Great Reputations: Blackburn Olympic 1883 – working class heroes

THE FA Cup was dominated by the south of England in its nascent years ; teams from the military, public schools and universities were all successful in the competition’s first decade. Football was the game of the gentleman, an amateur pastime played by bankers, doctors, politicians and academics. Between 1872 and 1882, the Wanderers won the competition five times and the Old Etonians were victorious twice. Not until 1882 did a northern team reach the final, Blackburn Rovers, who were beaten 2-1 by the Eton old boys.

Something was stirring in the north of England, however. The sport was gaining in popularity in industrial communities as a distraction to the hard lives many endured. In the area around Darwen, Blackburn and Bolton, enthusiasm was growing and clubs were being formed. As part of the evolution of football, mill owners and industrialists began to act in a somewhat philanthropic way to support teams of workers who saw the game as a healthy antidote to arduous and occasionally precarious working conditions. From these early developments, the concept of the “people’s game” was born and to this day, football’s classic imagery still hangs onto the game being played against an industrial backdrop that has long since passed into history. The mills, foundaries and shipyards that once encapsulated football’s traditional backyard no longer exist. 

For the working man to become proficient at football was very difficult, largely due to the economics of Victorian Britain. They were simply too busy and too poor to devote time to getting better. The Old Etonians and their peers were still locked into the amateur code and although they had time on their hands, they considered intense training to be unnecessary and even unsporting. But clubs were increasingly looking at the prospect of professionalism, which would become the death knell of the old guard.

There were signs that public school teams were under threat in 1879 when Darwen took the Old Etonians to three games in the FA Cup, a 5-5 draw followed by a 2-2 draw before Darwen ran out of steam and money and their weakened side was thrashed 6-2 in a second replay. 

Blackburn Olympic were formed in 1878 and they barely lasted a decade, but in that time they caused a seismic shock in the developing football world by ending the reign of the gentleman footballer. Their team comprised mill workers, spinners, foundry workers and pub landlords. They had local competition in the form of Blackburn Rovers, a team that drew on the local grammar school. Olympic had financial support from one Sydney Yates esq., who owned a local foundary. They also had a dedicated trainer in William Barham and they were able to attract the well known half-back Jack Hunter to their club.

The public school teams were fixated by what was known as “rushing and scrimmages” which involved aggressive running as a group through the centre of the field and rough-house scrambles in the goal mouth. Teams from Lancashire with ambition were adept at passing and using the flanks to good effect and firing-in crosses for the forwards. Blackburn Olympic were also working to a fitness regime that made them more mobile than their opponents. 

The 1882-83 English Cup reflected the growing interest in football across the nation and for the first time, there were more entries from the north than the south. As the competition reached its latter stages, half of the teams were from London and Blackburn Olympic were the sole northern side. Notts County and Aston Villa were the Midlands’ representatives, while Druids flew the flag for Wales. Blackburn Olympic had beaten Accrington, Lower Darwen, Darwen Ramblers, Church before disposing of the Druids in the last eight. Their semi-final opponents were Old Carthusians, the old boy team of Charterhouse School and rivals of the Old Etonians.

The newspapers of the age were quick to highlight the differences between Blackburn Olympic and their opponents, calling it a “renewal of the old antagonism between patricians and plebeians”. As far as they were concerned, the Old Etonians were “swells” and every Olympic player had “inherited the primeval curse and has to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.” All every patronising and slightly insulting. But papers like the Athletic News and Sportsman believed football was a levelling game and that the contest would be a close-run thing.

The Olympic stepped-up their preparations for the game, which was to be played at Whalley Range in Manchester. They went to Blackpool and pounded the sands while also following a strict diet that included haddock, porridge, oysters, raw eggs and legs of mutton. The Old Carthusians were run off their feet by the fit northerners and the final score was an emphatic 4-0, the Blackburn goals coming from Alfred Matthews, John Yates and James Costley (2). The final, on March 31, would be against the Old Etonians.

Olympic were confident, however, having beaten the Carthusians so comfortably. But the contrast between the two finalists could not have been more extreme. The Olympic team included some players who went on to play for England such as James Ward and John Yates, both weavers, and Jack Hunter. Mostly, they were men doing jobs that were typical of their class; Thomas Gibson worked in Syd Yates’ foundary, James Costley, a native of Liverpool, was a spinner and captain Albert Warburton was a master plumber. Goalkeeper Thomas Hacking was a dental assistant and forward Alfred Matthews a picture framer. Thomas Dewhurst and Bill Astley, like Ward and Yates, were also weavers. George Wilson, who played centre forward, was a clerk.

The Old Etonians could hardly be described as “workers”. Almost every member of the team had been to Cambridge University and their various roles included barrister, cricketer, academic, politician, justice of the peace, merchant and soldier. Their team included Alfred Lord Kinnaird, Arthur Dunn and Herbert Bainbridge, all of whom made their mark in football.  And then there was the slightly flamboyant Baronet Percy de Paravicini.

It was very clear that the Old Etonians had far more comfortable lifestyles than their opponents. On average, an OE player weighed 28 pounds heavier than his Blackburn counterpart. “This could scarcely be called the result of training, for the Old Etonians are gentlemen who have much more time at their command than the Blackburn men could boast of,” said one newspaper reporter. The press man was missing the point, Blackburn Olympic were not only in better shape, they were more determined.

The game itself was exciting and the Etonians went a goal in front through Harry Goodhart in the first half, who shot just under the tape (no crossbars here…). The cup holders held onto their lead until the second half when Matthews equalised after dribbling his way through the back line. The Etonians lost Arthur Dunn to injury and they were never quite the same time, but despite being reduced to 10 men, they took the game to extra time. 

This was where Blackburn’s fitness came to the fore because the Etonians had started to tire. The winning goal came from James Costley towards the end of the additional 30 minutes, prompting scenes of joy from the small band of Olympic fans who had paid an admission fee of a shilling to be at the final at Kennington Oval.

The result was described as a “red letter day in the history of northern Association Football” by the Athletic News. Blackburn Olympic had ended the stranglehold the Old Etonians and other upper class teams had on the FA Cup. They also helped pave the way for the fully-fledged professional game and in just a few years, the Football League would be formed. “The Olympians dispelled that magic charm which had seemed to favour a southern retention of the Cup.”

Thousands of people welcomed the team back to Blackburn, led by a brass band playing “see the conquering hero comes” and flag-wavers on horse-drawn wagons. Blackburn Rovers had also won a local cup on the same night and the media heralded the achievement: “No other town in England can boast of two clubs that can fairly claim to be such brilliant exponents of the Association game as the Blackburn Olympic and the Blackburn Rovers.”

Sadly, although Blackburn Olympic had shown what the future might look like, they were not part of it. The club folded in 1890 after losing its ground. But for the next three years after 1883, another Blackburn team, Rovers, won three consecutive FA Cups. The Lancashire town really was at the centre of the football universe in the late 19th century.

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