A day before Valentine’s Day in 1908 Patrick William Groves a former labourer with Edinburgh Corporation, passed away. At that time few would have expected that more than a century after his death his name would feature along with Cristiano Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, Diego Maradona and Johann Cruyff. But Groves had etched his name forever into history books when he moved to Aston Villa from West Bromwich Albion in 1893, for a princely sum of £100, becoming the first footballer to set a world record for transfer fee. Sadly, over the years Groves and his impressive achievements have been lost in the sands of time and what remains is that one number.
To reconstruct Groves’ career we need to roll the years back to 1875, seven years after his birth. In Edinburgh Hibernian FC was founded with a distinctly Irish flavour, deriving its name from the Roman word for “Ireland”. By 1880s Hibs had become one of the most prominent teams in Scotland and played a number of Cup competitions along with friendly matches. In 1884/85 season it seemed that Hibernian were on the verge of a shot at the greatest prize, the Scottish Cup when they reached last four. However, the defending champions Renton FC proved a mountain too steep to scale as Hibs slumped to a 2-0 defeat. Dejected, some fans turned towards their “A” side, who were playing in the 2nd XI Cup. The sorrows of the Cup semi-final defeat were somewhat lessened by what they saw in their reserve side. A youngster with sublime skills soon became the crowd favourite, picking up the nickname of “Darlin”. It was a name that would stick to Willie Groves even when he changed clubs.
Born in Hutchesontown, Glasgow Groves was living in Leith and noticing his prodigious talent club secretary John McFadden convinced him to join Hibernian. He was unstoppable as Hibs won their first 2nd XI Cup and this performance earned him a senior team call up in a friendly against Dumbarton. On his debut the 16 year old was sensational, setting up every goal in a 3-1 victory. Few months later Groves delivered another virtuoso performance as Hibernian trounced Blackburn Rovers during a tour of England. Rovers, enjoying a period when they would win three consecutive FA Cups, even wanted to sign the youngster - who chose to stay back in Hibernian.
1885/86 season saw Hibernians make another semi-final exit in Scottish Cup but it was the following season that would make Willie Groves a club legend. He started the Scottish campaign with a fine hat-trick against Durhamtown Rangers in the first round. Third round saw Hibernian go up against bitter rivals Hearts. 7,000 turned up for the game to see Groves score twice in a crushing 5-1 victory. Semi-final, Hibs’ ultimate frontier for three seasons posed a stiff challenge in the form of Vale of Leven, finalists in two of the previous three seasons. Vale, overwhelming favourites, took an early lead – it looked as if Hibs would end yet another campaign in disappointment. But this was their year. This was Groves’s Cup. “Darlin” scored a spectacular solo goal to draw level and gave Hibernians the lead before half-time. An assist from Groves to Montgomery finished off the game, leaving the home crowd ecstatic.
It was after this famous performance in semi-final that Willie Groves would get the taste of first of his many controversies. It was alleged by Vale (admittedly, based on hearsay) that Groves had accepted illegal payments for his services, a scandalous event in amateur Scottish football. The Scottish FA delayed their ruling on Vale’s allegation but allowed Hibernian and Groves to play the final.
12th February, 1887. Thousands of Hibernian fans made their way towards Hampden Park to watch their club lineup against Dumbarton. The big game nerves seemed to have gotten to Hibs players as they trailed 1-0 after a scratchy display with 60 minutes gone on the clock. And yet again “Darlin” rose to the occasion. A slaloming run from Groves opened up the Dumbarton defence as Montgomery found the equaliser. Groves then dribbled past a number of opponents before scoring the match-winner from 16 yards out. Within 12 years of their formation, Hibernian had lifted one of the most famous trophies in the world, and none of it would have been possible without Willie Groves.
Back in 1885 when Groves had just broken into the senior team, Hibernian drew a large Irish crowd during one of their games in Glasgow. Marist Brother Walfrid was encouraged by this and forged the idea to start a club in Glasgow which like Hibernians, would carry an Irish identity. This new club, named Celtic Football Club, signed a number of players from Hibernian, including Groves.
He soon faced off against his old club, in a friendly on 4th August 1888. Celtic’s star signing proved his mettle against Hibernians, scoring twice in a 3-2 victory. On 1st September, he played his first official match against Shettleston, participating in a 5-1 win. Three weeks later “Darlin” scored his first official Celtic goal as the Hoops thrashed Cowlairs 8-0 in the second round of Scottish Cup. This was the start of a great Cup run for the new club as well as Groves, who would score nine goals (more by some estimates) as Celtic reached the final. His best performance perhaps, came in December when Celtic squared off against Clyde in fifth round of the Cup. A fantastic hat-trick saw Celtic cruise to a 9-2 triumph over their hapless opponents. Dumbarton, Groves’ victims two years before in the final would once again suffer the same fate in semi-final, with Willie grabbing a brace in a 4-1 win. Groves’ bid to secure his second Scottish Cup medal in three years crashed at the last hurdle as Celtic lost the final to Third Lanark. News reports of the final praise his performance and it seems that Groves’ numerous attempts to present team-mates with golden scoring opportunities had met with some awful finishing.
Willie Groves is described by most contemporary reports as an extremely fast paced footballer, with significant ball skills. He was a great dribbler and when played as an attacker, he regularly scored goals. Glasgow Observer described him as “tall, sinewy and graceful on the ball, his work was beautifully close, artful and deceptive”. In an era when players often rigidly stuck to a single position, Groves’ biggest ability was his versatility.
The Scottish Cup campaign of 1889 was anti-climactic as Celtic was sent packing home by Queens Park in the first round. They did win their first ever trophy, though, with Groves scoring once as Celtic defeated Cowlairs to lift the Glasgow North Eastern Cup. Having made his International debut a year back, 1889 would also bring Groves’ greatest performance for Scotland, a hat-trick during a 7-0 demolition of Ireland, helping the Scots to wrench back the British Home Championship from England.
On 6th September, 1890 Willie Groves would firmly establish his name as a Celtic legend. Playing Rangers for the first time in Scottish Cup, Groves quickly got off the blocks, setting up two goals which were chalked off for offside. Undaunted and egged on by a 16,000 strong crowd, Groves popped up on 43rd minute to score with a delicate shot, it proved to be the only goal of the match. It was also one of the last notable acts performed by Groves at Celtic Park – a month later he was off the England.
And once again, there was controversy. Groves had initially joined Everton and was an Everton player for two days. However, faulty paperwork saw the FA annulling his transfer and he moved to West Bromwich Albion.
His first season in West Brom didn’t prove as successful as his time in Scotland. He was often played in the midfield as the goals dried up although he did score twice in FA Cup. Groves started regularly for the Baggies in his second season but their league form was disastrous. West Brom managed to clinch just 18 points from 26 matches and didn’t win a single game on the road. Their Cup campaign was a sharp contrast and second round saw them eliminate Blackburn Rovers, the defending champions. Yet, the Baggies were rank underdogs when they faced off against a very strong Aston Villa side in the final. It was the last FA Cup final in Kennington Oval and the first to use goal nets.
In the final, Groves put up a grand display. Playing as a wing-half he dominated the midfield as West Brom recorded a highly unexpected 3-0 win. Despite picking up an injury and limping badly, Groves performed a stellar job in face of Aston Villa’s attacks and kept the speedy winger Charlie Athersmith in check. Once again Darlin Willie Groves had arrived on the big stage when it mattered most.
And then came the chain of events which would immortalise Willie Groves. His performance in the final meant that more financially able clubs were looking to sign him, namely Aston Villa and Everton. Not eager to offload their star player to rivals Villa, West Brom started negotiations with the Toffees. Little did the club management knew that the player himself was in talks with Aston Villa and was being “tapped up” by modern terms. Incensed when Villa signed Groves, West Brom complained to FA who ruled the matter in their favour, slapping a £25 fine. Eventually Aston Villa had their player but they had to cough up £100. In an era when most professionals were being paid £4 or less a week, this was an astronomical amount.
With the albatross of an unnatural price-tag around his neck, Groves’ first season in Villa could have easily ended up being a struggle. Instead, the Scot quickly settled in the starting XI after making his debut in September, 1893. Groves made 22 appearances in the league as Aston Villa romped their way to their first ever league title. He was in inspirational form in the grudge away match against West Brom which Villa won 6-2 after leading 5-1 at half time. He also scored a brace in the penultimate game against Burnley to wrap up the title. Groves’ playing position for Aston Villa provides a remarkable reading – he played as a centre-forward, inside-right, inside-left as well as a wing-half.
The league title proved to be the apex of his career. Groves was soon struck down by tuberculosis and even though he recovered, he was never quite the same player. At just 25 years of age the disease dealt a mortal blow to the career of football’s most expensive player.
After just a season in Villa he moved back to Hibernian. His lack of fitness and form was evident when he ran out as a right-back, despite playing most of his career as an attacker, in his second debut for Hibernian. Constantly suffering from heart problems, Groves’ blitzing performances were few and far between. There were glimpses of the old form when he struck a dramatic match-winner as his new club knocked out Rangers in the Scottish Cup quarter-final. A fairy-tail story eluded Groves when Hibs lost the Cup final to Hearts. Groves ignored his doctors warning to play that final but could do little to prevent his team from losing.
In 1896 Groves had another stint at Celtic, without much success and he soon left the game. His popularity in the Glasgow club was evident when in 1899 a subscription list opened was opened to help him in his sickbed.
Groves seems to have an affinity towards money for most of his career. His first switch from Hibernian to Celtic may have been triggered by a chance of getting paid. The Celtic board wanted to retain him but once again he moved towards the more lucrative league in England. Even in England, Groves’ move from West Brom to Aston Villa was likely based on financial motives. Yet, it is hard to grudge him considering the fact that professional footballers in his era were poorly paid and often faced an uncertain future after leaving the game. Seeking a greater degree of financial security was hardly a crime even though this put Groves on the bad books of an authority still entrenched in the utopia of amateurism. Groves frequently got in trouble during transfers and even faced suspensions.
The transfer fee has eventually eclipsed a highly accomplished career of winning medals in two countries. At his peak, he was pivotal in almost every team he played, guiding them to Cup finals or a league title.
Even for the £100 man, the career after leaving football didn’t pan out too differently from most professional footballers of his era. He was just 39 when he passed away, penniless.
Somnath is @baggiholic.