Professionalism in the modern era has all but ensured that success in multiple sporting codes is impossible, however it was certainly different in the years after World War II. England was a miserable place to be, its people struggling with malnourishment and the grief of the effects of conflict. The nation looked to its sporting heroes for hope, which leads us to the Compton brothers – two athletes that inspired crowds and achieved a unique fraternal feat at the peak of their powers, becoming the only siblings to win top-flight championships in cricket and football in the same season.
Born in Hendon, Leslie and Denis lead poor yet cheerful childhoods. They spent their developing years honing their skills between the lampposts in front of the family house on Alexandra Road – in the summer it was cricket and in the winter it was football. The pair always trained in both sports together, though each had their stronger area. Denis was a cricketer who played football and Leslie was a footballer who played cricket. Denis was immensely gifted as an aggressive, free-flowing batsman and maintained his adventurous on-field persona in football, where he was a nimble winger with an eye for goal. Leslie was not as naturally able as his brother but was still a fine sportsman, molding himself into an imposing centre-half and reliable wicketkeeper. Both soon excelled at school level and set about making the most of their talents.
Denis had broken into the Middlesex CC squad in the summer of 1936. On debut he batted at 11 and made 14 – legend tells that umpire Bill Bestwick only gave him out leg before wicket because he was in dire need to use the bathroom. Denis quickly earned his place in the middle order, showing glimpses of his boundless cricketing ability in his maiden first-class summer, even being hailed as the next Wally Hammond – enormous shoes to fill considering the latter was rated second only to Bradman before the outbreak of war.
Leslie had signed for Arsenal FC directly from the Middlesex Schools team, while Denis spent four years as an amateur before joining his older brother at Highbury. Leslie made his professional debut against Aston Villa in 1932, deputizing for Tom Parker as a right fullback. Due to the emergence of George Male, he was offered few opportunities to play and it was not until after the war that he solidified his position in the Arsenal lineup as a central defender. Denis was also unable to earn a regular spot in the team despite scoring on debut.
By the start of World War II, both brothers were established members of the firsts at Middlesex and making occasional appearances for Arsenal. Denis had scored two centuries in eight tests for England and Leslie had played in a winning Charity Shield side with the Gunners. Both nobly volunteered for their country when duty called and were stationed in India, where they stayed involved in sport through wartime matches. Denis won 12 unofficial caps for England in this period, meanwhile Leslie was converted into an emergency centre-forward for Arsenal, scoring ten times in a friendly match against Leyton Orient and making guest appearances for Chester and Southampton. Their wartime feats were impressive, but it was not until the world was rebuilding itself in peacetime that the pair shone through.
England was slowly recovering from the devastation of war and it took the two brothers time to truly find their feet on the field again. It wasn’t until 1947 that Denis found form, and when he did, he experienced what was arguably the greatest purple patch ever seen. Aided by a rare summer of abundant sunshine that followed a frosty, fuel-rationed winter, Denis scored an unprecedented 3,816 runs at an average of 90.85. Although his numbers were staggering, it was the manner in which he scored that mattered most. The faces in the crowd lit up with joy watching his triumphant drives. In the words of Neville Cardus:
”The strain of long years of anxiety and affliction passed from all heads and shoulders at the sight of Compton in full sail, sending the ball here, there, and everywhere, each stroke a flick of delight, a propulsion of happy, sane, healthy life.”
While Denis was absent on national duty, Leslie hit his only first-class century that summer when it was needed most. Middlesex were reeling after an Eddie Gothard hat-trick, yet it took just 87 minutes for Leslie to notch what was a thundering maiden ton. His runs helped Middlesex claim a vital victory that enabled them to lift the County Championship trophy just weeks later.
The pair then turned their attention to football. Denis had injured his knee before the war in a collision with Charlton goalkeeper Sid Hobbins and as he aged, it plagued him. His bad knee became a legend itself. There was always curiosity as to whether he would be able to play in the coming week. His appearances were limited but his unorthodox attacking play was always a welcome addition. Leslie played in almost every fixture and ruled the box defensively, conceding a remarkably thrifty 32 goals for the season – 11 goals less than any other team. It was enough for both brothers to claim winner’s medals.
As the troublesome knee saw Denis fade, Leslie prospered – he was selected as captain of Arsenal but humbly handed the reigns back to Joe Mercer, insisting that he deserved the honour more. It wasn’t until 1950 that Leslie was rewarded for his stellar defensive displays, becoming the oldest post-war debutant for England in a 4-2 win over Wales. He played once more for England, fittingly at Highbury, which was then the home ground of Arsenal.
Denis dragged himself out of semi-retirement and the two brothers had one last moment of sporting glory – lifting the FA Cup together in 1950. In a semi-final tie against London rivals Chelsea, Arsenal were down by a goal in the last minute of play. Denis lashed in a curling corner and Leslie headed the ball home to ensure that the match was replayed. Arsenal won the fixture 1-0 then defeated Liverpool 2-0 in the final at Wembley in front of 100,000 people.
Leslie continued to be at the heart of the Arsenal backline until his retirement in 1952. He had a benefit match organized in his honour, to be played between Middlesex CC and Arsenal at Highbury. It ended comically when the notoriously vague Denis ran him out without facing a ball. Despite his achievements being overshadowed by his brother’s, Leslie was always in good humour – he later joked to the Guardian: “at least I won two real caps at soccer for England, which is more than my young Denis ever managed”.
The Compton brothers lived in an era where professional sport did not bring million-dollar salaries, restrictive diets and brutal training regimes. Nowadays, things are different – multi-talented young athletes must now choose their preferred career path before it truly begins. Playing two sports at an elite level is a rarity, making it increasingly difficult to see the feats of the Compton brothers ever being repeated. It is a great shame that the war prevented the pair from performing in their primes – we can only wonder how much more they would have achieved.
Image Source: ESPN FC