Leeds nostalgia: Story of Leeds’s ‘pitch battle hero’

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He was a hero in life and in death. He triumphed for two of Yorkshire’s football clubs before facing the battlefields of the First World War, where he died in action.

Jimmy Speirs, a forward at Bradford City and Leeds City, was only 31 when the war cut short his life, but in that time he achieved more than many twice his age.

He hit his peak on the pitch during the 1911 FA Cup Final when he scored the winning goal for The Bantams against Newcastle United.

Six years later he proved his worth on the battlefield and was awarded a medal for his bravery on the field.

Now Speirs’ story is part of a new exhibition at Manchester’s National Football Museum - The Greater Game - which shows how the indomitable spirit of football prevailed during the war years.

Museum director Kevin Moore said: “Even in some of the world’s darkest times, the love of football and the spirit of the game continues. This is a fascinating period in footballing history.”

Speirs’ sense of team spirit and determination served him well on the frontline and he was quickly promoted to corporal.

He was further promoted to sergeant, but died weeks later at Ypres during the Battle of Passchendaele.

The Scots striker kicked off his career as an amateur for Maryhill. He was spotted by Rangers after his winning goal in the Glasgow Charity Cup Final, and they signed him in 1905.

During his three years at Ibrox, where in 67 games he scored 35 goals, Speirs also represented Scotland in the 1908 British Championship in a 2-1 win against Wales.

He then moved south and made his debut for Bradford City in September 1909 against Manchester United.

The following season, the Valley Parade club finished fifth in the league, their highest-ever position, but it was in the FA Cup that Speirs sealed his status as a City legend.

A 0-0 draw in the 1911 Final between The Bantams and Cup-holders Newcastle United resulted in a replay four days later.

The game at Old Trafford was won on 15 minutes, when skipper Speirs scored with a header, securing the trophy for the West Yorkshire club.

Soon after, Speirs left Valley Parade for the ambitious Division Two club Leeds City. The £1,400 transfer fee was a huge figure at a time when top players earned £4 a week.

Speirs continued his goal-scoring form for the rest of his time with Leeds City, but war was raging and there was increasing pressure on footballers to enlist.

He played his last game against Barnsley on April 24, 1915, before returning to Glasgow to sign up for the 7th Battalion of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

Speirs was quickly promoted to corporal, but was wounded on the Somme in September 1916.

He returned to action for the Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917, for which he was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery in the Field on July 9, 1917.

He was further promoted to sergeant and returned to France a week or so later. His wife Bessie and two children, Jimmy Junior and Betty, never saw him again.

It was two years before Speirs’ wife, Bessie, was told where her husband had fallen and another two years before she heard he was buried at Dochy Farm cemetery near Ypres.

Speirs’ life is just one of many tragic stories that feature in The Greater Game exhibition, told through previously unseen film footage and first-hand accounts.

MrMoore said: “For the first time we are able to reveal the truth behind some of these stories. The historical artefacts on display are unrivalled and I hope everyone will come and learn about this fascinating period.”

In a final twist, Speirs’ surname was misspelt on his headstone, a result of the error during his enlisting in 1915. It was not until 2007, 26 years after Bessie’s death, that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission agreed to replace the stone with one that carried the correct spelling.

Now it reads: “S/18170 Serjeant J. H. Speirs MM Cameron Highlanders 20th August 1917””

The Greater Game: Football & The First World War opened yesterday and runs until September 6, 2015, Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 11am-5pm. It will be closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Free entry.

For details, visit www.nationalfootballmuseum.com

The Yorkshire Post’s Legacies of War series continues on Monday with a look at the 1914 Christmas truce when opposing sides met in No Man’s Land to play football.