Joe Baker: The Reluctant Englishman

“ A Jock playing for England! We ain’t that bad are we?”

On August 17th this month, it will be seventy seven years since Joe Baker, who sadly died in 2003, was born. If circumstances had turned out differently, then arguably Joe Baker not Geoff Hurst would have been leading the England attack in the 1966 World Cup Final. However, if the strict international eligibility criteria of the era had not been in place, then Joe Baker could equally have played a part in leading Scotland to World Cup qualification and glory in 1966.

Most football followers would know that Owen Hargreaves was only the second ever person to have been selected for England, without ever previously having played League football in the country. Not many would be able to name the first. That honour belongs to a certain Joe Baker, who in 1959, became the first footballer to do so having spent his entire career until then playing in Scotland. Unlike Hargreaves, who is loathed by the majority of Canadian fans for refusing to play for the country of his birth, Scottish supporters to this day have the utmost sympathy and respect for Joe Baker as he had no choice in the country he played for. He had spent his life in Scotland, since he was five weeks old and if given the option he would have chosen to play for Scotland. His older brother Gerry who was a victim of the same eligibility criteria ended up playing for the United States.

Joe’s father, George had been born in Liverpool and his mother, Lizzie was Scottish. Just before the outbreak of World War Two, the family had been living in New York where Joe’s brother Gerry was born in 1938.George decided to move the family back to Liverpool in 1940 and join his brothers in the Royal Navy to support the war effort. Joe was born in Liverpool on the 17th August 1940, just as the Luftwaffe undertook their intensive blitzing campaign of the city. Wisely, George and Lizzie decided that this was not the safest place to raise their children and moved them back across the border, to Motherwell in Scotland. Joe lived a total of five weeks in England, a fact that would come back to haunt him later with unexpected complications for his future in International football.

Joe spent his childhood growing up in Motherwell and falling in love with football.Joe played for his local primary and secondary school sides and gained a reputation as a goal scorer. As he had also been a keen boxer, he showed that he could handle himself, if any defender tried to intimidate him as certain top defenders were later to find out to their cost.

At the age of fifteen, Joe made his first appearance for Scotland Schoolboys. The selection policy for the schoolboy team was different to that of the national side. As long as you attended a school in Scotland, you were eligible for selection. Joe was hopeful of one day playing for Scotland, until one of his teachers explained that as he was born in England, he could not play for Scotland. To say that he was devastated when he realised that he could not play for the country he had always regarded as home would be a slight understatement. Joe was Scottish in every aspect of his life, apart from having been born in England, a country that meant nothing to him. As he said himself later, “It was a hard thing to take because I was a Scot as far as I was concerned”

A number of Scottish and English clubs had shown an interest in signing Joe as a professional but there was only one club he wanted to play for, the club he supported, Hibernian. In August 1955 he signed for them. From making his full league debut for Hibernian at the age of seventeen, Joe became a prolific goal scorer in a team that was in a serious decline. Even worse, in 1957 arch rivals Heart of Midlothian were starting to put together their most successful team ever and were on course on win their first league title since 1897. In 1958 the two sides were drawn together in the Scottish Cup and playing away, Joe became a Hibernian legend as he scored all four goals in a sensational 4-3 victory. Hibernian made it all the way to the final that season but lost 1-0 to Clyde. Hearts won the League.

Joe Baker’s scoring record for Hibernian was impressive, especially in a team that was struggling. From making his debut in the 1957/58 season he scored an incredible 102 goals in 117 appearances. In his final full season 1960/61 he managed 42 goals in 33 appearances. His goal scoring feats had brought him to the attention of the England manager Walter Winterbottom but there were many doubts that the Football Association would even consider selecting a Scottish based player. The manager, however, made his position crystal clear “Any Englishman, no matter where he is playing, will always be considered for the England team.”

Joe made his first appearance in an England shirt in September 1958 playing for the England Under 23 side. He scored his first international goal for England on the 11th November 1959 against France at Roker Park. Seven days later, he was sensationally called up to replace a certain Brian Clough as centre forward for the full England team at Wembley. England beat Northern Ireland 2-1 and Baker impressed by scoring on his debut.

However he was almost prevented from joining up with the England squad. Baker flew down to London the day before to meet up with his team mates. He jumped into a taxi and in his broad Scottish brogue asked to be taken to Hendon Hall. As the driver queried the destination, knowing that was where the England party were staying, Baker confirmed “Aye, that’s right, ah’m playing fer England at Wembley”. Assuming he had picked up some drunken mad Scotsman intent on doing some harm to the England team, he radioed the police for immediate assistance. A squad car was immediately dispatched to deal with the call. On approaching, the senior officer asked Baker to step out of the taxi. “So you’re playing for England are you, sonny?” “Aye that’s right” Baker replied in his thick Scottish dialect “Ah’m playing fer England on Wednesday night”.

The sergeant listened in total disbelief but decided to play along in case the situation got out of hand. He asked Baker for some form of identification. The player produced the evening newspaper and pointed to the back page with his photograph. “That’s me” he said proudly.

The accompanying constable could not believe what he had just heard.“ A Jock playing for England. Surely we ain’t that bad are we?”

Baker went on to win a further four caps for England at this stage but did not add to his tally of goals and after playing against Hungary in May 1960, it would be a further five years before he was recalled to the side. During this same period he also made five appearances for the Under 23 side, scoring four goals.

Joe Baker’s scoring record was attracting attention from English clubs. Sheffield Wednesday were the only club pushing Tottenham during their 1960/61 double winning season. As Easter approached, Wednesday were still in with a chance of catching Tottenham. One thing appeared to be holding them back, they had scored thirty less goals than Tottenham. As the March transfer deadline approached, manager Harry Catterick knew who he wanted, Joe Baker. He went to the board to ask them to finance the deal. Incredibly, given their league position and Catterick’s record as the man who had taken them from the Second Division to challenge for the League title, they refused the request. For Catterick , this was the final straw. Within a week he departed to take charge at Everton. Sheffield Wednesday’s first game without him was away at Tottenham. They lost 2-1.They lost three of their final four games and finished eight points behind Tottenham. If Baker had signed, if Catterick had stayed, arguably the title might have ended up in Yorkshire.

During the 1960/61 season, Joe scored nine goals in a Scottish F.A. Cup tie in a 15-1 win against Peebles Rovers. He felt that he deserved an increase on his wage of £12 a week and asked for an increase of £5 .The board refused and Baker was on his way but not to an English club. Instead, the legendary Torino of Italy decided to pay £75,000 to buy him to form a partnership with their other new signing, the Scot – Denis Law. On the 11th of May 1961, Joe signed for Torino in Edinburgh’s Royal British Hotel on Princess Street and a player who had been on a weekly wage of £12 a week had now just received a signing on fee of £12,000!

Torino were still a team in transition recovering from the fatal Superga air disaster of 1949 which had wiped out the legendary Gran Torino side. Torino had not won the Scudetto since. The Torino tifosi were delighted with the signings. Joe made an impressive start scoring the winning goal in the Derby against Juventus. But he and Denis struggled to adapt to life in Italy. As two good looking single men they were constantly hounded by the paparazzi, their nights on the town receiving extensive coverage.

Joe also struggled to cope with the provocative antics of Italian defenders, being sent off twice in his first sixteen games. Things got worse. On the 7thFebruary 1962, Joe picked up a gift from the club. It was a brand new white Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint sports car. After a few drinks and in the company of Denis Law, he took the car for a spin via a couple of night clubs. At 4 in the morning, he misjudged a corner the car flipped over and crashed against a lamp post, breaking his nose, jaw and both cheekbones. Joe was distraught thinking Denis Law had been killed in the accident but amazingly, his friend escaped unscathed. The car with 112 kilometres on the clock was a write off. He never played for Torino again. His record of 7 goals in 19 league games in a league dominated by defences is still rather impressive. At the end of the season, Billy Wright signed him for Arsenal for a then club record fee of £70,000.

Although Arsenal were struggling at the time, Baker proved to be a success. Arsenal fans loved him for his energetic style and refusal to be intimidated. Although only 5ft 8 inches, in a cup game at Liverpool in February 1964, he felled their colossal centre half Ron Yates with a punch, showing he had forgotten none of his boxing skills. In his first season, 1962/63 he scored an impressive 31 goals in 42 appearances. In the next season it was 31 from 45. Then in 1964/65, it was 25 from 44. In his final season for Arsenal he scored 13 goals in 25 games. He made a total of 156 appearances for Arsenal scoring 100 goals. He reached his total of 100 goals for Arsenal, quicker than such club legends as Thierry Henry, Robin Van Persie and Cliff Bastin. He was arguably the best signing the manager Billy Wright ever made. In terms of his appearances to goals ratio, Joe Baker is the third most prolific striker in the history of Arsenal, yet Arsenal never finished higher than 7th during Joe’s time at Highbury.

His scoring form meant that the England manager Alf Ramsey recalled him to the team in November 1965.He scored in a 2-1 win against Northern Ireland and then again the following month in an impressive 2-0 win for England against Spain in Madrid. His final game was a 1-1 in January 1966 against Poland. With two goals in three games, Joe Baker had made a strong case for inclusion in the World Cup squad. Sadly, although he was selected for the initial party of forty, he did not make the final twenty two, a decision that surprised many.

Joe said later “I don’t know what happened. I just disappeared out of the picture. That’s what I didn’t like about Ramsey, he didn’t explain things man to man……..maybe he didn’t like my accent” Unwittingly, Joe may have made a relevant point. Alf’s intense dislike of Scotland was legendary. Once on arriving at Hampden Park, a reporter said “Welcome to Scotland”, Alf’s reply “You must be f****** joking!” Perhaps Alf could not entertain the idea of any team member speaking with a Scottish brogue?

Arsenal lost a cup tie away to bottom of the table Blackburn Rovers 3-0 at the start of 1966. Billy Wright sensationally dropped his top scorer for the next game. Joe put in an immediate transfer request. Initially it seemed that he was on his way to join Chelsea but instead Johnny Carey the manager of Nottingham Forest paid a club record fee of £65,000 to bring him to the City ground.

During the 1966/67 season, Joe Baker helped to bring about a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of Forest. Forming a deadly partnership with Ian Storey Moore, he scored16 goals in 34 league games as the team were in contention for an unlikely League and Cup double. Sadly, in the quarter final of the F.A. Cup, Joe left the pitch after two minutes the victim of a crude challenge by Everton’s Brian Labone. He never played again that season. Forest lost three of their final six games to finish 4 points behind Manchester United and were defeated 2-1 by Tottenham Hotspur in the F.A. Cup semi -final. Both Forest fans and players still feel that Joe’s injury ultimately cost them a chance of glory.

Joe was never quite as prolific after that serious injury. He left Forest in 1969 having scored 49 goals in 139 games. Next came two seasons at Sunderland, with 12 goals in 44 games. At the age of 30 he returned to Hibernian and netted a further 17 goals in 34 games. Then in 1972, aged thirty two he joined Second Division Raith Rovers and scored 25 goals in 24 league games. At the end of the following season he retired.The most prolific Scottish striker of modern times who couldn’t play for Scotland. Joe Baker’s final statistics show the extent of his knack for scoring, 372 goals in 615 games, scored in the English, Italian and Scottish leagues.

On October 6th 2003, Joe was playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Scotland, when at the relatively young age of 63 he had a heart attack and died. England never really gained from Scotland’s loss as his country of birth never fully utilised his goal scoring talents. The legendary Scottish striker Denis Law perhaps summed up the feeling of a nation best when he said “Joe Baker wouldn’t have been good for Scotland, he would have been great!” Even now, fans of a certain age will be drinking in a bar in Scotland insisting “Imagine if Joe Baker and Denis Law had played up front together for Scotland, We’d have won the World Cup!”