It is ironic that perhaps the greatest "Character" among Chesterfield's ex-players did not play League football for us. His name? Charlie Bunyan.
Charlie rose to national and international attention as his career developed along generally haphazard lines. The illegitimate son of a straw plaiter, Charlie was baptised in Campton, near Biggleswade in 1869 but spent his youth in the Bedfordshire village of Shifford. It was too common a practise in those days for a young unmarried mother and her child to be "exiled" from her family's home to live with friends or cousins in a nearby village; if this was the case with Charlie and Martha, his mother, it might explain the obvious contempt he held for authority, for much of his early life.
Charlie's mother married, and the family migrated to Cow Lane, in Brimington, in 1880 - a frequent enough move for agricultural labourers who found that they could earn more by putting away the hay rake and picking up a coal shovel. At that time a rural Bedfordshire accent was nearly as common as a Derbyshire or Irish one on Chesterfield's streets.
Charlie began playing football for local sides called Old Horns (who apparently gave him a testimonial at the age of 15!) and Spital before playing his first Chesterfield Town game in 1886. He was destined for better things, though, and became a professional with Hyde Football Club in 1887. Bunyan was in the nets on the day that Hyde conceded a record twenty-six goals to Preston in the FA Cup, but was reckoned to have kept out as many as he let in, and little blame was attached to him for the result. His career reached new heights with moves to Sheffield United and Derby County, for whom he played nine times in the League.
Charlie re-joined the Spireites for their second Sheffield League season in 1892 and immediately hit it off with the fans. He combined his Town career with that of a publican, at 'The Marquis of Hartington' and, as the pub was no more than five minutes' walk from the ground, it was usually packed to the gunwales with Town fans anxious to pick up the juiciest gossip about their team. Bunyan developed a lucrative sideline here, selling home-made shinguards to the local players who drank on his premises. The club's committee were suspicious of Charlie's popularity, though, and relationships between player and club were often on a short fuse.
In Bunyan's day goalies were allowed to handle the ball anywhere within their own half. Charlie often made good use of this fact, and would wander up the field to join in attacks. When a goal was conceded with Bunyan still in the opposition's half, berating his forwards, the club's patience snapped, and they sacked him. Around this time, Charlie enjoyed one of his many occasional clashes with the game's authorities and was suspended after altering a transfer form. Town's Felix Davis celebrated his move to Brampton Works with a few jars in The Marquis of Hartington, where Bunyan got his hands on the form, scratched out Brampton's name and replaced it with "Derby County". It emerged that Bunyan stood to gain financially every time the Rams signed a player on his recommendation.
The forgery became transparent when The Rams telegrammed The Spireites to ask about this bloke they'd just signed. An inquiry was conducted with undisguised bitterness between Bunyan and the club; Bunyan alleged that the club had tried to ruin him by putting fans off his pub, and there might have been something in this, given that The County Hotel, 100 yards away from Bunyan's pub, was owned by Chesterfield's Treasurer! Bunyan was suspended from football for six months after the inquiry found him guilty.
After serving his suspension Charlie showed up in Ilkeston colours; he had taken a pub there, The Poplar, and also dabbled as a theatrical impresario, bringing acts to the "Poplar Palace" music hall, which one imagines was attached to the pub. Moving away from Derbyshire, Bunyan clocked up 44 League appearances for Walsall and joined New Brompton, now Gillingham, in 1898. 1901 saw him plying his trade in Newcastle and he is reported to have spent the 1905-6 season in Canada.
In 1908 he became player/coach to Brimington Athletic, and a new avenue opened up in his career as his character mellowed. He became one of the first Englishmen to coach overseas, being appointed football and cricket coach to the Racing Club, Brussels, in 1909. He served as assitant to Willie Maxwell, the Belgian national manager during this time, and continued this dual role until moving to Sweden to coach Örgryte IS, of Gothenburg, who were the leading Swedish club side of the day. His work here led to his being offered the job of coach to the Swedish national side as they prepared for the Stockholm Olympics of 1912.
Charlie returned to Belgium after the Stockholm Games to coach Standard Liege, remaining there until 1915, when it seems that living under German occupation became too much for him. He and his sons returned to England in November; in Charlie's own colourful account they posed as Belgian refugees to make good their escape.
Within thirty-six hours of reaching the safety of the England in November 1915, he and his sons Charlie, Maurice and Ernie walked into a recruiting centre in London and volunteered for the army. Although the recruiting officers weren't that particular about who they took, Bunyan still had to lie about his age, taking eight years off to get in and, in his late 40s, Lance-corporal Charlie Bunyan saw service on the Western front with the Footballers' Battalion.
Charlie's health suffered greatly in France; he reported sick on Christmas Day 1915 and was eventually diagnosed as suffering from shell shock. The medical examiner reckoned him to be "debilitated and tremulous," as well as prematurely aged, and he was eventually discharged in May 1916 after his true age had come to light during his illness. After the end of the war he returned to Belgium to coach Anderlecht and died in the Brussles suburb of Ixelles in 1922. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that this brave man's war service played a significant part in his comparatively early demise.
Charlie's death did not end the Bunyan influence in international sport. A son, the Brimington-born Maurice, scored goals for fun at the Racing Club (Brussels) and Stade Francais, in Paris; he became a referee of some distinction and took football teams to Europe after the First World War to cement the new peace. Nowadays, you'd describe him as an "Old Labour" man; he rose to prominence in the Railway Clerks Association, his trade union, and in the British Workers Sports Federation, for whom he organised tours and managed sides. He wrote coaching manuals in French and managed Bordeaux between 1945 and 1947. Another son, Charles, played for England's Olympic team at the 1920 games in Brussels. The Bunyans were - and probably still are - a remarkable family.
My thanks go to Gunnar Persson, a Swedish football historian, for assistance in compiling this biography.