Somnath SenguptaComment


Somnath SenguptaComment

24th November, 1879. A sizable crowd has gathered in Recreation Ground, Chesterfield to watch a very unique football match. 131 years later Recreation Ground would host its last game, as one of English football’s most storied and oldest grounds. But back in 1879, it was very much a modest establishment, fairly open with a wooden pavilion at one end. Under such meagre protection the crowds experience an uncomfortable time thanks to “miserable weather.” Nonetheless, they brave the conditions for it is clear that the match they are about to witness has a novelty value seldom found in the Victorian era. The local team Town Club (present Chesterfield FC) is entertaining “Messrs. Brewers and Rolling’s Original Zulus.” The Zulus present “a very tolerable appearance” – they are wearing white fringed black jerseys along with black stockings, have dark faces with feathers as headgears and beads around their necks. Cetewayo, the Zulu captain with multi-coloured feathers on his head distributes match programmes before the kick-off, amusing the gathered spectators. The Zulus also perform a tribal dance to entertain the crowd, brandishing their assegai and shields.

Around three o’clock the match kicks off with Town Club dominating early exchanges. The conditions are not easy – the turf is muddy, slippery and players from both teams often take a tumble. The game never really flows smoothly but the crowd is not disheartened. Later, a match report would humorously note how a number of falls in the mud made the Chesterfield players clad in white, resemble their “ebony combatants”. The home team takes the lead when outside forward T. Lewis exploits a melee in Zulu penalty box. Ten minutes later Chesterfield inside forward Tommy Bishop (who in 1880, would go on to play for different clubs in five consecutive days of a single week) starts a swift run and sprints past the Zulu defence to double their lead. The home team take a well-earned 2-0 lead at half time but their joy is short-lived in second half. Reporters note that the Zulus “possessed plenty of staying power” and they come back strongly after half time. Half back Ngobamalrosi pulls one goal back in second half and buoyed by that goal the Zulus attack with more vigour. It is not surprising that deep into second half Umcilyn takes a shot which is “as terrific as his Zulu name” and scores the equalizer amidst cheers from the gathered spectators. Full time score reads – Town Club 2-2 Original Zulus.

It seems intriguing that in an era when International football was still in its nascent stage that Zulu warriors made their way across half the world to play a football match in England. That too, at a time when Zululand was reeling from a bloody war with Britain.

The “Zulus” obviously, were not real Zulus, despite what their name may suggest.

Conceived by a Mr Brewer of Fargate, this was essentially a team formed with players from Sheffield area and their main intention was to raise funds for the widows and families of the British soldiers who had lost their lives in the Anglo-Zulu War. The curious thing was, the players made a serious effort to bring up the entertainment quotient of their matches. Thus, came the idea of donning the Zulu attire and original Zulu weaponry was picked from ships which had sailed from South Africa. They also rubbed burnt corks to blacken their face. There isn’t a surviving picture though the excellent has an illustration of how their jersey looked. The players also adopted real Zulu names to complete the cycle of realism.

This was the full squad that faced Chesterfield, possibly in a 2-2-6 formation – Goalkeeper - Ulmathoosi (H. Hinchcliffe); Backs: Cetewayo (Thomas Buttery), Methlagazulu (J Slack); Half-backs: Sirayo (Arthur Malpass), Dabulamanzi (Jack Hunter); Centers: Magnenda (James Lang), Ngobamalrosi (A. Woodcock); Rights: Umcilyn (A. Ramsden), Muyamani (G. Anthony); Lefts: Jiggleumbengo (Tom Cawley), Amatonga (S. Lucas).

To understand the full context of Sheffield Zulus one would need to travel to the Southern part of Africa in later half of the 19th century. Founded by Shaka Zulu in early 19th century the Zulu kingdom had steadily grown to become one of the strongest in Southern Africa, with a standing army of 40,000 disciplined warriors. Sir Bartle Frere was sent to Cape Town as a High Commissioner to consolidate British influence in that area and he swiftly realized that to fulfill his objectives he would need to confront the Zulu nation. The British government was initially reluctant to get into a conflict but Frere stamped his own authority on the situation, presenting an unacceptable ultimatum to Zulu king Cetewayo in December, 1878.

By January the following year it was clear that a war was unavoidable. The British began their invasion under the leadership of Frederic Thesiger, Lord of Chelmsford with a 15,000 strong army facing a numerically stronger but technologically inferior Zulu army. The script though, didn’t go according to plan. Thesiger’s strategic incompetence coupled with his underestimation of the Zulu army caused catastrophe in the Battle of Isandlwana on 22nd January. Using “izimpondo zankomo” tactic of encircling the enemy, the Zulus overwhelmed the British army with sheer numbers and inflicted over a thousand deaths. Still reeling from a disastrous defeat, the Imperial army faced its next challenge on the same day in the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. A measly force of just over 150 soldiers repelled a Zulu army of 3000 to 4000 warriors, providing a vital rallying point for the British Army. Thesiger was a favourite of Queen Victoria and was able to use his political clout and blame game to forego all responsibilities for this disaster. Soon, he would lead a stronger army to wipe out the last remnants of Zulu kingdom, taking Cetewayo as a prisoner.

The names used by Sheffield Zulus were not mere coincidences or make believe ones but real life Zulu warriors. Cetewayo sharing name with the Zulu king, was usually captain of the team. Dabulamanzi, Sirayo, his son Methlagazulu (which means Eyes of the Zulu Nation) were all high ranking soldiers noted for their bravado during the war.

The Zulus had gained some degree of notoriety after the initial phases of the War in Britain. Contemporary news reports from Nottingham, Dublin and Glasgow refer to coloured men being heckled, abused or even assaulted after being accused to be Zulus. It also meant that the word “Zulu” invoked curiosity, which was exploited by the football team. During the height of Gulf War, WWE had a storyline which featured make believe Iraqi sympathizers taking on wrestlers portrayed as American patriots. In a way, the Zulus were a similar gimmick.

Sheffield, center of English football, was a logical choice to start a team like this. Sheffield FC was the first football club in history and the city played host to world’s oldest derby. A shining beacon of amateur football, it had played a vital role in the formulation of early rules of “Association Football” as well formation of the Football Association. The Sheffield Telegraph did an elaborate coverage of the war thanks to newspaper correspondents who were present at the ground along with British Troops. The paper even carried letters from soldiers in the front, publishing features like “Letters from Lieut. Cookson of Workshop”, “Sheffield Soldiers in Zululand” and “A Sheffield Soldier in Zululand.” A stirring of public awareness combined with a conducive football environment led to the formation of the Sheffield Zulus.

The Zulus began their series of matches in Scarborough before taking on a strong selected XI from Sheffield in Bramall Lane, which they surprisingly won 5-4. Their first two games had generated considerable interest among general public which encouraged them to start a tour of other towns. Next came the already mentioned 2-2 draw with Chesterfield. A 2-1 win over Notts & Derby Lambs was followed by a 6-0 thrashing of Barnsley Victoria and District. The Sheffield Zulus was a football project for entertaining the masses rather than a serious club but they were not slouches on the football field. Most of the records suggest they didn’t lose a single match in England during their existence.

A number of eminent players took parts in the Sheffield Zulus project, some were even full Internationals.

Thomas Buttery was often the captain of Zulus and was a veteran of the Sheffield football scene. He along with his brother Edward, was part of the first football match played under lights on 15th October 1878. Buttery was in his 50s by that time but still seemed to have performed a stellar job against English International Billy Mosforth in one of the matches. “The Sheffield Dodger” Mosforth, who made his England debut aged just 19, was one of the most skillful players of his era and also played for the Zulus on at least one occasion.

Jack Hunter was one of their biggest star attractions and a cornerstone of the Zulu project. An ace half-back, Hunter would later join Blackburn Olympics as coach cum player. In 1883 Olympics created history by becoming the first “working class” club to win the FA Cup and Hunter was a primary architect behind this victory, ensuring that players underwent a scientific preparation for the final. 

Scottish James Lang is often considered as the first professional player, even though he was a “shamateur” during his career. Lang didn’t receive any official payment for his football exploits from Sheffield Wednesday but was instead employed by one the club directors. His duties under the pretend employment mostly consisted of coming to office, reading newspapers and drinking tea.

Tom Cawley played a vital role in the 1889/90 FA Cup when Sheffield Wednesday became the first non-League club to reach the final. Cawley’s fantastic brace against Notts County in the quarter-final was invaluable and he started in the final, losing to Blackburn Rovers.

It was clear from the outset that the Sheffield Zulus were a popular fixture. Their second match saw over 2,000 spectators, significant number in an era when FA Cup final drew 5,000 to 6,000 people. Their popularity saw them get an invitation to play in Scotland. The Zulus were exploring new horizons but like many English teams of that era, would find that the football they played up north was difficult to negotiate.

On 21st April, 1880 the team, now called “Sheffield Holmes Zulus” visited Hampden Park to play Queens Park, perhaps the finest Scottish team, containing a number of Scotland national team players. Playing under heavy rain, the Zulus struggled against their opponents, losing 7-0 thanks to a hattrick from Tom Highet and a brace from Eadie Fraser. It seems like Queens Park also had Andrew Watson as their captain, who became the first black footballer to play an International fixture and was seemingly amused by the make believe blackened appearance of his opponents. 

A news report titled another one of Zulu’s Scottish encounters as a “Grand and Important Football Match”. This one took place on the day of Christmas in 1880 in Hibernian Park, Edinburgh against Hibernians FC. Over 2000 spectators turned up again, only to see the Zulus slump to a meek 6-0 loss. The Scotsman’s wry appraisal of Zulus was perhaps applicable to most English teams of that period –“The strangers appeared to kick well but were deficient in passing the ball”. Zulus struggles against Scottish teams reflected the state of English football as well. In 1881 Scotland thrashed England 6-1 at the Kennington Oval while the frequent Sheffield and Glasgow matches were usually dominated by the latter.

The Sheffield Zulus ever increasing popularity meant they were getting more attention and there were talks about a tour of South Africa. They had perhaps, flown too close to the sun.

A few months after the Zulu project started, it ran into controversy following reports that the players were getting paid for their services. Football was still in its amateur era and this caused a scandal. The Zulus were threatened and then slapped with a ban and had to issue a written apology for its retraction. On 9th February, 1880 the FA issued a diktat – “that in the future any player who participated in the “Zulu" match or in some way get a reward, will be suspended from all games under the auspices of the Association.” The Zulus later defied the ban and continued playing, travelling to Scotland. Exactly why FA didn’t react to the matches played in 1880 is not clear.

The hatchet finally came down in 1881. William Pierce-Dix, honorary secretory of the Sheffield FA and a well-known referee wrote to a local newspaper in January – “The Zulus were going about the country playing matches in a manner which in the opinion of the committee was calculated to degrade the game and bring discredit upon those connected with it; and further, that these players were receiving payment for playing.” The entire team was banned but this had a significant impact on Sheffield football scene with a number of clubs losing vital players.

This was most evident when Wednesday faced Sheffield Heeley in the semi-final of the local Wharncliffe Cup. Heeley was without the suspended Jack Hunter and ended up on the wrong side of a 7-2 scoreline. The Heeley supporters were incensed, targeting Pierce-Dix, who was officiating the match. He was “grossly assaulted by those who should certainly have set a better example to the lower order” and soon tended his resignation as the final of Wharncliffe Cup was abandoned due to large scale unavailability of players.

Most of the players were reinstated after they apologized for participating in Zulus match. This was also the death knell for the Zulus project and no further matches are likely to have taken place. Richard Sanders, in his book “Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth Of British Football” points out that bitterness with the Zulus affair may have prompted Hunter to leave Sheffield and shift base to Blackburn.

The Sheffield Zulus played a vital part in popularizing football in its infant stages. They were one of the first box office hits of the game and attracted crowds who didn’t go to regular football matches. Their approach however, was racial and it is unlikely a stunt like this could be pulled off in present times. They were also a pioneer for leveraging football to help a social cause. In “Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels through England s Football Provinces” Daniel Gray proposes them to be “perhaps, the world’s first professional team.”

The Zulus project was scrapped but a number of their players would later play a major part in professionalizing Sheffield Wednesday. The Sheffield Zulus were one of the many reasons behind FA embracing professionalism in 1885 (Pierce-Dix was one of the most staunch opponents of this move). Sheffield resisted till 1887 but that year a number of Wednesday players, some of whom played for Zulus, like Tom Cawley, threatened to walk out permanently and set up a professional club called Sheffield Rovers. Wednesday's president John Holmes was initially reluctant but relented in the face of pressure from players to turn professional on 22nd April, 1887.

The real Cetewayo arrived in England as a political prisoner in July, 1882. He would go on to win public appreciation for his calm and dignified conduct but never got the chance to see his namesake to set his foot on a football field as captain.


Somnath is @baggiholic.