Mild-mannered and immaculately behaved, Woodward’s England scoring record stood for 50 years. After he netted twice on his international debut in 1903, one newspaper lauded him as “the human chain of lightning, the footballer with magic in his boots”.
“He was one of the most modest of men,” wrote journalist James Catton, “and...one of the most charitable. Only once did I hear him criticise the conduct of another man. I felt sure this person deserved more than the mild censure passed upon him because a harsh remark was so foreign to Woodward's nature. He had a great contempt for men who engaged in rough play, because he was the fairest fellow who ever put a boot to a ball. Much was required to arouse [him] to resentment because his game was all art and no violence.”
But violence was to come into Vivian John Woodward’s life when he arrived at the Somme in 1916.
‘It’s well known he would never cheat’
Born in 1879 in Kennington, South London, son of an architect and the seventh of eight children, he grew up in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, where he went to school at Ascham College. He was a brilliant sportsman, playing cricket for the school first XI at the age of just 12. His football was better, but his father ordered that he stick to cricket and tennis.
When he was 16, Woodward Snr gave in and allowed his son to play for Clacton Town in the North Essex League. After spells with local sides including Chelmsford Town, his elegant, effortless play caught the attention of Spurs, who he joined 1901.
Throughout his career, Woodward insisted on remaining an amateur. When he signed for Spurs the club announced he would be playing when it was “convenient for him to play”. The Sporting Chronicle was full of praise as he started to make his mark: “Woodward is a great initiator, the personification of unselfishness, is quick to grasp the ever-changing situation of the game, and, above all, is very cool.”
In 1908, playing for Spurs against Millwall, he scored but the referee was unsure if the ball had crossed the line. Woodward said it had crossed and the referee gave the goal, later saying it "was well known that Woodward would not cheat”.
He made 132 appearances for Tottenham in six seasons, scoring 63 goals but in 1909, after his first Olympics triumph, he surprised everyone by announcing his retirement. Later than year he was tempted back after a friend, the chairman of Chelsea, asked him to help out in an injury crisis. He stayed at Stamford Bridge for five seasons, scoring 34 goals in 116 games.
Survived gas attack which killed 14 men
Woodward had joined up a month after war broke out but then Chelsea asked if he would play in the 1915 FA Cup Final. The army agreed to release him but he turned down the offer because he did not want to deprive regular centre forward Bob Thompson of his place in the team. Chelsea lost what had become known as the Khaki Final, 0-3 to Sheffield United.
In September 1914, Woodward had enlisted in the 1/5th City of London Battalion of the London Rifle Brigade but three months later, backed by FA chairman Fred Wall, he received a commission into the 1st Football Battalion, the 17th Middlesex.
He arrived in France in January 1916, and was soon wounded, hit in the leg by a hand grenade blast. After recovering in England, where he was occasionally seen in the directors’ box at Chelsea, he was back in France by August, surviving a gas attack on the Somme which killed 14 men.
In March 1917, Woodward was sent back to England to be trained as a PT instructor, returning to France early the next year. When war ended he became coach of the British Army team and at 39, captained them to victory over France in the InterTheatreofWar Championship at Stamford Bridge. He continued to play occasionally after the war, for Chelmsford, Clacton and Essex, and at 42 he played his last game, turning out for Chelsea in a charity match for soldiers’ families. He was on the board at Chelsea until 1930.
‘I wish my football friends would visit me’
Woodward had a successful architectural practice, which had included designing the main stand at Antwerp Stadium, but left to run a farm at Weeley Heath near Clacton. He spent the Second World War as an air raid warden but fell ill from nervous exhaustion in 1949 and went into a nursing home run by the FA in Ealing, West London.
In 1953 he was visited by journalist Bruce Harris and bus driver J.R. Baxter, who had served with him in France. Harris wrote: “We found him bedridden, paralysed, infirm beyond his 74 years, well looked after materially. The FA and his two former clubs are good to him; relatives visit him often.
"'But’, he told me in halting speech, ‘no one who used to be with me in football has been to see me for two years. They never come – I wish they would’.”
Woodward died in Ealing the next year.
Remembering the Somme
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.
Make your own commemoration to one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.