the Western Front, and later the Gallipoli Campaign. He survived the war and received distinction for his service.

Once the Football League resumed, Woosnam was now a highly regarded footballer, but refused to commit to any one single sport. He reached the final of the All England Plate at Wimbledon in 1919, where he was defeated but his natural ability didn’t go unrecognised. After a later defeat at Queens, ‘The Times’ noted that, “Woosnam is a player of many games, and he could excel at tennis if he could devote enough time to the game.” It was an opinion shared by many who saw him play tennis, but the same could have been said of the multitude of other sports which occupied his time. Of course, true to form, Woosnam did eventually excel at tennis. At the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Woosnam won gold in the men’s doubles and silver in the mixed doubles; before winning the Grand Slam doubles at Wimbledon a year later.

Woosnam had signed for Manchester City in 1919 but a leg break and his other sporting commitments had prevented him from getting much game time in his six seasons with the club. He missed the start of the 1921/22 season as he was busy captaining Great Britain’s Davis Cup team. Following the competition, Woosnam began to commit himself to football more, but refused to sign on professional terms and only agreed to play home matches at first, until the cub lost a shock FA Cup tie in his absence . Woosnam was the only first team player at the club on amateur terms, describing the idea of being a professional sportsman as ‘vulgar’. Despite being an amateur, Woosnam was soon made club captain, and became a big fan favourite. He began representing England’s amateur team, before becoming a full international in 1922 when he captained England for his only official cap. Woosnam had previously been asked to captain Great Britain’s Olympic football team, but refused having already committed to the countries eventually victorious tennis team.

It was in April 1922 that Woosnam’s footballing career essentially came to an end. He suffered a painful leg break, the injury sidelined him for over a year, and he didn’t return until the opening day of the 1923/24 season, which would be his last game for the Sky Blues; he made a grand total of 93 appearances for the cub, scoring 5 goals. He had a brief spell in non-league football with Northwich Victoria, which actually began whilst he was still on the books at Manchester City. He made his Northwich debut in 1924 and his final appearance in 1926, but made very few appearances in between. His footballing career, which had effectively ended in 1922, officially came to an end in 1926, at the age of 34. This didn’t halt his other sporting ventures though, and in the 1920’s he became a pioneer of table tennis, which had previously served as an after-dinner parlour game for the British upper-classes.

Woosnam unsurprisingly excelled in the sport he had helped create, and once famously challenged Charlie Chaplin to a game of the new sport. Beating a comic actor when you’re one of the nation’s most decorated sportsmen would not be particularly impressive, were it not for the fact that Woosnam defeated Chaplin not with a bat, paddle or any suitable tool for the occasion, but rather with a butter knife. Woosnam and Chaplin did not get on with one and another, with the athlete reportedly taking an immediate dislike to Chaplin’s inflated ego. Thrashing him at table tennis with a butter knife – it was hoped – would bring Chaplin down a peg or two, with Woosnam having already humiliated him on the tennis court, with a more conventional racquet on that occasion.

He later worked for the chemical company ICI, whilst in Northwich, before passing away in 1965 at the age of 72 due to respiratory problems. Woosnam had been a heavy smoker all his life and was living in London at the time of his death. An exceptional batsman in cricket, an uncompromising centre-half and leader in football and a naturally gifted tennis player; Woosnam’s legacy should have been great As well as the sporting achievements covered above, Woosnam was also skilled in snooker and golf. He scored a maximum 147 break in snooker and was a scratch golfer from a young age. He is regarded by some as the greatest all-round sportsman of all-time. Yet his legacy seems to have been sadly diminished. The only known recognition of his life is an alley in Manchester near Maine Road named ‘Max Woosnam Way’.

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