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Black History Month 2020 Feature: Tewfik Abdallah

There are doubts about where he was born, when he was born and which teams he played for prior to moving to England. In short, he was born in Telwana or Cairo in Egypt on 23 June 1896 or 1897 and played for International Sporting Club of Cairo or Al-Ahly or Zamalek prior to moving to England.

We know that Tewfik served in World War 1. A Tewfik ‘Abdalla’ was deployed as an interpreter with the Egyptian Labour Corps, we can’t be certain this was ‘our’ Tewfik but it does seem very likely to have been him.

What we do know for certain is that Tewfik represented his country in the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. At 24 years and 66 days Tewfik was described as Egypt’s youngest player at the tournament. This of course strengthens the likelihood he was born in 1896. A team mate in that Egypt team was the captain Hussain Hegazi, who can be found in the Fulham chapter and was the first Egyptian to play in the English League.

Egypt lost 2-1 to Italy in the first round and beat Yugoslavia 4-2 in the consolation round to gain joint 8th place (along with 5 others including Great Britain) in the tournament which was won by the hosts Belgium.

Belgium beat Czechoslovakia in the Final but the Czechs didn’t get a medal of any description as they walked off the field, never to return, after 39 minutes in protest at a free kick given against them. They were 2-0 down at the time and subsequently appealed against their expulsion stating that the English referee 65-year old Mr John Lewis, was biased as he once encountered violence in a match in which he was officiating in Prague. Spain were awarded the silver medal with the Netherlands getting the bronze.

Ironically, the Czechs were coached by John Madden, a Scot who had previously played for Celtic and the Scottish national team. He was known as the Father of Czech football and lived in that country from 1905 until his death in 1948.

While Tewfik was playing football at the 1920 Olympics, Derby County kicked off their season in Division 1 of the English League. It has been suggested that Tewfik had been recommended to Derby by their ex-full-back Tommy Barbour who played against Tewfik while serving in Egypt during World War 1. There is an element of truth in that but let us take up the story as described contemporaneously in the Birmingham Daily Gazette of 21 October 1920.

Tewfik had decided he’d like to join Derby based on how Barbour had described the town (it is of course now a city) but in particular because it would allow him to develop his interest in engineering. He travelled to Derby and went into manager James Methven’s office and was described as a “well dressed individual with a peculiar black-whitey complexion.” He told Methven he “wanted a ticket”. Methven assumed he meant a ticket for the match but Tewfik said he wanted a ticket to play football.

Methven asked Tewfik to display his skills and was sufficiently impressed to give him a trial. He played in the reserves on 18 September 1920 and was given a month’s trial during which he played 2 further reserve games. He was said to be 24 years old (meaning he was born in 1896) and had spent 2 years in the Army.

In 1916 he had played in a game against a British Army XI at the National Sporting Club, Cairo. Tommy Barbour was in the Army XI and was presumably impressed by Tewfik. A year later Tewfik was in the Pick of Egypt side that beat the Army 2-1. And in 1920, before the Olympic Games, Tewfik had starred for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force as they beat the British Army 3-0.

The Birmingham Daily Gazette goes on to tell us that Tewfik was in Italy, France and Belgium before travelling to Derby. We know he was playing for Egypt against Yugoslavia in the Olympic Games on 3 September 1920 so must assume he travelled directly to England after the Games ended. He must have been supremely confident of finding a job and team as he can have had little by way of possessions and was a long way from home and family in Egypt.

Things turned out well for Tewfik. He impressed enough in the reserves to be picked for the first team even before his month’s trial was complete. He made his debut at inside right on 9 October 1920 in a 3-0 home win against Manchester City, scoring the opening goal. It was Derby’s first win of the season. Legend has it that when he went onto the pitch he was heard to say in broken English “where’s me camel?” It was later established that he was actually asking “where is Mick Hamill?” Sure enough, at left half in the Manchester City team was Mickey Hamill an Ireland international who once refused to play for his country in protest at discrimination against Catholic players.

Tewfik quickly became something of a celebrity and he appeared described as “Derby’s Dusky Dribbler” on the front page of the Topical Times magazine for week ended 13 November 1920. Behind a full-page action photo of Tewfik was a depiction of the Sphinx and a couple of palm trees.

Tewfik played 12 games in the 1920/21 season not adding to the goal he scored on his debut. Derby finished 21st in the League and were duly relegated.

Tewfik played a further 3 games for Derby in September 1921 but was then allowed to join Scottish Division 2 side Cowdenbeath.

Cowdenbeath were a relatively strong club in the 1920s. Their Central Park ground had been opened in 1917 and in 1922/23 had been further enhanced by the building of a new stand accommodating 3,500 spectators, making it one of the best grounds in Scotland.

In summarising the season ahead for the Scottish 2nd Division the ‘Special Commissioner’ wrote in The Sunday Post of 13 August 1922 that “Cowdenbeath will leave no stone unturned to forge ahead.” The signing of Tewfik was said to be significant and the Commissioner commented that “I saw Abdullah, the Egyptian, in war-time football in the South, when he impressed me favourably by his dash and clever dribbling.” The problem with this is that Tewfik didn’t play football ‘in the South’ during the War years! It can hardly be a case of mistaken identity either as Egyptians were hardly commonplace in English football, Hassan Hegazi – the only other Egyptian – having dropped out of English League football in 1911.

Tewfik clearly found the standard of football to his liking and scored 24 goals in 62 games during his spell with the Scottish club. But he did suffer from injuries including breaking his arm on 2 occasions.

There were rumours of a move to America but in an about-turn, Tewfik instead joined Bridgend in the Welsh section of the Southern League in 1923 where in a brief spell he made 6 appearances scoring one goal.

Tewfik’s last club was Hartlepool or Hartlepools as they were called until 1967 when the areas of West Hartlepool and Old Hartlepool merged. His spell at Hartlepool was short lasting only 11 games in March and April 1924.

As at Derby, Tewfik scored on his debut, a 4-0 home win against Wrexham on 15 March 1924 but didn’t score again. He left Hartlepool at the end of the season, his last game being a 2-1 defeat at Crewe on 30 April 1924. It was a poor season for Hartlepool and they ended it 2nd from bottom and thus had to apply for re-election to the Football League. They were successful with their application but by the time the 1924/25 season got underway Tewfik had moved on to pastures new.

Only a month later, on 24 May 1924, Tewfik left Liverpool on the SS Laconia bound for Boston in the United States. He was shown as single with an occupation, surprisingly, of labourer. His nearest relative or friend was shown as Jack Bell of Five Bell Lane, Bridgend.

Coincidentally he was followed on 9 August 1924 by Mickey Hamill the other player in the ‘where’s me camel?’ story. Hamill left Liverpool on the SS Celtic bound for New York. Hamill played football for Fall River Marksmen (Massachusetts), Boston Soccer Club and the New York Giants in America. He and his Boston team mates even met the American President Calvin Coolidge in the White House in 1925.

There can be little doubt that Tewfik and Mickey would have renewed old acquaintances in America. Both played for Fall River Marksmen although not at the same time.

Mickey returned to Belfast where he ran the Centre Half pub in the Falls Road. Tragically he was to drown in 1943.

While in America Tewfik played for the wonderfully named Providence Clamdiggers (in Rhode Island), Fall River Marksmen, Hartford Americans (Connecticut) and New York Nationals.

Incidentally the Marksmen were not known by that name because of any particular shooting prowess. They were named after their owner Sam Mark. Mark was clearly no shrinking violet as he also named the club’s home ground, Mark’s Stadium. Hartford Americans’ history was particularly unfortunate. They entered the American Soccer League for the first time in 1927/28. However, after 10 games Philadelphia Celtic went bankrupt and were suspended from the League. This left the League with an odd number of teams so Hartford were asked to resign in order to balance the League. They did so after only 11 games. They finished the season only 7 points behind New York Nationals, who Tewfik had joined, having played 19 games less.

Tewfik then returned to Egypt playing for Al-Ahly and El Mokhtalat before ending his playing career with Montreal Carsteel in the Canadian National Soccer League.

He then moved into management at club and national level in Egypt. He managed Egypt from 1940-44 and led them in the football tournament at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki where they beat Chile 5-4 in the Preliminary Round only to succumb to a strong Germany team in the 1st round. Germany went on to finish 4th but the winners were Hungary fielding pretty much the same team that would beat England by 6-3 at Wembley a year later.

There were suggestions that Tewfik played without boots in Egypt, what is certain is that the Indian team at the 1952 Olympic Games played bootless. It didn’t work too well as they lost 10-1 to Yugoslavia in the Preliminary Round. To show some things never change, Great Britain were knocked out 5-3 after extra time in the Preliminary Round by minnows Luxemburg, at least it didn’t go to penalties.

Tewfik certainly had an interesting football career. The ‘Mac’s Memories’ column in the Derby Daily Telegraph of 22 January 1944 sums up nicely his time with Derby:

“His trouble was he was neither robust enough nor fast enough over the ground but I will say for him that of all the talent the Rams have had on their professional staff since, I have seldom seen neater or more subtle passing than came from him at times.”

Incidentally if, after reading Tewfik’s story, you are still in doubt as to whether he was Black or not, American officials were in no doubt as he was often refused permission to stay with his colleagues in white-only hotels. It is thought that this is one of the reasons he left America and returned to Egypt.

*The above extract is from Bill Hern's book, Football's Black Pioneers: The Stories of the First Black Players to Represent the 92 League Clubs.

You can buy Bill's book from Amazon here:

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