Victorian Football

West Bromwich Albion vs Preston North End, 1888

The West-End streets of London wore quite a holiday look on Saturday morning. There was the crowd of sprucely-dressed 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.

In the great world of athletics the final fight for the silver trophy of the football association is yearly increasing in interest. However hard a struggle the two crews make, it can only be seen in bits by the multitude. The football match is contested in a small area, and can be watched from beginning to end. So while the boat race is a pretext for a picnic, the football match offers a most inspiriting form of excitement. On Saturday afternoon Kennington Oval presented a remarkable sight long before the two teams were due on the field of battle.

As early as one o’clock there was a steady stream of cabs running towards the famous cricket ground, and at three o’clock there was not a seat to be had. Some estimated the crowd at 20,000. Whatever the exact numbers 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.

After months of hard fighting the final battle for the football championship was left to be fought by eleven doughty Prestonians and eleven equally doughty footballers from Birmingham. The 20,000 people on the ground were a mere drop in the ocean compare with the countless thousands who were waiting for the result in Preston and Birmingham and in dozens of murky towns in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands, to say nothing of Scotland. To judge by the movements of the telegraph boys, who were running in and out over five minutes during the progress of the game, the millions out of London must have been able to follow every point of the game as closely as we did ourselves who were sitting at the press table.

It was really most melancholy to reflect that, in the face of so much earnestness and such savage enthusiasm, both sides could not win, for when after a gallant fight the Prestonians were beaten, the looks on the faces of their supporters were suicidal. If they drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl, let us forgive them. Preston at six o’clock on Saturday evening must have been a town of mourning. The love of battle is great in the manufacturing towns in the North. Long days of arduous labour in the mill or the foundry leave little time for pleasure, and the manufacturing town presents few amusements for its inhabitants. So it is not difficult to understand the enormous popularity of football in the North and the Midlands.

When the clock struck three on Saturday afternoon the Oval was packed by an excited but extremely good-tempered multitude. The fog had disappeared before the benign influence of a bright sun, there was no wind, and it was actually warm. There was half an hour to wait so, after the manner of a big meeting, the crowd burst into song, and the strains of Two Lovely Black Eyes, Rule Britannia, and other ditties filled the air. At last the eleven Prestonians appeared in blue knickerbockers and white guernseys, quickly followed by all the Bromwich Albions in white ducks and blue and white guernseys, all, except the goal keepers, with bare legs protected by whalebone pads in case of a chance hack.

The silver cup for which they were about to contend was placed on a table in a conspicuous portion of the field, as if any such incentive was needed when the eyes of Great Britain were upon them. Major Marindin was the referee, Mr. Betts and Mr. Clegg the umpires, each armed with a little flag and a whistle.

In a minute the men were at work for the next hour and a half, with a brief respite of five minutes a most exciting struggle took place among a hurricane of criticism, much of it difficult for the layman to follow. Bill, Jack, Bob, Nick and Dick were constantly appealed to by their friends with a familiarity which was anything but contemptuous to do this or the other. And the champions were mightily encouraged by the support of their friends and admirers, who had come up in special trains to give them a hand. Every change, every fine bit of dribbling, every pass, every run, every shot at goal, was the signal for a deafening roar.

The men seemed to be as ready with their heads as their feet, and never scrupled to receive the leather projectile on their cranium if they saw an advantage to be gained. At last the “Brummies” got a goal. This only made the bold Prestonians play up the more fiercely, and presently their endeavours were rewarded by a goal. Then came the tug of war. But the luck was with the “Brums”, who got another, and then their opponents seemed to lose heart, and never had another chance. It was a splendid battle, worth travelling a long way to see.

This is an edited extract from Goal-Post, the Victorian football anthology.

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