American Soccer history’s forgotten hero

David Wangerin, author of Distant Corners: American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes remembers Fred Milnes, a key figure in the development of the “beautiful game.”

This year marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the death of Fred Milnes. For all but the keenest soccer historian, his name doesn’t carry much weight – yet in the early history of the game in America it has a genuine significance.

Born in 1878 in a village just outside Sheffield, England, Milnes was very much a product of his era. A steel company executive (and millionaire, by at least one account), his playing career moved in a curious path of fits and starts. During the 1903-1904 season, he appeared for at least three different English teams, helping one of them to reach the amateur cup final. In 1906, he signed for Manchester United, though he never appeared in their first team; that year, he also turned out for the first England national amateur team, which whitewashed France, 15-0.

His contribution to American soccer began in 1905, as captain of the touring Pilgrims Football Club, the first team from the British Isles to appear in this country. Students of American soccer history will be familiar with the significance of this tour, and the ease with which the Pilgrims – who were something of an all-star unit rather than a permanent entity – disposed of the local opposition. But not many will be aware of the silver favor the Englishman bestowed upon the American game in the wake of the tour.

 Variously described as the Milnes Cup or Milnes Trophy, his prize was presented to the winner of the Intercollegiate Association Foot Ball League. Amid the intense popularity of gridiron football, soccer had been all but left for dead on campus; the fledgling six-team league was the only college soccer circuit in the country, and in 1905 not far from the sum total of intercollegiate interest in the game. Haverford College, a liberal-arts school outside Philadelphia, had formed one of the country’s first college teams, in 1902; fittingly, it won the Milnes Cup the first three times, sharing it in 1908 with Yale.

In the meantime, Milnes had wandered across much of England with his cleats in tow. He appeared fleetingly for a bewildering variety of clubs, including Leicester Fosse (now Leicester City), Norwich City, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. But when promoters in St. Louis offered $10,000 for the Pilgrims to return to the U.S. for another tour in 1909, Milnes re-formed the team. Once again, they had little difficulty in overcoming most of their opponents.

Said to have played soccer in no fewer than seventeen different countries, Milnes by now had also become vice president and general manager of the Park View Steel Company in Sheffield. But his playing days were drawing to a close – and his trips to the U.S. had left quite an impression on him. Thirty-four in 1912, he sailed to New York City with a view toward becoming a resident there. Newspapers assumed he’d be snapped up by one of the colleges, who were desperate to attract anyone who understood the game. But Milnes kept playing.

In the spring of 1913, he moved to Niagara Falls; he joined the Rangers club there, and the following season led them to the semi-finals of the inaugural National Challenge Cup (today’s US Open Cup). Milnes also wrote about the sport regularly for the Niagara Falls Journal, and assumed a position of authority within the Northwestern New York State association. He seemed to have found a new home.

Toward the end of 1915, though, matters took a dramatic turn. The national governing body, the United States Football Association, suspended him indefinitely for his “failure to satisfactorily account for the funds” of the state association. Details of the transgression are something of a mystery – they were not widely reported – but the colleges suddenly stopped competing for his prize.

Ninety-six years on, it’s not clear where the Milnes Cup ended up – Penn is likely to have won it for the last time, in 1914 – though it is only one in an extensive anthology of long-forgotten American soccer trophies. Milnes returned to England but made at least one return trip to the US, reaching St. Louis in 1920. He died in Leeds, England, on July 1, 1946.

During their two tours, the Pilgrims played thirty-four matches in the U.S. and lost only three, outscoring their opponents 196-22. They impressed nearly everyone who saw them play. Yet never did they face any of the college teams that competed for Milnes’s trophy; and several generations would pass before the college game began to even approach maturity. While Milnes did much to help resuscitate soccer in America, there was a lot more than needed to be done – and the game would remain enfeebled for a long time to come.

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