A book’s been written about Frank Soo – The first Chinese footballer to play for England

Frank Soo is in many ways the forgotten man of twentieth century football. In his time he was a household name in Britain and he was highly regarded all over the world. Born in Derbyshire in 1914, the son of a Chinese immigrant from Guangzhou and an English mother, Frank Soo had a very successful football career, playing for many years alongside the world-famous Stanley Matthews.

Soo played for the England national side nine times and was Captain of the Royal Air Force team. He spent most of his playing career at Stoke City, appeared as a guest player during the Second World War for Everton, Newcastle United and Chelsea, and later played for Leicester City and Luton Town. His career as a football manager, mainly in Scandinavia, included spells as the national coach of both Norway and Sweden and he took Djurgårdens IF to the top of the Allsvenskan, the highest football league in Sweden.

A pioneer in many ways, Frank Soo was the first person from a Chinese or Asian background to play for England and remains the only one to this day.

The Wanderer: the Story of Frank Soo by Susan Gardiner, published by Electric Blue Publishing

The book aims to tell the almost forgotten story of a man who was, in his time, a significant figure in international football, a hugely admired and skilful footballer, a charming and charismatic man, and a role model for any aspiring young player. Despite being deeply affected by personal tragedy, Frank Soo’s story is a triumphant one of a boy who grew up above his family’s laundry business in Liverpool to become possibly the most important person of Chinese heritage in British history.

Nee Hao speaks to the author, Susan Gardiner

Can you tell us a little more about Frank Soo? 

Frank Soo was the son of a Chinese immigrant to England, Quan Soo and his wife, Beatrice, who was from Lancashire. Quan came to England from the Guangzhou area as a very young man in the late nineteenth-century and for many years ran a successful laundry business in Liverpool. Frank was born in 1914 and was one of seven children, five of whom were very talented sportsmen. He was spotted early on as a talented footballer when he played for schoolboy teams in the Liverpool area, and he signed up with Stoke City as a professional footballer in 1932 when he was only eighteen years old. He played alongside Stanley Matthews at Stoke for many years and was eventually picked to play for England during the Second World War. After he retired from playing, he had a long and very successful career as a coach and manager, mainly in Scandinavia where, among other achievements, he coached the national teams of Norway and Sweden.

Tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to write a book about Frank Soo?

I started out wondering why no one had ever heard of Frank Soo and initially intended to write a few magazine articles about him, but the more I discovered about him, the more I realised that he was an important and interesting figure in the history of European football and I wanted to try to raise awareness of his place in that story.

I’ve been writing, mainly short articles about social history, since the 1990s but I also have a great interest in football, so when I was asked to write about the history of my own club, Ipswich Town, in 2013, I jumped at the chance. Since then I’ve published two other history books. It was when I was researching for another football article that I came across Frank Soo’s name on the internet and became fascinated by his story. I also quickly realised that a great deal of the information on the internet was incorrect, so I initially wanted to put that right. When I got in touch with Frank’s surviving family and did some further research, I realised that he had once been a very famous man indeed and what an interesting and charismatic person he was.

Was it difficult to do research for this book?

It has been the toughest thing I’ve ever done from the research point of view. I read dozens of books about all aspects of football during the time he played and coached and he is missing from all but a few of them. This made me even more determined to find out about him and the Soo family were very helpful in pointing me in the right direction. I had to go back to old newspapers, which were my main resource. He was frequently mentioned in the British press between 1933 and the 1950s and after he went to work in Italy and Scandinavia he featured in the newspapers of those countries. I had to translate articles from Italian, Norwegian, Swedish and Malay, among other languages. Luckily there were quite a few people who were willing to help me, but it was hard work.

Frank Soo, front row, third from left, playing for Stoke City. Credit: National Football Collection.
Frank Soo, front row, third from left, playing for Stoke City. Credit: National Football Collection.

Why do you think that not many people have heard about Frank Soo, given his achievements in British football? 

I’m still puzzled as to why. One reason is probably that he left England in 1951 and spent most of his coaching career in other countries and I think he was simply forgotten, but I don’t think that is the only reason. He was a household name in his time as a footballer in England, as famous as Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton and Joe Mercer, but unlike them, he seems to have been forgotten. I don’t think it was deliberate on anyone’s part – he was extremely popular with other players and football supporters – but unlike Matthews, who wrote five autobiographies for example, Soo was not interested in self-promotion. He was quiet and modest and more interested in passing on his skills to future generations. He did experience some racism during his life, and I’m sure that’s a factor too.

What do you hope readers from the British Chinese community will learn from reading the book? 

That here is someone with a Chinese heritage who achieved the very highest honours in British sport. I’ve spoken to a few young Chinese footballers and they had never heard of him. One of them told me that if he had known about Frank Soo when he was a young player, he might have felt there was more of a possibility of a professional career. So in a sense he is still a role model, even though he was playing football a long time ago.

And what do you hope other readers (who are not Chinese) will learn from reading the book? 

I think that Frank Soo is someone who everyone can admire. His Chinese background is important but he was an influential figure in the history of European football irrespective of that. He brought a new, more professional attitude to the game that didn’t really exist in the 1940s and 1950s. His attitude to fitness and training, and the style of football he believed in are all accepted today, but he had to fight to put them into practice in his own time.

He should be recognised as one of the key figures in English football history.

Where can we buy this book?

The book can be ordered from any bookshop, including Waterstones, as well as online from Amazon. Ebook versions are also available.

frank

Further details can be found on my publisher’s website, www.electric-blue.co.uk.

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