With his fellow former-England internationals, Steve Bloomer and Fred Spikesley, the Lancastrian half back Sam Wolstenholme would be involved in one of the most remarkable episodes of the First World War. In their retirement the footballers had moved to Germany as coaches and found themselves there when war unexpectedly broke out. ‘I was one of the happy throng of Britishers assembled on the boulevards of Berlin at the start of August 1914,’ Bloomer would recall. ‘I remember one night we went home, aliens in a strange land, and there was rumour of war in the air. Ah well, what did it matter? It hadn’t been declared and there was plenty of time to do something about it when it was an accomplished fact. So we went home perfectly happy and not a bit worried.’
Four months later, however, there was a mass internment and the footballers were some of the 600 men rounded up and placed in an internment camp at Ruhleben. The adversity of spending the war in these circumstances was counteracted by the players organising teams – that adopted the names of English clubs – to play in leagues in the camp. Wolstenholme also appeared alongside Bloomer for England against a Rest of the World team and the Ruleben players achieved worldwide fame, with their activities reported globally.
This saga formed a dramatic epilogue to a fine career in English football. Everton acquired the right half as a teenager from the amateurs of Horwich and after a solitary appearance in the 1897/98 season he was given a run in the team in November 1908. The centre half Billy Owen had suffered injury and Everton’s regular right half, Dickie Boyle, switched to his position to accommodate Wolstenholme. The youngster, it was reported of his second match in a blue shirt, against Sheffield Wednesday, ‘came out of a trying ordeal with great success.’
By the end of the season he had established his place in the Everton team and was, according to one account,‘a brainy and thoughtful right half, as nimble as a squirrel.’ Yet Everton at this time were in a state of flux, between two great sides. Of the club’s twenty-first year, the 1899/1900 season, Thomas Keates wrote: ‘Our coming of age celebrations were a chilling, killing frost. Eleventh on the league table. Shocking!’
Wolstenholme would be one of the young players central to Everton’s revival. They narrowly missed out on the League Championship in 1902 and 1904, encountering dismal Aprils as the ultimate crown was theirs for the taking. Wolstenholme’s form earned him League representative honours in 1902, and in 1904 he was selected for the England team. Yet at the height of his Everton career it ended abruptly. A refusal to sign terms for the 1905/05 season saw the Everton directors touting him around their rivals, and Wolstenholme became a Blackburn Rovers player for £600. He provided them with four years of fine service, before switching to the Southern League. But greater dramas lay in store.