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This is the story of a surviving custom of soccer-playing in the rural Ontario township of Darlington. The game dates back in some organized form to at least the 1870s. Its story is recorded largely in the memory of its players, scattered local news accounts, and bits and pieces of letters, incomplete league records, diaries, and community histories.
Soccer flourished at the same time as its community's foundation was shaken by economic crisis, rural flight and stagnant growth.
In his 1927 history The Townships of Darlington and Clarke, Professor John Squair bleakly noted, "By 1871 the downward turn had come,and the decline has been constant ever since, except that in 1921 Darlington and Bowmanville had 517 more than in 1911. Does it mean that the end of the slump has been reached, and that some or all of the lost ground will be recovered? For more than fifty years we have been under the dark clouds of depression. Are there brighter skies ahead?"
During this time and beyond, sport became an element of countryside stability, community interaction and personal creativity, giving lives renewed meaning and moments of transcendence in which "out of the ordinary something beautiful might emerge."
Beginning in the late 18th century under Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, land surveying, as a prelude to significant European and Loyalist settlement in Upper Canada (today's Ontario), gained momentum. Along the lakeshore east of the little village of York (today's Toronto) townships were laid out nine miles in width and twelve miles deep. Within these townships, sideroads were a 1/4 mile apart, and east west concessions were a mile and quarter deep within which the desired two hundred acre lot was allocated.
The Township of Darlington formed the western boundary of the combined counties of Northumberland and Durham, and was an independent local jurisdiction until the introduction of regional government in 1974.
At its base, in the centre of the township of Darlington, grew the most significant urban community, Bowmanville, located 72 kilometres east of what is now downtown Toronto. Within Darlington the smaller villages of Courtice, Hampton, Tyrone, Enniskillen, Solina and Enfield among others were slowly established.
The landscape of Darlington is the remnant of the last ice age and consists of valleys and creeks, lowlands and hills, all rich in loam, sand, clay and muskegs. On its fields the game of soccer, or football as locals preferred to call it at least until the post second world war period, has been played. The Game's Origins in Darlington
Given a preponderance of initial settlers in the area from Cornwall, it is possible that the English County's heritage of folk football was brought into the Township by the first arrivals.
There is a story that in 1862 a Mr. McCarter who lived near Bradley's School in the northwest part of the Township made a soccer ball by following the old English custom of stuffing a rough cover with pea straw. Other farmers are said to have scraped and dried a pig's bladder and blown it up for use as a ball.
The first newspaper report of football in Darlington appears in 1870, describing a game between the Factory and Town sides. It refers to the ball being "carried through between the poles".
That game appears to be a transitional one akin to what even then was being referred to as the Old Canadian Game, which likely owed its origins to those evolving interpretations of folk football in the English public schools.
In England these experiments finally led to the codification in 1863 of association football (soccer), and rugby in 1871.
A news report in 1871 describes a Dominion Day celebration in Bowmanville featuring music, baseball, lacrosse, and track and field but not including football "through a failure in procuring a suitable ball".
The issue of the ball's suitability suggests that the players were aware of the different requirements for rugby and soccer. While any shape of ball would generally fit the needs of rugby, soccer requires a round ball for any meaningful dribbling and passing. This may mark the arrival of the soccer type game.
By 1876 the game had begun to permeate everyday activity as recorded in the story of an accident on the streets of Bowmanville in May, in which a football which had been kicked from the sidewalk struck a horse on the head, causing it to wheel into the ditch, where both occupants of the buggy were thrown out, but fortunately not seriously injured."
Why Soccer and Not Some Other Game?
This was a time of sporting experimentation in all parts of North America. The role of sports in individual family life as a connection between generations, and as a part of a community'scultural identification was not as yet strongly entrenched. So at this time in Canada's sporting heritage, soccer-playing in Darlington was hardly unusual, significant or viewed as being outside the country's mainstream games.
Through the 1840s and 50s the area had one of Ontario's premier cricket clubs, the Darlingtons, and by the 1870s lacrosse was a significant recreation as least in Bowmanville. Cricket however had virtually disappeared by the 1870s and lacrosse would likewise fade away by the 1880s.
Soccer on the other hand would prosper. It had the fortune, if such is an appropriate description, to become well entrenched in the Darlington countryside and its small towns and villages at the very moment when that society was being stressed by larger external forces.
The period from 1880 onwards at least until the middle of the 20th century was one of crisis and decline in rural Ontario generally. Significant wheat production had shifted to the newly opened prairies. Farmers in old Ontario responded by either joining this westward movement, switching to a mixed farming economy of crop rotation and livestock, or opting for urban residence. Technology as well was changing the character of the countryside, creating a less labour-intensive agricultural industry.
Darlington Township's population which had peaked in 1861 at 6,912, had begun a steady decline bottoming out in 1911 at 3,682. It improved only by the hundreds by 1941 before beginning a rapid ascent reaching the 1861 figure almost a hundred years afterwards around 1958. Even Bowmanville whose population peaked at 3,500 in 1881, as at least some of Darlington's population sought a more urban setting, declined and didn't surpass the 1881 total again until 1931 but it then stagnated until the war years.
As well in the ten years between 1891 and 1901 Bowmanville, at the centre of the Township and therefore a key employer, saw its number of manufacturing plants, many with direct rural connection, decline from 86 to ten.
Places like Darlington which were ignored by the larger society, faced the challenge of creating their own world. In Darlington's case soccer became a kind of salvation. It did so despite the absence of a strong national soccer culture or central directing authority, forcing the game to develop strong networks of local support unimpeded by anyone else's influence.
First Organized Play
The foundations of this future soccer enthusiasm could already be glimpsed in the dedication of the Sons of Temperance Hall in Solina on 1 July 1881. A football game between Solina and Leskard of neighbouring Clarke Township preceded a huge supper for over a thousand people followed by a community singalong and a speech by local boy-made-good, Dr. James Hughes.
It is from this date that the current Darlington Soccer League pinpoints its birth and Colin Jose, Canada's pre-eminent soccer historian, says that if this is so then the league is the oldest in Canada.
The trouble with the League's assertion is the lack of any authentication or record keeping demonstrating the historic continuity of league structure. Indeed teams have had a free flowing allegiance to other regional associations at different times in Darlington's history. There was as well a period in which it appears to have been an extension of a church-based league. Finally the game stopped during at least the first war.
These however are small quibbles in what is a larger and more remarkable story - namely that soccer in Darlington has a continuing presence in the life of the community from perhaps as early as 1862 to the present day, that it became an integral even major defining characteristic of village life particularly between the wars, and that it has been and continues to be played in some cases by the fifth and sixth generations of families.
Accounts of games in the villages of Darlington were common place in the last two decades of the 19th century. Notable teams included the Duck Pond Dashers from the Enfield area. By the turn of the century the Tamarack Rangers, whose name derived from a swamp full of gum-producing trees about a mile and a half west of Solina, were prominent.
While the English were affixing strong class connotations to their football enthusiasm, viewing soccer as a more working class past-time, this does not appear to be the case in Canada where games generally though not always avoided such narrow associations.
In 1884 the Union Foot Ball Club of Bowmanville was captained by C.R. McCullough later Captain of the 91st Regiment, President of Ontario Engraving Company, and founder of the Canadian Club movement.
Tyrone organized a club that year, and Solina re-organized its club for a challenge with Columbus some 15 miles west. Enniskillen and Enfield played a "friendly" at the former village on 24 May with a match scheduled in Hampton on Dominion Day.
Games continued into the fall with Enfield playing Port Perry, 10 miles to the northwest. Tyrone finally got its team together in the fall at a corner store meeting at which they appointed A.S. Tilley as their captain. The Shamrocks of that village then played a Harvest Home Match against the Enniskillen Dragoons. these matches continued throughout the late fall at least under the refereeing of Benson Cryderman.
Of one game it was reported that "The wind was so high there could be no scientific play on either side, although some good individual plays were made by both teams."
Solina's team of 1886 had many whose families were among the first settlers, and who remained in the community well into the 20th century. They included Edgar Elford, William Doidge, Harry Argue, George and Luther Hogarth, Arthur and John Reynolds, Bart and William Lammiman, Fred Kerslake, Eli Pascoe, John Vice, Billy Tom, and Tom Baker.
Baker was one of the most significant players. His diary provides some of the few scattered accounts of soccer in those days. Indeed the fullest story of Darlington soccer is found in the words of the players themselves. Baker mentions that games would be held after a long day working in the fields with special games on public holidays including Victoria Day in May and Dominion Day in July.
Brief 20th Century History
At the start of the 20th century, soccer-playing in Darlington had largely lost any initial ethnic role it might have played in retaining a British culture in North America, though transplanted English and Scots in particular would continue to play and support the development of the game throughout the entire century. Soccer was part of the fabric of social life in the area.
In the first decade of the century, soccer was the game of the small villages, and the best players from the area played for the Bowmanville team in the Midland League which included teams from a far wider geographic territory encompassing the countryside east of Toronto. They were reputable members of the Ontario Association Football League.
By the first war, local teams, games and memories of such were pronounced. Soccer was finally suspended in 1916 with many young men off to war. The frivolousness of play seemed inappropriate.
Following the war Darlington entered a new stage of rural evolution in which decline had been replaced by general stagnation. The population had stabilized and the economic character of the area continued around mixed farming and related industry. Many countryside dwellers however supplemented their income by finding work in nearby Bowmanville and Oshawa, or by combining pieces of work around the cycles of countryside life.
During this period soccer play was integrated more fully with the Sunday School celebrations of the various communities. It was expected that players would discuss biblical matters before taking the field. Games were played throughout the next 30 years at first as an extension of the religious program of the villages. Increasingly though they took on meaning and substance beyond this connection. By 1933 Bowmanville's team, always the more secular in orientation, was sponsored by the local business community.
This period through the 1950s, interrupted only by the war, is Darlington's soccer heyday in which the whole countryside stopped its work for a good soccer game, the wives of countryside players prepared elaborate feasts for players, and the Darlington style, borrowed from the first significant English definition of the game, took shape.
After the second world war, prosperity began to quickly change the countryside. Farming's declining place in the economic fortunes of the area was replaced by people living a village lifestyle while working in urban occupations. The last great team of the countryside was the Solina champions from 1966 through 1980. Their lineup attested to the family connections and rural origins of local teams. They were eventually overcome by teams consisting of both locals and outsiders.
After years of rejecting a larger affiliation the local league accepted a role in the Ontario Soccer Association including its rules, referees and playing style. While much of the past was left behind the league gained a new impetus as players from outside the area joined with locals to celebrate a continuing legacy of soccer in the Darlington area into the 21st century.
The words of the players provide the foundation for constructing the game's magnificent popularity in Darlington.
Fields of Play
As rural Ontario switched to a mixed farming economy by the 1880s, ten acres became the typical field size within many farmer's 200 acre allotment. Cedar rail fencing, bushes and woodlots gave the countryside the patch work quilt pattern that defines rural Ontario to this day.
The ten acre divisions provided an ideal setting for soccer fields but as they could not simply be set aside for this singular purpose farmers would also use them for pasturing animals to manure a field he might want to grow crops on in the future.
The introduction of crop and animal variety along with the gradual mechanization of much related activity provided increasing stability at least within the farming economy of Darlington. Rural flight decreased and the growth of large cities, which helped erode the economy of the countryside, began to provide consumer choice through such agencies as the mail order catalogue. These factors enhanced the quality of life for people living in Darlington.
Tom Baker's journal says that the first games were played on the Pascoe farmstead (originally purchased in 1842) on the north quarters of lots 29 and 30 at the back of the 5th concession facing the sixth. By the sideroad bordering lot 28 was a small field provided for soccer games.
Informal games were also played at schoolhouses like that at Bradley's Corner on Concession Seven.
Recalling his own playing days prior to world war one with Solina, Elgin Taylor said, "When I played there was never any regular football field. Usually a farmer would give you a field to play on because they enjoyed the games. Usually they were a pasture or hay fields where two crops of hay had been cut off. You were lucky to get a field with a nice firm sod. At times I played on a stubble field. We played a lot of garden parties and they gave us a field closest to the party."
Two concessions north in Enniskillen, Adam Sharp who played between the wars, recalled around the same time that, "We played in the Sharp and Williams fields. They were hay fields left to sod and you'd take your mower and horse it".
As late as the 1950s Bruce Taylor from Solina recalled, "Pasture field had a little additional hazard. After putting the cows out you'd go around and clean up. Sometimes they missed one or two."
Fred Griffin who played in this same period for Tyrone and Enniskillen remembered, "I recall playing Courtice and the cows were right on the field. When we played Haydon on the first of July, they took the cows out and we played by the crick. But Zion was the roughest. It was a cow pasture. You had to dodge the cow pies. They added to the slipperiness."
Arlene Yeo said of her husband Murray's games for Tyrone in the fifties, "They'd put the cows out just before the game and sometimes it was pretty bad. Murray was the goalie and diving after the ball he'd slide through a cow pie. His uniform got pretty green. On a good day he'd bring it home to clean but generally he'd throw it in the trunk of the car and next week put it back on."
Nor because of their makeshift nature were the fields tailored to soccer-playing. Elgin Taylor said, "We played on fields that weren't always flat. You had to watch to see which way the ball would bounce."
In Courtice in the post world war two period, Jim Potter said, "if you were heading west it was okay but going east you went uphill."
Each field however defined its geographic identity, according to Tom Baker's grandson and namesake, "At Leskard it was in the bush while at Orono they played down the hill in the hollow."
Solina was perhaps the first to have its own dedicated field (other than Bowmanville where of course crops did not mix with urban uses). In 1928 the school board purchased the field on which Solina played. Recreational and schooling uses were for the first time separated from the rural economy.
In Enniskillen, on the other hand, Ivan Griffin who started in the League in the 1960s recalled his reason for switching to Tyrone. "My dad played in Enniskillen but they built a school on the pitch around 1966 and that was the end of soccer in the village."
Conflict, Competition and Camaraderie
Politics and religion were two of the defining features of the countryside. Soccer's survival depended on its finding a place within these two realities. Not only was it able to do so but the game increasingly gave further definition and enhancement to each of them.
"Football brought our rivalries down from mayhem to legal mayhem," said Bruce Taylor. One would expect there to be a great sameness about Darlington but though virtually everyone traced a similar British (by way of the old country or America) background and most were Protestant, there the similarity ended.
"Like a lot of things politics got into the rivalries in soccer as well as elsewhere", Elgin Taylor said, "The Liberals played for Solina (which was English) and the Conservatives for Enniskillen (which was largely Irish Protestant)."
"They were liberals and I'm Tory but it didn't make any difference," Adam Sharp recalled.
The Liberals of Solina were reformers by heart, political descendants of the rebels of 1837 who opposed the Tory Compact which controlled land allocation, patronage appointments, and support for any church other than the Church of England. The village bred a fervent free thinker and progressive like James Hughes, and it was staunchly temperance-minded in politics and practise (though its soccer team was not immune from "a wee breath of cider from friendly cellars" while playing away matches.
Harold Balson said, "They called the first Tom Baker, 'the boss', because he pretty well ran things around here. He was township reeve and very active in the Liberal party". As much as any family, the Bakers' dedication to soccer over the years defined the family and village significance of the game.
If politics figured large in the equation of village rivalry then religion was an equal if perhaps less volatile force. It's probable at first that soccer stood apart from the religious activity of the communities as the residents sought a means of interpreting the game's role in their larger lives. According to Jim Potter, "Union (half way between Enniskillen and Enfield) had a team in the last century. They used to play Sunday on my great grandfather Luke Potter's field. One of the neighbours complained and the county constable came down to put a stop to it. Luke threw him off the property and told him never to come back."
The painful union of Bible Christians, Primitive Methodists, Presbyterians and others into the Methodist Church in the 1880s, and later the United Church in the 1920s excited passions which are difficult for us to understand. The discomfort however may explain why, in periods of change and adjustment, locals relied on soccer to provide some continuity and integration in their lives.
Different communities were more successful than others in this process. In Enniskillen it may eventually have helped kill soccer in the village. The game prospered until the 1960s but then suddenly had no place to play and ended abruptly. The one man who might have done something about it, Sam McLaughlin, who turned his father's Enniskillen carriage making business into the foundation of the General Motors, had sour memories of the place.
"Sam McLaughlin never gave a copper to this village," says Adam Sharp, "and it was mainly because they tore down the Presbyterian Church when they joined the United even though that church was a third bigger than any other."
Solina on the other hand was more careful in the way they handled their churches throughout the period of church union and this probably contributed to greater community feeling.
All the villages however used soccer to support their religious institutions and none was bigger than the Sunday School ranging from beginners to adult Bible Classes, which all adult members of the village and surrounding farms were expected to join. Its influence on soccer-playing appears to have been strongest right after the first war but diminished with time. Nevertheless the annual match associated with that allegiance proved to be one of the villages' most significant institutions through this period.
Tom Baker, the namesake grandson of the 'boss', played for Solina from 1933 to 1947. He recalls, "There was always a game on the Sunday School Anniversary. It was part of the social structure of the rural community." And Adam Sharp had equally vivid memories, "A football game was part of the church day. In the hard times the community would give both teams some money and their supper."
Lloyd Broome a Solina player in the 1940s said "Church Day was always in the spring of the year. Each village had its day. There was a game, a dinner and sometimes a concert. The whole community attended. The driving shed was full."
The Playing Style
How people play a game demonstrates their creative interpretation of its possibilities and provides a reference to the game's antecedents.
Soccer in Darlington was characterized by physical boisterousness, aggressive attacks on the goalkeeper, and long passes to sprinting forwards and booming shots on net. Darlington's soccer playing style has strong links with the early stages of the evolving modern game in England in the latter part of the 19th century, though it is difficult to separate the influences of other stages.
Indeed if one wishes to find remnants of the earliest expression of soccer playing in England, there are few better examples than the style of game played in Darlington at least until the 1960s and in some cases up to the present day.
Environmental factors contributed to the character of this game. In England, "Football grew up as a game to be played in the English winter on soft English mud and turf, on which the violent contact of body and body was rarely dangerous."
The fields of Darlington likewise supported the continuance of this boisterous stage of soccer's evolution as a physically intimidating game. Tom Baker recalls that his father telling him that "In the late 1800s it was the game all year round. They played football in the winter-time at school, even in a storm." The same environmental factors that tolerated a rougher form of soccer in England also prevailed in Canada.
This style of play was ingrained in the earliest days of soccer in Darlington in the 1880s and then reinforced by sporadic contacts with the old country.
Darlington players liked the physical game and had few reasons to give it up (by the twenties even the English immigrants playing in the league complained of its violent nature). They were further supported by a Canadian penchant for other rough popular games like lacrosse and rugby football, and by the 20th century, ice hockey. In the process they created something that belonged to them.
"We used the shoulder and elbows and got away with it," said Bruce Taylor. "When I played they allowed physical blocking. The things I did would get whistled today."
Adam Sharp was perhaps the toughest player ever to play Darlington soccer. He played for Enniskillen and found a variety of work unique to the countryside, once missing his sons' championship game in the 1950s because he was helping put up hydro poles. In later life as a village in Enniskillen he competed with a neighbour each Christmas to see who could put up the most lights.
"If Sharp didn't kill you it wasn't his fault," said Arnold Lobb only half facetiously. They were rivals through the twenties and thirties. Sharp responded, "They called me dirty but I never killed nobody. I played a solid game like in hockey. If I check you, you go down with the ball. Why should we worry about four or five guys falling on us like in rugby."
"In my experience," said Tom Baker, "If Sharp had another big fellow with him he could be murder."
Harold Balson summed up the game's character, "We'd just get up to centre to start the game and ask where the ball was. The other fellow would reply, to hell with the ball, let's get on with the game."
Likewise in the early English game the goalkeeper was fair game. While it may have been acceptable for the goalkeeper to deflect or punch the ball away from his net, he was not to have carte blanche either to catch and carry the ball, or to be free from the physical contact that other players accepted. The English game only gradually changed its view that the keeper was simply one player like any other.
Darlington however took this early notion and retained it long after the English. George James (1886-1962), one of the great men of Bowmanville life and editor of its weekly journal the Canadian Statesman, was Bowmanville's goalie prior to world war one.
Elgin Taylor recalled, "He never caught the ball in his arms because at that time when the goalkeeper had the ball he was fair play. If you could knock him and the ball through the net it was perfectly all right. George always had a good pair of gloves and when the ball came in he kept his fists closed and he'd just punch it out into the field again.'
Fred Griffin who played in the forties and fifties said, "I used to drive a ball with my fist half way up the field. I never took a chance trying to catch the ball."
More recently Jim Potter says, "Gary Jeffery, a goalie for Maple Grove was rammed by a Courtice player in 1966. He got a knee in the kidneys. He was laid up for years and almost lost the farm."
By the 1920s however the physical character of Darlington soccer was drawing sharp rebuke from both English immigrants and the perhaps slightly more cosmopolitan residents of Bowmanville.
One of those was Arnold Lobb, a Bowmanville player between 1923 and the early fifties. A transplanted Englishman, he joined the town team at a time when a number of British immigrants came to Bowmanville to work for Goodyear. They were among the vanguard trying to revive the game following the first world war.
"I noticed one thing immediately. It wasn't as good a soccer as I was used to. They didn't know what a pass was. They kicked and hoped."
"There was an animosity," Tom Baker said, "Between the town team in Bowmanville and the country boys. It was a different style of ball."
Harold Balson concurred, "The town boys played a more English style and the country boys were the big runners." Baker continues, "Bowmanville had good finesse but they weren't aggressive enough to win. They wanted to make the big play. They might fool us once or twice, but usually we'd take the ball away."
Lobb however is more direct. "Oh yes there was a difference between the town and country teams. We played football and they didn't. They always wanted to kick us."
Some however made the adjustment. Balson recalled, "A lot of good ballplayers were English guys like Art Carrington and Bill Walker who worked as hired help on the farm." Their place in the community however was more transient, and they were hardly in a position to change or condemn the prevailing style of play.
Tom Baker continued, "We had some ability with our run and kick. We had an idea what we wanted to do with the ball. The big thing was to have a man in position. I went to Toronto to play for British Consuls when I was 17 but it was a different style of game. They fooled around in one part of the field. I criticize the European style. It's great science but it doesn't go anywhere. I always figure that I was at this point and I want to get to that point as soon as possible.
"Our all-star teams would play Toronto teams and with few exceptions we humiliated them. Massey Ferguson came down and just couldn't cope with our style. Ulster who were the national champions a few years later (1953-54) came down after the war and beat us 2-1. They shouldn't have. We were stage struck for the first thirty minutes. In the final thirty minutes we played our game and pretty near ran them out of the park."
"The European style seems to me to be more of a tic-tac-toe game, where we aren't as fancy," Baker concluded.
The Farmer's Game
The game's success however required that it be adopted as the game of its most significant working group, the farming community.
"They were pretty near all farmers who played," the senior Jim Potter said, "And they were always in shape."
"The harder you worked in the day the better you played at night. If I laid around all day I was no good that night," Fred Griffin remembered.
Tom Baker concurred, "Working all day just put you in shape. I know one fellow, a farmer, who rested before a big game and he wasn't worth a damn. Yet somebody who'd just barely make it to the game because he was so busy, could be depended on to give his all. This business of restin' up is for the birds."
It was in large measure a makeshift game in keeping with the limited resources of local residents. Players relied on old equipment and balls which sometimes might not have met standards elsewhere. "It was a different kind of ball then," the senior Jim Potter said, "It was probably in use for two or three seasons. It had laces on it and I closed my eyes when I headed it."
Nor could they be certain what type of ball they might use. "We were playing a garden party in Courtice and it had rained all day," Elgin Taylor recalled. "The ball was wet and besides it was a number 6, bigger than the one we used in Solina. It came out to the left wing. I always caught it on the arch of my foot. That night it didn't complete its arc and I caught it on the end of my toe. I thought my foot was broken."
Equipment was sparse as well. "We wore Leather boots," Bruce Taylor said, "that came up to our ankles. They had leather corks nailed in them and over time the nails worked themselves out. I've got scars on my legs from where I got corked."
Taylor continued, "I never played a game without shin pads. I wouldn't have dared. If you couldn't afford them you rolled up some Eaton's catalogues and put them in your socks."
The season would often end in mid-summer on the eve of preparations for the fall harvest. As well, and perhaps in deference to the demands of the farming lifestyle, games were shorter than the standard length of 90 minutes. It is perhaps noteworthy that the decreasing importance of the farming connection corresponds to the gradual lengthening of games.
In 1968 halfs were extended five minutes from the long-running tradition of 30 minutes, and then in 1981 games went to 40 minutes per half.
Yet despite the often rustic quality of playing conditions some superb athletes emerged who sadly lacked a wider theatre to expose their play. They might have been legends in a soccer- playing country.
Tom Baker recalled, "I learned from the generation before me. I started playing when I was 14 beside one of the greatest if the not the greatest players in the league, Joe Reynolds. He was in his early thirties and knew all the tricks. I learned the game like he did out back behind the barn, kicking the ball by the hour against a mark on the fence. It paid off. When I was 15 I scored four goals in a game and we won 4-0."
Harold Balson remembered another," One of the great shots belonged to John Baker. He was a commando in the second world war and learned to stand on his feet. We called him 'The Iron Duke'. 'How'd you like the ball Duke', we'd yell, 'on the ground or in the air?' He'd stand in front of the net and mumble 'Just give it to me'. He could put the ball this far off the ground and it never went any higher. It was like a bullet."
Likewise the brutality of certain encounters took on legendary proportions. Adam Sharp was feared but Arnold Lobb described one encounter in which he was trumped.
"The year Bowmanville played Enniskillen at Solina for the Cup, Adam started up the field with the ball. Course Adam had three or four more arms and legs than anyone else. They were all out and everybody seemed to connect with one. On the field he was one of the dirtiest, most dangerous players I ever saw. Barney Muir went to stop him and Adam ploughed right into him and put him out of action. Lloyd Davis was our fullback. He was about my size but har-r-r-rd! He couldn't walk properly, he couldn't do anything right. But he said, 'I'll get that old bastard'.
"Lloyd ambled down the field and met Adam head on. He was about half Adam's size but Adam went down in a heap. It took two players to carry him off the field. Lloyd looked kind of pleased and said, 'I got the sonuvabitch'".
The spectators added their own dimension of character. "They were always vociferous," Arnold Lobb said, "What made it worse was that 95% of them didn't know the rules. They could swing a referee or linesman. A referee's decision was a most fertile seed. You could always get something out of it."
"But that was the game," Harold Balson continued, "I would detest playing on an open field with no crowd."
Spectators' like Cliff Pethick became as well known as the players. The senior Jim Potter from Solina recalled, "One night we were playing in Enniskillen and Pethick, who ran the auction barn in nearby Haydon, was standing by our goal smoking that familiar cigar and gabbing away. Roy Langmaid our goalie got in a row with old Cliff and Roy took that cigar out of Cliff's mouth and just jammed it back again."
"It didn't cost a lot of money," said Harold Balson. "The League functioned on half voluntary basis and half on the collection of pennies, dimes, quarters at playoff games. You never saw any silent money. There were no grants. When the all-star team played in Toronto, or Peterborough in the fifties, Roy Nicholls, our reeve, might give us $50 when we boarded the bus at Courtice."
Nicholls a prominent Courtice car dealer sponsored a season ending dance beginning in 1947 where the Breslin Trophy was awarded and "Miss Darlington" was selected.
More informally however the league generated almost daily talk at churches, corner stores and other local places of business and meeting. "With football the pride of the community was involved." said Tom Baker," It was something you tried to excel at. We talked about it the whole week, all the time, even through the winter. It was the only topic."
The Greatest Season
The rivalry between Courtice and Enniskillen in the decade after world war two corresponded to the League's greatest era. In 1947 the two teams played four draws interrupted only by a lone Courtice victory in a series the local paper, the Canadian Statesman, said "had the whole countryside agog with excitement." Enniskillen's team photo that year was missing their oldest player and leading scorer who was silo filling a few minutes before the game.
By 1953 Enniskillen still hadn't won a championship and so that year's final with Courtice has a special place in many people's memories. "We'd each won two games and the only fair thing to do because it was getting so dark at night was to play during the day." recalled Fred Griffin.
The crowds for each game, said Bruce Taylor, "..kept getting bigger and bigger and so they decided to play the final game on the neutral field in Solina."
"Everyone quit farming that day and went to see the game," said Lloyd Broome.
"We just dropped everything at Bradley's and took off. Cars were lined down the hill south of Solina. There must have been close to a thousand people there," said the senior Jim Potter.
"People were four deep around the field. You couldn't find standing room..." recalled Fred Griffin.
Adam Sharp said, "My two boys (Ross and Ivan) were playing but I had to drive the team up drawing up the hydro towers and never saw one of the games."
The two evenly matched teams featured some of the finest players ever seen on the Darlington fields. Enniskillen's Ross Sharp's play was recalled by Harold Balson, "Ross was the best all-round in my time. You could put that man anywhere on the field and he could handle himself admirably."
Meanwhile Courtice's star player was John Venning, who once played for Portsmouth reserves, an English pro team. "He was a great person to get the team movin'," said Balson. "He could make a fullback look silly. You'd think, Jesus I won't make the first move to check him because that's the way he's going to go. Sure in hell if you didn't go, he did. He made you look stupid. And those grass cutter goals John made were pictures. Just a few feet off the ground and never rising. It all took place in seconds."
The fifth and final game was tied after 60 minutes. It was agreed that they'd play on to a win. "Damn if a hell of a thunderstorm didn't come along and it wasn't even fit to be out in," said Tom Baker. "Here I am rushing on the field and crying that we'll call her and play another game. 'To hell with that, both teams responded, 'we'll play her to a finish'. And they did and it was just pourin'. It was the only year Enniskillen ever won it."
The Changing Game
In Darlington several factors changed the old character of the game. The League had been able to retain its unique style of play partly because of its reluctance to join the provincial Association and assume a place within the more formal structure of the game. Even the personal intervention as early as the 1940s by Bill Simpson a leading Canadian administrator with family connections in the area, failed to convince locals. This meant that referees generally assented to the peculiar features of the Darlington game.
By the seventies however with the introduction of youth soccer programs in the area and the increasing number of all-star competitions with outside teams, it was no longer possible or appropriate to maintain the league as a separate jurisdiction.
"They won't let you bump now," Jim Potter said. "If two guys are running for the ball and one goes down the ref calls a foul even though they each had a right for it. We call that 'Italian rules'".
Likewise the arrival of newcomers played a role. The first significant impact on the Darlington game's primarily British background occurred after the second world war with significant emigration from Holland into the area.
"They added a lot of strength particularly at a time when some of the older families were drifting away," said Bruce Taylor. Their impact however may have been somewhat muted by the formation of their own team the Flying Dutchmen as opposed to being disbursed throughout the league's teams. More significantly however it was often the second generation who played the game and they were more likely to adopt the Darlington style rather than have any memory of a European form of football.
Even by the early fifties Darlington was beginning its inevitable change. Fraser refers to instances even then of homes or farms bought by outsiders for investment purposes. The long sleep of rural and small town Ontario through the first half of the century was coming to an end.
Says Fred Griffin, "In the 1940s the Motors opened more places and an awful pile of boys from back in the country went there. You could name a dozen. Ivan Sharp was one of them. At the Motors they were working long hours, making more money. Suddenly they could do other things - like taking summer holidays. And what with the shift hours there weren't as many players around."
Still Solina's great run of 18 championships in a 19 year span up to 1984 was based on a lineup made up largely of local boys even if they now worked outside the area or attended college and university around the province. By the mid-eighties Lloyd Broome had noticed a change, "I think they made a mistake in the last two years in Solina by bringing in too many outsiders and not playing their own. They didn't have the same loyalty as the ones that sit on the bench who come right from the village. It creates hard feelings."
At the same time (1986) Tom Baker said, "I don't know if we'll be able to continue. Solina's changing. Until now the families have carried on the tradition. But it's changing from a farm to a suburban community. Old families are moving out and new ones are moving in."
"My kids followed me on to the Solina team," Lloyd Broome said, "Soccer's all Solina has been known for. All six played and two still do but they sit on the bench and I'm not happy. They should be on the field. They've stopped playing a lot of boys from the village and I don't know why. Far as I'm concerned they're as good as anyone. Now I really don't care what happens."
Finally there are the changes in people's personal lives and obligations. In the old days, the senior Jim Potter said, "After the game the women had lunch, cake, coffee and sandwiches. You might stay around for hours just talking about the game."
"Or you'd go to the store - Slemons in Enniskillen or Byams in Tyrone." Fred Griffin recalled, "There was always a lot of people talking about the game. No one was in hurry to go. Today everyone is gone 15 minutes after the game. They bring their family and of course the kids have to be out by eight in the morning to get the school bus. There's no local schools anymore."
The Final Transition to the Modern Era
15 years later however those newcomers and the descendants of the first families were still playing the game. Their League has survived because it has gradually been fully integrated in the larger structure of organized soccer.
In 1968 the League began moving slowly towards an affiliation with either an Oshawa League or the larger Ontario association due to a shortage of available local referees. In early 1971 the League symbolically acknowledged the presence of a soccer world beyond its own borders as it donated $10 to the Ibrox Disaster Fund after 66 fans were killed in the Glasgow Stadium accident.
By 1972 League members were grumbling about having to pay an Oshawa referee $8 per game, while they zealously guarded their annual fee for teams at $10. By 1974 it had jumped to $15 and a decade later to $25. In 1978 the Bowmanville Club was supporting an active youth program and other communities soon followed this lead. The Darlington Youth Soccer Club was formed in 1987.
The complexity of local organization and obligations to provincial membership kept driving up the price of league membership fees which surpassed $200 by 1990. Finally in 1997 the original men's league and their youth organization joined to become the Darlington Soccer Club Inc., and shortly thereafter a women's team was formed.
The game's role as an essential element of community survival in a time of economic decline, now has no further meaning. In the process however, soccer in Darlington had become what it could never claim to be back in 1881 - a piece of the sporting legacy of the old township area which provides cultural and historic identification to its residents. As such it has become an element of civic life through which local residents attempt to retain their sense of identity in the face of an expanding Toronto region.
Source William Humber, Jim Potter