Chix takes a look at ex-Pompey player and Bristol City Legend John Atyeo
John Atyeo – Not a name that springs to mind when talking about great players from Pompey’s past. Mention him to Bristol City fans however and you will soon discover that Atyeo sits proudly on the top of their ‘All Time Greats’ list, in the same manner that Jimmy Dickinson sits on ours.
The connection between John Atyeo and Pompey is somewhat tenuous, he only ever played twice in Pompey colours, but what he went onto achieve with Bristol City makes him a worthy candidate for this edition of ‘They Played’
In 1950 Atyeo was an 18 year old striker on the books of Portsmouth FC, the best team in England. Pompey had won consecutive (old) First Division titles in 1949 & 1950 and where hotly tipped to win it a third time in season 1950/1.
Breaking into the first team was not easy for any player let alone a forward who had to displace one of Pompey’s five man attack of Clarke, Harris, Froggatt, Phillips & Reid who between them had scored 63 goals the previous season and 89 the season prior to that.
What made it even harder for Atyeo however was that he was not even on professional terms. He was registered as a part-time amateur at his own request. John Atyeo saw football as a hobby, not a career.
Atyeo did play for Pompey that season however, making his debut v Charlton at Fratton Park in the November and again in another home tie against Arsenal the following March and although during both appearances he showed signs of promise he left the club in the summer and signed for Division Three South Bristol City. Again as an part-time amateur.
To say Atyeo was a sensation at Ashton Gate is an understatement. In 15 seasons he made 597 Football League appearances bagging 315 goals along the way. To this day both figures stand as club records. Furthermore, of 11 players who have scored 300+ league goals, Atyeo is joint 7th on the list and only Dixie Dean (Everton) and George Camsell (Boro) could claim to have scored more goals for any one club.
Older Robins fans will claim that if you count all the FA Cup, League Cup, friendlies, testimonials, Welsh and Gloucestershire cup games in which he featured, John Atyeo’s statistics amount to approximately 400 goals in 700 games, and it didn’t stop there! – He was never sent-off or cautioned, ever.
Atyeo also played for England, netting 5 times in 6 unbeaten appearances. In fact Atyeo’s England career became somewhat a bone of contention as having scored the goal that clinched qualification to the 1958 World Cup he was sensationally left at home for the finals in Sweden.
The Football Association never provided a reason for their decision although it was suggested at the time that they did not think it ‘professional’ to allow a part-timer to lead the attack. It was also mooted that they could also never quite understand his reluctance to retain his amateur status or turn down offers from the likes of First Division Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool and even Italian giants AC Milan who had come knocking on Bristol City’s door.
When he did briefly go full-time, his performance on the pitch did not improve. It was as if he just did not see football as a full blown career and so stayed in the West Country as a part-timer and combined football with his other job as a quantity surveyor.
In May 1966 after 15 seasons with The Robins, Atyeo retired from playing. Most (including John himself) assumed, given his long and loyal service to the club, would be offered a Directorship. Instead, he was just one of a number of people approached to take a notional seat on the board. It is said that Atyeo felt affronted at this suggestion as he believed he had far more to offer.
As it was John became a maths teacher in Warminster, a vocation for which he had studied during his playing days and as loyal as ever, he served the same school for over 20 years.
In June 1993, at the age of 61 John Atyeo died. Having been shamefully and embarrassingly neglected by the club during his retirement, Bristol City made amends (albeit a little too late) and named the new home end at Ashton Gate after him.
Since his death it is fair to say that City have begun to recognise their hero’s contribution to their past and plans to erect a bronze statue commemorating their no.1 all-time great are being considered for their new stadium. I am no expert in the history of Bristol City FC but having researched Atyeo’s career I doubt if they could find a more worthy candidate for this honour.
As mentioned at the top of this article John Atyeo was no Pompey great, but those two appearances back in the early 50’s link our famous club with a player who served his team with distinction and amassed records which will almost certainly never be surpassed by anybody wearing a red Robins shirt.
In an era where footballers are celebrities and earn average annual salaries each week is it not refreshing to read an account of a player who although considered ‘a great’, made what today would be considered extraordinary choices in his lifestyle and career. I’m told that when asked if he regretted declining the advances of the big named clubs that could have made him the most expensive player in England, he would always say that he would do it the same way all over again.