Feb 26

Neil Paterson: The soccer player who won an Academy Award

Posted by SoccerHistory

Soccer and the arts are fields that rarely combine successfully. On the literary side Arthur Conan Doyle and Albert Camus are often cited as examples of writers who had played soccer, but Conan Doyle’s links with football in Portsmouth were fleeting and Camus contracted tuberculosis as a teenager thus ending his sporting ambitions. The actor Sean Connery, who won an Academy Award in 1988 for Best Supporting Actor, played soccer but only in the Scottish Junior (semi-professional) game with Bonnyrigg Rose in the early 1950s when he was known as Tom Connery. 

Another example is provided by Barry Hines, best known for his working class novels of the 1960s and 1970s, who won awards for his novels and screen writing, including a BAFTA award and awards at the Cannes and Monte Carlo Festivals. He was a talented soccer player as a youngster, good enough to play for the FA Schools XI; he went on to play for Barnsley reserve and ‘A’ teams and for Crawley Town in the Metropolitan League before his writing career developed.

However, the pre-eminent figure to combine a career in both the arts and in soccer was Neil Paterson, who won an Academy Award in 1960 for Best Adapted Screenplay for his version of John Braine’s novel Room at the Top.

James Edmund Neil Paterson was born in Greenock on 31 December 1915. The son of James Donaldson Paterson, a solicitor who was serving in the Gordon Highlanders, the family’s home town was Banff and Neil Paterson was brought up there, attending Banff Academy. From here he went on to study at Edinburgh University with the intention of following his father into the legal profession.

It was while at Edinburgh that Neil’s talents as a soccer player came to the fore. In the 1934-35 season he made a few appearances for Highland League club Buckie Thistle during the Christmas and New Year period and did well enough to earn a place in the side that met St Johnstone in a Scottish Cup third round tie in February 1935. Buckie were a strong outfit in those days, having been Highland League champions in 1933-34. Paterson featured at inside-left but the Perth side eventually snatched a 1-0 victory with a goal in the closing minutes in front of a crowd of 4,500.

Shortly afterwards Paterson signed amateur forms for Leith Athletic, then members of the Scottish League Second Division and he featured in a number of minor cup games towards the end of the season. He was a regular for Leith in 1935-36 scoring 15 goals from 29 League and Cup appearances. Ironically one of his best performances came in the Scottish Cup First Round tie against his former team Buckie Thistle. Paterson hit a hat-trick to earn his side a replay (which they won 2-1) and a place in the next round.

A towering inside-left who stood six feet tall and weighed 12 stone, Paterson was acclaimed as a great prospect: “One of the most promising amateur players outside of Queen’s Park,” noted the Dundee Evening Telegraph (3 April 1936). In February 1936 he was listed as one of the seven reserves for Scotland Amateurs against Wales, the closest he came to international honours.

Paterson transferred to Dundee United for the 1936-37 season, retaining his amateur status and continuing his studies at Edinburgh.  On signing he was described as “a real ‘find,’ well-built, fast and full of football.” (Dundee Evening Telegraph, 14 August 1936) He was a regular for United throughout that season when he was also appointed captain, and again found the net regularly; his tally of 10 goals from 26 games included a further hat-trick in a 5-0 win over Forfar Athletic.

On graduating with an MA, Paterson opted for a career in journalism rather than football or law. Unable to get a post as a sports writer he became a sub-editor for DC Thomson-Leng Publications. It was in this role that he developed his literary talents writing short stories for women’s magazines.

The war intervened and for six years he served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy on minesweepers. He continued his career as a writer and shortly after his demobilisation he received an Atlantic Award for Literature, given to aid writers of “exceptional promise” whose career had been interrupted by the war. He was already an acclaimed writer of short stories and his work was known in the United States and the Dominions, had been translated into several languages and broadcast on the radio.

His first novel, The China Run, was selected by Somerset Maugham, the New York Times reviewer, as his Book of the Year for 1948. Further acclaimed novels followed including Behold Thy Daughter, like its predecessor China Run, the story of a strong woman character set in a fishing village in the North East of Scotland. Man on the Tightrope and various collections of short stories followed, establishing Paterson’s reputation as the best post-war Scottish young writer by the early 1950s.

In the mid 1950s he switched to writing film scripts, several being selected by the Cannes Film Festival, and most notably with Room at the Top (1959) which won him the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1960. He continued to live in Perthshire and remained active in the arts well into retirement, serving on the board of many organisations including Films of Scotland, the Scottish Arts Council and the Arts Council for Great Britain. He died at Crieff on 19 April 1995.

Neil Paterson was a talented soccer player who also excelled in the world of the arts although his careers were very distinct and he did not, for example write about soccer or other sports (he was also very useful at golf and lawn tennis). Today he is remembered mostly as “The soccer player who won an Oscar” but that belies his talents at soccer (he came close to gaining amateur international honours for Scotland) and as a writer considered one of the best Scottish writers of his generation.