This weekend 130 years ago, the people’s game was unofficially born on a cricket field in south London. At the Kennington Oval, a crowd of 8,000 witnessed the FA Cup final between Old Etonians and Blackburn Olympic, in one of the most unique matchups you are likely to find in the history of English football. It was a meeting of patricians and plebeians; aristocrats and artisans. Old Etonians were playing at their home ground, in their seventh final and defending the trophy, whereas Olympic weren’t even regarded as the best side in Blackburn.
In the previous year’s competition, Blackburn Rovers became the first club from the north of England to reach the final but lost 1-0 to the Eton alumni. Organised football back then was a niche aristocratic pastime dominated by London teams comprised of ex-public schoolboys. Yet by the 1882/83 season, change was in the air. For the first time, southern clubs in the FA Cup were outnumbered by those from Yorkshire, Cheshire, Lancashire and the Midlands. Paying players was forbidden, meaning that workers had to sacrifice a day’s pay in the factories (normally 5 or 6 shillings) to attend training or travel to an away game. Accrington FC were one such team disqualified from the competition in 1883 for paying their players, and two members of Olympic’s team were allegedly professionals in all but name.
It was under these conditions that the ideal of amateurism had flourished. The Old Etonians starting line-up featured a baronet, a professor of Latin, the leading commercial lawyer in British India, and Arthur Kinnaird, the future president of the Football Association and Lord High Commissioner for the Church of Scotland. Kinnaird was playing in his ninth FA Cup final to an adoring crowd at the Oval. One story of him arriving at the ground tells of fans disconnecting the horses from his carriage and dragging it the rest of the way. Ten of the starting eleven had experience of playing in a final, with eight of them having beaten Blackburn Rovers a year earlier. The odds were well and truly against the boys from the provincial north, even overlooking their financial hardship. Olympic were bankrolled by the owner of an iron foundry, Sydney Yates, and would have gone bankrupt without him paying for their time off work to make their 230 mile journey to the capital.
The Blackburn Olympic team consisted of five cotton factory workers (three weavers, a spinner and a machine operative), an iron worker, a picture framer, a master plumber, a dentist’s assistant, a clerk and a pub landlord. The latter, Jack Hunter, was recruited as the new player-coach after earning seven caps for England while playing in Sheffield. It was his novel idea to take the team to Blackpool for a training camp ahead of the final, forcing upon them a diet of raw eggs, porridge and oysters. Every player was notably smaller than their upper-class counterparts. For instance, the Olympic goalkeeper was just 5-foot-6 and weighed less than 9 stone. The training schedule was therefore intensive by 19th century standards, focused on long range passing, tactical rhythm and stamina. Those taught in the public schools, by comparison, did not train and believed it to be bad form. Sport ultimately served completely different purposes within England’s hugely divided social hierarchy.
Olympic’s sweeping route to the final included a shock 4-0 defeat of Old Carthusians, the former pupils of Charterhouse School, in the semi-final staged at a neutral ground in Manchester. The traditional formation of six up-front benefitted the public schools’ style of play centred around scrimmages and rushing, but the 2-3-5 formation which would eventually dominate the English game for the next forty years was being pioneered in the industrial north west. The long passing game introduced to the Olympic side was reflective of the heightening tactical awareness creeping its way down from Scotland. On the day of the final, Blackburn residents gathered in Hunter’s pub, the Cotton Tree, drinking glasses of porter while waiting for updates of the score by electrical telegraph. Olympic travelled down two days before the game to allow them time to recover from the journey, and at least one thousand fans from Lancashire soon joined them.
From the kick off both sides were determined to play rough. The southerners expressed their predilection for hacking, as shins were repeatedly kicked in scuffles for the ball. Dribbling was considered the most noble way to move up through the crowded field, but when Blackburn had possession they would switch the play with long balls to their teammates on the oft-deserted wings. The home side, though, took the lead unexpectedly through the dependable boot of prolific forward Harry Goodhart. The Etonians went into the pavilion at half-time feeling joyous, but were soon discomfited by the raft of obscenities coming from the other dressing room. Olympic came out riled, and as one journalist for The Chronicle noted, they were affected by “a knocking out spirit”. The violence escalated and Etonians were soon reduced to ten men after Arthur Dunn was injured and could no longer continue. Eventually Olympic equalised through Arthur Matthews, but they could not grab a second before the final whistle. At full-time, and with a replay on the cards, the Olympic captain Albert Warburton requested that extra-time be played, to which Kinnaird graciously agreed.
With the workers a man up and possessing better levels of fitness, the gentlemen soon began to tire. Olympic’s wide men were urged to push forward, and 17 minutes into extra-time Thomas Dewhurst’s long centre found Jimmy Costley, the cotton spinner, who had a clear view of John Rawlinson (a future Member of Parliament and Privy Counsellor) standing ahead of him. Costley volleyed the incoming cross quite feebly, but the ball crept over the line before the Etonian keeper could stop it. The whistle eventually sounded and that was that. Blackburn Olympic became the first working-class team to win the FA Cup, the first from outside London and the Home Counties, and the first to do so playing the combination game.
The match signalled the end of the old public school reign. Kinnaird was unable to perform his trademark handstand celebration before the pavilion, and during the trophy presentation the Olympic players were met with three quiet cheers and ‘somewhat reluctant applause’. The Chronicle ended their match report with a prediction: “Old Etonians will probably gain revenge next year”, but they or any public school team would never again reach the cup final. The following season a new competition was introduced, the Amateur Cup, and in 1895 the FA legalised professionalism. It was 18 years before the FA Cup returned to London.
On the train back to Blackburn, the players were decked in sky blue ribbon and at every station they would show off the trophy, which was frequently topped up with whiskey. They were welcomed home by the region’s two MPs, six brass bands and a crowd of thousands, before being escorted through the town on a wagonette pulled by six white horses. One man in the crowd was said to have shouted at the procession: “Is’t that t’Coop? Why it’s like a tea kettle”, to which Warburton replied: “Ey, lad, but it’s very welcome to Lancashire. It’ll have a good home and it’ll ne’er go back to Lunnon!” By the end of the decade, Blackburn Olympic FC was no more. After only 11 years in existence, the club folded due to spiralling debts. The last of their vigour was transposed to the town’s more upmarket club, Blackburn Rovers, who won the next three FA Cups and became a founding member of the Football League in 1888. The little town filled with smog and penury had just established the new order.