If you were asked to name football’s first world champions, what would be your response? Uruguay? You would not be mistaken, of course, if you held that view; they won the first FIFA-organised tournament of nations in 1930 after all.
If you’re familiar with the story of West Auckland’s incredible Lipton Cup victories of 1909 and 1911, when none other than the mighty Juventus were vanquished by the amateur club from the County Durham coalfields, then you could fairly acknowledge their claim as being the first to conquer the footballing world.
However, if you go even further back in time to 1880’s Scotland and to a tiny village in West Dunbartonshire situated between the River Clyde and the southern end of Loch Lomond, one of the most successful clubs of the Victorian era had already been celebrated as being ‘champions of the United Kingdom and the World’. That club was Renton F.C.
As organised football exploded as a mass spectator sport in the densely populated industrial towns and cities of England and Scotland during the 1870’s, Renton – like their local contemporaries Dumbarton and Vale of Leven – were somewhat of an anomaly. Those three clubs from the rural area to the north west of Glasgow were at the forefront of the Scottish game. They also made a significant impact when matching themselves against wealthier, more powerful and often professional clubs from down south in those early cross-border FA Cup skirmishes.
The village of Renton nestles between the towns of Dumbarton and Alexandria and lies on the route of the modern day A82 road that snakes out of Glasgow’s west end – around 15 miles east – and along the Clyde. Carry on and you will skirt the banks of Loch Lomond and eventually the road leads onwards to the Western Highlands. In the late 19th century, before the invention of the motor car, that same journey would have been undertaken by steam train (Renton station having been opened in 1850) – not that large numbers of people would have had reason to do so. There are, nor were, any substantial industries to speak of in Renton, and even now, the population of the village barely tops 2,000 even after housing developments were added in the 1930’s and 1960’s. Other than being part of a tight-knit Dunbartonshire community on the tourist trail to the Loch and the area where Robert the Bruce, King of Scots died in 1329, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how and why Renton was such a hotbed of football in those early boom times.
Renton F.C. (coincidentally, like their neighbours Dumbarton and Vale of Leven) were formed in 1872, and although they did not sign up to be a founder a member of the Scottish Football Association the following year, they did join the SFA in time to participate in the first Scottish Cup in 1873-74. It is believed, through sketchy accounts, that Renton’s tie with Kilmarnock – played at a neutral venue in Glasgow – was the first of three ties to kick-off on that inaugural day of the competition and therefore was actually the very first competitive game played in Scotland; one that Renton won, 2-0.
The second round – which was actually the quarter-final – saw Renton defeat their local rivals Dumbarton after a replay, setting up a semi-final against Queen’s Park, who, until the widespread proliferation of professionalism compromised their successful Corinthian ethos, were one of the sport’s dominant forces both north and south of the border. Renton would suffer disappointment in that match at the first Hampden Park (the current arena being the third incarnation to carry the name), losing 2-0 to the eventual Cup winners. The following season they went one better and reached the final, only to run into a rampant William MacKinnon – one of the finest players of his day; Queen’s were victorious once more.
By the mid-1880’s, Renton were firmly established amongst the top clubs in Britain, and in 1885, their first Scottish Cup was won after a replay with their West Dunbartonshire rivals, Vale of Leven. The Tontine Park club tried in vain to successfully defend the crown, but lost out again to old adversaries Queen’s Park in the 1886 final.
The following season saw Renton compete in the English FA Cup – something that Scottish clubs did frequently until the SFA banned them from doing so at the end of the 1886-87 campaign. Having seen off Accrington and Blackburn Rovers in the first two rounds, Renton were eliminated by another Lancastrian club in the third; Preston North End. Despite the subsequent FA Cup ban on Scottish participation, the two clubs would meet again in different circumstances in the not-too-distant future.
With the disappointments of 1886 and 1887, and Renton’s renowned ‘chicken bree’ – a ghastly sounding cocktail of port and eggs given to the players on a daily basis as part of their infamous training regime – spurring them on, their stock went through the roof before the end of the decade as on-field success reached new heights.
The 1887-88 season culminated with a second Scottish Cup success for Renton. The final, played in front of around 10,000 spectators at the second Hampden Park (which eventually became Cathkin Park, home of Third Lanark), saw the Dark Blues stroll to a comfortable 6-1 win over Cambuslang – a record Cup final score line which still stands to this day.
In England, football – and the FA Cup in particular - was growing exponentially in popularity as professional teams from the heavily industrialised towns around the country began to usurp the once-dominant amateur and private school old boys clubs that once jealously guarded the Cup as if it were their own trinket that should not be allowed to fall into hands of the unwashed masses. In the same year that Renton sat on top of the Scottish game, the Football League came into existence in England – formed by 12 clubs from the North and Midlands – liberating the game of football from the rule of the upper class.
In the spirit of this brave new world, where sporting and commercial visionaries began to innovate and exploit the game, a gauntlet was thrown down by FA Cup winners West Bromwich Albion to their counterparts in Scotland; the prize on offer in that friendly invitation – the rather lofty and presumptuous title of “Champions of the United Kingdom and the World”. Renton accepted the challenge.
May 19th 1888, Second Hampden. The game almost never took place.
Fearsome thunderstorms had battered Glasgow throughout the day and the previous evening, claiming the lives of four poor souls of the city. The visitors from England thought it ludicrous to even attempt to play a game of association football in such conditions. The Scots disagreed.
Six thousand hardy folk showed up that Saturday despite the storms; their reward – a 4-1 win for Renton, inspired by the McCall brothers, Jamie and Archie, ably supported by the other six Scottish internationals who graced the colours of the newly crowned ‘world champions’.
As the fixture was a friendly, no organisation had sanctioned the contest and therefore, Renton’s status could not be formally recognised. Although this had been a championship match by default (the rest of the world lagging way behind the United Kingdom in its football development at this point), Renton were nevertheless proud to display their “Champions of the World” plaque above the door on the pavilion at Tontine Park. The crudely made, pewter trophy forged locally in the aftermath of the victory that day now resides in the Scottish Football Museum at the third, and current, Hampden Park.
Two weeks after the West Bromwich Albion game, Renton rubberstamped their claims of world supremacy, unofficial or otherwise, in another friendly – this time with their FA Cup opponents of a year earlier, Preston North End.
The Lancashire club were in the process of carrying all before them in their undefeated 1888-89 season, winning the league with the first ‘Invincibles’ and adding the FA Cup to become the first of only seven English clubs to do that domestic double. But, on home soil, even they could not resist the all-conquering Renton.
However, just as the club was at its zenith, it had also reached the beginning of the end rather than the end of the beginning.
Professionalism seeped northwards from England. Scottish players were enticed south with the promise of payment. Stories of reprisals meted out to English scouts seen trying to poach local talent include them being thrown into rivers and chased through the streets by angry mobs. In Scotland itself, a new league was formed in 1890. Unsurprisingly, this was dominated from the off by the Old Firm. Indeed, Celtic – who were formed in 1888 when Renton were at their peak – took key players away from Tontine Park including James Kelly, the first man to captain the Bhoys, and Neil McCallum who scored their first ever goal (in a 5-2 win over Rangers).
Renton’s demise was swift. Just a month into that first Scottish League season they were suspended for playing a friendly against a team calling themselves ‘Edinburgh Saints’. This turned out to be St.Bernard’s who had also been censured by the SFA because of accusations of professionalism. On appeal, Renton resumed league football the following year. However, the inexorable march of money in football was unforgiving toward the likes of Renton. The big city clubs with wealthy backers and larger crowds began to topple the once-mighty amateur footballing pure-breeds and clubs like Renton began to disintegrate, one-by-one.
Once professionalism had been legalised in 1893, Renton’s proverbial death warrant had been signed. Relegation to a newly-created second division quickly followed and despite one last hurrah - reaching the 1895 Scottish Cup final where they lost to former partners-in-crime St.Bernard’s - financial hardship brought about their end just four games into the 1897-98 season. Renton resigned their league position (to be replaced by Hamilton Academical) less than a decade after they had reached the pinnacle of their existence and despite participating in local senior leagues for another twenty years or so, the final nail in the coffin was confirmed in 1922.
Council houses were built on the site of the original Tontine Park, although the position of the centre circle is commemorated in the garden in one of those houses. Sadly, no evidence remains of the sign that proudly hung on Renton’s pavilion.
Follow Mark on Twitter @TheFootballPink.