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After their formation and first game at Church, Blackburn Rovers continued to look for local teams to play. A stipulation was required; they had to be able to stage the match, as Rovers certainly couldn’t. The first two years of the club was dominated by their search for an appropriate home ground and, in the absence of one, by their away fixtures. Fortunately for them there were plenty of local teams to play and most had their own grounds. Or at least they had their own pitch, which often passed for a ground in those days. Football was booming in Blackburn and the surrounding areas. The mills and factories provided a horde of customers wishing to be entertained on their Saturday afternoon. In the time before cinema, football became just about the only passion they would have. It was either that or blowing all their hard-earned money in the pub. As Blackburn was described in a national paper at that time as being “the beeriest town in Britain”, it seems obvious many took to their local watering hole. Many, however, did not.
Usually the local teams tended to also be filled by these artisans, workers played in the teams and workers watched the teams. After such a demanding week of hard work, it is a testament to their stamina that they still had the energy to kick a ball around a pitch. Teams such as Cob Wall, Darwen and Blackburn Olympic thrived thanks to the factory workers on their day off. Rovers were always just that little bit different. They tended to attract a higher class of player and, for the first year or so, a higher class of fan. They tended to appear from the merchant and business class of the town. This meant that from the very start Rovers had the backing of influential businessmen. This backing of theirs did not immediately seem such a disadvantage to other local teams but over time it became obvious that Blackburn Rovers were just too well-funded for what were often little more elaborate than works teams to be able to compete. When Blackburn Olympic lost their benefactor in the mid-1880s they ended up folding within a few years. With Rovers, there always seemed to be others willing to take the place of any figure that left, at least in the early years.
As they had no ground they were initially reliant on the subscriptions of their members. The first year saw a collection £2 8 shillings, which enabled them to at least buy footballs and a set of goalposts in anticipation of when they would have somewhere to permanently place it.
Their first match had been away to Church. Details of their games at that time are very sketchy indeed. They definitely played at Cob Wall in Blackburn and once again at Church. These were only reported on briefly in the press and they tended to be very physical encounters in the manner of how the game was played at the time. Football was often portrayed as a sanitised version of war by public schools, as were many other games. This translated into the game (and the idea of ‘the game’) being the kind where you were expected to get knocks and bruises yet at the end to shake hands like a gentleman. As Rovers were a team composed of gentlemen it is unsurprising that they adopted this type sporting philosophy and outlook. Cob Wall were based in the Brookhouse area of Blackburn (close to the mills that ran along the canal) and also near Larkhill, more specifically on the playing ground next to St Albans Church. That would still be the closest to the town centre that Blackburn Rovers have ever played a football match.
Until they found a home ground, Rovers would be nothing more than a social sporting group. Finally, after a year of searching they found their first home, which went by the wonderful moniker of Oozehead. It was a dump, in all fairness. Little more than a cow field, the middle of the pitch had to be covered with wooden planks to hide the large drainage pool which was probably a watering place for the livestock. Regardless of that it hosted the first ever Rovers home match, a 0-0 draw with Darwen. After this we know of the first definite Rovers victory, over Clitheroe, although it is uncertain whether it was played at home or away, nor is the actual score known never mind the names of the scorers. During this time Rovers were also hosting games at the Pleasington Cricket Ground. Again, details are vague regarding what games they played there although we do know of the game against Preston Rovers on December 8th 1877, mainly because it had to be halted due to a suspected heart attack which afflicted Henry Smith, one of the Preston team, who later died after being carried to the nearby Butler’s Arms pub.
Unsurprisingly both of these venues were hastily dumped as soon as Rovers found a proper ground at which to play. The history of Blackburn Rovers as a team of note began in earnest with their move to Alexandra Meadows, which remains today as the home of East Lancs Cricket Club, just off Duke’s Brow and closely linked to Corporation Park.
On January 2nd 1878 Rovers invited the renowned Partick Thistle side to journey south for a glamour tie at their new ground. Rovers recorded their first famous victory in their history by shocking the Scots 2-1 with a double from Dirk Birtwhistle. The game featured a couple of interesting debuts. For Rovers, A N Hornby made his first appearance. Although he only figured in the team for two years, Hornby was a long-time supporter of the team and one of the benefactors that helped finance the FA Cup runs and league campaigns of the future. From a family of mill-owners in the Brookhouse area of Blackburn, Hornby encouraged his workers to take up football and also to support the local teams. As well as being a major figure and driving force in the increase of the popularity of football in the town, ‘Monkey’ Hornby, as he was known, was a formidable sportsman and representing England at rugby and cricket, the latter of whom he was also to captain. Hornby also went on to represent Lancashire County Cricket Club in almost 300 test matches. On the opposition side there was a Scot who was to have a major influence on local football in the coming years, one Fergie Suter. It was his first game in the area but nowhere near his last. The 2-1 victory sent the name of Blackburn Rovers around the small footballing world in England at the time. Rovers, now with a decent ground of their own, had arrived.
Rovers continued to play games against mainly local opposition such as Cob Wall, Darwen and Clitheroe with varying degrees of success. The year of 1878 would herald the foundation of two groups who would figure heavily in Rovers’ dealings in the next decade. First of all, a new club in the town was formed. Blackburn Olympic was born in August 1877 when two small Blackburn clubs (James Street and Black Star) merged. Although they originally seemed just another local team to be faced, they were soon to be the most successful team in the area, briefly ruling the national game and casting Rovers into shadow. The second event was the creation of the Lancashire Football Association at Bromley Cross near Bolton in September 1878. Twenty three clubs (including Rovers, Olympic and Darwen) were present at the birth of this organisation. The Lancashire FA provided a management structure to the local game. This would enable the Lancashire clubs to compete in local competitions and then in the FA Cup. It also heralded the beginning of the Lancashire Cup, the first competition Rovers would regularly take part in.
The most amazing of all the games Rovers played at this time was that against Accrington on 4th November 1878. Forty foot scaffolds were erected at both ends of the ground and a lamp placed at each end throwing out 6,000 candle power. The lights worked and the first Rovers game to be played under floodlight passed off happily with a 3-0 win for the home side. Despite a large paying crowd of 6,000, many others watched for free on the adjoining hillsides.
Although that project showed the ambition of Rovers, they were about to face a setback at the hands of new boys Blackburn Olympic. Their first meeting, at Alexandra meadows on February 15th resulted in a humiliating 3-1 defeat and led to press criticism. Although Rovers were slightly under-strength the result was still a shock, with local press praising the Olympic side for their “cohesion” and declared them “one of the best, if not the best, club in town.”
While Rovers tried to aim for the stars it seemed there were too busy watching those to see their feet getting tripped up by more minor, local concerns. Darwen and Olympic were their main rivals now. Darwen were the first of the clubs to enter the FA Cup, reaching the second round in 1877/78. The following season they shocked the footballing world by not only reaching the quarter finals but also by taking the famed Old Etonian side, captain by the nationally renowned greatest footballer in the country, Lord Kinnaird, to two replays before eventually losing the second of those 6-2. Despite the eventual loss, Darwen had sent shockwaves throughout the competing teams. Unsurprisingly, Rovers decided they wanted a piece of that kind of action. They would steal a march on their upstart rivals of Olympic by representing the town of Blackburn in the FA Cup in the 1879/80 season. It would also be their first season competing in the Lancashire Cup.
That is where Rovers as a football club really begins. That is when they started to challenge for trophies and enter the world of national football. Their energies now would not be devoted to the friendlies they played but towards the cups. It is also where the very early years of Blackburn ends. Rovers the club was now a force of its own, growing in stature which each competitive season. It was no longer without a ground or with one that contained a drainage pool. The club had gone from being a nothing club to being ready to compete at the highest level in four short years. Blackburn Rovers as we know it was about to begin. They were also about to take on the best of the aristocracy and the best of the South. And win.
This page is part of the BRFCS History Project written by and (C) Copyright FourLaneBlue and can not be edited, or reproduced without his explicit consent
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