The tail-gunner at full-back

Bohs during the War years

At the outbreak of the Second World War League football ceased in Britain almost immediately, the 1939-40 League season was only three games old when it was suspended and a full league season wouldn’t be completed until the end of the 1946-47 season. This robbed many talented players of the peak years of their careers. However, in neutral Ireland football continued as usual, or as usual as possible in the midst of a bloody and truly global conflict. There may have been food and petrol rationing but the early and mid-40’s gave the League of Ireland one of it’s most dominant ever sides, Cork United, who won the league five times between 1940 and 1946.

For Bohemian F.C. the 40’s weren’t to be their most successful era, victory in the League of Ireland Shield in 1939 and an Inter-city cup win in 1945 were pretty much all that the era provided in terms of silverware but as always the club was developing players who would rise to prominence elsewhere. While I’ve written previously about the likes of the famous O’Flanagan brothers perhaps a less well known story is of Paddy Ratcliffe, a talented full-back for Bohemians who enjoyed a good career in the English League, but by even having a career at all he had cheated death and defied the odds.

From the printers to Dalymount

Patrick Christopher Ratcliffe, better known simply as Paddy Ratcliffe was born in Dublin on New Years Eve 1919. Paddy was the son of Bernard and Bridget Ratcliffe. Bernard was a postman but he had also served in the British Army, joining at the age of 18 in 1904 and serving in the Royal Artillery. He later rejoined to serve during World War I.

Patrick first appears on the footballing radar as a player for Hely’s F.C. which was likely the works team of Hely’s stationers and printers of Dame Street. Hely’s were a large and prominent business in Dublin at the time and as well as selling stationery they also had a line in sporting goods, so you could buy a tennis racquet or fishing rod along with your pens and ink. Hely’s is also mentioned in Ulysses as a former place of employment for Leopold Bloom.

Paddy Ratcliffe is mentioned as having left Hely’s F.C. to sign for Bohemians in August 1939, he made his first team debut the following month in a 2-1 win over Jacob’s in the Leinster Senior Cup. The League season began in November of 1939 and Paddy was an ever-present as Bohs playing all 22 games at left-back games as Bohs finished eighth that year. He was also part of the Bohemians side that defeated Sligo Rovers to win the league of Ireland Shield for 1939-40. The following season saw significant improvement in the league with Bohemians finishing third, Paddy played 25 games across all competitions but only 10 in the league, the reason for this fall in appearance numbers had nothing to do with a loss of form however, because in 1941 Paddy Radcliffe joined the RAF to fight in the Second World War. Newspaper reports announced in April 1941 that Paddy had played his last game for Bohemians, and like his father before him he was off into the violent theatre of global conflict.

Paddy the POW

Paddy joined the RAF and became the tail gunner on a Lancaster bomber, Paddy’s role as a tail-gunner saw him sit in an exposed turret at the very rear of the plane, operating four heavy machine guns which would play a crucial role in the defence of these heavy bomber planes. It was also an incredibly dangerous job, the tail-gunner was a particularly vulnerable target to lighter, more maneuverable, fighter plans, there were risks of frostbite from flying at such high altitude often with open panels, and the small, cramped rear turret could be awkward to escape from in the event of an emergency.

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A tail-gun turret from a Lancaster bomber (source wikipedia)

Not everyone came home from the Lancaster bombing raids over Germany,  for example the Lancaster was the main bomber used in the famed Dambusters attacks of Operation Chastise in May 1943. Of the 19 Lancaster bombers deployed eight were shot down over Germany. A similar fate befell Flight Sergeant Paddy Ratcliffe during one of those bomber missions when his plane was shot down over Germany. Paddy was lucky to survive as he had two Nazi bullets in his leg but he was destined to see out the War as a POW in Stalag 357 in North-western Germany. In these particular POW camps over 30,000 prisoners (the vast majority of them Soviet prisoners) died over the course of the War.

Irish newspaper reports from September 1943 even went so far as to express remorse at his death as it must likely have been assumed that Paddy and his crew had perished over Germany.  We don’t know if even his family knew he had survived. But thankfully Paddy did survive the war and after hostilities had ceased he was straight back into the Bohemians team for the 1945-46 season. While playing usually in the position of left-back he also lined out as both an inside left and scored his only goals for Bohemians in a Shield game from that position.

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A Lancaster Bomber ( source wikipedia)

A return to football

Ratcliffe’s performances in the early part of the season were impressive enough to secure a move across the water to Notts County as they prepared for a return to post war football. Notts County’s manager was Major Frank Buckley who had known Ratcliffe’s first manager at Bohemians, George Lax. Like Ratcliffe, Lax had also joined the RAF during the War. Perhaps it was on the recommendation of George Lax that Ratcliffe was signed? Paddy may also have come to their attention from playing wartime matches as there are reports of him lining out for the likes of Rochdale during 1942.

Either way, his spell with Notts County was short, by the time the first full, post-war league season was underway in 1946-47 Paddy had signed for Wolverhampton Wanderers. He joined Wolves as part of a deal that also brought forward Jesse Pye to Moulineux for a combined fee of £10,000. Pye would enjoy great success at Wolves scoring 90 times for them, including a brace in the FA Cup final which brought the cup to the black country. He was even capped for England in the famous Goodison Park game when they were defeated 2-0 by Ireland. Paddy, however, would only make two appearances in the English top flight before moving to Plymouth for the 1947-48 season.

This meant that Paddy had to drop down to Division Two to ensure more first team football. He made his Plymouth debut on the opening day of the season in August 1947 against Newcastle in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 in St. James’s Park. Paddy’s first two seasons were ones of mixed fortunes, he played only 25 league games in his first two years, and while he got a better run of games in the 1949-50 season (playing 21 games) Plymouth finished second bottom of the Second Division and were relegated to Division Three South.

Success and a first taste of the Big Apple

Despite the relegation the following seasons were some of Paddy’s best, he became the undisputed first choice as a right-back and began to contribute goals as well, becoming a regular penalty taker for the side. In the 1951-52 season Plymouth Argyle finished as Champions in Division Three South and kept clear of relegation when back in the Second Division. In fact Plymouth came fourth in the second tier in 1952-53 with Paddy as a regular. This remains Plymouth’s best ever league finish.

In the 1953-54 season there were greater challenges for Plymouth, they finished in 19th place in Division Two, only three points clear of relegation but they did take part in an ambitious end of season tour to eight cities across the the USA. Paddy boarded the Ile de France at Southampton on the 27th April 1954 and set sail for New York. The Plymouth Argyle tour would see them face local sides like Simpkins of St. Louis, the Chicago Falcons and various “All-Star” teams, as well as randomly playing two games against Borussia Dortmund in Chicago and then Los Angeles. The games against Dortmund were the only games which Plymouth lost on their tour where they racked up easy wins including a 16-2 trouncing of a supposed “All-Star” team in Denver. The tour ran through to the beginning of June when the Argyle signed off their visit with a 1-0 win over a New York All-Stars team in Astoria, Queens.

A short quote from “Irish soccer player” Paddy Ratcliffe appeared in the Big Spring Daily Herald of West Texas in June of 1954 where he asked what his impressions were of the United States. A somewhat wide-eyed Paddy described his experiences as follows: “Every city I’ve seen is like London at rush hour. Life here is a bit too strenuous for me. You Americans don’t take holidays. You don’t relax and lounge around. But you seem to have more fun. At home we’re in bed by 11. That’s when you people are going out”.  An interesting first impression as we’ll later see.

The 1954-55 season was another tough one for Plymouth. They escaped the drop by a single place. The 1955-56 season was to be Paddy’s last in English football, he had been a regular up until this point but by the start of the season he was 35 years old and new manager Jack Rowley (a superstar as a player in his time with Manchester United) preferred others in the full-back berths. Paddy would only make 8 appearances that season as Plymouth were again relegated from Division Two. In all he had made 246 appearances and scored 10 goals for the Pilgrims.

Despite spending most of his career playing at a decent standard Paddy was never selected for Ireland, this is especially surprising given his versatility in either full back position. There were some suggestions that he should be called up aired in the newspapers, in the Dublin Evening Mail in 1953 and from “Socaro” the football correspondent in the Evening Press.  The Irish selectors had the chance to watch Paddy in the flesh when he lined out one final time for Bohemians in May 1952. He was playing in a memorial match for the Jimmy Dunne, the legendary Irish striker who died suddenly in 1949. Dunne had played and coached Shamrock Rovers but had also been Paddy’s coach during his last spell with Bohs in 1945.  A Rovers XI played a Bohs XI in Dalymount just before a national squad was picked for the upcoming game against Spain but Paddy never got a call up. Guesting for that Bohs XI were the likes of Tom “Bud” Aherne and goalkeeper Jimmy O’Neill who did feature in the heavy 6-0 defeat to Spain just two weeks later.

In America

While he may never have gotten that cap for Ireland and his career in England had come to an end with Plymouth this wasn’t the final act in Paddy’s footballing career. The tour of the United States had obviously made a big enough impact on Paddy and he decided to up sticks and move to the United States with his young family. Paddy had married a Dublin woman named Olive Privett in 1946 and they set off for a new life in Los Angeles in 1957. They moved to the Lawndale area of Los Angeles with their four children (two girls and two boys) and Paddy began a career in the printing business, becoming print foreman of Palos Verdes newspapers and occasionally penning articles in its pages about the beautiful game. Paddy also continued playing for a Los Angeles Danish side well after his 40th birthday, only hanging up his boots in 1962. He was also involved in coaching young American talent in football of the association variety. He even took time to catch up with former professional colleagues when they visited the United States, entertaining his old adversary Stanley Matthews when he was on a tour of America.

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Paddy going for a header on the soccer pitches of Los Angeles

Despite being somewhat of an evangelist for soccer in the States, Paddy’s son Paul shone as a varsity American football player, lining out as a quarter back for his high school. When quizzed about the American variant of the sport, Paddy described it as “a daffy game –  they call it football but a specialist comes on to kick it maybe ten times in a 60 minute game. How can they call it football?”

Paddy passed away in October 1986 at the age of 66 and was buried in Los Angeles. He had begun his career with Bohs before the War, lived a perilous existence as a rear-gunner on an Allied Bomber, survived the deprivations as a prisoner-of-war in Nazi Germany and returned to have a successful footballing career in Britain, despite having a pair of German bullets in his left leg. Even after his playing career had ended he began a new life and trade in the United States believing it presented the best opportunities for his young family but never forgetting where he came from or the sport he loved.

 

Once more, thanks to Stephen Burke for his assistance on Paddy’s early life and Bohs career, and for more on Paddy’s career at Plymouth check out the excellent Vital Argyle website. Featured image is from the profile of Paddy in the Greensonscreen website.

 

 

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