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Ralph Kirby, the first manager of the club

Cris Rosique, Xavier Vidal i Liam Borchers
Ralph Kirby Ralph Kirby CE Europa's archive

A long and profound investigation of the authors of this article allows us to discover Europa’s first trainer thoroughly.

Note: this article is an adaptation of the article ‘Ralph Kirby, el primer tècnic de la història’ in Catalan by Cris Rosique and Xavier Vidal.

We have talked a lot about the glorious and legendary team of Europa of the 1920s, with president Matas in charge and a fantastic new wave of players that achieved historic milestones for the club. However, sometimes it can be easy to forget the man who, like an alchemist, transformed all this innate talent into gold.

We are talking about Englishman Ralph Kirby. Born on the 18th of March 1884 in Birmingham, Kirby’s father was a train driver who was involved in a dramatic train crash, which he survived miraculously uninjured. Although growing up surrounded by railway locomotives and carriages, the young Ralph began playing football for his parish team, Saltley Baptists, which was where he started to attract serious attention as a talented right-winger. While doing his military service in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) during the 1903-04 season, he stood out as both a footballer and an athlete, participating in many running competitions.

Young Kirby played marvelous seasons with the army’s football club, where he stood out for his speed. That was the reason why he caught Fulham’s eye and signed for them for the 1905-06 season. That same season, Fulham was playing in the Southern League, an important championship in which clubs from the South of England and Wales participated. Kirby played for both the reserves and the first team and made his first-team debut in a match against Millwall on the 22nd of April 1905. Even though he was in between the first and the second teams, he played some more games for the first one. Fulham ended the season becoming Southern League Champions, which is why Kirby appeared in the official team photo and why he is still remembered in the West London club. At the beginning of the 1906-07 season, Kirby returned home to the Midlands and signed for Birmingham City, who were playing in the Football League, the top-level football league in England back in the day. He was going to appear only for the reserve team (substitutions were not allowed yet at that time), but because Harper, Birmingham’s first striker, got injured, Kirby was given a chance to play a Football League match against Newcastle United, his only game in the top league. With 20,000 people at St. Andrew’s, Kirby played as a right-winger and offered an excellent display, even though City lost the match by 2-4. 

When he was put on the transfer list, a journalist from Athletic News wrote an article where he expressed his disappointment with the transfer and stated his belief that Kirby could have ended up as a leading figure at Birmingham City. The following year, Kirby signed for Blackpool, a team that participated in the Second Division, and appeared in some matches against renowned sides, such as Leeds United or Wolverhampton Wanderers. Unfortunately, he did not get many opportunities on the pitch, and during winter, he was transferred to Worcester City (playing in the same league), where he would play more often, reaching his best form in a game against Aston Villa.

Over the next few seasons, Kirby signed for two different lower-division teams from the region of Birmingham: Kidderminster Harriers and Willenhall Pickwick. In 1913-14, Kirby returned to Fulham but only to play on the reserve team. However, the start of WWI saw him return to the RAMC team, where he would remain for the duration of the conflict. After WWI, Kirby went off track; not much was known from him until his signing for Europa as a manager in 1922. However, Ralph Kirby was not the first choice to become Europa’s trainer. According to the press, at the end of July 1922, Europa almost signed George Holley for the job. However, Holley, who was an ex-player for Sunderland and capped for the England national team, did not end up leading the team from Gràcia for unclear reasons.

On the 4th of August 1922, the local press announced Kirby’s arrival as the club’s new manager starting from the 16th of the same month. However, the question is: how was it that Europa scouted him? Well, we can find the answer a year before, when another English team, Middlesex Wanderers, came to Gràcia to play two friendly matches against Europa. President Matas’ board kept in touch with the Wanderers’ secretary, who recommended signing Kirby as coach. The Englishman signed for the escapulats for a year, earning 225 pesetas a week.

Once in Barcelona, the coach explained in an interview with a local newspaper that he had been in India training various military teams during World War I and outlined the main ideas of his project at CE Europa: four days of training a week and the importance of good physical preparation. As a curiosity, we would like to point out that the English coach changed his name during his stay in Spain. His real name was Conyers Kirby, and because this is a weird and challenging name to pronounce for Catalans correctly, he decided to call himself Ralph, which seemed much easier to pronounce because that was the name of the street where he lived in his native Birmingham.

The manager, however, was a very reserved and quiet man and did not learn any Spanish or Catalan during his stay. Nevertheless, Kirby added the extra quality that the europeistes had lacked and guided Europa to the victory of the Catalan Championship of the 1922-23 season and the final of the Copa del Rey, where the team finished as runner-up. Kirby had raised the competitive level of the graciencs and increased their overall potential.


He trained Europa in 34 official matches, with 21 wins, five draws, and eight defeats. On the other hand, there were countless friendly matches he coached, for example, those played against Birmingham City, UTE Budapest, and NAC Breda, to name a few of the most important international rivals. Kirby’s departure from Europa was surrounded by controversy, as the Catalan Championship was already underway when he was sacked at the end of November 1924. According to President Matas, “the coach was not showing the same enthusiasm and interest as he had at the beginning of his stay at Europa.” The controversy continued when, within days of being fired, he was signed by FC Barcelona on a wage of 1300 pesetas per week… He stayed at Barça that season, 1924-25, where he won two titles (Catalan Championship and Copa del Rey). However, despite the success, the lack of communication with the players caused him to be fired at the end of that campaign. For the 1925-26 season, Kirby signed as manager for Athletic Club from Bilbao, where he won the Regional Championship again, but in the Copa del Rey, the Basque team had a terrible run, and he was fired.

This is where Ralph Kirby’s adventure as a coach ended. Once back in England, he retreated from the world of football. However, to close the circle of our protagonist’s story, during his stay at our club, it should be mentioned that he also acted as a referee and as an assistant referee in several matches. An example of this was a friendly match between Newcastle and Everton, which he led at Les Corts (FC Barcelona’s stadium) in May 1924. The Englishman Ralph Kirby was the first person to perform the specific function of manager for Europa’s first team. He was a ‘very English’ Englishman who brought new training techniques and an innovative style of play to the club, but for whom his slightly bitter character prevented him, as a coach, from having a more fruitful and longer career, both for our team and for other Catalan teams. At Europa, however, we will be eternally grateful for his invaluable contribution and improvement in the preparation of football in training sessions and tactics in matches. Therefore, Mr. Kirby should be forever considered a legend of ‘europeism’.