[caption id="attachment_1080" align="alignright" width="240" caption="The long-serving Herbie Fecitt who joined Rovers in 1882 and stayed there until 1891, winning two FA Cup medals in the process. Fecitt also scored 13 goals in 21 league games from his inside left position before leaving for Northwich Victoria and later served Rovers as a member of the backroom staff into the next century"][/caption]
After thirteen years of playing in friendlies and cup competitions, Rovers finally found themselves with a definite set of fixtures for the season to come. Despite the guarantee of twenty two league games, the Rovers board were unwilling to give up their many friendlies as they were still unsure whether or not the new competition would prove attractive to their fans. As they also had another thrilling FA Cup run this year, it seemed to be the first case of playing too many fixtures for the Rovers. Although they continued to enter the Lancashire Cup they started to field weakened teams in the competition, which shows that with league football most of what we know from modern football was in existence by then, albeit in a possibly more primitive form. The only real innovations that were not in place could be taken to be netting in the goals and the penalty kick, both of which arrived for good in 1891, although both had been extensively experimented with before then.
The Football League had been the brainchild of Aston Villa’s William McGregor. McGregor was a Scot who moved south from his home town of Perth to open a linen draper’s shop close to where Villa Park would be built in the Aston area of Birmingham. It was then that his love of football led to him becoming involved with Aston Villa and saw the disorganised shambles football was at the time. Arranged friendlies were often called off because one of the clubs had received a more lucrative offer elsewhere; sometimes games had been called off on the actual day. McGregor believed that football should find itself some semblance of order and so invited the best and most successful professional teams to Anderton’s Hotel in Fleet Street on the 23rd March 1888, the day before the cup final. The clubs invited were Aston Villa (represented by McGregor himself), Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion. It was agreed to set up a league involving these five teams and seven others from the Midlands and the North. A month later another meeting, this time at the Royal Hotel in Manchester on 17th April, the Football League was born. The twelve clubs were to be Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston, Stoke, West Brom and Wolverhampton. The kick off was to be September 5th 1888.
During this time there was no such thing as an actual team manager, instead the closest thing Rovers had was its secretary Thomas Mitchell. Mitchell would be in that position for twelve years, from 1884 until he resigned in late 1896 before going on to become the first ever professional manager of Woolwich Arsenal the year later. Mitchell travelled extensively looking for talented new players although he had most success in Scotland and lured players like Dewar, Campbell and Forbes south of the border. Mitchell had been a fan of the club since its formation and followed them to every game he could. It could be said that Mitchell was the first Blackburn Rovers fanatic.
The team was reliant on the goals of Jack Southworth who was capped by England for the first of three times at the end of the season. In all, he scored 21 goals in the league and cup that season in just 26 games. Another reliable member of the time was his brother James who played as a right back and so didn’t actually net at all in his 23 appearances, in fact he never scored for Rovers in a major competitive match. Other mainstays in the side was Jimmy Forrest, goalkeeper Herbie Arthur, right back Joe Beverley (the Olympic England international), the Scottish right-half Jimmy Douglas (who had been at Rovers since 1880), inside left Herbie Fecitt and the inside left Nat Walton (who would in a few years change his main position…to goalkeeper!). All of those eight players mentioned had played for Rovers in at least one of the mid-eighties FA Cup winning sides. Since then, the other players to be regulars this season that had joined were centre half Billy Almond (acquired from the soon-to-be extinct Witton club), the speedy Scottish left back John Forbes who would appear in over a hundred league games for Rovers and the left winger Billy Townley who would soon make FA Cup history. A player on the way out was Fergie Suter, the man who started a riot after fighting with an old team mate in a game against Darwen. Darwen would soon also be in the Football League; however that was to be the curtain on the career of the Scottish full back that had joined Rovers all those years ago for ‘personal reasons’ all those years ago. Suter was to make just one league appearance; as a goalkeeper, thrown into the action when Arthur couldn’t play due to injury. Suter had been a stone mason by trade yet while at Darwen claimed English stone was too tricky for him to work with and apparently gave up the trade. Despite never seeming to change his mind he continued to earn well with Darwen and Blackburn Rovers where it was quite obvious he was a paid professional player, well before it was permitted by the FA.
The first league campaign for Rovers was actually one of the more successful ones in their history. It all began on 15th September 1888 with the visit of Accrington to their Leamington Street Ground. A crowd of over 5,000 assembled for a frankly amazing first league game. Unfortunately the first goal in Blackburn league match was scored by the opposition when John Kirkham netted for the Owd Reds. Jack Southworth soon got things on level terms with Rovers’ first ever league goal, apt that it should be a Blackburn lad to have had that honour. Despite this equaliser, Rovers did not go on to win the match and in fact needed another equaliser two minutes from time by Fecitt to rescues a point. That made the final score 5-5. It was a fantastic beginning to league football for Blackburn Rovers. Just one last thing to mention; Jack Southworth wasn’t the only member of his family to score, his brother John also managed a goal; unfortunately in the wrong net. So, on the same day that Jack Southworth scored the first ever Rovers goal, his brother John scored the first ever own goal!
Despite the new league competition, the FA Cup was still considered to be the most important competition and that didn’t fully change until well into the second half of the twentieth century. As impressive as winning a league would always be, it still could not match the glamour of the FA Cup. Certainly in the town of Blackburn for whom most of the largest crowds seen down the years have been for FA Cup games.
Rovers finished their first league season in a very respectable fourth place, just three points behind second but a colossal fourteen points from the first ‘Invincibles’; Preston North End. North End were simply awesome that year remaining unbeaten throughout the league season although Rovers had better luck against them than most. Of their twenty two league games they won eighteen and drew four, luckily for Rovers one of those had been at Leamington Street when the highest league attendance of the season (approx. 12,000) gathered to see Rovers hold the soon-to-be double winners 2-2.
The attendances at the league games were rather inconsistent. The home game after that was against Burnley, although only just over 2,000 turned up. It seemed that two things were to come apparent, firstly that crowds would turn up en masse for the big games and secondly that seemingly meaningless games would be played in front of one man and his dog (alright, not that bad but still…). Just for the record, and I don’t like appearing superior over our neighbours to the east…actually that’s rubbish I do, however Rovers completed their first league double over Burnley in that very first Football League season. The first league game between the two sides took place at Turf Moor on November 3rd 1888. It is only because I wish to record what happened and not from any personal bias that I have to report that absolutely kicked their arses when we won 7-1, with Jack Southworth netting a hat-trick. The crowd was only 3,000 and it seems that the rivalry between the two sides was only slowly developing. The return match at Ewood in February 1889 saw Rovers win 4-2 and Southworth netted another two.
Despite local rivalries, it was the FA Cup that still held the real interest for the locals and after two disappointing campaigns Rovers eventually went on a cup run that was worthy of the name. It was to be the closest league club to present them with their first obstacle, Accrington. After a 1-1 draw away, Rovers took the Owd Reds apart; 5-0 in the replay in front of 8,000. After a bye in the second round when Swifts, the Slough club, left the competition Rovers recorded one of their great FA Cup performances at home to Aston Villa, the team who finish league runners-up that season. Rovers obliterated Villa with eight goals, including a hat trick from stand-in forward Bob Haresnape (to leave for Burnley at the end of the season) and Jack Southworth going one better by netting four as the game finished 8-1 to Rovers and take them into the semi finals for the fifth time in eight seasons.
The semi final and its replay would both took place at the home of then non-league club Crewe Alexandra against Wolverhampton Wanderers, who finished two points ahead of Rovers in third place in that inaugural league season. After a 1-1 draw, the second game saw William Townley score for Rovers but it wasn’t enough as Wolves got three of their own to go on to meet and the lose to the first double winners of the game, Preston North End. The only two sell-outs Rovers had that season had been against the Preston ‘Invincibles’ in the league and the quarter final against Villa. Although crowds were increasing they were seemingly unpredictable. As they were also being hassled for more rent from their landlord at Leamington Street, Rovers began to look around a more suitable home. They were to have one last season at the ground where they ruled the FA Cup and it was to be a great one. The FA Cup was what they wanted...
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