[caption id="attachment_1037" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Fergie Suter, first ever transfer swoop (even if no fee was involved) and possibly the first great Rovers player"][/caption]
After four years of testing themselves in dozens of friendly matches and slowly gaining a reputation as a local footballing force, Rovers decided to test their mettle in a competitive manner via the Lancashire Cup They expected their main competition to be from Darwen, a club that they had already managed to have built up a fierce element of competitive and frosty antagonism with. They had also decided to follow in the footsteps of their hated neighbours by entering the FA Cup. They had become the first Lancashire team to enter the competition in 1878 (along with Manchester, a team unrelated to any modern club), although in those times the FA Cup was played over a season, rather than in a calendar year as it is today for full members of the league and from now on I shall refer to the cup competitions by the year in which the final was played to save confusion. The campaign ended after they had beaten the Manchester side before losing out to Sheffield in the second round. The following year Darwen again entered the FA Cup while Rovers stood by and watched. Very shortly Rovers would be looking on with envy.
Darwen were to become the first northern team to make real progress in the FA Cup and although the two Blackburn clubs would build on their achievement and ultimately receive the glory, Darwen should not be forgotten for the significance of their run in the 1879 competition. After beating the rather peculiarly named Birch Manchester in the first round by an unknown final score (it is unsure whether or not Birch got a beating or not…ahem…) they found it more difficult against the Lancashire side Eagley, who took them to a replay before succumbing 4-1. A third round victory over Remnants set up a quarter final tie with the glamour boys of football, the Old Etonians (this is most certainly not the last we shall hear of them!). An amazing 5-5 draw in the first game made headlines and shocked the footballing circles of the time and stunned at the cheek of the upstart northerners challenging the cream of English gentlemen. Although the replay saw the Etonians restore their expected supremacy with a 6-2 win, the game had been shaken. Although they believed all would be well, Darwen would challenge the southern aristocrats once more before passing on the northern, working class baton to the neighbouring sides in Blackburn.
Unsurprisingly, the success of Darwen was hardly celebrated quite so much within Blackburn Rovers. Although no doubt pleased at the progression of the standard of football being played in Lancashire, they thought of themselves as the team to represent the region and did not wish to become accustomed to being cast into the shade by the achievements of Darwen. Hence, the 1879/80 season featured a Blackburn Rovers side in the FA Cup for the first time. Despite this, they still faced competition from local sides that were little inferior to them. Blackburn Park Road, Cob Wall, Blackburn Law and Blackburn Olympic all posed serious competition. Although Rovers were obviously a progressive club, they still had some way to go to leave their rivals behind.
[caption id="attachment_1038" align="alignright" width="320" caption="Blackburn Rovers in 1882. All but Greenwood and the umpire would play in the 1882 FA Cup Final. Back row (stood up) - D Greenwood, R Howarth, J Hargreaves, F Suter, G Avery, W Duckworth (umpire). Front row (sat down) – J Duckworth, H McIntyre, H Sharples, J Douglas, F Hargreaves (captain), T Stachan. Led down – J Brown."][/caption]
As proof they were moving along though, one of their founders was forced to retire. John Lewis had injured his leg in a skating accident and when he attempted a comeback found it would not stand the rigours. So, upon retirement, he helped Rovers behind the scenes as a benefactor and became a referee. Not just any old ref either; he was nicknamed ‘the Prince of Referees’ and refereed three FA Cup finals. So not all refs are useless then, after all one helped to found Rovers!
The FA Cup wasn’t to be their only attempt at winning a trophy. On the 16th August 1879 at the Coffee Tavern in Blackburn the draw was made for the first ever Lancashire Cup. In their inaugural match in this inaugural competition, Rovers were faced with the challenge of Enfield. After an away 1-1 draw they won the replay 5-1. Rovers were only to excel at home, beating Bolton Wanderers (4-0), Turton (2-1) and Accrington (3-1) all at home to reach the first Lancashire Cup final. The Turton side had complained that Rovers had included two players not from Blackburn (McIntyre and Campbell, both newly arrived from Scotland yet the result was allowed to stand).
In January 1880, The Blackburn Times reported that “The Turtonians, it is said, have entered a formal protest against the Victory claimed at Blackburn by the Rovers by their (the Rovers) playing two Scotsmen (Campbell and McIntyre) not resident in the town.”
Despite the complaint, the result was permitted to stand and Rovers to meet their friends from along the Bolton Road.
It was to be this first Lancashire final that was to start the antagonism between Rovers and their opponents, Darwen. Darwen claimed that ‘Monkey’ Hornby, the talented multi-discipline sportsman, was not a regular player in the Rovers team and so should not play. Rovers countered that Kirkham of Darwen was likewise ineligible. The debate wrangled on for months. On March 15th 1880 Fred Hargreaves made his England debut in a 3-2 win over Wales at Wrexham, the first England international in the history of Blackburn Rovers, alongside Thomas Marshall of Darwen. While they represented their country together, their clubs finally settled the dispute which meant Hornby was out of the Rovers line up but Kirkham in for Darwen. The game was played in front of over 10,000 in Darwen. Rovers were thrashed 3-0. The dislike between the two clubs would last for far longer than just that season however.
[caption id="attachment_1039" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Jimmy Forrest, soon to be a mainstay in the Rovers team."][/caption]
Rovers were to gain revenge in the FA Cup however. Their first campaign (1880, although they began the first round in November 1879) saw them beat Tyne Association 5-1 in their first-ever game in a major competition before coming face to face in the second round with…Darwen. Home advantage told for Rovers however as they won 3-1 at Alexandra Meadows thanks to two goals from Jimmy Brown and another from John Hargreaves, brother of Fred the England international. John would soon represent his country as well. That game was to be the highpoint of their first FA Cup campaign as the third round saw them crashing heavily, 6-0 away to Nottingham Forest. Despite such a setback, the first competitive season for Blackburn Rovers had been a modest success. Despite the wrangling with Turton and Darwen, they had reached a cup final and progressed in the FA Cup. Neither competition ended happily but still represented a huge step forward.
Such was the demand on which football at this time could demand that Rovers soon established a second team. This was just as well, as on 3rd January 1880 they found they had double booked! The first team travelled to play at Nottingham Forest while the second team were required to entertain the Sheffield Zulus. The Zulus not only had an interesting name, they also had a way of entering the field of play that turned heads…they appeared in full Zulu costume! As The Blackburn Times recorded in their match report;
“With a view to providing additional interest to lovers of football the committee of the Rovers Club introduced on Saturday afternoon the Sheffield Zulus team, and there was a fair attendance of spectators. The Zulus appeared in their ‘war’ dresses, which were exceptionally good. Upon putting in and appearance on the field, they were warmly applauded.”
As the Zulus won the game, they had quite a good day of things all told. Dressing up in silly clothes and beating Rovers’ Second XI. Shortly though, it was to be Rovers who would astonish football fans, not through outlandish clothing but through pulling off the first shock transfer…ever.
The next season was to be a sensation, mainly for off the field activities rather than for footballing reasons however! Darwen had managed to recruit an impressive Scot, Fergie Suter, who had first played against Rovers while representing Partick Thistle and who also played for Glasgow Rangers. After playing for Turton as a ‘guest’, Suter moved to Darwen and began playing for them as a normal, local, amateur player. Although for a working man, Fergie was notoriously difficult to find doing the work itself! To all intents and purposes Suter was the first professional footballer, or at least the first we can say with some certainty definitely was being paid to play. The real brouhaha began not at Darwen but at Blackburn- when Suter moved to join the Rovers! Although he declared it was for ‘personal reasons’, we can safely assume this to mean more money and as such Fergie Suter moving to Rovers was the first shock transfer in the history of the game. Darwen called meetings, remonstrated and declared the move unethical but it happened all the same.
In a friendly between the sides at Alexandra Meadows (more fully covered in the article on Darwen) all eyes were on Suter, the fans expected something to happen. The Scot didn’t disappoint. In the second half his on-pitch punch up with Marshal of Darwen resulted in a crowd invasion, opposing fans fighting and acts of vandalism. The game was abandoned. Later in the season the two teams met in the fourth round of the Lancashire Cup, Rovers having reached there by thrashing Bradhsaw (6-0), Clitheroe St Mary’s (3-0) and Turton (6-0) along the way. Or, rather, they didn’t meet. The two clubs continued to argue, bicker and procrastinate about the date for so long that they were both thrown out of the cup. Darwen refused to enter the competition next season as a protest at the unfairness at their expulsion. Little good it did them. It may have only been 1881 but already it didn’t pay to fight the authorities too much. The FA Cup competition did not end in glory either, after beating Sheffield Providence 6-2 in the first round (inspired by a Jimmy Brown hat trick) they fared less well against another Steel City side, The Wednesday and were knocked out 4-0 in the second round. More irritatingly, Darwen beat Briggs, Sheffield FC, The Wednesday (Rovers’ conquerors) and Romford in the quarter finals to set up a semi final meeting with Old Carthusians at Kennington Oval. Although they lost that match 4-1, a further dent had been placed in the armour of the supremacy of the southern teams. For further details see the article on Darwen in the ‘local rivals’ section.
Rovers decided that their ambitions were being stifled by their Alexandra Meadows ground. Firstly, it wasn’t actually their own ground as they shared with East Lancs Cricket Club and secondly they had to put up with a number of freeloaders who are able to watch their proceedings from nearby hillsides. They moved nearby to a ground on Leamington Street which was much more impressive as a football ground and was also able to accommodate more spectators. Rovers spent money improving the ground and this was to be their home for nine years, being the home base for their first great FA Cup runs and also their first two Football League campaigns. Leamington Street is now a much shorter thoroughfare and is known as Leamington Road. Most of where the ground was has since been converted to housing. A much different function than when it played host to England internationals.
So, having had to suffer Darwen progressing in the FA Cup and without a Lancashire Cup yet to their name, Blackburn Rovers began the 1882 season with a desire to right the wrongs they had suffered and become the number one team in the area. An FA Cup run would be nice too, although they would be unlikely to have dreamt just how far that run was to take them.
The 1881/82 season was to be a landmark period in the history of Blackburn Rovers. In short, it was the year when Rovers put their name firmly on the football map. Not only would they win their first Lancashire Cup to establish a certain amount of local dominance but, more importantly, they would challenge the best in the land with their first great FA Cup run. For a more detailed report on their 1882 cup run, look in the FA Cup section on the Major Competitions menu.
The Lancashire Cup campaign ended in a winning final played at…Turf Moor! Not that they played Burnley though, rather it was the closer neighbours of Accrington. Before the final they had strolled their way through the competitions, handing out humiliations in every round. Double figures were reached in the first two rounds against first Kirkham (14-0) and then Clitheroe (10-1). Further victories over Accrington Wanderers (7-0) and Church (6-0) set up a semi-final clash against Blackburn Olympic, which they promptly won 6-1. They weren’t to find the final quite so easy, although they still ran out 3-1 winners over Accrington, the previous winners of the competition. The ease with which Rovers reached the final suggested that they should be aiming higher than just being the best team in Lancashire and they proved themselves capable of adapting to higher levels by reaching the 1882 FA Cup Final.
Rovers were the first non-southern team to reach the final and got there by defeating Blackburn Park Road (9-1), Bolton Wanderers (6-2), Darwen (a no doubt immensely satisfying 5-1), and Wednesbury Old Athletic by 3-1 in the quarter finals. Sheffield Wednesday took Rovers to a replay and after a 0-0 draw at Huddersfield; Rovers beat Wednesday in the replay 5-1 at Manchester.
Their opponents in the final were to be the embodiment of the gentlemanly amateur sporting team; the Old Etonians, with the final at the Kennington Oval. Blackburn Rovers were instead one of the northern- based teams thought of as “shamateurs” and with good reason. We can be pretty sure that they did pay at least some of their players. That is not to say that the southern sides did not enjoy their own advantages, certainly the staging of the final in London at the Kennington Oval was a huge factor in their favour. It should probably be mentioned that Blackburn Rovers had been formed by ex-public schoolboys, most of whom had not even been educated in the town, let alone born there. They were beginning to represent all sections of society through the large followings they attracted and in attracting local working class players (also those who were not locals, such as Fergie Suter) being drafted into the side. It wasn’t quite the aristocrats vs. the artisans that final the next year would be (Blackburn Olympic came from far humbler origins than Rovers) but it was still a huge culture clash.
This year also marked the first outbreak of FA Cup Final fever, with thousands congregating at the train station to see the team on their way. Some fans travelled to the game. An early goal for the Old Etonians proved to be the winner, with many believing nerves had got the better of Rovers. It may have been tiredness rather than nerves as the northern side seemed to be visibly drained towards the end of the game. Bizarrely, Rovers wore blue and white hoops rather than the traditional halved shirts. The 9,500 present were the last to see a southern side win the cup that century. For more details on the cup run, see the FA Cup section. Despite falling at the final hurdle it had still been a fantastic season for the Rovers, the one when their name became famous throughout the land. The next season was not to be quite so fulfilling, mainly because their closest neighbours where to steal their thunder.
Rovers improved their team by luring Joe Beverley from Blackburn Olympic, a move which did not amuse those at Hole I’th Wall. Yet they would have the last laugh over Rovers that season. Two important members of the team were to play their last games for the blue and whites that season and both were England internationals. Doc Greenwood announced his decision to retire while Fred Hargreaves received such a bad injury in a friendly against Aston Villa that he never played again. Later that year this was compensated for by the debut of a man to become a Rovers legend, as well as becoming another England international. Jimmy Forrest made his debut for Rovers after moving from Witton in 1883 and would remain in the team until 1895, by which time he had picked up a total of 5 FA Cup Winners medals.
Before his appearance however, Rovers had been knocked out of the FA Cup in the second round. After an easy 11-1 win over Blackpool St John’s they met the old enemy in the second round, Darwen. They lost 1-0 at Barley Bank and to compound their misery they watched as their other local rivals, Blackburn Olympic, went on to lift the trophy be beating Old Etonians 2-1 at Kennington Oval (for more on Blackburn Olympic see ‘Local Rivals’). As the town celebrated this national triumph, Rovers had to celebrate by bringing the 1883 Lancashire Cup back to their Leamington Street ground. The most remarkable of the early games seems to be the 8-0 first round thrashing of Everton. The final saw the team gain a certain measure of revenge as they beat Darwen 3-2, at Darwen. Another trophy found its way to the cabinet but it was not as prestigious as the one that Blackburn Olympic had won. For that, they would have to wait. Not for very long though.
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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