Bristol City found life after relegation from the top flight in 1911 far more difficult. Indeed, when they next hit the headlines it wasn’t for achievements on the pitch but for dubious dealings off of it. This being the shameful episode that became known throughout football as ‘The Howarth Affair’.
In April 1914, Tommy Howarth, a 23 year-old forward serving in the Army, played a trial match for City while he was on weekend leave. He so impressed the club’s management that he was offered a contract. Howarth thought long and hard before signing it because he was content with life as a soldier especially as a war was looming and he would at last be able to shoot at Germans. But City director Ronald Wheel-Patterson was not to be deterred, and it was his stirring efforts that finally secured Howarth’s signature for ‘The Babes’.
First he showed Howarth a photo of a German wielding a gun, which proved they had the capability to return fire. This was a startling revelation to Howarth as prior to this nobody in the British Army had been party to that kind of classified information before. Indeed, it was only officially admitted in September, 1917, three years into the conflict, due to the weight of mounting evidence.
Secondly, and this is what cleverly clinched it, Wheel-Patterson said that he would sew pictures of Germans into the goal-nets at all the grounds where Bristol City played, thus enabling Howarth to shoot (the ball) at Germans at will. These two factors more than persuaded Howarth to put pen to paper, and City purchased his discharge from the Army.
The Football Association had a very dim view of these proceedings….partly because electric lighting wasn’t installed until 1947. First they didn’t like the fact one of their affiliated clubs had revealed classified information which, had it become widely known, would’ve seriously hampered the Army’s recruitment drive. And secondly, they wanted to stamp out the practice of encouraging professional footballers to shoot the ball at Germans, as they feared that if it caught on, high-ranking members of the Royal Family would be too frightened to attend the Cup Final.
There was also the growing belief, surfacing even as early as 1914, that if England’s youth were encouraged to play football rather than engage in armed combat, future conflicts would be settled on the football field rather than the battlefield, and England would never beat the Germans ever again…especially if it came to penalties.
To set an example to others, and to reflect the nation’s outrage, the F.A. dealt severely with Bristol City. They were heavily fined, Tommy Howarth was suspended, and all the club’s directors and officials were banned from approaching anyone in uniform for the next twenty years. This was particularly bad news for City director Charles Crump, who had a financial arrangement ever Friday night with a young nurse in Almondsbury.