[caption id="attachment_1069" align="alignright" width="240" caption="James Thomas Ward, who joined Rovers from Olympic in 1886. Although he only stayed for one season at Rovers, this FA Cup winning full back with Olympic was the only player to ever represent England while on their books. Fittingly enough this native of Blackburn played against Wales in a game staged at the Leamington Street ground. "][/caption]
After the wondrous heights of the three-in-a-row, Rovers had to come back down to earth sometime. When they did so, it was with a bump. In truth it had to end somehow and the warning signs had been there in the 1885/86 season. Although they had won the FA Cup once again and reached the Lancashire Cup final, it hadn’t been a season of total success. The amateur side Corinthians had humiliated them in friendlies and they had also had many other defeats. They only actually reached the Lancashire Cup final as the team that beat them had been disqualified and then they lost again in the final. The 1885/86 season had been the first full season as a professional club and in that season they paid a total of £615 on wages.
It was the 1886/87 season that would teach Rovers some humility, not only on the national scene but locally as well. A major blow for Rovers was the retirement of their goalscoring hero Jimmy Brown, who decided to concentrate on his career. Brown would return to Rovers for the first league season but by then he wasn’t of the same high standard. It was to be a goodbye to Victorian Shearer. Fortunately Rovers could still plunder players from their ailing local rivals, especially Blackburn Olympic. Olympic were by now cash-strapped and no longer a serious threat to Rovers. Indeed their position as the number two club in Blackburn had been usurped by Blackburn Park Road and in particular Witton. From Olympic Rovers cherry-picked Joe Beverley (who had played for Rovers in the 1884 final before going back to Olympic) and left winger William Townley, who would in time perform wonders for Rovers. The third recruit from Blackburn Olympic was the full back Jimmy Ward, who held the distinction of being the only Blackburn Olympic to ever be capped by England while playing for the club.
Despite Rovers being one of the first sides to embrace professionalism, they did not seem to embrace quite so readily as some of their neighbours. Preston North End and Bolton Wanderers in particular were aggressively pursuing new players. Despite their new additions, 1886/87 season was poor all round. More so when compared to the previous seasons. Preston in particular seemed to enjoy rubbing it in. They thrashed Rovers in a friendly (6-1) and then humiliated them in the first round of the Lancashire Cup. They beat the reigning FA Cup holders 7-1, the second year in which they beat them in the Lancashire Cup and this time they were not to be thrown out on a technicality. In the minor East Lancs Charity Cup, Rovers lost the final 1-0 to Accrington. Just to make a bad year worse, their defence of the FA Cup was pitiful. They reached the second round but that was only because their expected opponents in the first round, Halliwell, left the competition. They then faced Scottish side Renton. The away match resulted in a 2-2 draw yet that was the best it was going to get as the Scots won 2-0 at Leamington Street, the first defeat for Rovers for four seasons. Including the replays, Rovers had been undefeated in 23 FA Cup games. The reign of dominance was over.
At the end of the season Ward and McIntyre, with four FA cup winners’ medals between them for the two Lancashire clubs, both retired. Another link with the cup sides left when Joe Lofthouse went to join Accrington. Lofthouse would be back in at Rovers in a couple of years though, as well being back in cup finals.
So, 1886/87 brought Rovers down to earth with a bump. Yet the next season would be much better. Not much better on the pitch admittedly but there was talk of a league and the name of Blackburn Rovers was often bandied around with it.
In 1887/88 there were again no trophies, although there was no humiliation when they again met Preston North End in the Lancashire Cup. The 4-3 loss was mild compared to the tonking they had received the year before. Their results in friendlies were very mixed. They lost 6-1 to Corinthians for example but then beat them 2-1 the next time they met. The FA Cup run was going well, with victories over local rivals Blackburn Olympic (5-1), Accrington (3-1) and Darwen (3-0) before a shock defeat to Derby Junction (2-1). Although Derby Junction were said to probably be the best team from Derby then it was still a shock and with County being invited to join the new Football League they soon folded. This was despite the addition to the team of yet another Olympic player, centre forward Jack Southworth, as well as his less talented right back of a brother James Southworth (try not to get confused!) also poached from Olympic. Yet another Olympic player was brought over, future England international Edgar Chadwick, although he left after one season sensing better opportunities at Everton. It is unsurprising that Blackburn Olympic would soon cease as a club as they were haemorrhaging all their quality players.
[caption id="attachment_1070" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Joe Lofthouse. Four time FA Cup and England international forward with both Rovers and Accrington. After leaving Rovers following five years at the club, Lofthouse return in 1889. "][/caption]
It was the Football League that brought all the good news to Rovers. A friendly against Witton had been advertised as a match to settle who the champions of the town were. How the mighty had fallen. Especially when they lost the flipping thing 4-3 at home!
Thankfully a saviour was around the corner and he came decked in claret and blue. Aston Villa chairman William Mcgregor dreamed of a new Football League for regular games as the FA Cup was only short and unpredictable, the glamorous friendlies no longer attracted the fans as they used to. The twelve founder clubs consisted of six clubs from Lancashire and six clubs from the Midlands. As there was only one club from each town or city chosen it was obvious who was to be the choice of Blackburn. Rovers were probably the first name on the list along with Mcgregor’s own club, Aston Villa. This meant that all the other Blackburn clubs were doomed. Within a few years Olympic, Witton, Cob Wall, Church and Blackburn Park Road had all either collapsed or taken on the status similar to that of a pub team. The twelve founder members were Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. All would go on to win either the Football League or the FA Cup in the future (most would win both a number of times). All except poor Accrington, the only club among those no longer in existence and they didn’t last too long either.
There would no longer be any competition from other teams in the town. They would have to search further afield for rivalry. The consistent appropriation of funds from league games would soon be put to good use as Rovers would once again start on some great FA Cup runs. While Darwen would make it into the first division of the Football League they didn’t stick around long and Blackburn had their eyes on other local rivalries. They would find it in the nearby town teams of Preston North End, Bolton Wanderers and…Burnley.
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