The Goalie Who Wouldn’t Stop

On April 26, 1947, the English soccer club Charlton Athletic F.C. beat Burnley F.C. by the score of 1-0, securing its first and only FA Cup. This was the peak of Charlton Athletic’s storied history — the club, founded in 1905, is still around today, and as of now is a second-tier team in the English soccer league system. But in the post-World War II era, Charlton Athletic was as good as soccer teams got — they were runners up in 1946 and, as noted, champions a year later.

Minding the goal for Charlton Athletic throughout this era was a man named Sam Bartram, pictured on the right. Bartram, by all accounts, was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Charlton Athletic kit. The goalie debuted with the team in 1934 and suited up a team-record 634 times until his retirement in 1956. And it’s likely that he would have played even more games for Charlton Athletic had it not been for World War II, while resulted in the suspension of the league for a half-dozen years. But in any event, the man sometimes referred to the greatest goalkeeper in his country’s history (especially at the time) was the man in goal on that victorious day in 1947.

And he was also the goalie on a not-quite-victorious day in 1937. Christmas Day, specifically.

That afternoon, the Charlton Athletic squad was in London, facing off against Chelsea. But the real opponent wasn’t the other team — it was the weather. Bartram, in his autobiography (via ESPN), explains: “Soon after the kick-off, [fog] began to thicken rapidly at the far end, traveling past Vic Woodley in the Chelsea goal and rolling steadily towards me. The referee stopped the game, and then, as visibility became clearer, restarted it.” The game, despite the difficult conditions, proceeded steadily on through about 60 minutes. And then, the game got very easy for Bartram. He continues:

I paced up and down my goal-line, happy in the knowledge that Chelsea were being pinned in their own half. ‘The boys must be giving the Pensioners the hammer,’ I thought smugly, as I stamped my feet for warmth. Quite obviously, however, we were not getting the ball into the net. For no players were coming back to line up, as they would have done following a goal. Time passed, and I made several advances towards the edge of the penalty area, peering through the murk, which was getting thicker every minute. Still I could see nothing. The Chelsea defence was clearly being run off its feet.

Roughly fifteen minutes had passed without another player in sight. And then, one appeared — but he was wearing a different uniform. It was a police officer. The fog was so bad, that at the 61-minute mark, officials had canceled the rest of the game — but Bartramhadn’t heard the whistle. The December 27, 1937 issue Montreal Gazette relayed the report from London: “He didn’t know the game was called off . . . And a search party had to be sent on the soccer field to bring him in.” Bartram was standing there, on an otherwise empty pitch, minding his net until “help” arrived.

The match ended in a 1-1 tie, but the Charlton Athletic locker room was carrying on as if they had reason to celebrate. Again, per Bartram: “When I groped my way to the dressing-room, the rest of the Charlton team, already out of the bath and in their civvies, were convulsed with laughter.” 

In his defense, though, he didn’t let a single goal go in during his extra 15 minutes on the field.

Bonus fact: If you watched that FA Cup match in 1947, you’d have seen something odd happen. About 30 minutes into the match, the soccer ball — which is designed to take a beating — suddenly burst open. That’s not supposed to happen and, in fact, the Associated Press recap of the match colloquially said that such an event has “one million to one chance” of occurring. But it wasn’t all that uncommon at all. In the year’s prior FA Cup, as the same AP story notes, the ball also exploded, although in that case, it made it until about 15 seconds before the final whistle. A possible reason for these ball mishaps? Wikipedia (without citation, unfortunately) attributes the problems to “the poor quality of leather available after World War II.”

From the Archives: A Scotland Yard’s Foggy Bottom: More soccer-meets-fog silliness.