On this day in 2004 George Curtis died. And with that news you might be ready to turn away to another article – given that you probably have no idea who I am talking about.
And yet he was a most extraordinary Arsenal player who had an extraordinary life. However there is a problem – because like so many players from earlier eras it is sometimes difficult to verify all the facts. But let’s try our best – if we’ve got anything that is wrong, and you can give us some evidence please do let us know.
George Curtis was born on 3 December 1919 in West Thurrock, Essex, and joined Arsenal in December 1936 and stayed with the club until 1947 making just 14 appearances either side of the war. So, yes, obviously not one of our most famous players, but one of those whose career was ripped from him by the conflict.
He had started out with Anglo in Purfleet, and moved straight from there to Arsenal who placed him with Margate on loan until bringing him back for the April 1939 games.
His first game was 10 April 1939 in a 2-1 win over Blackpool at Highbury. He played at number 10 and again in the following match against Man U – again a 2-1 victory.
George served in the RAF during the war and played 50 wartime games for Arsenal as well as guesting for West Ham, Chelsea, and Orient.
After the war Arsenal gave him 11 outings in the first post war season but he failed to score and after playing in 1-1 draw with Blackpool on 8 February 1947 he played no more for the club being transferred to Southampton with Tommy Rudkin in exchange for Don Roper in August 1947.
Southampton (managed by Bill Dodgin) were going through a phase of coming third or fourth in the second division at the time, and George was certainly one of the stars of the team. He apparently earned the name Twinkletoes, as he was known for his twists and turns rather than getting stuck into the mud. In all he played 183 games for Southampton, scoring 12 goals.
Ultimately George moved on to Valenciennes in France in August 1952 for £1500 – a move overseas at a time when it was unusual – but seeing what happened in later life, perhaps it reflects upon his upbringing, his wartime experience overseas or a desire to see the world, or just a restless nature.
He returned to England after one season abroad, but then followed up his wartime Indian connections by coaching the Indian Olympic squad of 1948 before moving to be Chelmsford City’s player-coach.
He remained registered at Chelmsford as a player in 1953/4 and sometime around then got his coaching badges at Lilleshall and started out on his new life.
Now this is where it gets a bit hard to verify all the details, but I have notes of him coaching Sunderland (1957-1961), Brighton and Hove (1961-3), Cambridge University, Hastings, Stevenage Town (1964-7), Hull City, San Diego Toros, and Rosenborg in Norway.
There is a lovely story that is oft repeated in which he started his first training session in Norway, speaking in English, saying “This is a ball,” while pointing to the ball. “Don’t go too fast, now!” called back the club’s star player, also in English. It may not be true, but it is a nice story.
He gained the premiership title for Rosenborg in his first season, but was not popular because of his 4-4-2 defensive style and very low scoring rates – the George Graham of Norway. After taking the club to runners’ up position in his second season he was dismissed simply because of a desire for more goals.
However retrospectives on his life in Norway granted him much more credit for bringing modern defensive football to Norway and in 1972 he took over the Norwegian national team and took them through 17 games before he was sacked following a couple of disastrous results. He returned to RBK in 1976 but the death of his wife in a car accident destroyed George’s focus and he was released from his contract. His final footballing job as a coach in Qatar from 1979 to 1981. He was 63, and presumably came back to England to retire.
He died on 17 November 2004 (aged 84) in Basildon. The end of his life is something of a mystery however as this is where the verification becomes impossible. The story seems to be that he retired to Essex and coached local teams until his death. A number of reports say “it is reported” (the get out when one really has no idea if the story is true or not) that he died alone and impoverished living in a caravan – but there is no supporting evidence for this at all.
I do not want to linger over any difficult issues for his family, but if you can clarify what happened to George Curtis in his later years I think we would all like to know. Certainly he was a dedicated football man, and one who showed that an Englishman could function in football in many parts of the world. He really should be remembered more fulsomely than he is.