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Aristocrats and Artisans

The Rise of the Professional Footballer

Ian Maxwell (based on his article first published in Family History Monthly)

One of the most significant games in the history of English football took place in front of 8000 spectators at Kennington Oval, the home of Surrey County Cricket Club, on 1 April 1883.   Blackburn Olympic, a team made up largely of plumbers, sheet-metal workers, spinners and weavers, beat the gentlemen of the Old Etonians to take the FA Cup north for the first time in its eleven-year history.   

Although they quickly faded into obscurity, Blackburn Olympic’s victory marked the final shift in footballing power from the gentlemen-amateur to the workingman from the industrial heartlands of the midlands and the north.  The Blackburn team also included players who appeared to earn their living purely from football: professionals in all but name.   It was this fact that rankled with the amateurs of the south and when Blackburn Olympic received the Cup it was to ‘somewhat reluctant applause’.   On the other hand ecstatic crowds greeted the team on their return to Blackburn for what the Blackburn Times called ‘a signal victory of the plebeian over patrician Englishmen’.  Football had its roots as an organised sport on the playing fields of Westminster, Charterhouse, Eton and many of the country’s elite education institutions including Oxford and Cambridge universities.  The game spread from London and the south of England to the industrial north and midlands, largely pioneered by public-school men.   Its emergence as the nation’s favourite sport was greatly facilitated by the introduction of Saturday half-holidays for industrial workers, a real rise in wages, the rapid growth of towns and cities and cheap public transport to serve them.  

Despite its increasingly popularity, football remained, officially at least, an amateur sport until the mid-1880s.   Amateurs founded the Football Association in 1863, and all-amateur clubs contested the first FA Cup in 1872.   Sides such as the Wanderers, Old Etonians and Oxford University dominated the era.   A.F. Kinnaird, later Lord Kinnaird, was one of the most brilliant of the first generation of public-school footballers.   Playing in long white trousers and quartered cap and sporting a superb flowing red beard, he was a great crowd pleaser: at the 1882 cup final he stood on his head in front of the stands.   Kinnaird was a notable exponent of ‘hacking’ – the deliberate kicking of an opponent’s shins – which he, and many early amateur players, considered crucial to the ‘manly’ character of football.    His mother once told the FA secretary C W Alcock, of her fear that Arthur would one day return with a broken leg.  ‘If he does, it won’t be his own’, Alcock replied.   


By the 1880s football had become an increasingly important business dominated by professional clubs run as companies, playing on their own grounds and using paid players and officials who saw the game as a career.   Although a team sport, it was soon apparent that the presence of star players attracted bigger crowds.  Despite the Football Association’s commitment to amateurism, it was already clear that what was later dubbed ‘shamateurism’ was rife.  The bigger clubs were enticing away the better players with large signing-on fees, the offer of a job, or payment in the form of lavish expenses and by putting money into players’ boots on match days.   Best remembered of these early professionals was Glaswegian stonemason, Fergus Suter, a fullback who played a prominent role in the great Blackburn Rovers teams of the 1880s.  Suter began his career with Partick Thistle in 1879 but was attracted south of the Border by Turton Football Club who were prepared to flout the rules and pay him £3 for playing in a local cup competition.  Within twelve months he was at Lancashire club Darwen along with fellow Scot James Love, where they were among the first players to find money in their boots after the game.  Darwen refuted accusations that Suter was a professional, but as the player himself later put it ‘I would interview the treasurer as occasion arose’.   Suter quickly became a favourite with the supporters but he caused a major outcry when he moved to local rivals Blackburn Rovers in 1880.   When Suter played against Darwen for the first since his transfer, the game attracted a crowd of 10,000 and the subsequent disturbances proved so serious that the referee was forced to abandon the game.   

The Scotch Professors  

A feature of most successful English teams of the 1880s and 1890s was the number of Scottish players.    The Lancashire clubs in particular actively recruited in Scotland and the Scottish press carried many advertisements of jobs available in Blackburn, Burnley and other cotton towns for men with footballing talent.   These ‘Scotch professors’ owed their reputation to their commitment to winning and their skill at the passing game, rather than the ‘kick and rush’ or individual dribbling styles favoured in England.  Bolton, Darwen, and Preston included many Scottish players, and the first Liverpool of 1892, did not contain a single English player, quickly becoming known as the ‘team of the macs’.  

In 1882 the Association reaffirmed its commitment to an amateur game, with payments strictly limited to out-of-pocket expenses.  Accrington were thrown out of the FA after being found guilty of paying one of their players, and Preston were disqualified from the FA Cup after admitting playing players.  Nevertheless, it was obvious that most clubs were prepared to pay their better players and for a time it seemed that football would split along the same geographical lines as rugby and form two separate leagues.  Matters came to a head in October 1884, when a number of northern clubs banded together with a view to setting up a professional football league.  In July 1885 FA succumbed to the inevitable and legalised professionalism.   Appropriately the FA cup final that year featured Queens Park, the last amateur team to play in football’s most glamorous occasion. 



After 1885, the number of professional footballers in England and Wales rose rapidly.   In 1891 the Football League had 448 registered players, most of whom were part-time or full-time professionals.   The Scots, on the other hand, remained steadfastly opposed to the introduction of professionalism until 1893. The most vocal opponents to its introduction were Queen's Park and the Scottish press, who regularly described footballers who were tempted south as "base mercenaries " or "traitorous wretches". The larger clubs however were prepared to keep the better players north of the Border by paying them under the counter.   In 1890 Celtic faced a player-revolt when they enticed some players back to Scotland by offering them higher wages than they paid the rest of the team.   Rangers too were prepared to spend their ample resources on improving their team.    Officially only players who had to take days off work to play were allowed `broken time' payments.   It is hardly surprising that this system was regularly abused.   When Hibs won the Scottish Cup in 1887 their opponents called in a private detective to investigate rumours of financial irregularities at the Edinburgh club. He found the club paid one Hibs player, Groves, an apprentice stonemason, was paid a £1 broken time payment for missing three days at work despite the fact that he would normally only earn between 7/6d to 10/- a week.   Three years after the founding of the Scottish League in 1890, professionalism was finally approved in the Scottish game and within 12 months 83 clubs had registered almost 800 professional players. 

When professionalism was recognized in England in 1885, the FA Cup was the central feature of the playing season, with friendlies and local cup competitions making up the rest.  Early elimination from the FA Challenge Cup, or any of the local cup competitions, left most teams without a game.   Professional players had to be paid whether or not they were playing and the bigger clubs needed to ensure a more regular income.  It was the Scot, William McGregor, who championed the idea of a league, based on the system employed by County Cricket.  It was to be a regular competition in which selected teams would agree to play each other on set dates, on a home and away basis, promising to field their strongest team and to give the league fixtures preference over all others.   In total contrast to the FA Cup when it started,  twelve founding members of the Football League in 1888 (Accrington Stanley, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers) were professional or at least semi-professional outfits.   Another major difference was that they were all from the north or midlands.  It was not until 1893 that the first professional London club – Woolwich Arsenal – joined the League.  

Local Heroes

Football not only offered a few a better standard of living than factory work or mining, they also had the opportunity to become local and even national heroes.  As early as 1892, one commentator, Charles Edwards, was writing of the best players that they were in their neighbourhoods ‘the objects of popular adoration’.  He continued ‘They go to the wars in saloon carriages.  Their supporters attend them to the railway station to wish them “God speed”, and later in the evening meet them on their return, and either cheer them with affectionate heartiness, or condole with them and solace them with as much beer as their principles (that is, their trainer) will allow them to accommodate.  They are better known than the local members of Parliament.’  

One of the stars of the Victorian and Edwardian era was Steve Bloomer a prolific goal scorer, scoring 353 League goals between 1892 and 1914.   His family moved from Cradley, Worcestershire, to Derby when Steve was five years old and he later learned to play football at elementary school.  He was signed by Derby County, at a wage of 7s 6d per week, after scoring four goals in one match for their reserves.  The club secretary described him as ‘pale, thin, ghost-like, almost ill-looking’, and some of the crowd laughed when they first saw him.  Despite his physique, Bloomer had a very modern approach to the game.  The club records show that he had a fiery temper, and on numerous occasions was admonished by the Derby board of directors for insobriety and neglect of training. 

One of the most colourful characters of the period was goalkeeper - Billy “Fatty” Foulke. He was 6ft 2ins high and weighed 15 stone at the age of 19 when he first played for Sheffield United in 1894.   In the days when goalies could still be charged into the net, his weight was an obvious advantage.   Foulke eventually reached an impressive 22 stone, but this didn't stop him helping United win the League championship, two FA Cup finals and even securing an England cap. "Fatty” Foulke eventually moved to Chelsea where he was made captain and adored by the fans. 'I don't mind what they call me’, he once boasted, ‘as long as they don't call me late for my lunch.' 

The star attraction at most grounds during the Edwardian era was bandy-legged outside-right Billy Meredith.  Once described as ‘the football wonder of all time’, Meredith was footballs first superstar.   With his trademark toothpick he played for both Manchester clubs in a long career consisting of 1,584 games (at various levels) during which he scored 470 goals.    This is more remarkable feat given the fact that the FA suspended him on two occasions over allegations of match fixing and illegal payments.    Meredith was almost 50 when he played his last competitive game for Manchester City against Newcastle United in an FA Cup semi final.   

Almost gentlemen 

The coming of the Football League in 1888-9 and the intensified competition between the elite clubs led to a struggle to obtain the best players.  A direct result was an increase in players’ earnings.  A writer in the Athletic News Football Annual of 1893 claimed that the average wage of the professional footballer was £3 per week in winter and £2 per week in summer.  Sunderland players were allegedly receiving £3 per week all the year round by 1893 and Tom Brandon, the Blackburn Rovers and England international, was taking home £4 per week in 1896.  Bonuses might also be paid for good performances:  Aston Villa were paying bonuses of up to £2 for away matches in 1895-6, depending on the strength of the opposition and the importance of the matches, while the players of Sheffield Wednesday in the 1890s received a bonus which grew by £1 for each round of the FA Cup which they won.  By the end of the nineteenth century the average professional player was earning about twice the wage of the average skilled worker at the time.   The better players also earned considerable from playing international matches, and from endorsing products such as Oxo, Bovril, cigarettes and boots.   In a bid to control costs the FA eventually sanctioned a maximum wage of £4 in 1901 – for many of the star players it meant a cut in wages. 

However, the life of a nineteenth century football professional was not all glamour.   Players suffered from the ‘retain and transfer’ system, which gave his club virtually complete control over his career.  Once signed, having collected a maximum fee of £10, the player became the property of the club, and could not be transferred except with the club’s permission.    The player’s only right under this system was to refuse to go to a team to which he was being transferred, but this could result in the loss of wages and a bad reputation.    Nevertheless, the transfer system caused considerable controversy.  When Sunderland-born inside-forward Alf Common, was transferred to Middlesborough for £1000 it caused a popular outcry.   Some members of the Football Association, most notably J.C. Clegg, had long believed that the practice of ‘buying and selling players is unsportsmanlike and most objectionable in itself, and ought not to be entertained by those who desire to see the game played under proper conditions.’   

The life of the professional footballer was one of constant insecurity.  There was the continual threat of injury, fear that his annual contract would not be renewed, and the knowledge that someone more able would come along to take his place.  The legendry Billy Meredith was quite cynical about the life of the professional player: 

Every hour of the day he lives in an atmosphere which reminds him of nothing else but football; and he finishes the week playing before a great crowd of people, who often expect him to perform more like a machine than a human being subject to pains, aches, and illnesses, to say nothing of some ugly wound which the stud of a boot had opened, but which his pluck and loyalty to his club causes him to forget in his whole-souled desire to secure a victory for his side.’  The professional football was away from his family, particularly during the festive period, required to train.  ‘Add to all this the possible risk of having to stay for weeks in hospital nursing a broken ankle or a dislocated collar-bone, and it must surely be agreed that the life of the professional football player is not quite so gilded an occupation as it might appear. 

Their social status had nevertheless risen, as Meredith noted.  The days were gone, he commented, when hotel proprietors ‘absolutely refused to allow a football team on their premises’, while in ‘dress, conduct and general behaviour’ the paid player was well able to take care of himself.   Charles Edwards, writing in 1892, was convinced that the rapid rise in wages ‘will be a great temptation for the sons of middle and upper class families to try a career.’  He added, with a touch of relief, ‘Existing professionals do not describe themselves as gentlemen’.


The status of the professional football player altered dramatically upon retirement.   Few stayed in the game.  . It quickly became a tradition that footballers acquired shops or pubs.  Pubs were particularly popular because as the Athletic Journal noted in 1890, ‘A footballer behind the bar is as great an attraction as a long-legged giant or a fat woman’.  However, for many former players a return to manual labour or destitution beckoned once they hung up their boots.   Arthur Wharton, the first black professional football player, who kept goal for a number of northern clubs between 1888 and 1902, died a penniless coal miner.  James Trainor, once a renowned Preston goalkeeper was reduced to begging from the supporters.   Micky Bennett played for Sheffield United and England, but he was killed in the pit at the age of 33 having returned to his former occupation after a premature end to his footballing life.  Ted Brayshaw of Sheffield Wednesday and England died, aged only 44, in Wadsley Bridge Asylum, the later stages of his life marked by ‘poverty, misery and despair’. 

By the end of the nineteenth century football had developed from a sport played by a number of private amateur clubs whose members played for their own amusement, to an increasingly professional business dominated by professional clubs.  ‘The great and widespread interest in football is a manifest fact’, declared the great all-round athlete, cricketer and footballer C.B. Fry in 1895.  ‘So much so that nowadays it is frequently urged that cricket can no longer be regarded as our “national game” in the true sense of the word.  Football it is claimed, has now the first place in the popular heart’.   A century later it has retained its place as the nation’s favourite spectator sport, and millions of supporters remain as devoted to their teams and star players as their Victorian and Edwardian ancestors.   More than ever many employees will agree with one late nineteenth century critic of football who complained: ‘It’s ruining the country.  The young men talk of nothing else.  Their intellect all goes into football.  They can’t work properly for thinking of it.  Never saw such a state of affairs in my life’.