An academic, an activist and an all-rounder, these are all terms that have been used to describe Colin Veitch. A Newcastle United legend, Veitch was the man who captained Newcastle to three league titles and five FA Cup finals. He revolutionised tactics, played in every outfield position and chaired the Professional Footballers’ Association, yet in 1929, he was banned from St James’ Park.
Born in Heaton, about 2 miles from St James’ Park itself, he established a reputation for himself as an accomplished footballer as an amateur during his time at the now defunct Rutherford College. He quickly came to the attention of Newcastle United, but a career in football was by no means a foregone conclusion for Veitch. An academic and a socialist, Veitch was a lover of the arts, so when he first signed for Newcastle in 1899, he played in the reserves under the pseudonym ‘Hamilton’.
An excellent technician, Veitch was noted for his calmness and composure at all times, as well as his versatility. He made his first team debut in October 1899, in a 1-0 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers, and he would become a mainstay in the Newcastle United side up until the First World War. A tactically astute footballer, Veitch was typically deployed in midfield, where he could run the game for the Magpies. However, he often found himself pushed deeper in order to shore up the Newcastle defence. Veitch is believed to have played in every outfield position, barring left-half and outside-left, at some stage of his 15 year playing career with Newcastle United, and he had a reputation as the countries most versatile footballer.
The dominant figure of Newcastle’s decorated Edwardian era, Veitch joined the club in what was only their second season in the First Division, and they had just finished 13th. In his debut campaign, the club rose to 5th, but it would be five years before they really established themselves among England’s elite. In the 1904-05 season, Newcastle won their first major trophy, securing the title with a 3-0 win away at Middlesbrough on the final day of the season.
It was almost an incredible double, as Veitch led the Magpies out at the Crystal Palace stadium in London in front of 101,117 fans for the 1905 FA Cup final against Aston Villa. It remains the largest crowd to have ever watched a Newcastle United match. Newcastle’s opposition were far older and more illustrious than themselves. Villa were already five-time First Division champions and three-time FA Cup winners. They made it four against Veitch’s men, the ever-brilliant Harry Hampton scoring both goals in a 2-0 win.
Over the next six seasons, Newcastle won two more Football League championships and reached four further FA Cup finals, winning one in 1910, and captained by Veitch on each occasion. The victorious final in 1910 came against South Yorkshire outfit Barnsley. After a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace in London, a replay was played at Goodison Park. Veitch played both games at half-back, alongside another tactical pioneer and Newcastle great Peter McWilliam. Two goals by the prolific Albert Shepherd gave Newcastle their first triumph in what was then considered the most prestigious competition that English clubs competed in.
Veitch won his first cap for England in a 5-0 over Scotland in 1906, and went on to win a total of six caps over the next three years, a surprisingly low number for such a distinguished player. An outspoken and educated man, Veitch was always heavily involved in players’ rights and activism, which perhaps wasn’t always viewed too kindly by the Football Association.
He retired from football upon the outbreak of WWI, joining the British Army as a 2nd Lieutenant. When the war came to an end in 1918, Veitch became a coach at Newcastle United, and in 1924 he formed a junior side at St James’ Park, Newcastle Swifts. Having previously taught in schools, Veitch introduced blackboards in order to get his tactics and ideas across to the players, a revolutionary method that still lives on today in the form of whiteboards. The vision behind Newcastle Swifts was to create a conveyor belt of talent from the Swifts to the first team, and it was in many respects ahead of its time. However, two years into the project, Veitch was sacked and the Swifts were disbanded.
He went on to live a colourful life. He revisited his love of the arts, co-founding the People’s Theatre in Newcastle, befriending George Bernard Shaw, and becoming a renowned playwright, producer and conductor. He briefly managed Bradford City, turned down an invitation from the Labour Party to stand for parliament and became chairman of the PFA. Veitch also launched a successful career as a sports journalist, but he wasn’t one to mince his words. His continued critique of the FA, the Football League and Newcastle United didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1929, he was banned from the press box of the club whom he had led to such extraordinary success.
Veitch’s busy and bright life ended prematurely at the age of 57, dying of pneumonia whilst on a convalescing holiday in Bern, Switzerland, a year before the beginning of the Second World War. His obituary in the Times pointed out that in five different FA Cup finals, Veitch played in four different positions, a perfect display of his extraordinary versatility. In 2012, 74 years on from his death and 113 years on from his Newcastle debut, he was voted as the club’s fourth greatest player of all time in the Evening Chronicle, finishing one place above Alan Shearer.