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For as long as the Football League has existed, Notts County have been its oldest club – until their relegation in May sparked a tussle for that title among warring local newspapers

19 June ~ When Notts County were relegated from League Two on the last day of the season they gave up more than their League status. They also lost their long-standing record as the oldest Football League club. The Magpies formed in 1862, a year before the laws of association football were written. Their relegation from the League came in their 157th year of existence. Now a dispute has arisen about who can claim County’s lost record.

A bold claim is made by Stoke City, who prominently feature the foundation year of 1863 on the red and white shield of their badge. On the day of County’s downfall, the Stoke Sentinel was quick to publish a story with the headline Stoke City become oldest club in Football League following Notts County relegation. The newspaper stated that Stoke formed in 1863, “as confirmed and reiterated by stitching in the back of next season’s away shirt and on the club badge”.

But Stoke’s claim is disputed by Nottingham Forest fans, whose club are recorded as forming in 1865 and playing their first match in 1866. Forest’s claim was taken up by the Nottingham Post, which stated that Stoke didn’t form until 1868. “The Reds, officially founded in 1865, are in fact older,” said the paper, “and are rightful bearers of the title of the oldest Football League club.”

Stoke’s official website states “Stoke City are the world’s oldest professional football league club”, although it admits “mystery surrounds the exact minor details of the formative years”. There is certainly confusion over Stoke’s origins. The club began life as Stoke Ramblers before changing their name to Stoke FC. In the Edwardian era, the club went bankrupt and folded before re-emerging as the newly incorporated Stoke FC (1908). The club were renamed Stoke City after the town won city status in 1925.

Football historian Mark Metcalf, author of Origins of the Football League, made his opinion public in an effort to clear up the confusion, and became inadvertently embroiled in the storm. “I’ve been aware for quite some time that Stoke City were not formed in 1863,” Metcalf says. “Records show they were formed in 1868. So Forest, not Stoke, are now the oldest Football League club.”

Newspaper archives back this up. In September 1868, The Field reported that a new unnamed club had formed in Stoke “for the practice of the Association Rules” under the captaincy of HJ Almond. The first recorded game of Stoke Ramblers was played on October 17, 1868. Then in November, The Sportsman confirmed that HJ Almond was captain of the Ramblers. So it seems clear the club that became Stoke City formed in 1868.

Although Metcalf is keen to state he is not the first historian to make this fact public, he found himself placed front and centre in their coverage by the warring Nottingham Post and Stoke Sentinel. The Post, rather unfairly, said Metcalf had “sparked the row” and the Sentinel called on readers to “have a dig around in the attic and see if you can dig out any evidence to prove this guy wrong”. But the Football League backed Metcalf, confirming in a statement that Forest are the oldest League club, and that information online regarding Stoke’s formation is incorrect.

By coincidence, Metcalf was at the then-named Britannia Stadium in 2013 when Stoke were attempting to celebrate their 150th anniversary. “I was actually there supporting Sunderland,” he says. “I did point out that it was a premature celebration, but that didn’t go down very well.”

His own club have also mis-stated their formation date, and Metcalf is attempting to get Sunderland to accept that they were founded in 1880, not 1879. “Quite a few club formation dates are inaccurate,” he says. “I’m not blaming the people who first put the stuff together but you’ve got to have some primary sources to demonstrate it.”

As for Stoke fans scrabbling in their attics in an attempt to prove him wrong, Metcalf welcomes their efforts. “Good for them,” he says. “If they come up with any primary sources that will change people’s minds I’ve got no problem with that.” Paul Brown

This article first appeared in WSC 388, July 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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