History of English Football According to Jonty Morgan

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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Ronnie Dix: Boy Wonder.

In the austere years following the Great War many found it difficult to make ends meet. Even those who did make ends meet could find themselves in trouble. This is the fate that befell cartographer Hector Bartholomew who made Lands End and Southend meet and was promptly dismissed from his job. Bristol Rovers were no exception and therefore found it necessary in the 1920s to pilot several money-saving and making schemes. These included:

  1. Reducing the size of the pitch to allow greyhound meetings to take place.
  2. Enlarging the size of the pitch to allow St.Bernard meetings to take place.
  3. Digging up the pitch to allow funeral directors meetings to take place.
  4. Stealing the pitch to allow a criminal investigation to take place.
  5. Flooding the pitch to allow fishermen to take plaice.

Rovers also installed a basement beneath the pitch so they could profit from the lucrative venture of hiring it out for grazing sheep during matches. Thus Rovers became the first club in the Football League to install undersoil bleating.

In 1923 the Eastville club hit upon the novel idea of fielding ten men and a boy. The child selected for this initiative being 10-year-old Ronnie Dix. The benefits of playing him were considered thus:

  1. At most he would be paid maximum pocket-money which was considerably lower than the maximum wage.
  2. His kit would be cheaper to buy as traditionally the junior version is £10 less than the adult version. In 1923 the adult kit cost £3; so the Rovers were quids in.
  3. Whenever Rovers played away they could send a consent form to Mrs Dix for her to sign and pay a contribution towards the cost of the trip.
  4. There would be little chance of Dix ever being sent-off, as like most boys he would do anything to avoid a bath, let alone an early one.
  5. He would qualify for Free Pre-Match Meals.
  6. Even if he failed to score for years nobody at Eastville would be able to hurl any verbal criticism his way for fear of being accused of child abuse.

The disadvantages of playing the boy Dix were considered to be:

  1. The Rovers management wouldn’t be able to drop him (see 6 above).
  2. It was inevitable that one day he would get too big for his boots.
  3. Rovers would get into trouble with the F.A. for under-the-counter payments; simply because Dix couldn’t reach over-the-counter to collect his weekly money.
  4. Dix might cover the club badge with a Blue Peter one.
  5. The club would have to go to the expense of buying a large quantity of ‘Lucky Bags’ because each time the ref gave the opposition a free-kick, Dix would want something too.
  6. Fans would have to be banned from taking rattles into the ground otherwise Dix could become easily distracted.
  7. Dix would only be useful in a defensive wall if the free-kick was from 57 yards plus.

Despite some reservations in the boardroom – although once the diners had finished their meals and left the directors were able to conduct their business – it was decided to press ahead with the experiment.

The plan was a resounding success with the exception that in his first five seasons Dix failed to find the net once; the fact modems hadn’t been invented didn’t help. Contrary to the belief Dix would never get sent-off that was precisely what happened in a match against Watford in 1924; when he got into a fight with the Hornets’ centre-half Charlie McGivern over whose father had the best coal-scuttle. It was such an unedifying spectacle that both players were hauled before the F.A. Disciplinary Committee and charged with bringing the game into disrepute. Dix, who turned up with snakes & ladders under his arm, was further charged with bringing the game into the F.A. Disciplinary Committee. Both players were severely punished. McGivern was fined two weeks wages and banned for five matches; while Dix was told that Santa didn’t exist.

Eventually, in March, 1928 when Dix was 15 years and 5 months old and the Eastville faithful were counting down the remaining 7 months until they could vent their pent-up frustration, he finally scored with a header against Norwich City. This provided him with the record – which still stands today – for being the youngest goalscorer in Football League history. Upon hearing that he’d scored, Mrs Dix alerted the police as he was still underage.

Just three days later Dix scored with two more headers in a midweek fixture at Gillingham, and then rounded off a marvelous seven-day period with a hat-trick of headers at home to Plymouth. Dix revealed after that game that the reason for his sudden scoring prowess was that he’d just joined the Scouts and it was ‘nod-a-lob week’.

Thereafter Dix made quite a habit of scoring and was eventually transferred to top-flight Blackburn Rovers for £3,000. He went on to play for a host of top clubs as well as for England.

The illustration is a cartoon from August 1925 by F.G. Lewin which depicts the Rovers strike-force for the imminent 1925-26 season with Dix on the left.

Taken from The History of English Football According to Jonty Morgan available in Kindle format from http://www.amazon.co.uk and http://www.amazon.com

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The Howarth Affair

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.

The Black ‘Un.

Blitzed Bristolians obtaining a freeview of the Black’Un.

The most popular period for Bristol Sports newspapers was undoubtedly the 1920s through to the 1960s. This was the era of the coloured newspapers such as the Pink ‘Un, the Green’Un and the Red ‘Un….although the latter didn’t last for long owing to the fact its readership thought it contained a lot of bull. This was no reflection upon the standard of journalist the Red’Un employed, it was more to do with the fact that because their words were printed upon red paper it didn’t take long for any purchaser to emerge from the newsagents with a copy before they found they were being pursued by a two ton horned beast snorting hot air through flamed nostrils.

The most popular of all the coloured sports papers in Bristol was the Black’Un. This was a periodical printed in black ink upon black paper. It first seen the light of day in December 1929 on Merseyside (there is a possibility it first seen the dark of night well before this, but nobody could tell). But it wasn’t at all popular as Liverpool and Everton fans couldn’t see results, read reports of matches or see where their respective teams were in the table. So the paper died a death up there. However, the paper was immediately tried in Bristol where it became an instant success, as Bristol City and Bristol Rovers fans usually didn’t want to read scores, match reports or see where their respective teams were in the table.

The Black’Un swiftly gained a reputation for unbiased reporting, and also appealed to illiterates, a group of people previously ignored by the newspaper industry.  It was the favourite read of very depressed people (another term for Bristol sports enthusiasts) and a successful newsstand operated for many years near the Clifton Suspension Bridge, although it was forced to move to below the bridge in the 1930s due to falling custom. Proof, if any were needed, of the Black’Un’s popularity arrived in 1937, when a record seventy-thousand applications were received for the recently vacated position of proof-reader.

In 1938 the Black’Un won the World Sports Press Award For Innovation for its unique photographic coverage of night-time matches in Bristol before floodlights were invented. Even when a mistake occurred, such as in February 1939 when a speck of white appeared on the Black’Un’s front page, they won another prestigious industry award for their picture of Halley’s Comet on its way to Earth, 47 years before it was due.

It seemed like the Black’Un would be around forever – especially as Bristol’s two football clubs did nothing to make their followers desirous of studying League Tables – but then an unforeseen blow occurred that almost brought about the paper’s end. Bristolians found the popular sports paper made excellent black-out material during the blitz in the Second World War. Thus local sports fans no longer needed to purchase the Black’Un as framed copies were available each week in the homes of various neighbours. Indeed, Miss Dolores Vale of Redfield, inadvertently became the first Page Three Girl in January, 1941, when her mother failed to completely cover the window to her bedroom with that week’s Black’Un. It was reported that at least fifteen men fell for her, due mostly to the slippery windowsill.

After the war, another setback virtually did signal the end. In 1947 avid Black’Un reader Peter Druid was run over and killed in his Mangotsfield garden by the London to Cardiff express after the driver mistook the Black’Un he was reading for the entrance to the Severn Tunnel. As a response to this tragedy, the Black’Un’s publishers abandoned the broadsheet size and opted for tabloid, but readers found foxes, rabbits and badgers were attracted to them. So an even smaller paper was produced, but complaints of Black’Un readers being struck by golf balls increased massively; especially if they had long pointed noses. It was a ridiculous situation and could not be allowed to continue. The Black’Un thus folded on March 8th, 1948. Previously it had only ever been folded by Steve McChan the origami expert, who had found it great material to make a batmobile with.

No.6 Will Appear Week Commencing June 27th.