THE lichen is concealing the lettering and the branches of a yew tree are hiding the headstone, but at the rear of Darlington’s West Cemetery is the grave of probably the only man born in the town to win a gold Olympic medal.
Ronald Gilchrist Brebner achieved his feat in the 1912 Games in Stockholm and then, as his headstone records, died two years later, in 1914, aged only 33, fatally injured in a match.
He was a dentist by trade, and an amateur footballer from a very different era.
His was the age of fair play as, in the Olympic semi-final, his team-mate deliberately put a penalty kick over the bar because GB thought the referee’s award was harsh.
But his was also the age of lethal play, when the rules allowed goalkeepers to be assaulted, and this may well have led to the Olympian’s death.
Brebner was born in Darlington. He shares his headstone with his father, David, who came from Edinburgh in 1866 to set up a gunmaker’s business in Bondgate, near the Tap and Spile pub.
As the headstone records, David also died young – 38, drowned in the River Tees when his horse and cart was overturned in Neasham ford as he returned home with some pigeons for a shooting competition.
The boy Brebner was only two years old. He went to Darlington Grammar School, where he learnt his love of football, and then to Edinburgh University, where he studied the art of dentistry. But instead of filling in cavities, he took to filling in between the sticks, and went to London to play for the Caledonians. He also turned out for Sunderland and Chelsea. He was selected for an all-London amateur side, and was called up for his country as England’s amateur goalkeeper.
Around 1910, nearing his 30th birthday, he returned to his birthplace to settle down. He started a dentistry practice in Bishops House, Coniscliffe Road and turned out as an amateur for the professional Quakers.
This coincided with Darlington FC’s greatest run in the FA Cup. They swept through three qualifying rounds – which included victory over Wingate, who had a player sent off for “deliberately kicking at the Darlington custodian” – and into the first round proper at First Division Sheffield United.
Against all odds, the Quakers won, with Brebner man of the match. “Rarely before could such a masterly exhibition of goalkeeping have been seen at Bramall Lane, ” said the Echo’s reporter, The Nut.
On the final whistle, the 500 Darlington fans carried the keeper shoulder-high off the pitch, and at Bank Top station the team was met by Cockerton band, which paraded them through a cheering throng in the town centre.
In the second round, Second Division Bradford Park Avenue were despatched in front of 12,030 people at Feethams, but in the third, Swindon Town – nicknamed the Shunters – derailed the Quakers’ glory train by three goals to nil.
The dentist, though, once more had the taste of glory in his mouth – his goal was to go one better than the England amateur team and get a call up for the full side.
The next season, 1911-12, he seems to have turned out for Queen’s Park Rangers, Huddersfield Town and the Northern Nomads – a touring club based in Manchester. And he got the call-up for the 1912 Olympics.
Football had been introduced to the London Games in 1908, and GB had won the first gold. They kicked off the second tournament against Hungary – “probably the best of the Continental elevens”, said the Echo.
After 15 minutes, with the game scoreless and the Hungarians revelling in the sweltering temperatures, Britain conceded a penalty, to be taken by Bodnar. The Darlington dentist saved “grandly”, which inspired his teammates to score two goals immediately.
“During this first half, five of the British players were laid out temporarily, and Hanney was so shaken up that the interval saw his permanent departure from the field, ” said the Echo. “Before resuming the game, the Britishers had a cold tub,” said the Echo.
The cold tub refreshed the legs of the remaining ten Britishers, and they ran out 7-0 winners, Harold Walden of Bradford City scoring six.
Two days later, GB played the semi-final against Finland. With Edward Hanney still so shaken, Harold Stamper of Stockton got a game as centre half.
The Finns were poor. They scored an own goal after two minutes; Walden added a second after seven, and GB sat contentedly back, even “ostentatiously” skying a penalty because they thought the referee had made a bad decision.
“The second half opened with the Finlanders setting up a sturdy defence, which prevented the realisation of the clamorous demand of the Britishers on the ground, expressed in the insistent and stentorian chorus: ‘We want more goals!'” reported the Echo. “Midway through the second period, the Finns made a most determined effort to reduce the lead, but a magnificent save by Brebner caused the failure of the attempt.”
The game ended 4-0, and the final two days later was played against Denmark in front of a crowd of 25,000, which included the King of Sweden.
In the 30th minute, Brebner was beaten “with a ripping shot” for the first time in the Olympics, but by then Britain were two goals to the good. A few minutes later, British captain Vivian Woodward charged von Buchwald and the Dane was so badly injured he had to retire. In those pre-substitute days, the ten Danes performed bravely but went down 4-2.
The Darlington dentist arrived home with his gold medal, but rather than devote himself to the drill, he joined Second Division Leicester Fosse (now called Leicester City).
However, in an early match against Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Olympian was so badly injured – possibly diving at the feet of an opponent and breaking his neck – his career was finished.
As, effectively, was his life.
“From the trouble that supervened, he never recovered, ” said the Echo.
He went to a nursing home in Newcastle, and then to live with his medical brother in London, but died 15 months later.
“He was undoubtedly one of the most capable amateur goalkeepers in the country, and he attained practically all the honours that come to an amateur, although his ambition to be selected in a representative game for all England was never realised, ” said the Darlington and Stockton Times of November 14, 1914. “He represented England frequently in amateur international games, both at home and on the Continent, and was honoured by being selected as one of the team representing this country in the Olympic games in Stockholm.”
The gold medal winner was buried, with his father and mother, in the back of West Cemetery.