Many early FA Cup triumphs deserve to be just footnotes of a bygone age but, as Tom Green explains, that of Blackburn Olympic in the 1883 final was a turning point in the history of the game
At the start of 1882-83, Blackburn Olympic weren’t even the best team in Blackburn. If anyone was going to challenge the public school old boys who still dominated the game, it would surely be Blackburn Rovers. They were the team with the money, the connections and the support – they had even poached Olympic’s captain, Joe Beverley.
Unlike Rovers, who had been founded by grammar school old boys, Olympic’s roots were in the factories and the mills. Despite backing from a local iron magnate, they were in debt, had no real star players and, after routine wins in the first three rounds of the FA Cup, only just scraped past near-neighbours Church in round four.
It was only in the quarter-final that people started taking them seriously. They were drawn at home against Ruabon Druids, the leading Welsh side. Almost 8,000 turned out to watch – most expecting the Lancashire side to lose. Druids were a powerful team packed with internationals but it was Olympic who scored first. Though Druids equalised before half-time, in the second half, despite playing uphill, Olympic ran away with it. They won 4-1.
It wasn’t exactly a national sensation but in Blackburn people were impressed – especially since Rovers had been knocked out. Olympic, it was noted, had played coolly, “as if the match were of no real importance”. Most still put the result down to the Welsh being below par, but the performance of the home side had been impressive.
That coolness was part of a new, more professional approach that would be the key to Olympic’s success. Football in the 1880s was changing. The public schools played a dribbling game punctuated by violent tackles and “scrimmages”. But a new passing style had been developed in Scotland and it was the Lancashire teams who were the first English clubs to adopt it.
Now Olympic had added something extra. At a time when poor diet meant that working-class men were smaller than the upper classes, the Olympic player-coach, Jack Hunter, ensured that, even if his team couldn’t match opponents for size, they would beat them for speed and fitness.
Hunter, who came to Olympic after being found guilty of accepting payments for playing in Sheffield, was their driving force. Though nearing the end of his career, he had been England captain and was one of the game’s earliest innovators. Before the semi he took the team away from their workplaces and homes for a week in Blackpool. He monitored their diet (lots of oysters, no beer) and got them as fit as possible.
Formation was another area for innovation. While most teams played with six up front, Hunter’s Olympic dropped one back into midfield to facilitate the new passing game. He’d tried it first with Sheffield Wednesday, but it was with his new team that the results were starting to come.
In the semi-final against Old Carthusians, played at a neutral ground in Manchester, Olympic were the underdogs. After a delay while the referee tried to find a ball – an official had to be sent out to get one – Olympic went into an early lead and never looked like losing. Their half-backs and forwards were so effective and the whole team so much fitter and faster than their opponents that the defence was rarely troubled.
Against all predictions, Olympic had reached the final. But that, surely, was where their run would end. They had been lucky to get this far, people said, and would be found out against the holders, Old Etonians.
Despite protests that the venue favoured southern teams, the FA insisted that the final would, as usual, be played in London. About 8,000 people came to the Kennington Oval on March 31, most of them wearing top hats and supporting the public school team. Old Etonians started strongly and, to no one’s surprise, scored first. But as the game wore on, Olympic’s greater fitness told and once they had equalised at the start of the second half they looked the more likely winners. Old Etonians almost nicked it in the closing minutes but Hacking – the first goalkeeper to show that agility could be more valuable than size – kept them out. And in extra time it was no contest. Old Etonians were dead on their feet. James Crossley, a weaver, scored after just three minutes and Olympic had little difficulty holding on. They had become the first northern team to win the FA Cup.
The establishment didn’t take defeat gracefully. Old Etonians complained about Olympic having done so much preparation (how unfair!), while the Times insisted that they had won mainly through foul play.
The players were too busy being hero-worshipped to care. Thousands turned out to celebrate their return, with three brass bands struggling to make themselves heard above the cheers. One local paper even wrote an editorial worrying that the obsession with football had gone too far and would lead to young men neglecting their work and families. As if.
The team celebrated at Hunter’s pub. Amid the back-slapping speeches came several calls for the team to stick together to build on this success. Perhaps other clubs had already been sniffing around. Full-blown professionalism was still a year or two away, but there were ways and means of making it worth a player’s while to join your side.
Sure enough, by the start of the next season Olympic had lost their goalkeeper to Rovers. Others soon departed, amid talks of splits in the camp. They reached the semi-final of the FA Cup in 1884, but Rovers won it. Power had shifted. Rovers won the trophy the next year, too. And the next.
Olympic simply fell to pieces. As the game leapt forward into a new era, the team who had started it all off couldn’t keep up. They lost their best players and their debts increased. By the end of the decade they had gone out of business.
The innovations that they had helped introduce, however, especially the new playing style and the emphasis on fitness and preparation, lived on. Professionalism was accepted and teams from the industrial north and midlands became dominant. Blackburn Olympic might not have survived into the 1890s, but they took the public school old boys down with them – football was now a working man’s game.
From WSC 236 October 2006. What was happening this month