2001: Recalling the triumphs and tragedies of Cuckfield's most celebrated sporting hero

Updated: Apr 26

Sports Argus April 28-May 3 2001


Was Tommy Sussex’s best ever sportsman?


Tommy Cook was born 100 years ago in Cuckfield and to this day remains the scorer of the greatest number of aggregate goals for the Albion in peacetime.


Between 1922-1929 he netted 123 in a total of 209 appearances. Truly, his achievements have stood the passage of time.


It is doubtful if a finer all-round sportsman came out of Sussex than Cook who was also a county cricketer of distinction. Indeed, Cook preferred cricket to soccer and only narrowly missed playing for England in both sports.

To his lasting credit this remarkable man was the first Albion footballer to be capped for his country. To be called up to play against Wales in 1924-1925 was astonishing recognition for a third division (south) player. Then, in the early 30s, Cook, a forcing batsmen, had an England trial.


Tommy Cook remained the only Albion player to make the full England side until Peter Ward 55 years later. That gives some idea of his stature in the game yet he had less than 10 seasons as a Brighton player and hung up his boots at 32 when in the service of Bristol Rovers. After the war Cook returned to manage Albion and suffered the indignity of losing his job when the side had only three wins in 17 games.


That was in November 1947 and, dogged by failing health, Cook took his own life aged 48. There is absolutely no suggestion that the hostility towards him by a pitch demonstration at the Goldstone following a heavy home defeat, and the subsequent arrival as manager of Don Welsh, had anything to do with Cook's tragic death from an overdose.


Tommy Cook had an extraordinary life of which relatively little is known. His son Roger used to live in Goldstone Lane and when we met some years ago, he maintained a degree of reticence when conversation touched on private matters which was as it should be.


However, it is my firm belief that an accident in which Cook was involved while serving with the Royal South Africa air force in 1943 brought about a fundamental change in his personality. Several of his friends were burned to death in the crash and Tommy sustained injuries that meant hospitalisation for six months and plunged him into deep depression. There was no counselling service in those days and you just got on with life in the best way possible. And as for compensation – don't make me laugh.


Thomas Edwin Read Cook was a pupil at York Place, Brighton and, aged 16 he enlisted as a boy semen in the Royal Navy. He served on the main sweeper, HMS Glowworm and it was one vessel was in northern Russia that Cook won a medal for saving life. He dived into the icy waters of Ark Angel harbour to rescue a shipmate.


While at school he had been noticed during a casual match on the Marine recreation ground at Hove by Albert Underwood, Albion's secretary. Word was passed on to manager Charlie Webb. Whenever Cook was on shore leave he played for Albion reserves but, towards the last months of the war, Webb was a prisoner in Germany. Nevertheless, Cook had made an impression. On returning to civilian life Tommy attended the Crystal Palace School of engineering and eventually qualified as a structural engineer.


But, before obtaining his passing out papers, he worked as a fitter for Southdown bus company and kept fit by playing for Cuckfield. He signed amateur forms for Albion in the late summer of 1921 and later had a trial with Sussex. Tommy had played only one game for Cuckfield second 11 when the call came to turn out for Sussex the following Saturday.


After playing friendly matches in 1921-22, Cook then proceeded to his first league season with Albion. He had not always played in the forward line and more often than not appeared at halfback. After the opening three matches Webb gave him his chance, and it was on his third appearance that Tommy scored his first league goal at home to Gillingham. It was the first of an avalanche that included eight hat-tricks.

In September 1922 Cook signed professional and 16 matches after opening his account Tommy lined up for the first of three memorable FA Cup ties against the famous Corinthians. Albion could hardly believe the good fortune in getting such a plum draw and a record 23,642 crowd paying £1,923 saw a 1–1 draw. For the first time on the ground a film was taken of the match and shown in cinemas throughout the south.


Crystal Palace, Home to the Corinthians was the setting of the replay. The entire Albion club caught the 11 o'clock train from Brighton while two specials carried an estimated 4,000 supporters travelling on cheap tickets.


Seven minutes from half-time Cook drove Albion ahead with a searing shot but Corinthians equalised and it stayed 1–1 after extra time. The second replay was set for Stamford Bridge on the Monday.


The attendance of 43,760 reflected how the battles had caught the imagination of the public and Cook was feted when he scored the only goal. He performed his usual habit of picking the ball out of the net after he had put it there and the quality of his play alerted the England selectors.


A historic dinner was held after the match, given jointly by the clubs in commemoration of one of the most sporting cup ties ever played. Telegrams were read and a typical message went ‘Heartily congratulate 22 British sportsmen'. The seats were so arranged that amateurs and professionals mingled. Many toasts were drunk that night at the Café Royal and the singing could be heard down Regent Street.


Both clubs were invited to a West End show, but as Albion were committed to returning by the 10 o'clock train the invitation was declined. At Brighton station fans gained every vantage point and the players were mobbed as they made for the Hove platform. A total of 76,702, paying £5,609 had seen the three matches and Albion prepared for the visit of West Ham.


Charlie Webb always maintained that his side were lucky to draw 1–1 and that was due to Cook's equaliser. The replay saw Cook shifted to inside left but he couldn't find the net again and one goal sent West Ham through.


Seasons came and went and 1923–24 will be best remembered for the second round hammering of Everton when Cook scored a hat-trick in the 5-2 triumph.


Tragic end to a great career

Tommy's achievements were all the more noteworthy as he did not always start with the August kick-off because of his responsibilities with Sussex. In season 1923–24 for instance, he didn't appear until October 6 and still hit a total of 31 goals. Against Bournemouth on December 22, he helped himself to four goals in a 5–0 romp. That season Cook registered four hat-tricks and it turned out to be his most fruitful campaign.


He was not a big man, and stood 5'9", but his physique was sturdy and he could take any amount of stick. Basically he was left footed, but as he learned his craft, this natural goal machine struck from all directions. The power he packed in his size 7 boots was tremendous and this gift, coupled with a fine eye, established him as among the best of his time. For the first time in the club's history, two players were chosen to represent their respective countries in international matches: Cook for England and Jack Jenkins for Wales. Tommy didn't score and England won 2–1 and the selectors didn't call on him again.


He received a benefit in March, 1927 and the match against Gillingham raised £437 15 shillings and 1 pence from a 9,447 turnout. Tommy's last appearance was against Walsall on May 1, 1929 when Albion won 2–1 and, of course Cook scored.


An unexplained incident in Cook's Albion career set tongues wagging. It was just before Christmas, 1927 when unknown visitors arrived at his Haywards Heath home. It was reported that they had threatened and tried to influence him. The police were called and the matter reported to the FA. And that was the last the public heard of what, on the face of it looked like an attempt to bribe an Albion player.


At the end of the 1929 cricket season Cook took a cricket coaching job in South Africa but returned home and played briefly for Southern league Northfleet. But in 1931 he signed for Bristol Rovers and scored 21 goals in 42 league games before calling it a day at the age of 32.


In 1937 he went to South Africa and took over a hotel in Simonstown and would have returned home but for the war. It seemed the right thing to do to join up and after the horrors of the air crash and lengthy convalescence Cook received the call to go back and manage Albion in April 1947.


From John Vinicombe: 'The Greats of Sussex Sport' Sports Argus April 28-May 3, 2001

60 views