The sensational rise of Tommy Cook from village football to Albion’s legendary top scorer of all time began 100 years ago.
Albion manager Charlie Webb had been searching for a replacement for the lethal Jack Doran, who scored 55 in 85 matches and was lured away to Manchester City for £1,050.
Doran flopped at City, but opportunity knocked for ambitious 21-year-old Cook when Webb gave him his first team debut away to Queen’s Park Rangers on 23 September 1922.
Cook had been honing his craft in the reserves after making the huge jump from village football with Cuckfield FC two years before. He had made his Albion debut briefly in the reserves at 19 on 20 September 1919 at right-half in a 2-2 draw at Luton Reserves in the South Eastern League.
He returned to goal-snatching in the Mid Sussex League football before Webb signed him in 1921. As a sign-off to Cuckfield he scored 27 goals in 22 matches in his final season, despite playing many matches in defence.
Cook and his deadly shooting boots were destined for greater things.
But Cook’s father Alfred was less keen on his son’s football progress and wanted him to pursue a secure profession as a marine engineer instead of the highly unstable job of a professional footballer.
One of Tommy’s characteristics was determination, often bordering on stubbornness, and on this occasion it served him well. But Albion were not yet prepared to throw an exciting raw young talent into the first team and Cook needing toughening up for pro football.
Despite his local goal-scoring prowess, when Cook started his first season with Albion in 1921-22 it looked like he might make a career at wing-half as he spent a season honing his football craft as an amateur with the reserves, strangely called The Lambs, before turning professional.
His first competitive goal for the Albion was scored for the Lambs in a 4-1 win in front of 3,000 at the Goldstone against Southend in the Southern League English Section (Albion’s first team having joined the Football League).
That season Cook played all the half-back and inside-forward positions, playing only a few games as centre-forward as he scored about five goals (records are incomplete) for the Lambs.
Dynamic Doran’s departure on the cusp of the 1922-23 season opened the door for young Cook as Albion settled into life in the Third Division South. Webb had found a star who would cost him nothing in a transfer fee. It was every manager’s dream.
Webb really owed his greatest signing to the club’s admin secretary Albert Underwood, who saw Cook starring in a parks game at the Marine Ground in Hove and recommended him.
Albion drew 0-0 in Cook’s debut first-team match at Queen’s Park Rangers in pouring rain, with Cook playing inside-left and showing deft touches as well as power on the run and in shooting.
Still playing out of his favoured centre-forward position, Cook scored his first senior goal for Albion on 7 October 1922 in a 3-0 win over Gillingham in front of 9,000 fans at the Goldstone.
Cook felt the pressure of following Jack Doran, but his 9 goals in 23 matches that 1922-23 season was a highly promising performance from a young player. He scored 28 goals in 1923-24 and never looked back, in 1925 winning an England cap.
Cook’s first-class career total of 123 still remains the best peace-time scoring total of all time for the Albion.
He later had an unsuccessful spell as Albion manager, and died aged 49 after taking his own life at his home village of Cuckfield. His professional cricket career also began in 1922 and he scored 20,176 runs for Sussex.
Cook’s life is recorded in the book “Tommy Cook. The Double Life of a Superstar Sportsman” by Philip Dennett, available at £15 from the Albion store. It covers both his football and cricket career.