A NEW sports book tells how a Rotherham footballer whose fledgling career never took off in South Yorkshire later saw his fortunes soar with the Seagulls on the south coast.
Ernie Wilson, who was rejected by Sheffield Wednesday as too short, became a legend with Brighton and Hove Albion in the 1920s and 1930s, making a record 566 appearances for the club.
Ironically having gone to school in Swallownest, he signed for the Seagulls in 1922 as a winger and was ever present for almost 14 years, mostly in the Third Division South.
Better known as Tug, Beighton-born Ernie failed to find favour with Wednesday as he was 5ft 6ins in his stocking feet and spent the First World War working as an essential worker for the war effort at Rotherham’s Silverwood Colliery.
And it was this role that put him on the path to a refreshed football career.
Ernie, whose exploits are featured in the new book Wet Socks and Dry Bones by author and Brighton fan Nic Outterside, played for the colliery’s works team, as well as Beighton Recreation, and for Midland League club Denaby United in Doncaster.
In May 1922, Tug had a trial with Brighton & Hove Albion in a charity cup match against Reading and impressed enough to be offered professional terms, signing the following August.
He made his full Albion debut on October 21, 1922 in a 2-1 home win against Brentford.
But he had to wait until the following February to score his first goal for the club, against Watford in a 2-1 victory at Vicarage Road.
Tug scored one other goal that season… the winner against Charlton in a 1-0 victory at the Valley in April 1923.
By the start of the following season, he had taken over from Jimmy Jones at outside left and was undisputed first choice for the next 12 years… he missed just 29 games for the Albion over that time.
He was described in the Daily Mirror as “very quick” and “with the ball at his feet he could embarrass any full back with his trickery”.
On January 28, 1928, a gate of just 4,494 was registered at the Goldstone Ground for the visit of Crystal Palace.
The attendance was well below the Albion’s average crowd of around 7,500 but those who were there saw the home side run out 4-2 winners with Tug Wilson grabbing a brace.
On March 10, 1928, after just six years with the club, Tug enjoyed the first of two benefit matches and netted just over £326 from the Third Division South game against Gillingham at the Goldstone Ground, in front of a crowd of 7,860. That benefit in 1928 would be worth about £20,600 in 2021.
Five years later, aged 34 and still giving his all, he was part of a Brighton team in January 1933 who beat the mighty Chelsea 2-1 in the third round of the FA Cup, scoring one of the two goals.
One report of the game by the Daily Mirror said: “The poor Chelsea defence seemed mesmerised by Tug Wilson’s quick touches and his uncanny sense of how to take the ball to the by-line or into the penalty area.”
Nic said Ernie’s almost telepathic relationship with most of the Albion’s centre forwards of his time at the club had made him invaluable as a provider of goals rather than as a scorer.
He was key to the Albion’s successful FA Cup run in the 1929-1930 season, providing goals for Kirkwood, Vallance and Dutton and only missing one game that season of 41 fixtures.
But it was during Ernie’s later seasons at the Goldstone when he really found his scoring boots — presumably because he was asked to cut inside rather than running himself ragged along the touchline.
In the three seasons between 1931 and 1934 he netted 25 goals.
Described by those who watched him as being full of deft feints and swerves and with an unmatched ability to produce beautifully flighted crosses, Tug kept the left-wing berth by virtue of his physical fitness and consistent high-quality displays, Nic writes.
He finally retired aged 37 in the 1935-36 season, having clocked up 509 Football League appearances and a club record 566 in all first-team competitions.
He remained in Sussex, playing football for Vernon Athletic in the Sussex County League, but died aged just 56 while living in Hove.
Nic’s book recounts the lives of 50 legends of the south coast club.
His 300-page paperback was inspired by WP Kinsella’s baseball classic Shoeless Joe, which in turn inspired the Hollywood movie Field of Dreams.
It chronologically recounts the biographies of players from full-back Arthur Hulme, who played for the Albion from 1902 to 1909, right up to Paul McCarthy who played in the blue and white stripes between 1988 and 1996 — just a year before the Goldstone Ground was demolished.
His last football book Death In Grimsby, published in 2019, became an Amazon best seller.
“It was while finishing that book that the blinding flash of light took place, which led me here,” explains Nic, who watched games at Millmoor while a student in Sheffield.
“The moment was Monday, April 1, 2019… the day I heard the news that my boyhood Brighton & Hove Albion hero Kit Napier had died just 12 hours earlier at his home in Durban, South Africa, aged 75.
“I was an impressionable 11-year-old kid in 1967 when I first saw Kit play, and for me, he was everything you wanted from a football hero… and like all childhood heroes, I thought he would live forever.
“Then slowly, I came to realise that several of the stars from my first few seasons at the Goldstone Ground had also passed on — some well before their time.
“They were now all ghosts of the Goldstone’s Field of Dreams and in something akin to Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, I believed this was our moment in time to bring our ghosts home.
“So, with my own personal memories running around my brain, I began the task of researching the lives and deaths of those players before our collective memories were lost forever.
“While researching the book, I was gob-smacked to begin unravelling the amazing story of Ernie Wilson and the poignancy that he came from where I once lived and worked.”
Wet Socks and Dry Bones is priced £11.99 and available from Amazon and other bookshops.