The original ‘The Invincibles’, Preston North End were one of the most formidable and influential sides of the Victorian era. Formed as a cricket club in 1863, Preston also played rugby before turning to association football. The club played its first football match in 1878, and made a permanent switch to football in 1881.
The man behind the switch was club chairman Billy Sudell, the manager of the local Goodair cotton mills, who was described as ‘the life and spirit of the North End’. In March 1881, Preston were thrashed 16-0 by Blackburn Rovers. But improvement was swift. It came after Sudell made a conscious decision to turn Preston into a professional side. Although professionalism was still illegal, the illicit payment of players was widespread throughout the game.
Sudell began to recruit talented Scottish players, or ‘Scotch professors’, offering them lucrative jobs, plus match fees. With Glasgow having already been plundered by English clubs, Sudell went to Edinburgh, signing Heart of Midlothian captain Nick Ross, and Geordie Drummond from St Bernard’s. Other players were more local. John Goodall was signed from nearby Great Lever. Another signing, Fred Dewhurst, was a local schoolteacher.
In January 1884, Preston were kicked out of the FA Cup competition for paying professionals. However, the incident provoked a discussion that led to the legalisation of professionalism in the following year. That, in turn, led to the formation of the Football League, of which Preston were founder members. And, in the first league season of 1888-89, Preston won the league and cup double without losing a single match – thus earning the ‘Invincibles’ tag.
The club won the league again in 1889-90, although not invincibly. After that, however, the club’s fortunes declined. The great Nick Ross was forced to retire due to ill health in 1893, and he died in the following year. Team captain Fred Dewhurst died shortly afterwards. Then, in 1895, Billy Sudell was imprisoned for embezzling funds from the cotton mills to pay his players. The era of the Invincibles was over.
Above - Preston North End 1888 (Back: Billy Sudell, Bob Holmes, Nick Ross, David Russell, Bob Howarth, Johnny Graham, Robert Mills-Roberts; Front: Jack Gordon, Jimmy Ross, John Goodall, Fred Dewhurst, Geordie Drummond).
This is an edited extract from The Victorian Football Miscellany.