Thursday, 25 February 2010

Chapter 2 – Rise and Rise 1889 - 1897

There was a mixed reaction to the announcement. The Independent sneered that “The proprietors of the Bramall Lane Ground do not intend to yield up the palm of popularity as a football enclosure to Olive Grove without a struggle”. Stating the obvious, it continued, “Presumably the object of the proposed action is to increase the receipts at Bramall Lane”. The Telegraph’s correspondent was enthusiastic however, writing that

“it will make competition keener, and if there be no clashing of dates, I don’t see why Sheffield cannot support two such like teams…I cannot see why it will affect Wednesday if they can keep their team together, and I doubt not that they will. Success to both say I”.

Soon the Independent, tempering their earlier lack of enthusiasm, said “…it is just possible that the new departure may further excite the public interest…competition may bring larger ‘gates’ to the advantage of all concerned”.

United had written to all the local clubs asking for assistance in setting up a side. Most agreed and Sheffield F.C. wrote back that they would form a three man panel to “confer with the Bramall Lane Committee to formulate terms if possible for a mixed team of amateurs and professionals”. A meeting was held but “nothing was arrived at in any way so that our club and the new Bramall Lane Club are carried on as before, quite separately and distinct from one another”. The other local clubs, notably Heeley and Owlerton, followed suit, not wanting to be swallowed by the new side.

So United were forced to place adverts in local papers declaring that

“The Committee have decided to form a FOOTBALL CLUB for next season for Bramall Lane ground. Professionals may send testimonials and particulars on or before March 30th”.

The reference to ‘professionals’ was seen as a dig at Wednesday, the only local team to pay their players. In the first evidence of friction between the two sides a letter was printed in the Telegraph which accused United of being “spiteful” towards Wednesday, “who have at considerable expense, acquired a ground and got together a good team”. Sensitive to the charges of trying to poach Wednesday’s players, Ellison, who had helped their move to Olive Grove, asked that “nothing must be done to interfere with the Wednesday Football Club”. In the event the adverts were largely unsuccessful, bringing only three players of the necessary quality to the Lane, so further adverts were placed in papers as far away as Scotland.

Throughout the summer there was speculation as to who was going to be playing for United. In July the Independent reported that the team “will consist mainly though not entirely of Scotchmen”, and that several “have already arrived”. An unsympathetic local paper found it hilarious that United “tried two men from north of the border who rejoiced in the nom de plume of ‘Jones’ and ‘Smith’…just imagine two Scotsmen with such names!” “The talk of half a dozen is all bosh”, the Telegraph reported in an effort to quell its readerships fears over a kilted invasion of the city. Another rumour went round that a prominent Wednesday player had moved to Bramall Lane and this pushed the Telegraph over the edge. It thundered that United

“keep their team a strict secret in a manner which would be commendable if it were not so ludicrously foolish. They may take my word for it that the public will not support an organisation of which they know absolutely nothing except in vague rumours”.

In actual fact Wostinholm had handed the day to day running of the football team to Assistant Secretary, Henry Stones. The Football Club was ‘managed’ by a committee but it was said that no club ever “possessed a finer judge of the football players in the rough” than Stones. On Tuesday August 20th United played their first match, a practice game behind closed doors, with players from Sheffield F.C. at the Hallam clubs Sandygate ground. However Teddy Brayshaw, Wednesday’s captain, and the correspondent from the Independent managed to track them down and sneak in. The reporter noted

“a good muster of members, the following taking part: P. Stuart (Glasgow), W.F. Beardshaw, E. Stringer, W. Hobson, R. Crichton, H.B. Willey, G.H. Aizelwood, W. Mosforth, W.J. Wright, C.C. Pilling, N. Ross (Glasgow), R. Gordon (Glasgow), J. Hudson, B.L. Shaw, C.C. Howlett (Gainsborough), D. Galbraith (Dundee), J. Duncan (Dundee), W. Robertson (Dundee) and F.A. Tasker”

The result is not known and it is likely that the game was more of a practice session. United first threw the doors open to the public on the Thursday evening in another practice match against Sheffield F.C. It was noted that the football offered by United “provoked much criticism” and “a little more practice” was recommended.

The goalkeeper, Charlie Howlett, wore specs, lived in Grenoside and had played for Gainsborough Trinity. Ned Stringer, a well known local player who had turned out for Ecclesfield and Lockwood Brothers, was at full back, but his partner for the first game, Robert Douglas from Glasgow’s Northern club, left immediately afterwards. The captain was Jack Hudson who had had a successful career with Wednesday and had played for England against Ireland at the Lane in 1883. At centre half was Walter Hobson, formerly with Owlerton, and the half back line was completed by Ross. He and fellow Scot, outside right Stuart, failed to impress and quickly returned across the border. The two inside forwards, Dugald Galbraith and James Duncan, and the centre forward Bill Robertson all came from Dundee. Robertson scored United’s first goal in their first match and went on to score their first hat trick and became the first United player to be sent off. The biggest star in the team was outside left Billy Mosforth, known as the ‘little wonder’ or ‘Sheffield Dodger’. He had enjoyed a career at Wednesday as well as Sheffield Albion, Hallam and other local clubs, and had played for England.

The new fixture list was announced and it was revealed that United had entered the F.A. Cup and two local competitions but that the bulk of their games would be friendlies. United approached Wednesday, who were about to start their first season of league football in the Football Alliance, for two games, but Wednesday insisted that the first fixture must be played at Olive Grove. United offered to draw lots but Wednesday refused and the fixture the whole city had been looking forward to failed to materialise.

United’s first proper match, at Meadow Lane in Nottingham, was against Midlands League side Notts Rangers on September 7th 1889 and about 1,000 turned up. The match report in the Telegraph was brief enough to be quoted in full;

“In splendid weather and before a large assemblage. The Rangers kicked off at 3:30 and at half time the game stood Rangers 2 Sheffield 0. After a short time the Rangers scored twice. Result: Rangers 4 goals Sheffield 1 goal”

The Nottingham Evening Post was a little more fulsome, but the result, sadly, was the same.

“The visitors are a new combination organised by the authorities at Bramall Lane, Sheffield, who did not care to see the best of Sheffield football being played upon the new ground of the Wednesday Club at Olive Grove whilst the cricket enclosure lay fallow. The new Sheffield eleven, which is exclusively professional, includes several well known Wednesday players, notably J. Hudson, who captains the team, and the old international ‘Billy’ Mosforth. Owing to the late arrival of the Sheffielders it was twenty minutes to four o’ clock when the ball was kicked off…Although the ground was thick with herbage, and the going ‘heavy’ in consequence, the game opened fast, and some exciting play was witnessed in the first quarter of an hour”

A Shaw scored Rangers first two goals, the first after just ten minutes, before R. Mitchell put Rangers three up.

“This further reverse put the visitors more on their mettle, and the play became rough, the Sheffield men having the advantage, and twice Brown was severely taxed in order to save his charge. Some fine goalkeeping was also shown by Howlett…but Shaw threading his way through three or four opponents, made a fourth goal cleverly. At length the visitors, who played up well despite the reverses, got through, and Robertson, by a capital shot, beat Brown who had no chance of saving his goal”

United’s next game followed a week later against Heeley at the Sheaf House ground off Cherry Street in front of 2,500 curious spectators. It was also United’s first victory, with Duncan and Mack scoring in a 2-1 win. A win over Lincoln City was followed by a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Birmingham St George’s, a Football Alliance side, in which the only positive was the attendance of 3,000. On September 30th United went on their first run winning three games on the trot. Grimsby were beaten 3-1 at home and the Manchester Regiment of the Kings Own Light Infantry were battered 7-1. United traveled to Scarborough to round their run off with their first F.A. Cup match and first away win with a very impressive 6-1.

United had a few impressive results in their first season. Against Exchange in the Sheffield Challenge Cup United won 7-0 with Robertson getting the clubs first hat trick. The Challenge Cup also threw up a 6-0 victory over Attercliffe, but for each of these there was a stinker, such as the 7-0 defeat against Staveley and a 7-0 walloping from Grimsby. Among all this United did take part in a thrilling match away at Middlesbrough which ended 6-4 in Boro’s favour.

United played their first local derbies. Against Doncaster in December they arrived with only ten players and had to borrow Donny’s Albert Attree for the game. They lost 2-0 with match being abandoned after 8-0 minutes due to darkness. In March a 2-1 over Rotherham was marred by crowd trouble.

The F.A. Cup provided some thrills and spills. After the flying start against Scarborough United ground out a 1-0 win over Heeley with an own goal in the second qualifying round. On November 11th United faced Sheffield F.C. and eased to a 3-0 victory with goals from Donald and Duncan and an own goal from Willey. This gave United an away tie at Rotherham in the last qualifying round and United earned a 2-2 draw on December 7th to take it to a replay at the Lane. In another close contest on December 21st, goals from Galbraith and Mosforth gave United a 2-1 win and a first round tie against League side Burnley. With Robertson and a mysterious ‘T. Wilson’ scoring for United, they pulled off an unlikely 2-1 win and “Howlett was carried shoulder high from the field” at the final whistle. It was a close call though, and at one point United were only saved when Galbraith deliberately handled the ball on the line. Penalty kicks were not yet part of the game and United survived the free kick. After the match Galbraith shamelessly explained “D’ye think I was gaun to let it gang through? Not me!”. On February 1st United faced Bolton Wanderers away in the F.A. Cup second round. United made history, but of the wrong sort, going down 13-0, their record defeat.

United had played this season in white shirts bought from Cole Brothers on Fargate. Plain white was the cheapest shirt going with the result that all sorts of teams wore it so in 1891, United added thin red stripes to the top.

Where the red and white stripes originated

At the end of their first season United could look back on steady progress. They had established themselves locally although Wednesday were by far the more high profile club, winning the Football Alliance and reaching the F.A. Cup final that year, only to be hammered 6-1 by Blackburn Rovers. Crowds of 2,000 were considered good at the time and United regularly brought that in and they pulled in 5,000 against Rotherham.

More encouraging was the emergence of new players. Full back Harry Lilley was brought in from Staveley and another two came from Rotherham Swifts. Rab Howell was known as the ‘little gypsy’ because he was born in a caravan in Wincobank Woods. A tough and clever player who began playing at centre forward he eventually settled at right half. Needham wrote

“perhaps (he) owes some of his inexhaustible vitality to his lucky parentage. Certain it is that no man is more untiring…should the outside man indulge in dribbling he sticks to him like a leech.”

Rab Howell

Howell was often in trouble though and was called before the United Committee on eight occasions each time promising to ‘mend his ways’. He was also lent money by United to pay off debts.

Another emerging star was full back Mick Witham who had previously turned out for Wednesday. Witham was a hard player, described as “one of the most vigorous chargers Sheffield ever had”, but this often made him unpopular with opposing fans. After one game against Middlesbrough the United players had a long walk back to the pub they were changing in. Witham was taunted by fans the whole way and eventually he lost his temper, threw down his coat, and challenged the “best man in Middlesbrough to come forward”.

The 1890-1891 squad

It was clear however that league football was the big draw for football audiences and United managed to gain entry into the Midland League for the 1890-1891 season. Two events early in the season taught United that a new, harder headed attitude would be needed in league football. On September 6th United were due to travel to Stoke for a friendly. Arriving late into Derby the United party discovered they had missed their connecting train and got the next train back to Sheffield. Stoke were furious at the loss of revenue and wrote to the F.A. to claim £70 in lost gate revenue. The request was refused. On November 1st United beat Kidderminster 4-0 in the League. There was controversy however when a Kidderminster goal was disallowed. The Kidderminster players were angry with the decision and refused to play on. United were awarded a penalty and strolled through unopposed to score.

The highlight of the season though was the occasion of the first derbies between United and Wednesday. There was already ill feeling between the two clubs over the player poaching allegations and failure to agree to a derby the previous season but prior to the first game at Olive Grove on December 15th further friction occurred. United were angry because an agreement that the two clubs would avoid fixture clashes had been broken as Wednesday took more than their fair share of Saturday slots. Wednesday were annoyed because United had undercut their ticket prices. Wednesday set their season ticket price at 7/6d and shortly after United set theirs at 5/-. The issue was highlighted when United began charging 3d for games which clashed with Wednesday league fixtures but 6d for other matches.

The Telegraph reported that “No club match within the recollection of local football enthusiasts has called forth such an exhibition of enthusiasm”. With Wednesday rock bottom of the Alliance the mood was tense and one newspaper described

“The atmosphere was raw and slightly leaden with fog and smoke. The light was bad and the outlook was far from agreeable. Yet everybody was in good spirits and probably not a single gloomy individual could be found among the throng. It was an interesting sight that was presented from the stand. Around the ground was a black mass of fidgety humanity, relief of colour only being afforded by the partisan cards worn by many in their hats and the occasional striking of matches.”

10,000 Sheffielders descended on Olive Grove and the Telegraph said that

“An hour before the game started the various turnstiles were kept busy, and at the entrances favours bearing the inscriptions ‘Play up Wednesday’ or ‘Play up United’ were freely distributed and were in evidence in the hats and caps of the supporters of each side…The stands and enclosures were rapidly filled, and the barriers of the arena lined ten deep…amidst the clamour of the multitude could be heard the cry of ‘Billy Witham’, vending his cards, ‘All the names of each side a penny’. Of course the betting men were there in force, one enterprising individual having provided himself with a box, and eagerly anxious to lay 5 to 4 against United”

United were certainly the underdogs facing a Wednesday side which included six men who had played in the Cup final the previous season. Nevertheless United dominated the first half playing attractive football and after twenty minutes a corner was met by the head of Bill Robertson to give them the lead. The night was drawing in and Olive Grove was without floodlights so after the break “it was scarcely possible to follow the ball owing to the darkness”. ‘Toodles’ Woolhouse equalized for Wednesday and five minutes from the end Harry Winterbottom scored to hand Wednesday the win.

On January 12th the return match was played in front of 14,000 at Bramall Lane and again United were unfancied. The crowd was in high spirits and play was temporarily halted when some spectators spilled onto the pitch and “the inevitable dog made its appearance on the field, but contrary to the usual custom, was speedily impounded”. Once again United started brightly and Robertson hit the post, but at half time the score was 0-0.

Wednesday quickly went into a two goal lead in the second half with goals from Billy Ingram and Bob Brandon. Roared on by the boisterous crowd United fought back and goals from Watson and Howell from distance leveled the scores. Both sides pressed for the winner in an exciting climax and two minutes from the end Calder popped up to score United’s winner, but the Telegraph correspondent complained that the goal was “the most barefaced infringement of the offside rule which has been my lot to witness”.

United’s victory was followed by a 9-1 hiding at the hands of Football League side Notts County in the F.A. Cup. This game caused further friction with Wednesday. The Olive Grove side had been drawn to play Halliwell away in the Cup but persuaded the Lancashire club to switch to Sheffield. It wasn’t crowd trouble that worried people about the two clubs playing at home on the same day but the worry that attendances would be affected as many fans had yet to pick a favourite club and often went to see both. An anguished Wednesday fan wrote to the Olive Grove committee asking that they “see the error of their ways”. For United’s General Meeting in February Wednesday’s President travelled to Bramall Lane to explain that there was “no disposition on the part of his club to be antagonistic” and a United spokesman hoped that “it only needed the two Secretaries to work amicably together”.

United had a satisfactory first season in the Midland League. Hostilities were renewed with Rotherham in the second game of the season as United won a rough game 3-0 in front of 6,000 at the Lane. From November United went on an excellent run of form losing only once in League or Cup before January 5th. After the hiccup of the first Wednesday game United bounced back with a 5-2 win over Derby Midland in which Bridgewater scored a hat trick. On December 30th United played host to the Casuals and won 7-0 with Bairstow getting a hat trick this time. United finished the season fifth.

Early in 1891 a chance encounter in the billiard room of a Southport hotel helped United on the path to the top of the football tree. Charles Stokes overheard two men saying that Preston North End, one of the top sides in the country, were about to release a number of players. The next day Stokes travelled to Preston and agreed to bring inside forward Sammy Dobson, outside left Jack Drummond and centre half Billy Hendry to Bramall Lane.

Billy Hendry

Hendry was born by the river Tay in Scotland and had previously been at West Brom, Stoke and Preston. Hendry was perhaps United’s first hero with Charles Stokes immediately naming him captain. One journalist wrote that United left him in charge

“both as to the arrangement and formation of the team. The club relied heavily on his ability as a player, as a captain and as an advisor”

As a player he was highly regarded too “with fine ball control; an artist who headed the ball superbly”, one colleague described him as “the best player Sheffield ever had”. He introduced a style of play which saw long cross field passes used to pull the opposition defence out of shape with fast wingers hitting in a stream of crosses. This tactic was kept up by a succession of United players, Ernest Needham, George Utley and Billy Gillespie, throughout the next 40 years.

United were busy exploring other avenues of finding new players. Centre forward Harry Hammond came from Everton and full back Bob Cain from the other Merseyside club Bootle. Looking locally United managed to find two eighteen year olds who would go on to play a major role in the club’s success in the coming years. Harry Thickett played five games towards the end of the season, but went to Doncaster at the end of the season. Fortunately Ernest Needham was a more permanent addition. 

Ernest Needham

Born in Chesterfield in 1873 ‘Nudger’ Needham had played for the Sheffield Association already and had caught Stones’ eye in the two games United played against Staveley, Needham’s village side, the previous season. United initially played him at outside right but he was soon moved to the left half slot where he would go on to earn the accolade ‘The Prince of Half Backs’. Initially he played alongside Hendry who groomed Needham as his successor. He did an excellent job and Needham would go on to become one of United’s greatest ever players.

Needham earned his famous nick name for his tough style of tackling, leading with the shoulder which was lawful at the time. Needham once said that “It’s no use fiddling about with the ball in midfield in a Cup tie. Take the quickest route to goal and have a pot”.

But there was more to his game than this. At the height of his fame in 1901 Needham published a book called ‘Association Football’. In contrast to today’s lurid football memoirs, Needham’s book was considered look at the tactics of the game and he spoke in favour of the passing game.

“Combination is the soul of the game, and success almost invariably attends it. It pays from the standpoint of the players, and there is nothing which the crowd so much appreciates”

Alfred Gibson, a sports writer of the time, wrote

“There is one thing which has made Earnest Needham stand out of the common run of halves; he is neither a constructive nor a destructive half-back alone; he is both at once. One moment you will see him falling back to the defence of his own goal, or checking the speedy rush of his wing; the next, he is up with his forwards, feeding them to a nicety, and always making the best of every opening. Where he gets his pace from is a mystery. He never seems to be racing, yet he must be moving at racing pace; he never seems to be exhausted, yet in a big game he is practically doing three men's work”

Gibson also paid tribute to Needham’s ball skill.

"This is one of the secrets of his greatness for very seldom when he has the ball is he deprived of it, whilst the accuracy of his wing passes, and the telling force of his punches straight across the field to an unprotected wing, spell danger to any kind of defence."

He was also a top class cricketer representing Derbyshire between 1901 and 1912 scoring 6550 runs in 186 appearances. In 1904 he played in the historic match in Chesterfield when Derbyshire overturned a massive first innings total of 597 to beat Essex.

United attempted to move up the football ladder by applying to join the Football Alliance but they were turned down on the basis that the Alliance would only accept one team from a town and it already had Wednesday, a ridiculous argument as both Birmingham and Manchester had two teams in the Alliance. Certainly Charles Stokes believed that United’s application had been spiked by Wednesday. Either way United had to turn instead to the Northern League.

The games development continued as well. The old system of two umpires on the pitch and a referee on the touchline was replaced by one referee on the field aided by two linesmen. Penalty kicks were also introduced and quickly caused United problems. In a match against Sunderland Albion on September 12th, Albion were awarded a controversial penalty but United still won 4-3. After the game though, the referee had the chance to talk with other officials who agreed that that the penalty should not have been given. The ref was persuaded and took the unprecedented step of revising the final result to 4-2.

Another innovation were goal nets and these caused great amusement for the fans during the Sheffield derby on October 26th at Bramall Lane. Believing that the goalkeepers looked like hens in a hen run the crowd began taunted the goalkeepers with clucking noises throughout the game.

In front of 23,000 Hammond and Dobson scored two each and Tom Brandon, Wednesday’s big money buy from Blackburn, stuck it into his own net. United ran out 5-0 winners but once again crowd trouble flared up. One outbreak was only ended when “the United team leapt the railings” and restored order with the help of 40 police officers. The rivalry between fans of the two clubs had intensified in a remarkably short space of time and R. A. Sparling, who would go on to become the Telegraph’s sports editor, recalled that

“Unfortunately there were feelings in the town akin to human hate and passion. Business relationships were influenced; private friendships shattered and even families divided owing to the claims of jealous football clubs…there was between the partisans of United and Wednesday, jealousy, rancour and uncharitableness”.

United fans celebrated the win by printing spoofs of the then popular funeral cards to commemorate the defeat.

In Loving Remembrance of
who were safely put to rest on Monday October 26th
at Bramall Lane
Poor old Wednesday were fairly done,
When United beat them five to none;
Although they lost, they did their best,
So let them quietly take their rest

There was further bad feeling between United and Wednesday when the Wharncliffe Charity Cup Final was abandoned after Wednesday refused to play at Bramall Lane.

The nearest team in the Northern League was Darlington but United had a good season finishing third. As well as the trouncing of Wednesday United beat Darlington 7-1 and South Bank and Stockton 6-0 in the League and the Casuals 7-2 in a friendly. Set against this was the 8-1 trouncing at the hands of Mount St Mary’s, but for the first time United managed to keep such results to a minimum and finished third. Mick Witham and Harry Lilley were impressive enough to become United’s first internationals in March 1892 when they lined up on the same day in separate England sides to face Ireland and Wales respectively. Bolton, whose chairman J.J. Bentley was well disposed towards United, came to the Lane again for “bare expenses” and United continued to show improvement against the League side, beating them 4-3 at home and drawing 3-3 away. Attendances were on the up as well with 10,000 attending the Lincoln game in the F.A. Cup and 8,000 seeing the Stockton match.

For the 1892-1893 season the Football League was to be expanded from 14 to 16 teams and a vote was held to determine who would join. The results were; Wednesday 10, Nottingham Forest 9, Accrington 7, Stoke 6 and Newton Heath 6. United won only 5 votes but shortly afterwards a newspaper reported that they had actually received 7. The United Secretary asked to see the ballot papers but was told they had been burnt. Instead, United were offered a place in a newly created Second Division of the Football League along with the likes of Small Heath, Darwen, Grimsby, Ardwick, Burton Swifts, Northwich Victoria, Bootle, Lincoln, Crewe, Burslem and Walsall. United decided to hedge their bets and accept the Second Division offer and keep a side in the Northern League as well.

United’s first Football League match was against Lincoln City on September 3rd 1892. Lincoln arrived late and the kick off was delayed by thirty five minutes but after only three minutes Jack Hammond scored United’s first. Lincoln quickly equalised but United had a surprisingly comfortable 4-2 win with Hammond completing a hat trick. United recorded a number of impressive League victories this season notably an 8-3 win over Bootle in which Hammond scored five out of his season total of 32.

On December 10th United beat Burslem Port Vale 10-0, to this day the only occasion in League football when double figures have been reached by a visiting team. The Telegraph reported that “the ground was several inches deep in snow and at the opening of the game, snow was falling heavily”. Drummond scored after just two minutes and “No sooner had the game been restarted than the visitors by good passing put on a second, Wallace putting the last touch on the ball. Not to be outdone, Hammond added a third, these three goals being registered in six minutes.”

United were 5-0 up at the interval and added to the tally in the second half, the Telegraph commenting that “the light Burslem men could do nothing at all…The whole of the visiting forwards played a surprisingly fast game on the heavy ground”. After Hammond scored United’s ninth “the spectators loudly called upon the Sheffielders to make the score into double figures” and Hammond soon obliged. The Burslem fans who had stuck it out this far were cheered up when one of their former players, who had “imbibed freely if not wisely”, ran on to the pitch and attempted to assault Howlett. After being ordered off several times Hendry dragged him from the pitch and threw him in a pile of snow. The Telegraph report also referred to United as the “Blades” for the first time.

This sort of form kept United in the chase for a test match which could send them up to the First Division. United won their final home game of the season 2-1 against Ardwick with two goals from Needham, the winner only four minutes from the end. At the final whistle Needham was carried from the pitch by fans celebrating a result which left them second in the table.

It was a difficult run in however, with all four games away from home in order to give the pitch time to recover for the start of the cricket season. The penultimate game of the season was a lively encounter away at Crewe. Hammond was sent off for kicking a Crewe player but the crowd was angry and surged onto the pitch to punish him themselves. They were only persuaded to return to the stands when they were told that Hammond had left the ground. He had had to shin over a wall to escape and met the other United players at Crewe station still wearing his kit. United’s last game was away at bottom side Walsall and a win would have seen them win the Championship. As it was United drew the game and earned a test match against First Division Accrington in which the prize would be top flight football. Birmingham side Small Heath topped the table but were rewarded with a tougher test match against Newton Heath.

The play off was in Nottingham and two special trains were laid on to take the United fans but Accrington is a small place and the club had few fans so the disappointing attendance of 6,000 were mostly Unitedites. Even so the First Division side piled on the pressure throughout the first half and Howlett received an ovation at the break. In the second half United were a bit brighter and ten minutes after the interval Drummond scored the only goal of the game, hitting home a powerful shot after a long run down the left which saw him pass two defenders. Needham later called it the best goal he ever saw and it was certainly one of the most important for Sheffield United as it propelled them into the First Division.

At United’s General Meeting in July it became clear how important the goal was. In the three years since football began at the Lane United had lost £800 and the deficit stood at £1,477. Promotion to the First Division had earned United a stay of execution but the Committee made it clear that the club would “wash its hands of football” if it did not start pulling its financial weight. In the end Ellison lightened the mood, announcing “I am sorry we had anything to do with football…we must go on for a further year”.

Nevertheless United got off to a flyer in Division One in 1893. The first game was away against Everton on September 2nd and United won 3-2. First Division football brought big crowds throughout an unbeaten run which carried them into mid October. 6,500 saw Bolton beaten 4-2 at the Lane with goals from Needham, Gallacher, Fleming and Hill, 10,000 were at the Villa game to see United win 3-0 and Sunderland were beaten 1-0 in front of 14,000.

On October 16th Wednesday visited the Lane attracting a huge crowd of 27,000, so many that “most people only had a view of the collar or hat of the man in front…and took their football second hand on the instalment plan”.

In a dirty game Wednesday were reduced to ten men for the second half but a 1-1 draw saw United remain top of the table. After this however, United went on a run of three successive League defeats against West Brom, Aston Villa and Derby after which they had dropped to third. United’s League form was sporadic from then on and they finished the season tenth in the table, but Needham had been as impressive as ever and won his first cap in April 1894. Even the F.A. Cup provided little solace as the Blades crashed out in the first round after losing away at Newcastle United.

For the start of the 1894-1895 season United moved to strengthen the side in a bid to avoid a repeat of the poor second half to the previous season and Harry Thickett returned from Doncaster and slotted in alongside new signing Bob Cain in the full back positions. Years later a journalist who remembered Cain described him as “…a bit of human oak. His game was strength personified. He kicked brilliantly without a semblance of effort. He tackled shrewdly and generally fairly”. Thickett was big but deceptively quick and would go on to become a Blades legend. Ernest Needham wrote

“He has more dash and energy than any back I have ever had the pleasure of seeing, and he is one of the speediest. He is always a pillar of strength to his side, while some of the games he has played have been marvellous performances. Perhaps not one of the safest kicks, he, however, soon recovers after a mistake, and no one shows to better advantage when in a difficult corner”

Thickett won a raft of honours with the club and two England caps before leaving in 1904 to become Bristol City manager, taking them to within sniffing distance of the League in 1907 and the Cup final in 1910. In every one of his 299 games for United he played at right back.

Another new signing was the legendary goalkeeper Bill ‘Fatty’ Foulke. He was recommended as a replacement for Howlett by a referee and Harry Stones and Joe Tomlinson travelled to Derbyshire to watch Foulke play for his village side Blackwell in a Derbyshire Cup tie against Ilkeston. They were impressed by his size, 6ft 2 inches, but also by his agility. After the game Stones approached Foulke and offered him “£1 per day and when the season expires we will talk about next year. In the meantime, come and see how you like us at our place”. Foulke agreed and became a United player. 30 minutes later a representative of Nottingham Forest arrived to sign him but was too late.

Bill Foulke

Born in Shropshire in 1874, Foulke would become a Bramall Lane legend partly by virtue of his skill, but also for his weight which climbed to over 20st in his time at the club. The reason for his mammoth bulk isn’t hard to fathom.

“On one occasion he got into the dining room before the rest of the team and polished off all eleven breakfasts. In response to the remonstrations of his team mates he only replied: ‘I don’t care what you call me, so long as you don’t call me late for lunch’”

As a contrast to the rather staid Needham, the light hearted attitude of Foulke was vital to the morale of the great side which was coming together. “Once when we were very disappointed I begged some black stuff from the engine driver and rubbed it over my face” he remembered in 1913.

“There I was sitting on the table and playing some silly game, with all the team round me, laughing like kiddies at a Punch and Judy show, when some grumpy committeeman looked in. Ask the old team…if a bit of ‘Little Willie’s’ foolery didn’t help to chirp ‘em up before a tough match”

Ernest Needham agreed and, commenting on Foulke years later, said “A merry heart goes a long way on a football field”

Stories abounded of crossbars breaking when he swung on them, doing handstands or grabbing opposing players by their collars and throwing them into his net, each one greeted with wild cheers by United fans. His reputation also made him a target for away fans. The popular chant ‘Who ate all the pies?’ is originally said to have been directed at Foulke and he was often the target for more than abuse, on one occasion “oranges, pipe stems, together with the bowls, and other devotional acts of unkindness”.

His lager than life persona made Foulke one of the early superstars of the game but he was not universally popular. His temper was volatile at times and the Athletic News carried one story about Foulke eating bread and cheese on a train when a clergyman walked in and said sarcastically, “I see you are an epicure”

“Foulke, stunned by the word, regained his speech and answered: ‘Oh am I? Then you’re a ****’”

In the press he was urged to “restrain his inclination to argue with the spectators” and despite being the outstanding goalkeeper of the time Foulke’s antics were too much for the staid gentlemen of the F.A. As the Telegraph put it

“It is a pity that Foulke cannot curb the habit of pulling down the crossbar, which on Saturday ended in his breaking it in two. On form, he is well in the running for international honours, but the Selection Committee are sure to prefer a man who plays the game to one who unnecessarily violates the spirit of the rules”

In 1901 United were more generous in the programme for Foulke’s benefit match

“He has had several honours given him, though the greatest honour of all, the cap for England against Scotland, has been denied him. We are rather inclined to think that in this he has hardly had fair treatment for of the general quality of his work between the sticks there can hardly be a difference of opinion”

Bill Foulke won only one England cap, against Wales in 1897, and kept a clean sheet.

Another important addition joined off the pitch with appointment of George Waller as first team trainer, a position he would occupy until 1930. Waller had played for Pitsmoor and Wednesday helping the Olive Grove side to the Cup final in 1890. Needham would go on to pay tribute to Waller saying “I am certain that Sheffield United owe a great deal to their trainer”. Reflecting on the successes that United would soon have Needham wrote “it was nothing but good judgement on his part that put them in a position to win”.

Sheffield United 1895

The season was one of consolidation for United, who finished 6th as Sunderland and Aston Villa kept up their near monopoly of the League title. On November 12th United faced Aston Villa in extraordinary weather conditions at Perry Bar. Rain had been pouring down prior to kick off and swathes of the pitch were under water. It was bitingly cold and continued to rain throughout the game. “The bitterly cold wind and sleet pierced one, numbing muscle and brain”, Needham recalled. Both sets of players tried to persuade the referee, Mr Thomas, to cancel the game but he claimed he could find nothing in the rules to justify such a decision and the game went ahead.

During a dismal match the players were often absent from the pitch and United were down to seven men at one stage. Needham remembered that

“Men on both sides succumbed and were carried away to hot baths and stimulants. I left the field half an hour before the finish of time, and by doing so probably saved my life”

The Villa players suffered as well and “from time to time retired singly, either to change their attire or else to get a warm beverage, while on one occasion John Devey stepped onto the field wearing an overcoat”. Another Villa player, Charlie Athersmith, was seen holding an umbrella as he made his way down the wing. Fans constantly ran onto the pitch to bring hot drinks to the Villa players but the United team were ignored. Towards the end Bob Cain collapsed and Jimmy Yates and Hugh Morris got fed up and headed for the dressing room and Bill Foulke was knocked unconscious when he dived at Devey’s feet. When Thomas appeared in the United dressing room afterwards to inform Yates and Morris that he would be reporting them for leaving the field without permission he was met with a barrage of abuse. The League later said that the referee would have been “well advised to stop the game under the circumstances” but the 5-0 win for Villa stood.

Foulke was rested for a friendly against Linfield Athletic the following week and Arthur Wharton, the first black player in Britain, made his debut for United.

Walter Bennett

United further strengthened the side for the 1895-1896 season with the signing of right wing player Walter Bennett. Bennett, nicknamed ‘Cocky’, came from Mexborough in January 1896, where he had scored an incredible 87 of their 123 goals the previous season, and was a powerful winger and good hitter of the ball. Some were unimpressed however, and one local journalist wrote that “From what I know of Bennett, £10 seems a long price to pay”. Indeed, his health was poor to start with and his weight was a problem and it was some time before he lived up to his billing at Bramall Lane.

There were cosmetic changes at the Lane too. The most noticeable was the new 2,000 seater John Street stand but such was United’s success in the coming years that it was soon inadequate and was replaced in 1901. The other change was the introduction of the Sheffield Prize Band, a brass band brought in to entertain the fans at half time.

One of the ways that football clubs generated cash was to go on short tours in the middle of the football season and between Boxing Day and January 12th United played five games in Scotland. In one of these, on New Years Day, Billy Hendry was injured and his United career effectively finished.

Although it was huge blow to lose such a talented and popular player United moved quickly to replace him with Tommy Morren whose signing was a story in itself. He was fresh from winning the F.A. Amateur Cup with Middlesbrough the previous season and was heading south, to Reading, to join his Middlesbrough captain, Phil Bache. However, one of the officials at Middlesbrough was friends with United trainer George Waller, who had played for the Teesside club, and tipped him off that Morren’s train would be heading via Sheffield. When he arrived in Midland station he was met by Waller, who grabbed his suitcase and charged off for a waiting cab with the stunned centre half in pursuit. That afternoon Morren had a trial against Barnsley and was signed by United.

He was a tough centre half who was “always in the thick of the action”, but Needham recalled him as being “better in defence than in feeding his forwards”. He was only 5ft 5in and completed the famous half back line which a Birmingham paper described as “midgets” as they were all under 5ft 6in. Needham was the logical choice to replace Hendry as Captain.

United were gradually building a strong side and lost only twice at home all season. One of their outstanding results at the Lane was an 8-0 spanking of Bury on April 30th 1896 in which Hammond scored 4, William Egan scored 3 and Bob Cain got one of his three goals for the club. Away form was much less impressive however, despite a creditable draw against eventual Champions Aston Villa in which United turned up with just 10 men and Waller had to borrow a pair of boots from a Villa player to make up the numbers. As it happened he scored the equalizing goal. United didn’t win away until a 2-0 win over Derby County in March and finished 12th. United’s poor performances in the Cup continued also as they were knocked out in the second round by Everton while Wednesday went on to win it.

But United were drawing close to the aim of challenging the duopoly of Sunderland and Aston Villa. The defence of Foulke, the full backs Cain and Witham, and half back line of Howell, Morren and Needham was as strong as any so at the end of the season United moved to strengthen the forward line and turned again to the north east. The man they signed was left winger Fred Priest from his home town club South Bank in April 1896. He was a popular player, partly down to his fair hair and sunny outlook, and partly down to his wing play, which mixed dogged determination with speed and skill. United further strengthened their forward line with the purchase of John Almond a clever striker who read the game well. He had previously turned out for Bishop Auckland and Darlington but he was unpopular with large sections of the crowd. This was largely down to the fact that he had recently inherited the vast sum of £12,000 from his father, a Yorkshire brewer, and as a result he was seen as a bit of a ‘rich boy’.

The 1896 – 1897 season was United’s best yet. The Blades got off to an unbeaten run which saw them undefeated in late October. On September 19th a strong Sunderland side which had won the League three times that decade was beaten 3-0 at the Lane with the goals coming from Almond, on his debut, and two from Hammond. When the run did come to an end, away against Preston, the goal was described as “disputed”. At home the Blades remained undefeated until December 5th when they were beaten by West Brom. However, such was the competition in the League that season that despite their excellent form, Liverpool, Villa and Bolton were above United in the table. Goals from Fred Priest and Rab Howell saw United beat Wednesday in front of 30,000 at Bramall Lane on Boxing Day. If this was impressive, the 7-0 drubbing of Blackburn Rovers was even more so, with Bennett scoring twice, Walls hitting a hat trick and Cain and Hammond getting one each. At the end of the month Blackburn got their revenge when they dumped the Blades out of the F.A. Cup.

In the second half of the season United’s home form prevented them from putting much pressure on the runaway League leaders, Villa. The Blades lost five games in the second half of the season but four of these were played at Bramall Lane. In all they lost one third of their home matches. But United’s defence had been the tightest in the League, conceding only 29 goals in the 30 games compared to 38 for Villa. In the end United finished second behind an unstoppable Aston Villa side who went on to complete the double. However, due to the League Secretary’s poor maths the table actually showed United as having finished third for some time.

In recent years football has seen one or two teams tend to dominate silverware and, as now, the success of Villa and Sunderland in the 1890’s had caused some concern. “All this pointed clearly to one thing”, Needham wrote,

“that the richest clubs, or the most speculative, must soon get the best players and attain an impregnable position. Had this process continued it would have been suicidal, and interest would soon have died out”

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