Albert Stubbins: “The Smiling Assassin

Albert Stubbins was a goal-scoring idol, revered in two of the most passionate hotbeds of soccer in the world, his niche in English folklore underlined by his presence on the sleeve of one of the best-selling pop music albums of all time, the Beatles ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.

The flame-haired north-easterner, loved on both Tyneside and Merseyside for his unfailingly equable approach to the game almost as much as for his prolific exploits with Newcastle United and Liverpool, was chosen by the Beatles as one of 63 famous faces to adorn the artwork of their ground-breaking Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. Wearing a characteristic broad grin, he is wedged cosily among the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Lewis Carroll and Karl Marx, and it is a tribute to his stature in popular culture that he doesn't seem the slightest bit out of place.

As a Newcastle player, Stubbins plundered more goals than anyone else in English football during emergency competitions staged during the Second World War, then he helped Liverpool to become the first League champions in the wake of the conflict, yet he never earned a full cap for England, being overshadowed by the stellar likes of Tommy Lawton and Jackie Milburn.  A ball-playing centre-forward, endowed with subtle skills, searing pace and a scorching shot in both of his size-11 boots - though he was quite tall, the immensity of his feet was rather incongruous in such a slender fellow - Stubbins was not merely a taker, but also a maker of goals. He led his forward line intelligently, constantly seeking to bring colleagues into play with his perceptive passing and for all his dead-eyed menace it was clear that he enjoyed his work, his nickname of "The Smiling Assassin" being singularly apt.  Born in 1919 in Wallsend, Northumberland, a particularly productive seedbed of star footballers, he might have been lost to the game when his family moved to the United States during his infancy, but after living in New York and Detroit the Stubbins family returned to England when the boy was 12. Soon his vast potential became obvious and Albert Stubbins joined Sunderland as an amateur, but only on the understanding that should Newcastle, whom he supported from the Gallowgate terraces, make an approach then he could switch clubs.  Duly the Magpies' interest materialised and he turned professional at St James' Park in April 1937. Stubbins made his senior début for Second Division Newcastle United while still a teenager in 1938 and quickly he became established in the first team, but it was his ill fortune to find himself on the threshold of a richly promising career just as war broke out. Throughout the hostilities, he remained on Tyneside doing essential work as a shipyard draughtsman, but arguably his prime contribution towards lifting the communal gloom was as a footballer. Over the next six years he scored 245 times in 199 appearances for Newcastle, including four consecutive hat-tricks during a purple patch in 1941.

When peace was declared, the 26-year-old, who had represented his country in unofficial wartime internationals, reviewed his options and decided that he needed to play in the First Division to make the most of his potential.  Accordingly he asked for a transfer, which was granted, and it is a mark of his prowess that only two top-flight clubs failed to register an interest in acquiring Newcastle's goal-grabbing phenomenon.

In the end it came down to a straight contest between Liverpool and Everton, and he tossed up to decide which Merseyside institution to meet first. The coin came down in favour of the Reds, who quickly clinched a £12,500 deal - then a British record - by promising to secure Stubbins a regular column in the Liverpool Echo, something on which he was extremely keen, having learnt shorthand in his teens as preparation for employment in later life.  Stubbins was an exemplary leader of the line. His technique was said by some observers to be as good as that of the great Alex James, and he was tall, fast, alert and brave. He is still fondly remembered at Anfield for one full-length diving header against Birmingham in an FA Cup tie in 1947 on a frozen pitch. The effort - a late run to connect with a low free-kick of Liddell's - left him with two lacerated knees, but brought him his hat-trick.

The Legendary ‘goal in the snow’

The Anfield newcomer was an instant success, netting with a brilliant individual effort in a victorious début at Bolton and going on to total 24 League strikes in his first campaign, including the winner against Wolves at Molineux which clinched the 1946/47 title for Liverpool. The following term Stubbins was equally effective, one four-goal demolition of Huddersfield being especially spectacular, but the summer of 1948 brought discord when the club rejected his request to live and train on Tyneside, where his heart would always remain.  Initially he refused to re-sign, but although he relented after two months and spent another five seasons at Anfield, he was never quite the same force again, falling prey to serial injuries. However, Stubbins played a major part in the Reds' progress to the FA Cup Final in 1950, in which they lost 2-0 to Arsenal and might have prevailed had he not been narrowly off target with several scoring opportunities.

The same year, though by then in his thirties, he demonstrated eloquently that he was far from finished, netting five times in the Football League's annihilation of the Irish League. Tellingly, throughout his twilight years as a player, Stubbins remained wildly popular with the fans even when team performances were disappointing, and it was as much a tribute to his enduringly warm and gentlemanly persona as to his footballing ability that this should be so.

After leaving Liverpool in 1953, he served non-League Ashington before putting aside his boots a year later, then made a brief return to the game as coach of the United States in 1960. By then he was making his living as a journalist, working for the Shields County News and then The People, as well as sampling local radio prior to his retirement in 1984.  Thereafter Albert Stubbins, an engagingly modest and humorous man, lived in his beloved North-east, following the football scene closely and relishing occasional references to his Beatles link. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, to leave the final word to Paul McCartney who, on the release of Sgt Pepper in 1967, sent Stubbins a copy of the record accompanied by the message: "Well done, Albert, for all those glorious years of football. Long may you bob and weave."  I think this photograph of Albert cleaning his boots on the doorstep of his modest terraced house in Newcastle just after completing his move to Anfield is the image of the man that remains with me.  Albert Stubbins played for Newcastle United 1937-46, Liverpool 1946-53; died Cullercoats, Northumberland 28 December 2002.

Two of Albert’s teammates were Billy Liddell and Bob Paisley.  Bob went on to manage Liverpool to unprecedented success and Billy Liddell was an all-time favourite with the fans.  I thought you might find a copy of Billy’s 1939 contract of interest, which was supplied by my old friend Jimmy Fagan.

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