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Isaac Steel - a name to remember

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

During a recent conversation with two fellow football supporters, both in their early forties, we talked about how the role of a full back had evolved. I made the comparison between Rangers’ Bobby Shearer and Eric Caldow; my two younger friends had not heard of either internationalist. I suppose I wasn’t overly surprised about Bobby Shearer, a robust, tough-tackling defender very much typical of his era, but surely they must have heard of Rangers and Scotland captain Eric Caldow? Caldow was not built like a typical 1950s/1960s full back and didn’t play like one either. He was classy in everything that he did and although it would be a stretch to describe him as an early overlapping full back, he certainly preferred a well-executed long pass than the then favoured big punt up the park. He also chose to effectively link with the playmakers immediately in front of him at left half, initially Billy Stevenson and later Jim Baxter.

It occurred to me that if a player as famous as Eric Caldow could be so quickly forgotten, overlooked or unheard of, then what chance did someone like Isaac Steel have of being recalled? Steel, an immediate post-war centre forward for Carnoustie Panmure, enjoyed an eight-month purple patch with the Angus club which led to him being capped for Junior Scotland. Any opportunity that Isaac Steel had of being remembered, even if it was only at those clubs he played for, was made well-nigh impossible thanks to press reports who referred to him variously as John Steel, Jock Steel, John Steele and Jackie Steele, which in turn led to player registration errors.

Isaac Steel was born in Oriel Place, off Pollock Street in Bellshill (Lanarkshire) on 29 May 1916. On his 26th birthday, 29 May 1942, he married Margaret Gibb in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire. His occupation was recorded as “Private, Gordon Highlanders”. Within two years he would be promoted to corporal in the same infantry regiment.

August 1938-September 1940 Isaac was a Lanarkshire footballer of some note, achieving some early local prominence when he played at juvenile level for Bellshill Benburb, usually at inside forward. “The Bens” made their debut as members of the Scottish Juvenile FA in August 1938, and 22 year old Steel was there from the start. Early press coverage of Bellshill Benburb matches highlighted his eye for a goal and his energetic efforts to harass opposing defenders. His scoring talent was underlined on 13 May 1939 when, playing at centre forward, he scored four times in a 5-1 victory for the Bens.

At the beginning of his second season with the new club, the Bellshill Speaker noted on Friday 25 August 1939 that “a pleasing feature of Bellshill Benburb’s play was the greatly improved form of Steel”. The writer continued: “Under a cloud at the close of last season, Isaac has regained the form that made him so popular as a boy. His speed and shooting are top notch - we will hear a lot of him in the near-future.” A week later, the same newspaper had a change of tune: “Steel is an enigma; very strong on the ball, he will persist in hanging on to the ball.”

The latter criticism was repeated in 13 October 1939 edition of the Bellshill Speaker: “Isaac Steel has often been condemned for his selfish play,” the item began. Such harsh public criticism of local footballers was not untypical of the Bellshill Speaker, but this time it was coupled with a complement: “The Benburb lad changed his tactics last Saturday and was easily the best forward on the field”.

By May 1940, the same local newspaper concluded that Isaac Steel, after two full seasons as a juvenile was “fit for higher company”. The writer added that young Steel was “a player with a great turn of speed and a shot like a rocket”. Right on cue, in the middle of May, the Bens won 7-1 against an under-strength ICI team and Steel score five of them. Steel couldn’t do much about the opposition’s level of competitiveness but some of his displays still left critics demanding more. At the beginning of the 1940-41 season, a Bellshill Speaker reporter once again resurrected a previous criticism of Steel’s playing style: “Steel persists in hanging on to the ball. This sort of play leads nowhere and upsets the rhythm of a side. Steel, a clever and speedy lad, expects to go places; if he does, he will have to cut out this individual stuff”.

September 1940-41 One man’s selfish play is another man’s confident individualism and Isaac Steel had no shortage of admirers. On 20 September 1940 it was reported that Steel had signed for another Lanarkshire juvenile side, Douglas Hawthorn, and that Glasgow Junior club Vale of Clyde were also interested in acquiring his goal-scoring prowess. Douglas Hawthorn had been Scottish Juvenile Cup finalists the previous season but the 1940-41 team had regressed from that high standard and by December 1940 Isaac Steel had returned to Bellshill Benburb. He retained an ambition to play regularly at a higher level so when previous admirers Vale of Clyde came seeking his services a second time, towards the end of April 1941, he left Bellshill Benburb, also for a second time. On 2 May 1941 the Bellshill Speaker reported that Isaac Steel had become a Vale of Clvde player, having been cup-tied the previous Saturday. Steel’s first run out at Junior level proved successful; he scored Vale of Clyde's equalising goal.

1941-42 Vale of Clyde would be Scottish Junior Cup finalists in 1942 but Isaac Steel looked unlikely to be involved in any such cup run when he returned to Bellshill Benburb in August 1941. His connection with Vale of Clyde had not been permanently severed and on Friday 17 October 1941, the Bellshill Speaker decided Steel was fair game to be criticised. “The Bens were badly let down last Saturday. They expected to have the assistance of Isaac Steel, their dashing centre-forward. He decided during the week to return to Vale of Clyde and played for the Tollcross club against Ardeer Recreation in the second round of the Scottish Junior Cup. Steel seems to have satisfied, scoring one of the three goals which guaranteed the Vale a place in the third round. Steel did a very risky thing in committing himself, and it is not a certainty that he will find regular place in the Vale side.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained would probably be the Steel riposte to all that. It is not certain how many matches Steel played that season for Vale of Clyde but it is known he was not part of the cup final eleven which lined up on 11 April 1942 at Shawfield.

1942-43 The same newspaper, and probably the same writer, shone some light on Isaac Steel’s attitude towards football in a short item published on 16 October 1942: “Isaac Steel, home on leave from the Army, turned out for the Bens last Saturday. He will probably be included in the side at Wishaw tomorrow. For the benefit of some of my "friends", I wish to state that Isaac is an amateur, and has always been so. I know he played for Vale of Clyde; he did so as an amateur”. So, the October 1941 criticism of Steel’s move to Vale of Clyde had no financial undertones, it seemed to be more about the writer’s desire to uphold what he saw as the spirit and simplicity of the amateur game i.e. if a player is happy in his surroundings and is getting a regular match, why leave?

1943-45 There were of course much more important considerations than football during a war, but Corporal Isaac Steel’s sporting activities, when he was available to participate, were located in the relatively familiar surroundings of Bellshill Benburb. They remained so until three days before the war ended in Europe. On 5 May 1945 the Broughty Ferry Guide and Advertiser reported that “Steele” had been one of several new faces in the Carnoustie Panmure side which met Arnot in a League game at East End Park in Dundee on the previous Wednesday. The fixture resulted in a 2-2 draw and Isaac Steel scored on his debut for the Seasiders. Two months later Carnoustie were war-time Midlands League champions for the second time in three seasons when Panmure defeated (Dundee) Anchorage 4-2 in a league play-off decider. Watched by a 7,000 crowd at Tannadice, Isaac Steel scored two of Carnoustie’s championship-clinching goals.

The Seasiders continued to move up the table during October, and another eight goals were scored on 19 October against Elmwood, five of them from Isaac Steel. The goals kept coming for the golf town’s team and their prolific centre forward and his contribution had not gone unnoticed. On 19 December 1945, under the heading of “Honour Merited", the Daily Record intimated that “Jack Steele”, centre forward of Carnoustie Panmure, had been selected for the Scottish Junior team to meet Ireland. The Glasgow-based newspaper opined that Steel’s honour was “reward to one of the most enthusiastic fellows in the game. Every week. Steele travels from Ayr to Carnoustie to lead the seaside team who are Midland League champions. Steele is their leading scorer. In the past three weeks, he has had eight goals, and on two occasions, he has had five in a match”. Two days later, Isaac’s old friends at the Bellshill Speaker, published precisely the same information but, as the only newspaper which ever seemed to refer to him by his proper name, the Speaker pointedly began with: “Selection of Isaac Steel (not Jack Steel, as the dailies will have it). This highlighting of the erroneous Jack Steel reference was probably an irresistible temptation for someone in the Bellshill newspaper office. 1945-46 - second half

On 11 January 1946, the day before Isaac Steel represented Scotland against Ireland at Cliftonville's Solitude, the Bellshill Speaker reported that he had been provisionally signed by Hamilton Academical. The match at Solitude finished 3-2 in the hosts’ favour, with "Jack" Steel scoring Scotland’s second goal. Two days later, his performance in Scotland’s dark blue drew the following comment in the (Dundee) Evening Telegraph: “Steele was one of the few Scots who played up to form in the Irish 'national, and his goal was the best of the five scored. He made a big impression”. The Wednesday edition of the same newspaper continued to be complimentary about the Carnoustie player’s contribution at Solitude: “From all accounts, Steel enhanced his reputation in Belfast. It was not his fault the Scottish side was defeated. He scored one of his side's goals and engineered the other”. On 19 January 1946, the Broughty Ferry Guide and Advertiser continued in the same vein, describing Steel’s Scotland appearance as a “complete success”.

It seems very likely that playing for Junior Scotland was considered to be the high point of Isaac Steel's football career. The Scottish Junior FA produced a four-page souvenir card which included an itinerary of events to be enjoyed by the Scottish team whilst in Belfast. It also contained a list of the eleven players who would represent their country at Solitude, plus the travelling reserve. Unfortunately, the names of two of the players were recorded incorrectly. Outside left Joe Carr of St. Roch's was wrongly listed as John and almost inevitably centre forward Isaac Steel was also shown as John. Interestingly, and unusually, the SJFA described Cliftonville's ground, the oldest football stadium in Ireland, not as Solitude but as "Cliftonville Park".

Isaac Steel played eight times for Hamilton Academical, twice on the right wing and the remainder at centre forward, during the 1945-46 season and even the meticulously researched “An Illustrated History of Hamilton Academical Football Club” listed him as “J. Steel”. The name game got even more complicated when his League registration recorded him to be “John H. Steel”. He didn’t even have a middle name, although his mother’s maiden name was Howitt. It would be tempting to speculate that he may have been the source of the information provided to the League via Hamilton Accies but if that was the case, he would surely have got his own first name right! Three of his matches for the Accies were a trio of consecutive fixtures over the busy New Year period, in advance of signing provisionally for the Douglas Park side on 9 January 1946. The provisional signing system gave a senior club first option to sign the player if the league club were sufficiently impressed. Consequently, during the second half of the 1945-46 season, Isaac Steel remained a Carnoustie Panmure player but signed professional forms at this point, a career first. Steel’s eight “League” appearances for Hamilton were made under the auspices of the war-time Southern League A Division. The grouping is sometimes referred to as the Western Division, a slightly misleading title given that the Division included Aberdeen, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian, although no less confusing than a “southern” league which included Aberdeen. Irrespective of what the division was called, an inexperienced Accies side struggled throughout the season and finished bottom. Steel didn’t score in any of his Accies matches and the Douglas Park club did not subsequently sign him.

August 1946-May 1948 At the start of the 1946-47 season, Isaac Steel was not living in the Angus area so a return to Carnoustie Panmure was problematic. It looks as if he suspended his football activities for twelve months, but the Boughty Ferry Guide and Advertiser advised its readers on Saturday 23 August 1947 that “Jackie Steele” was back in the district and had signed for Brechin City. At the age of thirty-one, Steel was apparently “past the age limit for reinstatement”, otherwise the Broughty publication claimed, “he would have been back in Carnoustie colours”. The paper reported that “Jackie” was still in grand form, having scored the goals which gave the Brechiners a 2-0 win over Kilmarnock FC Reserves. The Brechin Advertiser somewhat belatedly informed its readers on 26 August 1947 that Brechin City FC had signed the former Hamilton Accies’ forward “John Steele”. Brechin had been a struggling Scottish League club during the immediate pre-war years and Isaac Steel was joining a club which had just completed its first season in C Division, a competition which contained a mixture of first teams and some larger clubs’ reserve sides but one which did not have full membership of the Scottish League. During his one-season stay at Glebe Park, Isaac Steel was a regular first team member, playing mostly as a centre forward and still noted for his speed. At the age of thirty-two, Isaac’s stint at the Glebe was deemed to mark the end of his on-field football action but Scottish Football Historian editor John Litster has since advised that Isaac Steel 's final hurrah actually took place in Wigtownshire when he signed for Stranraer on 4 September 1948 and a week later scored a hat-trick for the Blues in a 5-2 defeat of Vale of Atholl in the first round of the Qualifying Cup. Steel doesn't appear to have played again for Stranraer, or anyone else, but his life-long interest in the sport was maintained through his keen support for Rangers.

Isaac Steel died in Dundee in 2007, aged 90. In his latter years, he would have enjoyed the fact that such a profile as this also included a brief mention of such Rangers greats as Shearer, Caldow, Stevenson and Baxter - but he would not have been slow to point out that none of them were his equal at centre forward!

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