Victorian Football

Sketch of the Preston North End team published in the Lancashire Evening Post on the day of the cup final, 24 March 1888

Our new football fan history book, Savage Enthusiasm, takes its title from a match report of the 1888 FA Cup Final. This edited extract describes how fans watched that match between West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End.

"The West End streets of London wore quite a holiday look on Saturday morning,” reported the Pall Mall Gazette on the Monday after the 1888 FA Cup final. “There was the crowd of sprucely-dressed young gentlemen from the universities, attired in the tallest of collars, the glossiest of hats, and the shiniest of patent leathers, who were up for the Boat Race. There was the crowd of gentlemen, not quite so spruce, from the provinces, who were visiting the metropolis to shout for their men at the Oval.”

The sprucely-dressed gents in the glossiest of hats were supporters of the Oxford University and Cambridge University boat crews, and the not quite so spruce gents, in non-glossy caps, were supporters of the West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End football teams. It wasn’t uncommon for the University Boat Race and the FA Cup final to take place on the same day, but the contrast between rowing fans and football fans had rarely been more conspicuous. The first ten cup finals, from 1872 through to 1882, were won by gentlemen’s sides comprised almost exclusively of public school old boys. At that time there was little distinction between those attending the boat race and the cup final. But, after Blackburn Olympic won the cup in 1883, things began to change.

By 1888, the FA Cup – and football in general – was dominated by working-class clubs from the north and the midlands. Not unrelatedly, football was enjoying a surge of popular appeal. Cup final attendances had risen from around 2,000 in 1872, to 8,000 in 1883, and to around 20,000 in 1888. By contrast, although the 1888 Boat Race was watched by large crowds, it was reported that the attendance of spectators along the Thames had in recent years “gradually fallen off” and public interest had “appreciably lessened”. “In the great world of athletics the final fight for the silver trophy of the Football Association is yearly increasing in interest,” said the Pall Mall. “While the boat race is a pretext for a picnic, the football match offers a most inspiriting form of entertainment.”

Nineteen Victorian FA Cup finals were played at the Oval, on a cordoned-off section of the ground in front of the cricket pavilion. At three o’clock on 24 March 1888, 30 minutes ahead of kick-off time, the Oval’s gates were shut, with the ground full to capacity. “The spectacle of those solid banks of human beings, rising row above row, on the four sides of the square was a remarkable tribute to the extraordinary interest in the result,” said the Pall Mall, adding that the extraordinary interest extended way beyond the Oval, with the 20,000 people in the ground being a “mere drop in the ocean” compared to the “countless thousands” who were waiting for the result in Preston and Birmingham “and in dozens of murky towns in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands, to say nothing of Scotland”.

As kick-off approached, 20,000 voices joined in a communal sing-song, belting out music hall number Two Lovely Black Eyes (“Two lovely black eyes! / Oh! What a surprise! / Only for telling a man he was wrong / Two lovely black eyes!”), patriotic anthem Rule Britannia, and “other ditties”. Communal singing was becoming common ahead of big matches, and the singing of the hymn Abide With Me would remain a longstanding FA Cup final tradition. Then the players took to the field, in their long-sleeved jerseys, knee-length knickerbocker shorts and whalebone shinpads. The original FA Cup, the “little tin idol”, was placed on a table by the pitch. Then the referee appeared, and, with a peep on his whistle, the game was underway.

What followed was a fast, end-to-end game, with both teams hurling themselves into an exciting struggle, “in the face of much earnestness and savage enthusiasm”. “Every fine bit of dribbling, every pass, every run, every shot at goal, was the signal for a deafening roar,” explained the Pall Mall. West Brom scored first, after 20 minutes, “amidst tremendous cheering”. Both teams were “mightily encouraged by the support of their friends and admirers”. Shortly after half time, Preston equalised through Fred Dewhurst. Preston also hit the woodwork twice, and their fans yelled, “Hard lines!” But, ten minutes from time, West Brom captain Jem Bayliss headed into the goal to give his side a 2-1 win.

The West Brom fans were jubilant, but the Preston fans were devastated, with the latter realising something that subsequent generations of football supporters would also come to know – that defeat in a big match feels like the worst thing in the world. “When, after a gallant fight, the Prestonians were beaten, the looks on the faces of their supporters were suicidal,” said the Pall Mall, while suggesting they might have sought solace in a drink or two. “If they drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl, let us forgive them. Preston on Saturday evening must have been a town of mourning.”

In Preston, supporters had gathered in great numbers to await the telegraphed result. Before the invention of radio, supporters relied on updates sent by telegraph, or by carrier pigeon, and posted in newspaper office windows. By the time the result arrived, there were “not less than five or six thousand anxious waiters” in front of the newspaper offices. At West Bromwich, the high street was lined with thousands of similarly nervous supporters. “The first intelligence of Albion registering a goal caused the liveliest satisfaction,” said one report, “and when the final score arrived a scene of the wildest enthusiasm ensued, and for a time the street was almost impassable.”

It had been a great cup final, and the “savage enthusiasm” of the fans had been as notable as the efforts of the players. Certainly it provided further evidence that football had now attained what the Pall Mall called “a degree of popularity that no other English pastime ever enjoyed”. The game had obtained a hold on the public, and matches were attended by an “immense” number of people. “It is no uncommon thing to see from 15,000 to 20,000 spectators assembled at a single match, braving the inclemencies of the winter weather, and putting their health to extraordinary risks for the sake of the sport,” the paper reported. “Sometimes the game is watched through a cloud of mist and drizzle, sometimes with the snow blowing in your teeth; but no matter what the weather may be, so long as it is not a hard frost, when play is impossible, the people will turn out in their thousands to shout for their football champions.”

Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football by Paul Brown is published by Goal Post and is available now from and

How did we become football fans? Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football Fans is the brand new book from Goal Post's Paul Brown, tracing the remarkable evolution of the fan from the earliest origins of the game right through to the present day.
It's available from at the sale price of £10 (RRP £12.99), and from Amazon stores worldwide.

Leave a Comment