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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Jim Corstorphine looks back at the career of East Fife’s most capped player in an article which featured in issue no. 5 of The Bayview.

Born in the Fife mining village of Lochgelly in May 1925, George Aitken pulled on the dark blue of Scotland an impressive five times (not counting “unofficial” appearances!) during his time at Bayview, making him East Fife’s most capped player. Signed from Lochgelly St. Andrew’s in 1944, left-half George made no fewer than 141 competitive appearances for the club, scoring five goals in the process. George was also a member of the League Cup winning sides in both 1947 and 1949, and appeared in the Scottish Cup Final defeat to Rangers in 1950. He also picked up a ‘B’ Division winners’ medal in season 1947/48.

It was during East Fife’s first season back in the top flight, 1948/49, that George came to the attention of the international selection committee, which resulted in the player’s inclusion in the Scotland team to face England at Wembley on 9th April 1949. The left-half did his country proud on his debut, and helped the Scots defeat the ‘Auld Enemy’ by three-goals-to-one on their own turf in front of 98,188 spectators. On the mark for Scotland that afternoon were Third Lanark’s Jimmy Mason, Derby County’s Billy Steel and Hibs’ Lawrie Reilly, who had the dark blues three-nil ahead before Jackie Milburn netted a late consolation. Described by the Sunday Post’s Jack Harkness as “probably biggest success of all”, George played no small part in overcoming an England side that contained such household names as Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney to name but two. It was inevitable that George Aitken would retain his place in the team dubbed by the press as “The Wizards of 1949” and, later that month, he made his home international debut on Wednesday 27th April against France in front of an incredible 125,683 at Hampden Park, where a Billy Steel goal in each half sealed a two-nil victory.

In late May 1949, the Scotland squad embarked on a month-long tour of the United States and Canada and, unsurprisingly, George was included in the touring party. George took up his usual place at left-half for the opening match, against St. Louis All-Stars in Missouri, USA, on Wednesday 25th May 1949, where the Scots hammered the home side by six goals without reply. Dropped for the next two games in New York, George returned to the side for the 3-1 victory over Kearny in New Jersey on Sunday 5th June, then kept his place in the team for the 2-0 win against Ontario Major League in Toronto, Canada, on 8th June. After missing the following match, played the following day against Eastern Canada in Montreal, George played in all three of Scotland’s remaining tour games in the USA; the 8-1 hammering of Philadelphia on 12th June, the 3-1 win against New-England All-Stars at Fall River on 15th June, and victory over the USA national team by four goals without replay in New York on Sunday 19th June. Interestingly, all nine tour matches were officially classed as ‘Unofficial Internationals’ by the SFA, but the United States Soccer Football Association recorded their four-nil defeat by the Scots in New York on 19th June as a full international match!

George was now considered to be an established member of the Scotland team and, as expected, travelled to Belfast for the Home International against Ireland on Saturday 1st October 1949, where he took up his usual position of left-half in front of a Windsor Park crowd of 55,000 alongside East Fife team mate Henry Morris, who was making his Scotland debut at centre-forward. This was the first time that two East Fife players had played in the same Scotland side, but it was not to be the last! In a match which doubled as a World Cup qualifier for the Brazil tournament in 1950, Scotland swept the Irish aside with an emphatic 8-2 victory, with East Fife’s Morris scoring a hat-trick along with a brace from Rangers’ Willie Waddell and further goals from Hibs’ Lawrie Reilly, Derby County’s Billy Steel and Third Lanark’s Jimmy Mason.

Just over a month later, on Wednesday 9th November 1949, George made his fourth appearance for Scotland against Wales at Hampden in front of 73,781, where their 100% record in the Home International Championship and World Cup qualifying campaign was maintained with a 2-0 win thanks to a first-half goal from Celtic’s John McPhail and a second-half strike from Clyde’s Alex. Linwood. A surprising omission from the Scotland team that evening was hat-trick hero Henry Morris; the reason for which will be scrutinised in an article on Morris which will appear in a future edition of “The Bayview”.

Scotland’s next match, the Home International Championship and World Cup qualifying decider against England on Saturday 15th April 1950, was billed as “Hampden’s Game of the Century”, but missing from the team that Saturday afternoon was George Aitken, who was suffering with a sore throat and had missed East Fife’s league match with Rangers the previous week; his place at Hampden being filled by Arsenal’s Alex. Forbes. Unfortunately, Scotland’s dream of travelling to Rio disappeared in front of 133,300 fans that afternoon as England won by a single goal, landing them the Home International Championship and securing a place in the 1950 World Cup Finals.

George Aitken returned to the Scotland team for the friendly against Switzerland at Hampden on Wednesday 26th April 1950, just four days after turning out for East Fife in the Scottish Cup Final against Rangers at the same venue. It was to be George’s final appearance for Scotland as an East Fife player, and 123,751 looked on as he lined up alongside team mate Allan Brown, who was making his International debut. This was the second time that two East Fife players had played in the same Scotland team, and the Bayview boys did their country proud. With Scotland leading 2-1 thanks to a header from Hearts’ Willie Bauld and a low drive from Chelsea’s Bobby Campbell either side of a counter from Switzerland’s Antenen, the impressive Allan Brown nipped in to net number three on the stroke of half-time to win the match 3-1 for the Scots.

Sadly, all was not well regarding George’s relationship with East Fife at the time. An on-going dispute with the club regarding his availability for transfer escalated, and George was dropped from the first team, for whom he made his final appearance against Cowdenbeath in a Fife Cup tie on 10th May 1950.

A legal battle between East Fife and George Aitken ensued for most of the following season, and ended with the player being transferred to Third Lanark in February 1952. George eventually moved south to Sunderland, where he resumed his international career with three further appearances; against Wales and Northern Ireland in 1952 and against England in 1954.

Jim Corstorphine