Interview: Josh Millar
Images: Dominic Bliss / Corinthian-Casuals / BAK
How much do you really know about your local team?
Author Dominic Bliss had no idea what to expect when he first walked through the turnstiles at King George’s Field, the home of Corinthian-Casuals. His background in football history immediately drew him into one of the most historically famous clubs in the world.
His passion for Casuals led them to be linked to Hungary’s Budapesti Atlétikai Klub, thanks to his book, Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football's Forgotten Pioneer. We caught up with Bliss to find out how the hell both clubs came to be linked, about touching a piece of Actual Football History, and a pan-European non-league tournament borne from the friendship.
Tell me how you became involved with Corinthian-Casuals:
Almost two years ago I was contacted by a community director at the club via a senior community figure in Surbiton. They were looking to promote Tolworth and as part of the Corinthian-Casuals story. We wanted to retell the tale of this great historical club in a fresh way so that more of the town’s people could find out what they have on their doorstep. We made a podcast, Broadway to Brazil, telling the story of last season up close, incorporating the best elements of the club’s history, and it went down exceptionally well. We got taken along for the ride, and it was just a really great club to be a part of; I found myself becoming a fan as well.
What was it that drew you to them initially, it sounds like you fell in love with them quite quickly?
First of all, I live locally. Second of all, I love football history. And I love the idea of a team that had such an impact on the global game, playing in the 7th tier and remaining amateur was really romantic. It was the fact that I could just walk to the ground too; I’d always wanted to support a team where I could walk to.
We kept finding out more little nuggets about the club’s history. For instance, they inspired the founding of Corinthians in Brazil, and are the reason Real Madrid wear white (because they were so impressed by them). They handed Manchester United their record defeat, 11–3, and had Andrew Watson, the first black international footballer, in their side in the 19th century. These aspects of history made me realise that we had a really special club. They’re the only one to have provided an entire England team (and did so on two occasions), and they now play in front of 300 people. Those elements make you want to go and watch a team.
That’s something I can resonate with. I used to watch Clapton play a few years ago, and finding out they won the FA Amateur Cup five times and that they were one of the first English teams to go on tour of Europe, and now that you’re supporting this club with 30 people watching gives you this kind of release that you get to carry on their tradition…
Yeah definitely, I think the idea that non-league football is becoming more and more popular is one thing, but a lot of teams locally are struggling because they realise there are storied teams. You see with Dulwich and Clapton, in many cases it was political, but it was also a young, enthusiastic local population that wanted a club to support. Corinthian-Casuals don’t have those kinds of things, but what they have got is a unique identity and ethos with one of the greatest histories going, and if you can mobilise people behind that, and actually continue it, who knows what you can achieve? We started to look at ways that we could continue these great stories, which is part of what we’re doing this summer in Budapest.
I’ve heard about the tournament you guys are organising, but how did the BAK relationship initially come about?
I wrote a book, published in 2014, about Ernő Egri Erbstein, a Jewish-Hungarian coach who changed the game and pioneered modern football coaching techniques, and he was a Holocaust survivor. He managed the Grande Torino side that won Serie A five times in a row in the 1940s before the whole team perished in an air disaster in 1949.
When the book came out in Hungary, a group of enthusiasts in Budapest who were looking to get involved in a football club locally, or start their own, decided that they wanted to honour Egri Erbstein’s legacy by restarting the first team he had played for. They restarted Budapesti Atlétikai Klub, reintroduced the original kit and created a new crest, bringing back the identity of a club that folded in 1947. The old BAK had once been runners-up in the Hungarian cup, finished 3rd in the league, and had one of the great Hungarian players, Alfréd Schaffer, play for them, but had a 70-year hiatus after being dissolved at the start of the communist era. This season is also the 70th anniversary of Egri Erbstein’s death and the end of their first season back in the Hungarian football pyramid, and one of BAK’s founding objectives was to create a tournament for amateur teams across Europe and name it after him.
They asked me to be an ambassador and to help them find an English club that they could form a friendship with as I was involved with Corinthian-Casuals and knew that they’d toured Hungary, as Corinthians, on their first visit to Europe in 1904. The club were so impressed with the locals’ enthusiasm and passion for the game that they sent a solid silver challenge trophy, naming it the Corinthian Cup, which became a key part of the Hungarian football calendar. In 1906, BAK were one of the teams in the first ever Corinthian Cup fixture, so it was the perfect mix: I was an ambassador for BAK, and I was retelling Casuals' story, so bringing them together was perfect. They invited Casuals to participate in the newly created Egri Erbstein tournament, allowing Casuals to make this a cyclical symbol of their relationship with Budapest by bringing a new Corinthian Cup for the winner of the tournament every season, just as they did 115 years ago.
That sounds amazing; it must have been incredible to feel like you were contributing to a part of history. What’s it like to discover a new team and then for your work to inspire someone to start a new football team?
First of all, it’s amazing to feel that your work has had a real-life impact. In fairness, it’s Egri Erbstein’s story that inspired people, not my beautiful prose! When they first said they’d translate the book into Hungarian, I was excited that it’d be available in more than one language, and then when people turned up for the launch in Budapest and were excited by the story...that was brilliant. When I found out a club had been reformed in his honour, I thought that would be something amazing to get involved in.
To be an ambassador of a foreign football club? That’s brilliant. I could never have dreamed that would have happened. And then on top of that to be involved in forming a trans-continental friendship that leads to a tournament that has its links to a 115-year-old cup competition is beyond belief for a football historian like me. It’s something I can’t fathom. We’re now intent on making sure the tournament is as good as it can be.
In the current climate, do you see it as a good thing that something as internationalist as this tournament between two nations who aren’t embracing that too much at the moment?
In this current climate, what better example to Europeans than to have a grassroots internationalist tournament with like-minded clubs, an ethos and a spirit that crosses borders and brings people together through football. If that is something that sets a good example, then that’s brilliant. But the point of this isn’t political; this is about uniting people regardless of where they come from.
Corinthian-Casuals raised the money themselves via GoFundMe. The players are amateur in a semipro league, so they already sacrifice the wage they could get from other teams in the division to play for Casuals. So the club thought it was only fair that we try and raise the money to reward the players, and the public and fans raised it in two weeks. We owe much to a generous donation from one former player, John Balson, of £6000, which he made while he was terminally ill. He asked how much was needed to complete the funding campaign, and then sent that amount—he was named a life Corinthian afterwards.
We've now confirmed the line-up for the inaugural Egri Erbstein Tournament. Corinthian-Casuals will return to Budapest, 115 years after their first visit, and bring a new Corinthian Cup to be awarded to the tournament winners. This year, they will compete against three clubs from the host city: BAK, BEAC (Budapesti Egyetemi Atlétikai Club) and Testvériség SE, all of which share the Casuals' amateur ethos and two of which were founder members of the Hungarian league. In future, we hope to see more nations represented as the tournament grows and awareness of it spreads. We also hope to take it around the continent, so there are plans for this to grow into a continental, or even a global, tournament for amateur or non-league clubs, which would be incredibly exciting.
So while you were out in Budapest, you were allowed to go and see the original Corinthian Cup. That must have been incredible.
We were able to go and view it and hold it—wearing snooker referee’s gloves—and the director of Corinthian Casuals, John Forest, was probably the first Corinthian in over 100 years to pick up the trophy. It was made for the teams of Hungary.
What was it like to touch a piece of footballing history like that?
Well, John… He lives and breathes for that club; I don’t think he can quite believe that this piece of history all of those miles away in central Europe was really there. And to actually go there and see it, with the realisation that this was the trophy which, 115 years ago, was created to try and inspire people to play competitive football in Hungary. That was a nation that went on to teach England how to play football when they tonked them at Wembley 50 years later. It’s like a touchstone to the origins of European football, and a little club in Tolworth had played a huge part in doing that.
Here we were, miles from home, seeing it with our own eyes. And just to build on the fact that the name Corinthians still means so much out there because everyone knew who they were. Weeks ago, we asked the people who are walking past in Tolworth Broadway, running the shops and drinking in the bars there, if they had heard of their local team, Corinthian-Casuals, and only a few of them knew. Yet they’re famous hundreds of miles away in Budapest and Brazil. That’s the power of the name Corinthians around the world.
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