In 1932, Tom Smith, a local councillor and Rotarian, formerly chairman of Tufnell Park FC, from London, England, founded a football club named Islington Corinthians FC in order to raise money for local charities. Doing so, he gave north London a side that would excel in amateur football at a time when Arsenal dominated the professional game. The Islington Corinthians FC played in the Metropolitan Midweek League, facing the might and glamour of its neighbours Arsenal and Chelsea (although their reserve teams). Interestingly, they often upset them, as they did with their 3–2 victory over Chelsea Reserves in the 1934–35 season.
The Islington Corinthians played the Chinese Olympic team, composed of the best Chinese players from different parts of China as well as South Eastern Asia, in a friendly at Highbury, London in 1936. The Corinthians won the match by 3–2. After the match the visitors extended a casual invitation to the Corinthians to visit their country for a rematch. This was the inception of an idea of a full blown world tour, which eventually became a part of footballing folklore. The Islington Corinthians already had some experience of foreign tours, playing Ajax and Sparta Rotterdam in 1935 and 1936, respectively. They were rapidly making a name for themselves in the amateur football scene, but this tour would make the Islington Corinthians really stand out among other clubs in history.
The tour spanned the 1937–38 football season and they went on to play in 14 countries: Netherlands, Switzerland, Egypt, India, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Japan, Hawaii, the United States and Canada. They took part in 95 games, winning 65 of them—quite an amazing feat, considering the amount of travelling the team faced between the matches.
THE WORLD TOUR
For the tour, the team consisted of 19 young amateurs, most of them unmarried. Smith accompanied the team as the tour manager with former Tottenham Hotspur centre-half Horace “Harry” Lowe was the coach. Lowe had an impressive record, having managed Real Sociedad (Spain) for five years. He was coaching Espanyol when the Spanish Civil War broke out and he had to return to England. The Islington Rotary Club provided financial support for the tour.
Islington Corinthians FC crossed the English Channel on October 4 and landed in The Hague, Netherlands. They opened their tour with a 0–0 draw with VUC. Playing consecutive games in three days, in other two matches, they won one and drew one. Next stop was Switzerland where they tasted their first defeat against FC Winterthur in Zurich. But they overcame their disappointment on the next day and picked up a convincing win over FC Berne.
Finishing the European leg, they made their way across the Suez Canal to Egypt. Here, the team first experienced the enthusiasm of the crowd and local officials in Alexandria which would continue for rest of the tour. They played their first match in Cairo on October 22, a 1–1 draw against Cairo XI. In the second match, two days later, King Farouk I was present as Islington Corinthians picked up a hard fought victory. Al-Zalamek were Islington Corinthians' next opponent. Despite the quality of their opponents, Islington Corinthians had no problems in confirming yet another win. But with their players crumbling with injuries, they suffered a heavy 4–1 in defeat in their last match in Port Said.
THE INDIAN WINTER
Leaving Egypt, Islington Corinthians started the Indian leg of the world tour which would become their busiest schedule. They landed in Bombay (present Mumbai) on November 11, 1937. They were invited to a lavish luncheon at the famous Taj Mahal Hotel in the city. Then they travelled to Calcutta (present Kolkata) where they would play out the most vital matches of the tour.
On November 13, after a gruelling train journey they reached the city. On the afternoon of the same day, they faced Mohammedan Sporting Club, the strongest football team in India back then—the winners of an unprecedented five consecutive league titles between 1934 and 1938 and also the winner of 1936 edition of IFA (Indian Football Association) Shield. As expected, Islington Corinthians struggled and could only manage a goalless draw.
This was the first time during the tour that the team played in front of a huge crowd of about 50,000. Apart from the crowd, the team members were greeted by flower-bearing well-wishers at each and every station. In the end, tired and exhausted players got fed up with garlands and rose petals. But the felicitation did not end there: most dignitaries, Maharajahs and Zamindars arranged dinner banquets, luncheons or receptions and presented the team with various gifts.
After the match against Mohammedan in Kolkata, they had to take a train on the same day to go to Jamshedpur (present day capital of the Indian state of Jharkhand) for playing their second match the next day. Amazingly they did not book a place to stay at night and slept in the bogie of the train which was kept aside in the station! Obviously they did not sleep well and missed the scheduled reception from the Jamshedpur Sporting Association at 9 am. The ceremonies had to be started an hour late, and the match started at noon. The place was overcrowded and special trains ran run for the travelling spectators.
Even after the gruesome journey, the Islington Corinthian showed their might against the All Blues, a selection of players chosen by the association. Though the match was locked at 2–2, in the last ten minutes the visitors ran riot and scored thrice. The final score was 5–2. They played another match there the next day and won again.
On November 16, Islington Corinthians was put up against the local favourites, Mohun Bagan. Mohun Bagan was one of the most popular and best known clubs in India; they created history by becoming the first Indian club to win a major trophy—the IFA Shield in 1911. The Islington Corinthians is documented as the first foreign side Mohun Bagan had played against although they were regularly playing India-based British teams by that time. The match was well contested but finally the visitors won, by a goal to nil. According to the news reports, Beniprasad and Sommontho Dutta from Mohun Bagan had a really good match, and the Bengali team missed few chances, even hitting the crossbar.
The following day, the IFA XI stood against them. This team was selected by IFA and made up of the best players from all the leagues around India. The legendary forward Samad was included in the team. The travelling team survived the hurdle and drew the match, 1–1. On a side note, Samad was a also member of some of the other selected sides and ended up playing a few more matches against the same opposition from different teams.
As expected, in midst of the trip and matches, they were invited to a luncheon at the Great Eastern Hotel where they met the Maharajah of Santosh and Pankaj Gupta, two of the most important personnel and forefathers of football in India.
CORINTHIANS IN EAST BENGAL
Completing the Kolkata leg (though they came back to play an unscheduled and unofficial match), the team came to East Bengal. They played two matches against Dhaka Sporting Association (DSA). Back in those days, Dhaka not only had a very competitive league and a shield competition (both are held regularly), but also very strong clubs like Wari and Victoria. In the first match with DSA team (a team consisting of players from the Dhaka League), the visiting team tasted their first and only defeat in the India tour. Pakhi Sen, a local from Dhaka who played for Wari Club scored the only goal of the match. In the following match, the touring team won by the same margin. But Pakhi Sen's goal made him a part of the folklore of Dhakai Football.
The team also played matches in Mymensingh, Kishoreganj, Comilla, Chittagong and Rajshahi, winning at all frontiers, one after another. The match at Chittagong had an official record attendance in a football match, with 77,000 people watching the game.
Islington Corinthians' tour of India can be termed as extremely successful from the results. They won 25 of the 31 matches played, losing only once at Dhaka (they won the unofficial match too).
LATER PART OF THE ASIAN TOUR
The Corinthians played a few matches in Myanmar after their Indian exploits. Their next major leg of the Asian tour started from the Malayan peninsula. They played matches in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Penang, Alor Star, Ipoh Seremban and Malacca. Arriving in Penang on January 9, 1938, they played their first match against Penang Asiatics after two days. This was followed by a 3–1 victory over Penang FA XI. Thanks to a hat-trick from Tarrant, one of their biggest wins of the tour was a 6–0 defeat of Malacca XI. But things got much difficult against the local treble winners Kelab Sukan TPCA as that match ended in a 1–1 draw.
The most exciting match of this leg came against Singapore when Islington Corinthians clawed their way back from a 2–0 deficit to squeeze out a 3–2 win thanks to a late long range effort from their most prolific forward Sherwood. They ended this leg with a 7–1 thrashing of Johore. They were also hosted by the Sultan of Johore in a luncheon. Overall, in the Malays, they won 14 out of their 16 matches and scored an impressive 51 times. As a matter of fact, the Corinthians were enjoying life on the tour in the Malayan leg and were playing their best football. From the Malay Peninsula, Islington Corinthians travelled to Vietnam and the Philippines.
IN THE MIDST OF WAR
At long last, they reached the country whose invitation had snowballed into a world tour, China. But times had changed since that match, and the men from Islington found themselves in the middle of one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history. By then Japan had launched a full scale war on China. It was a miracle indeed that in this extremely volatile situation, they were able to play any football at all.
In Hong Kong, they won 4–2 against Combined Police and Club XI. The match in Macao against Macao XI ended in a one-all draw. In Shanghai they were almost arrested by Japanese soldiers for violating curfew but were let off but only after saying that they were scheduled to play in Japan as well! The largest crowd for a football match in Shanghai till then turned up to watch them as they faced Shanghai XI. But tired and struggling on a slippery pitch, the team slumped to a 3–0 defeat.
In early April, 1938 Islington Corinthians became the first English team ever to play in Japan. Fifty thousand spectators were in attendance at the Meiji Shrine Stadium where the match took place. Islington Corinthians succumbed to the pace of the Japanese players of All-Kanto XI. The home team inflicted a 4–0 loss to the English amateurs, the heaviest in the world tour.
Away from the warzone in Japan and China, they could safely make their way across the Pacific Ocean to a quieter atmosphere in North America, where they played against the San Francisco All Stars, Los Angeles All Stars and Douglas Aircraft SC. The world tour ended through a dozen matches in Canada.
RETURN HOME AND DEMISE
In England, hopes were not high and it was expected that the tour would barely last a month. But when they did make their way back home, the Islington Corinthians were hailed as heroes. William Pickford, president of the Football Association, praised their achievement saying, “You have kicked the football round the world, and put British sport on the map throughout the world”.
Despite their success on and off the field, the tour was a financial disaster for the club. It lost a fortune and many players lost their jobs. Some news reports described them as "flat broke" and "penniless". In spite of the situation, in 1939, the club again made a short tour of Iceland and played five matches. Unfortunately their plan to tour South Africa was scrapped due to an escalating World War II. As anticipated, the club did not survive the war and was defunct by 1940.
Quite a few Islington Corinthians players had commendable amateur careers but in terms of both sheer success and tragedy no-one could match star striker Johnny Sherwood. Sherwood had played for Reading FC and had outside chance of making it to the English national team. With over 70 goals, he had finished as the top scorer of the tour. Unfortunately, months after the tour Sherwood was drafted into the army, and found himself again in the Eastern theatre of World War II. After the British surrender at Singapore, Sherwood was captured by Japanese troops and taken to the Japanese Prisoners of War (PoW) camps. He was forced to work in the construction of the Burma Siam Railways also known as the Death Railways. He survived the camp but only to be herded into a freight ship on its way to Japan with 900 other prisoners. As luck would have it, the ship was sunk by an American submarine. Luckless Sherwood survived by clinging onto a piece of driftwood but was again captured by the Japanese. He was put to work in Nagasaki where he witnessed dropping of the atomic bomb.
Somehow Johnny Sherwood survived all these and returned to England. He played a few more games for Reading FC but was never able to match his pre-war exploits as a result of the irreparable physical damage that war had caused. Decades later he would write about his experience in notes which would eventually get published as Lucky Johnny: The footballer who survived River Kwai death camps.
Islington Corinthians was an ordinary team with extraordinary intents. Many other amateur and pro clubs have undertaken similar international tours, but the journey they embarked upon was of a scale that had never been seen before or since. The tour had taken the football team as an ambassador of the English across the globe; literally playing in over four continents. But, the Islington Corinthians FC and their trip was largely forgotten in football literature and has been overlooked by the mainstream media until Around the World in 95 Games was published by Rob Cavallini.
This unprecedented tour was full of its own dangers: leopards chasing their bus, opium dens, cocaine-spiked cigars and last but not the least, a looming World War II. A 1938 news report depicts just one of the dangers they faced: “On the way from Hong Kong to Macao, surrounded by Chinese junks, Japanese seaplanes swooped down on the steamers—but the pilots saw the big Union Jack painted on the bridge and no bombs were dropped.”
Sen, Ronojoy. Nation at play: A history of sport in India. Columbia University Press, 2015.
Sengupta, Somnath. "Islington Corinthians on Tour", www.inbedwithmaradona.com
Dhrubo Alam is Transport Planner of the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements.