Preston North End: The Invisibles

Preston North End Team Photo 1888-89

Back Row: Dewhurst, Drummond, A. Goodall, J. Goodall, Mills-Roberts, Trainer, Robertson, J. Graham, Whittle, Edwards.

Front Row: Gordon, Inglis, Howarth, Ross, Sudell (manager), Russell, Holmes, W. Graham, Thompson.

In 1883, Billy Sudell created professional footballers when he imported many Scottish players to the club he owned, Preston North End. Unfortunately, Sudell didn’t sign Tar Macadam because initially things didn’t run smoothly. Antagonism towards professionalism came from the Southern-based amateur clubs, who dominated the FA. In their dictionary amateurism was seen as clean and pure, while professionalism was considered dirty. This was because their dictionary had fallen into a muddy puddle which soaked the second half, from the letter ‘M’ onwards.

In the 4th Round of the 1884 FA Cup, Preston played the London amateur club Upton Park. The match finished 1-1 with North End having two perfectly legit goals disallowed simply because the ref was biased against professionals (he’d been overcharged for a solicitor’s services earlier in the week). Then, before a replay could be arranged, Preston were thrown out of the cup for being professionals and not readmitted for another four seasons.

The appeal of professionalism was growing, however. In an effort to stem the tide, the amateur section of the FA made a grievous error. They sent a letter to Queen Victoria’s new man friend Abdul Karim appealing for him to bring their stark message against payment of players to Her Maj. Their warning was simply this: ‘Fair Play Goes Out the Window’. Unfortunately, Abdul Karim suffered from mild dyslexia and read it as: ‘Fair Play He Goes Out with a Widow’. Once informed, Queen Victoria was outraged. She tore up her Cup Final tickets in a fit of rage. Upon hearing this the powerful amateur arm of the FA quickly did a runner, and thus professional football came in via the back door. Coincidentally, that was also how Abdul Karim gained access to Buckingham Palace.

In their FA Cup exile, Billy Sudell made Preston even more professional. They became the first club to use diagrams as part of pre-match planning and instilled a vigorous fitness regime. But their greatest innovation that transformed them into the most powerful club in the land was the adoption of camouflage in their kit designs. For most of the season the PNE outfield players wore green shirts, knickers and stockings in the pattern of blades of grass with added bare patches of mud. An all white kit was worn whenever it was snowing. These measures rendered the Preston players invisible on the pitch. As they began to sweep all before them, North End simply became known throughout football as The Invisbles.

Other teams tried to counteract this tactic by various means, one club even calling themselves Hyde to make it difficult to find their players too. But Preston dispatched them by the still record score of 26-0 to register their contempt.

It was inevitable that when the first Football League season commenced in 1888-89, that Preston would win it. Being invisible enabled North End players to stand less than ten yards away when defending free-kicks. Indeed, it was rumoured, judging by the amount of PNE players who finished the season with high-pitched voices, that they barely stood ten inches away. It also enabled them to break the offside rule. The only major disadvantage to wearing invisible kit was that it proved a right bugger trying to attract shirt sponsorship.

Such was the widespread fame of these foliage attired players as they took the First Division by storm that it became commonplace for a rhododendron bush in London’s Hyde Park to be asked for its autograph as it bore a marked resemblance to Jack Goodall, the league’s top marksman. On the pitch itself when Jimmy Ross scored against Burnley in April, he cracked such a broad smile that it became the only thing visible of him and so he was promptly sent off by the ref for impersonating the Cheshire Cat out of pantomime season.

Preston became the first Football League Champions. They negotiated all 22 league matches without defeat (from the observations of their fans they also seemed to negotiate them without dehands, dearms, delegs and deheads too).

Preston then went on to win the FA Cup that season without conceding a goal, thus becoming the first club to do ‘The Double’. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, remarked that it was a good thing that Preston hadn’t been so dominant seventeen years earlier otherwise the explorer David Livingstone would’ve been wearing their replica kit and Stanley would never have found him.

The Invisibles were only brought back to earth, quite literally, with the invention of the penalty kick in 1891. This gave opposing players free reign to dive in the penalty area without being touched and successfully claim that they’d been felled by one of The Invisibles.

The above is an extract from The Humorous History of English Football Vol.1 by Jonty Morgan available on kindle via Amazon.

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