By Dan Parry
For almost 50 years, George Robledo held the record for the most goals scored in the English top flight by a foreign born player (not including Ireland). An extraordinary life and career saw George (also known as Jorge) migrate from Chile to Yorkshire as a five year old, work in coal mines, win FA Cup finals, play in World Cups, change the way an entire nation play a sport and inspire a young John Lennon.
George was born in the port city of Iquique, in northern Chile, in 1926 to English mother Elsie Oliver and Chilean father Aristides Robledo. His mother was from South Yorkshire but moved to Argentina after the First World War to work as a tutor for the children of a British family. The family later moved to Iquique, taking Elsie with them, and it was there that she met George’s father, an accountant in the same mining company as her host family’s father. Over the course of the next seven years they had three sons: George, Ted (Eduardo) and Walter.
Political and economic instability, particularly in regards to the mining industry, caused by the Great Depression lead to the couple deciding that their family would be better off in the United Kingdom. At some point in 1932, not long after the birth of Walter, Elsie boarded a ship bound to Liverpool with her three sons. Supposedly, on the morning of embarkation Aristides utilised the most clichéd of all escape excuses and told his wife that he was going to get some cigarettes before the ship departed. Suffice to say, he never returned and they never saw him again. Elsie bravely soldiered on alone and the family quickly settled in the town of Brampton.
In Yorkshire, George and Ted developed a passion for football. As a teenager, George combined working in the local coal mines with playing as an amateur for Huddersfield. South Yorkshire rivals Barnsley also took a keen interest in the young inside forward and in 1943 they offered him a professional contract. Ted ended up signing his own terms for the club in 1947.
In a superb Independent article written by Richard Williams in 1999, ex-Barnsley player of the era Johnny Steele described George as not being a ‘natural footballer’ although he was ‘good in the air and an effective finisher’. He also alludes to George’s phenomenal work-rate, a quality which lead to the Chilean standing out among his piers and helping him make the most of his talent.
Ted, although lacking some of the superior class that his brother possessed, had also made something of a name for himself at Barnsley. He was a decent squad player and certainly ‘no mug’ as Steele put it.
George netted 47 goals in 114 appearances during his post war stint at Oakwell, and at the beginning of 1949 North-East powerhouse, Newcastle, came a knocking. The Magpies only wanted to take on George but he had a fierce loyalty to his family, especially to his younger brother, so he refused to move unless they agreed to sign Ted, too. Newcastle accepted the condition and took both brothers for £26.500.
It was at Newcastle that George really began to find his groove, the step up in division and playing with better players saw his performances improve tenfold. He was the perfect foil for the likes of fellow legend, Jackie Milburn. George’s relentless running and appetite for a physical encounter allowed Milburn and others more space to work their magic. (That’s not to say, however, that George never produced his own moments of wonder.) Together, they formed one of the most potent strike forces in all of Europe. They scored goals for fun and won a couple of trophies whilst they were at it.
In his first full season at the club, George scored 11 times and his performances raised eyebrows in Chile. A word from the Chilean ambassador to the national team staff saw him added to their 1950 World Cup Squad. In spite of not speaking a word of Spanish, George acquitted himself well. He played in all three of his country’s group games at the tournament, which included a 2-0 defeat to none other than England. A famous anecdote tells how he was told to ‘steady on’ by an England player after hitting the post.
He also started playing with a different style of boot; opting to use the low-cut, lighter rubber boots used by his compatriots instead of the heavy, sturdier boots used back in England. He apparently urged his Newcastle teammates to follow suit, but they had no time for his foreign fashions.
This wouldn’t be George’s only taste of international football. He would go on to make 31 appearances and score 8 times for La Roja. His shining moment perhaps the 1955 Copa de America, where he scored 3 goals across the tournament as Chile reached the final before losing 1-0 to Argentina.
After the World Cup, Robledo continued to flourish at Newcastle. He bettered his previous season’s tally by scoring 14 goals and he was an important cog in the side as they reached the FA Cup final, which they won 2-0 thanks to a brace from Milburn.
In 51/52, George had his most successful season. He won the golden boot by hitting the back of the net 33 times (39 in all competitions) and he was once again vital as Newcastle retained the FA Cup, becoming the first team to do since Blackburn Rovers in 1891. Both the Queen, whose coronations had taken place only moths beforehand, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill attended the game. It was a tight affair, that lost some of its panache after Arsenal player Wally Barnes was injured in the first half. At half-time, Magpies’ Captain Joe Harvey accused his players of being overly-affected by the incident, and in true Captain’s fashion, demanded that they reassert themselves.
“You’re feeling sorry for Mercer’s lot, you feel even sorrier for yourselves if I don’t get that cup!”
Six minutes before full time, it was Robledo who had the wherewithal to get a head on the end of a cross, thereby winning the game for his side and becoming the first South American to score at Wembley.
It turns out that the same goal also happened to impress a certain 11 year old lad in Liverpool. Young John Lennon was sufficiently struck by the goal that he decided to recreate it in a painting. The same piece of art would be used by Lennon for the cover of his 1974 solo album, Walls and Bridges. Amazingly, the fact would remain unknown for 42 years.
In 2016, whilst doing research for a biography of Ted Robledo, Chilean writer, and Beatles enthusiast, Nestor Flores came across a photo of George’s winning goal which seemed vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t quite figure out why. The mystery kept the writer tossing and turning most of the night, and after a brief sleep he woke up at 4am, the realisation had finally hit him; the album cover and the photo were the same.
George’s life, thanks to football, had completed something of a full circle and in 1953, at the age of 27, both him and Ted found themselves back in Chile. In the previous season, the brothers, much to the chagrin of Newcastle, had already set their minds on going back to the land of their birth, whether it be as players, coaches or something unrelated to football.
In those days, South American clubs, with the help of their associations, were looking to expand and professionalise football in their respective nations, and they were willing to pay big bucks to execute their plans.
For Chilean sides, George Robledo became the proverbial holy grail. His status and ability to draw a crowd made him the desire of virtually every club in the nation. In the end, it was an obscene offer from Chilean side Colo-Colo that convinced George -and Newcastle- to follow his brother Ted (who had made the same deal some months beforehand) in swapping Tyneside for the South American metropolis, Santiago.
The third and final act of George’s footballing career was equally as successful as the previous two. Robledo brought a hitherto unseen style of play to Chile from the North-East of England. Some commentators remark it as being an almost messiah like coming. Diego Figueroa, author of Los 11 quotes contemporary defender Sergio Navarro who said that in Chile ‘…There is a before and after Robledo when it comes to headers.’
It could just as easily be said that the arrival of the Robledos was a watershed moment for Chilean football in general. On the pitch, their technical talent, work-rate, teamwork and lack of theatrics made them stand out. However, it was off the pitch that they made the biggest impression, their superior levels of professionalism opened many players’ eyes to the glories that could be attained with more application.
It goes without saying that George, now better know amongst his compatriots as Jorge, didn’t leave his scoring boots back in the UK. In the 53 season, George became top scorer with 26 goals as Colo-Colo won their 6th title. Six fruitful seasons followed for the Robledos and Colo-Colo; in 56 they added a further championship, and in 58 they rounded of the era with a Copa de Chile. All in all, George played a total of 153 times for the outfit and scored an outstanding 84 goals.
Towards the end of his time at Colo-Colo, George’s form started to dip -some accused him of becoming ‘Chilenizado’- and his relationship with the club’s authorities began to sour. In the 58 season, George began to feel that his time at Colo-Colo, as well as his career, was coming to its natural conclusion.
Two offers were made from O’Higgins and Huachipato, both clubs let it be known to George that he could play whilst keeping an eye on future employment prospects in the mining industry. Colo-Colo were understandably keen to stop one of the country’s best players joining their rivals, and although his contract had expired, certain clauses meant that George had to spend one season in the stands before he was allowed to move to O’Higgins. He played one season for his new club, scoring 6 goals in 21 games before calling time on his storied career. He felt he couldn’t perform to the levels he expected of himself, and having just got married and started a family, he wanted to focus his life on them instead of football.
The next major episode in the lives of the Robledo came in 1970, when Ted Robledo died in tragic circumstances. After his own retirement, Ted had spent most of his time working on oil rigs, which lead him to the Persian Gulf. Through a series of unknown and suspicious events Ted fell overboard from a ship leaving Dubai harbour and his body was never discovered. In the aftermath, the Captain was charged with murder but eventually acquitted. The court finding the death more likely to be a suicide than homicide. Furthermore, younger brother Walter travelled to the region on two separate occasions in hope of unravelling the mystery and finding his brother’s body. Unfortunately, he had no luck on either front.
It goes without saying that George, who had always seen himself as being Ted’s foremost guardian and protector, was absolutely devastated. His younger brother’s death troubled him to such an extent that he couldn’t even bring himself to physically take part in Walter’s investigations.
George saw out the rest of his own life in Chile with his wife and family. After leaving football behind he held several jobs, mostly related to coaching or mining. He died of a heart attack in 1989 whilst living the resort city of Viña del Mar, where he had been the head of sports at a local private school.
In modern times, the idea of a footballer having such a massive impact and being revered in two countries is not so irregular, but in the post-war period it was positively unthinkable. George’s career statistics and trophy cabinet speak for themselves in terms of his ability as a footballer, he was a bona fide superstar. But he is also remembered for the wider influence he had, especially in Chile. He was a consummate gentlemen who held himself to the highest personal and professional standards, never complained and always played within the rules of the game.
After George’s funeral his body was interred in a mausoleum that contains the remains of fellow Colo-Colo club legends. A small sign of the esteem in which he is held.
The header image belongs to Mirrorpix.
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