Our potted history of Bradford City series continues with a trip back to World War II, as Ian Hemmens tells the story of Bradford City’s unusual, Belgian international goalkeeper.
After war was declared in September 1939, Europe held its breath once again only 21 years after the carnage of the ‘Great War’ that stole a generation of men from across the World as a whole.
Although Germany was again the aggressor, its political regime made it imperative that a united front was held against the racism driven policies of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party.
After appeasement, which allowed Hitler to prepare for war by rearming and training the army from youth, countries were swept aside in the wave of ‘Blitzkreig’ attacks. The brave but hopelessly outnumbered Low Countries put up little or no resistance, having to resort to underground or ‘guerilla’ tactics.
Many citizens escaped or fled the onslaught, especially on the coast towns of Belgium and Holland – escaping to England hoping to regroup. For exiled Belgians, the ‘Brigade Piron’ was formed from Belgian servicemen and civilians who wanted to carry on the fight. They were an armoured motorised brigade with parachutists trained for quick saboteur type strikes.
Although based at Tenby in North Wales, the men with para experience were sent to various RAF training bases for extra training on their skills.
Three of the Belgians who escaped were from 2nd tier Belgian side KVG Oostende. Goalkeeper Marcel Huwaert and full backs Edward Callier and Edmund Crekillie. Callier joined the Royal Navy and Crekillie the RAF, but Huwaert joined the Brigade Piron.
In early 1940, the three Oostende friends and team mates were selected to play for Belgium in a wartime international against Holland at Wembley stadium, to encourage support for other exiled citizens from the Low Countries to join up. They also played a few days later again at Wembley against an England select which featured Stanley Matthews amongst others.
In wartime, the club selectors never knew which players would be available due to obvious military or wartime work duties, so all sorts of guests and local lads got a chance to play alongside registered players. You could have a local amateur playing alongside an international who was stationed nearby and fancied a game.
Footballers being footballers, any chance of a game in the wartime was a great release and when City’s regular keeper Billy McPhillips sustained an injury, word went round the grapevine that the Bantams’ needed a capable keeper for a game against Halifax on September 21, 1940.
Who should appear but a young, unknown guy wearing the uniform of the Belgian Army Brigade Piron. He was called Marcel Huwaert and, although his footballing credentials couldn’t be checked out in time, he was offered a swift trial before being thrust into the game. The young Belgian impressed, despite City losing 1-2 to the Shaymen. So impressed were the City management with his ability, he kept his place for a further 12 games through till December, with a last appearance against neighbours Bradford Park Avenue.
His military duties then called him away to do his bit for the Allied Forces, but he had appeared with the likes of City legends George Hinsley, Spud Murphy, Joe Harvey, Charlie McDermott, plus future City manager and fellow guest Ivor Powell.
Huwaert only kept one clean sheet and managed just five victories in his 13 games, but City were one of the weaker teams in WW2. He survived the conflict and went back to Oostende to continue his career at Armenonville with KVGO .
He may only have been a small footnote in the history of City, yet in wartime Huwaert stepped forward to aid not only his country’s cause, but to help out at Valley Parade when the call went out for a goalkeeper.