Reginald Erskine Foster: the man who captained England to glory in football and cricket

Reginald Erskine Foster: the man who captained England to glory in football and cricket

The owner of a moustache you could set your watch by and a truly sickening all-round talent for a variety of sports that would create a character and personality perfect for the stylistic plundering of Michael Palin for use in his mid-to-late-1970s television series of historical spoofs, Ripping Yarns, Reginald Erskine Foster – known endearingly as ‘Tip’ Foster – is the only man to have captained England on both international football and cricket fields.

A comrade of the legendary C. B. Fry, a teammate so revered he was once offered the throne of a Balkan nation, Tip’was the product of quite possibly the most gifted sporting family the world has ever known. One of the seven sons and three daughters born to Henry and Sophia, Foster’s father was a sportsman of massive repute, a scholar and a man of religion. As well as being adept at cricket, he was a master rower and archer, while legend has it he was also the first scratch golfer in the Midlands.

A housemaster at Malvern College, Henry laid both the perfect structural and community platforms for his talented children to flourish. Physically laying multiple sports grounds at the college, it enabled the Foster family to dominate the school championships and beyond.

Tip, like two of his brothers, captained the Worcestershire County Cricket Club, with other Foster brothers excelling at racquets, to go along with the almost requisite skills of football and cricket that all the Foster children were seemingly born with. Henry’s gift for golf was most keenly continued by his daughters, with Cicely even representing England.

A student at Oxford, Foster obtained Blues in not only football and cricket, but also racquets and golf, as if the latter two distinctions were something he trifled with in the sparsity of his spare time, maybe to give his brothers and sisters some compelling competition when honing their own outstanding skills. It is said his abilities with a golf club were as pronounced as those he had with a football and cricket ball.

For Foster, however, along with his outrageous cricketing talent which saw him captain England to a winning Ashes Test series in Australia in 1903/04, he was undeniably the most gifted of the family with a football at his feet. Starring for Corinthian FC, one of five of the Foster brothers to do so, Foster was thrown in at the deep end when he faced Aston Villa at Crystal Palace in the Sheriff of London Charity Shield, the precursor to today’s Community Shield.

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Introduced two years earlier, the game pitted what were deemed to be the best professional and amateur teams against one another, in competitive but respectful combat. Having failed to garner a winning team in the two-previous contesting of the fixture, Corinthians’ 2-1 victory over the reigning Football League champions in November 1899 was embraced enthusiastically by those who still lamented the dawning of professionalism.

Playing at inside-right, Foster linked effortlessly with the Corinthians right-winger G. E. Vassall to cut the Aston Villa defence open repeatedly. The speed with which they played won the approval of an enthusiastic crowd and the two were responsible for the Corinthians first-half equaliser, in swift response to Villa’s 35th-minute opener. Foster, having run at the Villa defence, laid the ball off to Vassall, who returned it to the on-running Foster, from where he closed in on the goalkeeper, before powering home the leveller.

In a game which was comfortably played within the spirit that Sir Thomas Dewar, the Sheriff of London, had dreamed of, Corinthians procured a late winner from Smith, much to the delight of those not of an Aston Villa affiliation. That a game of such rich skill and endeavour was played in near swamp conditions only added further lustre to the legend of the Corinthians and Foster.

The scorer of 22 goals in 26 outings, Foster cultivated an almost telepathic understanding with Smith, and many professional teams suffered at the hands of a style of play that inspired burgeoning football clubs the world over. On 28 December 1900, Corinthians swept aside Wolves 8-4, with Foster netting a hat-trick, while a year later they dismantled Tottenham, the FA Cup holders, 3-0, in a game where Foster and Smith shared the goals.

At the peak of his footballing powers, it was during this rich run of form that Foster was called up to the England team, winning his first cap against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in late-March 1900. Amidst intermittent snowstorms and sunshine, Foster was one of England’s better performers in a 1-1 draw played out before around 6,000 stoic spectators. Omitted from the next international at Parkhead against Scotland, just 11 days beyond the draw in Cardiff, a catastrophic 4-1 loss meant that the FA selectors were sending out a telegram requesting Foster’s services once again for the following game.

That following game wasn’t for another 11 months, however. In March 1901, England defeated Ireland 3-0 at The Dell, and Foster was in imperious form. In a disjointed game where England were down to ten men after just 20 minutes, due to an injury to the local hero Archie Turner, Foster and Sheffield United’s George Hedley took the sting out of the one-man disadvantage. With short interchanges of passing between the two players, they both found the back of the Ireland net during the final ten minutes of the game.

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At St James’ Park nine days later, England ran out 6-0 winners against Wales on a badly saturated pitch. Foster was again to the fore, scoring one and playing a pivotal role in three other goals, on a day when the legendary Steve Bloomer scored four times. Foster’s dribbling of the ball caused widespread disarray in the Wales defence.

In what was still a small footballing world in 1901, England’s short international year ended just three weeks after it had begun, when they faced Scotland at Crystal Palace. This took Foster back to the arena in which he had shot to national notoriety with the Corinthians against Aston Villa some 16 months earlier.

Torrential rain on the morning of the game left the Palace pitch almost submerged. Despite the best efforts of the ground staff, there were still large pools of water situated across various parts of the turf at kick-off. Consideration was given to postponing the game, but both teams were reluctant to deal with the potential inconvenience of a rearrangement of the fixture. Admirably, Foster stuck to his strengths, despite the problematic conditions, keeping the ball close and attempting to go past his Scottish markers. A thankless task on such a wet pitch, Foster still caused Scotland plenty of scares as the game drifted out to an unexpectedly entertaining 2-2 draw.

A year later, Foster captained England at the Racecourse Ground against Wales. It would be his last act in an England shirt, in a game which took place just two days after Foster had again starred for Corinthians in the Sheriff of London Charity Shield, this time on the losing side against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. In a stuttering team performance, where Wales were largely the better side, Foster had a goal disallowed in front of what was up until then the biggest crowd ever assembled to watch an international match in Wales.

Just short of his 24th birthday, Foster incredibly played very little in the way of football beyond captaining England in Wrexham. Instead, he immersed himself in working within the Stock Exchange, with any spare time he found on his hands being dedicated to cricket. By December 1903. he was representing his country with the bat and the ball, rather than the football.

Drifting in and out of sport, despite his multitude of talents, Foster was so good that he could pick and choose when and what he wished to play. Sadly, he died aged just 36 in May 1914 due to complications with diabetes, some seven years before the discovery of insulin. The last of his surviving sporting brothers, Johnnie, lived on until 1978.

Within a peculiar, and perhaps contrived, subsection of oddities about the England football team, when Jadon Sancho won his first England cap, during the autumn of 2018, he became the first full England international to have played for his country yet never to have lived during the life of Sir Stanley Matthews, since a certain Reginald Erskine ‘Tip’ Foster. His role in that particular fact, and all described before it, remains just a small part of Foster’s enduring legacy.

By Steven Scragg @scraggy_74

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