The Football Man: Willie Toms, 1910-1983

History for me is a deeply personal business – my profession, but also my passion. I couldn’t imagine it being any other way. I have written on this site already before about other family members: books belonging to my grandfather William Power, and  my grandmother Sheila’s brother, Paddy Neary. This post is about another relative – my paternal grandfather’s brother, Willie.

“The club director is the person in whom the fanaticism of the terraces and the urge for authority fuse. He is imbued with a desire to manage,  yet is activated principally by his partisan local involvement and the moral approach he brings to the wider issue. ”

– Arthur Hopcraft , The Football Man (1968), p. 140

Arthur Hopcraft was writing about the game in England when he penned those words, but he might well have been talking about the directorate of any of the League of Ireland’s clubs in the same era. Hopcraft’s book was published in 1968, the year Manchester United became champions of Europe for the first time. When the draw was made for the first round of the competition in 1968/69, a small city on the south-east coast of Ireland, with a long footballing tradition, recently crowned champions themselves at home could hardly believe their luck when they were drawn against the mighty European champions from across the Irish sea. Neither I’m sure could their board, including a relative of mine, Willie Toms.

Waterford v Manchester United at Lansdowne Road Programme
Waterford v Manchester United at Lansdowne Road Programme

When you begin work on a PhD where a large amount of that work is based in your own locality, and in the twentieth century, it is reasonable to expect that you would come across family members from time to time in the course of your research. They may even warrant a brief inclusion in your work as a nifty footnote if you’re feeling cheeky. But, for me, as my interest in the history of soccer in Waterford developed – moving from the period of its fruition in the 1920s right into the 1930s (although this was not in the end a part of my PhD thesis itself) it became obvious that from the 1930s on Willie Toms was no mere footnote to the history of soccer in Waterford – he was a vital part of it.

In this, the 30th Anniversary of his passing, I want to write about this man who I never knew personally, but having read his words in newspaper reports, in the archives, having heard stories about, and whose image is burned deep into my imagination, I feel a deep connection to. This connection started way back in 2006 for me, when as an eager Leaving Certificate student in  St. Paul’s Community College in Waterford, I decided for my special history topic I would research the founding of the Waterford and District Football League.

Arthur Hopcraft's classic, The Football Man.
Arthur Hopcraft’s classic, The Football Man.

I learned then, and have continued to learn, that in sports history, primary material can be extremely difficult to come by. I contacted the League, and was met by then secretary Jimmy O’Neill, who brought me into the back room, the meeting room, of the League in Ozier Park. They had little in the way of minute books or the like to offer me but they did have newspaper clippings from the Waterford News and Star in the 1970s – it was a series celebrating 50 years of football in the city. The clippings, I learned, had been collected by my father’s uncle, Willie, whose photographic portrait was one of those that adorned the walls of this room in Ozier Park. Some of the work I did for that special project remains a part of my PhD thesis now seven years on, though I would have scarcely known where to begin on that little project but for those clippings Willie Toms gave for safe keeping to the Waterford and District Football League. Willie Toms evidently understood the value of history, by keeping those newspaper clippings and sellotaping them as he did to giant white boards for safe keeping.

It never occurred to me that it would require explanation to anyone as to why it was important to research or study the history of sport in Ireland. It seemed to me to be obviously important – it formed (and continues to form) such a large part of life for many people I know/knew and for myself. Most people have greeted it with bemusement and wonder, but a sense that I must be really lucky. But like playing sport, researching its past is a deadly serious, and important endeavour to my mind. Journalist Rob Steen wrote in a guide book to budding sports journalists that ‘sport, in most cases, is full-contact ballet. In all instances it is the art of competition. At bottom, in its demands on body and soul, on head, heart and spirit it is a celebration of human possibility.’ Sport matters – for both its own sake and for what it can tell us about the world. I’ve never felt a need to justify my own interest in it – it’s  importance as a way of socialising remains self evident for me.

History also matters,  even if not to everyone it is nonetheless for everyone. Here one of the great sports historians, Richard Holt comes into his own writing that ‘history crudely weighed down with the apparatus of theory and couched in specialist language spoils the enjoyment of a subject without enhancing our understanding of it.’ This is part of what interests me so much in being part of a collaborative history blog. Making history through so open a medium seems as necessarily important as does say, Thompson’s instruction to rescue from the condescension of posterity. As my professional interest in history has developed, so too has my interest in reading the reflections of those in the historical profession. Some of the best history writing I have encountered in my reading is that history writing that manages to combine the historical and the personal – books like Eric Hobsbawm’s Interesting Times, Tom Dunne’s Rebellions, JH Elliott’s recent History in the Making  and others besides. One of the best exponents of this reflective writing, Tony Judt, in his wondrous and moving book The Memory Chalet commented ‘my latest writings have a far more inductive quality to them. Their value rests on an essentially impressionistic effect: the success with which I have interwoven the private and the public, the reasoned and the intuited, the recalled and the felt.’ (p.11) In my own extremely modest way, I hope this post will manage a similar interweaving of the private and public, reasoned and intuited, recalled and felt.

Chain Smoker: Irish Times, January 30 1954
Chain Smoker: Irish Times, January 30 1954

Willie Toms was born in Waterford in 1910. An able and intelligent student in Mount Sion school, where he played hurling, Willie won a wide variety of scholarships to carry on his studies past primary school –  he was one of just seven boys to win a massive £120 scholarship, £30 a year when he did his intermediate certificate in 1926 in which he got passes in subjects like English, History, Geography, Physics, Mechanics and Honours in Irish, Arithmetic, Algebra, Trigonometry, Geometry and the general Mathematics course . In 1928 as well as completing clerical civil service examinations and beginning a life working for the Waterford Corporation, he was also a cadet in the National Defence Forces, listed as an officer-in-training in the local newspaper on the same day the results of his civil service exams were published in the same paper. His most well-known role in the Corporation was probably that of Truancy Officer. Willie was instrumental in the establishing of proper schoolboys football in Waterford in the 1930s and to many young boys, truant and otherwise, his was a well-known face. He was later to work as Housing Officer for the corporation, a job which one brief portrait of him in 1956 described him as completing with ‘commendable tact’.

In The Public Gaze: Munster Express, 10 February 1956
In The Public Gaze: Munster Express, 10 February 1956

Well-known though he was throughout his life as a face in the city’s corporation, it was through football that he gained his fame. He began life playing the game with St. Joseph’s Boys’ Club, set up in 1924 by then Bishop of Waterford Bernard Hackett to cater for precisely the kind of boys who Willie would have had run-ins with as Truancy Officer. As well as sport, St. Joseph’s taught boys plenty of useful skills including woodwork and raffia-work. The boys set up a soccer team, much to the chagrin of some Irish-Irelander commentators in the local press. Willie Toms was strongly nationalist, and like much more well-known figures like Oscar Traynor, saw little or nothing wrong with the choice of sport he played as regards his nationalism. Indeed Willie was willing to conduct the affairs of the Waterford Football League through Irish at one point while he was secretary if it was to the satisfaction of those for whom such things mattered.

Willie was a skilful footballer, opening as he did the scoring  when St. Joseph’s beat Tramore Rookies 5-1 in the 1930 Infirmary Cup final. But, it would be in other areas of football that he would excel. Willie took on all of the jobs in football – referee, secretary, treasurer, chairman, director – which are usually derided but without which there would be no leagues, cups, no matches. Among the more ‘glamorous’ matches he refereed were the 1933 final of the George French Shield, a competition initiated thanks to the generous donation of the English music hall singer. It was in all of these duties that Willie showed himself to be a true football man. With a cigarette always drooping from his lips (he was an inveterate chain smoker), he was either on the pitch, the sidelines, or in the stands – it is evident from a trawl through the local and national newspapers that Willie was football to the core. When Waterford were chasing the FAI Cup in 1979, Peter Byrne of the Irish Times interviewed Willie, who recalled the 1937 win:

I still remember Eugene Noonan putting the ball in the net immediately below us for one of two goals which gave us the cup.  And later, there was the excitement of the homecoming as the team, on an open lorry, crossed the bridge on the way into the city.  So vast was the crowd that turned out to welcome the team that at least one person was injured as the people of Waterford gave vent to their feelings.

Waterford wouldn’t win the cup in 1979, having to wait another season to win it again. His career was wide and varied – as well as his work for his own club, St. Joseph’s, Willie in the late 1930s ambitiously tried to expand the remit of the Waterford and District Football League by establishing the newly-minted Waterford and North Munster Football League to widen the base of competition and offer clubs on the fringes a chance to join a high quality league. He was in the same period a member of the Junior Committee of the Football Association of the Irish Free State, and would end up on their selection committee for internationals. As well as that, in 1948 he was first elected a member of the board of Waterford Football Club   in the League of Ireland, acting as their League representative, as well as being a director of the club. He was even honoured in the mid-1950s with the position of President of the League of Ireland.

Willie Toms' Junior Committee, FAIFS badge, 1937-38 season. Author's family collection.
Willie Toms’ Junior Committee, FAIFS badge, 1937-38 season. Author’s family collection.
Willie Toms' Junior Committee, FAIFS badge, 1937-38 season inlay. Author's family collection.
Willie Toms’ Junior Committee, FAIFS badge, 1937-38 season inlay. Author’s family collection.

One of the most remarkable things about Willie’s career in football is its length – Willie was still involved in the game right up to his last moments. When Waterford AFC sought voluntary liquidation in 1982, Willie was one of those who put up the money to have the club re-established a new limited company, Waterford United Football Club (1982) Ltd. The club would remain Waterford AFC for one more season before switching to the name which they currently retain of Waterford United. Willie was still involved in the club and in the game in Waterford right up until his death on 9 December 1983, when the news was reported in the Irish Independent the following day they noted that ‘for the past nine years he has been a Waterford delegate on the Management Committee of the League of Ireland.’

When he had taken ill while on a visit to his brother in London, the Munster Express wished him a speedy recovery, but by the time that day’s paper was read in the city, he had already passed away. Willie wasn’t just a football man either, a former president the Mount Sion Past Pupils’ Union, he had also served as president of the Catholic Young Men’s Society in the city and had remained a trustee of that organisation right up until his death. At the CYMS’ annual general meeting in January of 1984, Mr Acheson the Society’s treasurer recalled with sadness the recent passing of Willie. Introducing The Football Man, Hopcraft wrote that

no player, manager, director or fan who understands football, either through his intellect or his nerve-ends, ever repeats that piece of nonsense trotted out mindlessly by the fearful every now and again which pleads, “after all, it’s only a game.” (p.1)

Willie would I’m sure have agreed with the sentiment. My professional development as a historian is intertwined with my discovery of Willie, his story and the telling of it. Few men can claim to have had such a long and lasting impact in the game of football locally as Willie Toms did. A true servant of the sport in Waterford, he really was the football man, the sort no doubt that Arthur Hopcraft would have recognised. An opinion more intuited than that normally presented in traditional history writing perhaps, but one keenly felt nonetheless.

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