Merthyr Town and WWI
A century ago the Southern League was being played under very difference circumstances to how we are able to watch the Martyrs in 2014. The world was beginning a global conflict which most people thought or maybe just hoped would be over by Christmas. Merthyr Town continued to play, the Southern League season of 1914/15 was completed before being suspended for the remainder of the War.
The professional football players at Merthyr Town were affected by the war in the same way as every other tradesman in the country, they were working class men who joined to fight for their country.
We’ve looked into the records to note as many Merthyr Town players who would have fought and sadly died in that catastrophic war. The following list is by no means complete and if you have further information on the players listed or of other players or even staff from Penydarren Park who served then please get in touch.
William Kirby was born on 21st June 1882 in Preston.
He was known throughout his career as “Sunny Jim”.
His first club was Emmanuel Rovers but he was soon spotted and signed for Football League giants Preston North End in November 1900. A spell at local team Oswaldtwistle Rovers followed.
Preston North End retained his registration between 1901 and 1911 and so his time with four Southern League clubs in that period were in effect loan spells.
August 1902 Sunny Jim signed for Swindon Town where he played 33 games and showed his potential as a forward by scoring 11 goals but very soon he was on the move again this time to the East End of London where he signed for West Ham United scoring on his debut and once again proving a useful signing by scoring 11 goals in 36 appearances. However at the end of the 1903/04 season he returned to the County Ground where he resumed his career with Swindon Town scoring 4 goals in 21 games in the red shirt.
It was in March 1905 that Sunny Jim was to make his career move by heading to the south coast and signing for Portsmouth where he finally laid down some roots. William Kirby stayed at Fratton Park for 7 seasons where he once again hit the target regularly scoring 107 goals in 277 appearances. His best campaign was 1906/07 where he hit the back of the net on 28 occasions to be the club’s top scorer in that campaign. Sunny Jim received a benefit of £220.00 in October 1910 after reaching 100 goals for Pompey for whom he hit 5 hat tricks and 14 braces.
By 1911 Preston North End had recognised his talent and recalled him to Deepdale to start his Football League career. Over two seasons he scored 22 goals in 56 appearances for the Lilywhites. He was top scorer in the 1911/12 season and even got sent off v Bradford Park Avenue on 23rd November 1912. He finished his time at North End with a Division 2 championship medal.
As in 1913 he was on the move once again this time to Devon to sign for Exeter City in the Southern League. For the first time he failed to hit the target and played only 5 matches and by October he had transferred to Penydarren Park to register for Merthyr Town. Sunny Jim is included in the team photo taken in front of the Athletic Club although he is dressed in a suit and not dressed for a match. Sunny Jim did however play 29 times for the Romans and managed to score on 6 occasions.
William Kirby served in the Royal Engineers during the Great War and when invalided out of the army he went to work at Woolwich Arsenal. He continued playing football appearing for both Croydon Common and Brentford however he was unhappy with conditions at his work place so he re-enlisted with his old regiment in 1917.
William Kirby was killed near Ypres in Belgium on 3rd October 1917 serving as a Private with the 6th (Pioneer) Battalion of the Royal Engineers attached to the East Yorkshire Regiment. He is buried in the Bard Cottage Cemetery. He left behind a wife and five children under the age of 11 years.
Frederick “Frank” Costello was born in Birmingham during 1884. After failing to make the grade at his first club of West Bromwich Albion he moved to Halesowen Town before heading to the south coast to join Southampton then of the Southern League in 1907.
Frank made his professional debut on 14th September 1907 scoring in a 2-0 win at Luton Town. Despite being described as “a trifle slow, he was clever with the ball and had a habit of disconcerting the opposition by making for goal when he was expected to make a pass”. In his first season he scored nine goals in 28 league appearances.
It was during the Saints run to the FA Cup semi-final during the same season that Frank played his best game, scoring a goal in the first half against Everton and then scored an amazing headed goal to seal the home team’s 3-2 win.
However Frank was injured for the majority of the 1908/09 season and by March he was transferred to West Ham United. He made twelve appearances for the Hammers before moving onto Bolton Wanderers. He failed to make the first team at Bolton and after a spell at Nelson he arrived at Penydarren Park for the 1911/12 season. Frank is in the front row of the Merthyr Town team photograph sitting right next to captain George Gates who sits behind the giant South Wales Cup.
At the end of the 1911/12 season he returned to Southampton where he turned out occasionally for Salisbury City.
During the Great War he was enlisted into the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and was killed in action in France on 19th December 1914.
Frank Costello who played for Merthyr Town is remembered on the Ploegsteert Memorial