3 February 1945: Frank Soo plays for England against Scotland
Long before Viv Anderson received the title in 1979 of being the first black player to play for England another player had already become the first non-white player to represent his country nearly forty years before.
Hong Ying Soo, known to all as Frank Soo, was born in Buxton, Derbyshire, 8 March 1914 to a Chinese father, Our Quong Soo, and English mother, Beatrice Williams. During the Second World War he became the first non-white player to play for England, and still the only player of Asian heritage to feature in an England side. Although his appearance against Scotland on 3 February 1945 is often listed as his first game according to the soccer statistics foundation he in fact played in 9 war-time and victory internationals between 1942 and 1945. He had already come close to winning an England cap as early as 1937 when he was named as a non-traveling reserve for the England and Scotland game at Hampden April 1937, but his first appearance in an England shirt came in a 1-0 loss to Wales at Ninian Park on 9 May 1942. He also featured a couple of times in the FA Armed Services sides during the War, as well as appearing in a side sent by the FA to Berne on the 21 July 1945 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Swiss FA.
While he was still a schoolboy his parents moved to Liverpool, and Soo was to first make his mark playing alongside legends such as Joe Mercer and Stan Cullis in the Cheshire Schools team. During the course of his career he would play for Prescot Cables, then a top non-league side in the North-West, Stoke City, Leicester City, Luton Town and non-league Chelmsford City, also making wartime guest appearances for Everton, Chelsea, Reading, Millwall and Brentford. It was while at Stoke, who he signed for in 1933 as a 19 year old, where he was most successful. He made his Stoke debut on 4 November 1933 away at Middlesbrough and, in doing so, became the first player of Chinese descent to play in the Football League, and one of very few non-white players to have played at the top level at all.
He gradually made himself indispensible to the Stoke team and was named captain for the 1938-39 season, which saw Stoke finish a creditable seventh with Soo being an ever-present. While at Stoke he formed a midfield three with Arthur Tutin and Arthur Turner, which is still talked about today. Stan Mortensen described him as incapable of making a clumsy movement, and his ability to pass a ball was considered second to none at the time. In this era many players in his position of inside-forward were workmanlike and less ambitious with their passing, but Soo would always being looking for the pass that could set up an attack, leading Arsenal’s Alex James, to describe him as “modern for his time.” Sadly just as he was entering his peak, Soo’s career was disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and the resulting cancellation of any meaningful competitive football.
After 185 appearances and 9 goals for Stoke over a 12-year period he joined Leicester for £4600 where Tom Mather, the man who first signed him for Stoke, was now managing. Military duties hampered the number of his appearances he was to make though, and after only one season he moved to Second Division Luton for £3000 where he made 78 appearances in two seasons scoring five goals. He finished his career at Chelmsford City, and in his two seasons there he made 82 appearances, scoring ten goals, and helping the newly formed professional club to finish second in the Southern League in 1949, one point behind Gillingham.
After retiring from football he went into management, and worked in five different countries He was coach of Italian team Padova for two seasons in the early 1950s, before moving to Scandinavia to become coach of the Norway national side, who he led in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He stayed in that part of the world for the rest of the decade, managing and coaching several Danish, Norwegian and Swedish teams, most successfully at Djurgaardens IF, who he led to the Swedish Championship in 1955. Soo returned to England to manage Scunthorpe United for one season at the end of the 1950s in which he saw his team beat Stoke 3-1 on his return to the Victoria Ground. He then returned to Scandinavia before his final stint as manager as the boss of the Israeli national side.
Unfortunately for Soo, England’s war-time and victory internationals were all unofficial games and aren’t included in any official England national team statistics, and when he passed on 25 January 1991 at the age of 76 his achievements were largely unheralded. Today when the under-representation of British-born footballers with both a South and Eastern Asian ethnicity should be a matter of some concern, it is probably worth remembering Soo’s contribution as a role model as to what can be achieved.
Even before Soo’s breakthrough though there was another non-white player who nearly made it into the England side. That honour almost went to a London-born player by the name of Jack Leslie, who had a Jamaican father. Between 1920 and 1935 Leslie scored over 130 goals for Plymouth Argyll, and at one point he was informed by his manager Bob Jack that he had been selected to play for England, but later received communication from the FA canceling his call up to the England team stating, to the FAs eternal shame, that they didn’t realise he was ‘a man of colour.’