Faster, Higher, Stronger: The Rise of Laurie Brown

With just three Woking appearances to his name, Laurie Brown’s association with The Cardinals was a fleeting one. In 1956, the rangy centre-half moved to the area to complete his National Service, joining The Cards and playing the role of understudy to John Mortimore during the autumn of that year. After a few months, the 19-year-old moved on to Fulham where he was granted a handful of opportunities in their reserve team, eventually returning to his native North East. At this point, there was little indication of the heights he would scale during his career. 

Back home, combining football with his work as a cabinet maker, Brown developed into a fine prospect with local club Bishop Auckland. Having now grown into his 6’2’’ frame, he switched from commanding centre-half to barreling centre forward.  Early in 1959, he made a number of appearances as an amateur with Darlington in the Fourth Division and, by 1960, there was a bevvy of Football League clubs, amongst them Manchester United, vying to sign Brown on professional terms. 

At that time British football was still grappling with the transition from amateur to professional status. The Football League operated a weekly pay cap of £20; it was understandably despised by players and put an entirely different veneer on the concept of amateurism. As a matter of choice, many talented amateurs shunned professional status, finding themselves financially better off by maintaining a career outside of the game.  

There was a further reason why Laurie Brown had so far rebuffed offers of a professional contract. The 1960 Summer Olympic Games were on the horizon and Brown had designs on representing Great Britain in a competition reserved for amateur players. 

In Spring 1960, Brown was selected in GB’s qualifying matches against Ireland and the Netherlands and participated in a series of gruelling physical training camps at RAF Uxbridge as the squad was whittled down to size. The 23-year-old Brown did enough not only to secure a seat on the plane to Rome but also to be selected as captain. 

The valiant British amateurs, mostly chosen from the English non-league, had been drawn in a tough group featuring hosts Italy and reigning World Cup holders Brazil. With only one team to qualify, they faced an almost impossible task. Even if they did progress, they would be competing against the powerhouses of the Eastern Bloc, whose state-sponsorship meant they were able to field full-strength teams. 

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A crowd of 25,000 turned up in the port city of Livorno to see GB lock horns with Brazil in their first game. The technical superiority of their opponents, comprised of under-21 players drawn from iconic clubs such as Flamengo, Santos and Sao Paulo, quickly became evident. And the tone appeared to be set when Gerson, a player who would lift the World Cup a decade later, put Brazil ahead after two minutes. 

Yet GB battled on, clawing their way back into the game. On the hour mark, and in possession of an unexpected 2-1 lead, disaster struck for GB as an injury reduced them to ten men (substitutes were not allowed). In the stifling summer heat, Brown heroically countered a Brazilian onslaught but was ultimately unable to prevent the team from falling to a 4-3 defeat. 

The next match, to be played against hosts Italy in front of a partisan crowd in the Olympic Stadium, became a must-win contest. Italy’s youthful team featured prospects such as Gianna Rivera, Giovanni Trapattoni and Tarcisio Burgnich who would become household names later in the decade. GB overcame the odds – and a series of contentious referring decisions – to snatch a draw in Rome. Just as he had been in the Brazil game, Laurie Brown was a lynchpin of the GB team, his performance described as “titanic” by Steve Menary in his book GB United?. 

Despite their heroics, with a single point from two games, GB had already been mathematically eliminated going into the final match. Brown led the team one last time in the rolling Tuscan hills of Grossetto, where they stuttered to a 3-2 victory over plucky Formosa (Taiwan). With the sound of the final whistle, Brown’s Olympic dream was over. Limited budgets meant the GB players were instructed to return home immediately after their exit from the competition. 

Along with several of his Olympic teammates, Brown subsequently turned professional for the 1960/61 season. He shunned interest from Newcastle United, opting instead for Fourth Division Northampton Town, who deployed him as a centre-forward. His record of 22 goals in 33 appearances secured promotion in his debut season and convinced Arsenal to part with £35,000 to take him to Highbury. 

“He’s a real heart-breaker to opposing centre forwards and his sudden dashes upfield can split defences wide open”

Soccer Star, 1961

He made over 100 appearances, helping Arsenal to consecutive top-ten finishes before crossing the North London divide. He controversially made his Spurs debut in the derby, the day after signing. Thereafter he grappled with the familiar curse of the utility player; struggling to fully establish himself as either a centre-half or a centre-froward in Bill Nicholson’s team, eventually moving on to Norwich City in 1966.  

Age 31 he took his first steps into management with Bradford Park Avenue, then Altrincham and latterly Kings Lynn. Laurie Brown passed away in 1998, aged 61. 

With thanks to Fulham FC historian Alex White for his contributions. This article originally appeared in the Woking FC matchday programme on 12th December 2020

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