Thursday, 25 February 2010

Chapter 3 - The Glory Years 1897 - 1902

The strong league performance had been good news financially for the Blades who posted a profit of £1,066. For the coming season they invested £1,390 on a new covered area on the Shoreham Street stand. The decision was also taken to print programmes for home games. The first one stated that the club’s aim for the 1897-1898 season “is to gain the Championship of the League”. They showed this intent by splashing out on Preston centre forward John Cunningham who was brought in to partner Almond up front.

For the first match of the season 2,500 turned out in pouring rain at Bramall Lane to watch United beat a Derby County side including England legend Steve Bloomer 2-1. The scores were level with ten minutes to go, with Bennett scoring for the Blades and Derby having missed a penalty. With time ticking by Almond struck the ball so hard into the Derby goal that it went straight through the netting. The referee waved away United’s appeals and refused to look at the net. Instead he consulted the nearest linesman who was also the Derby trainer. The goal was disallowed. With a few minutes left, Needham struck a free kick from 25 yards. The Derby keeper fumbled it and the ball trickled over the line. Other first day news was mixed. The good news was that Wednesday were hammered 5-2 but the bad news was that it was rivals and League favourites Aston Villa who had done the hammering.

Three days later United were away at Preston. Played in poor weather again United recorded an impressive 3-1 victory with Priest scoring and Walter Bennett netting two. United were awarded a penalty and Bennett was nominated to take it to complete his hat trick but he struck the ball so hard that it burst. He missed the penalty and a hat trick. On September 11th United faced Stoke at Bramall Lane. 10,000 attended this match but were stunned when the Blades found themselves two goals down after five minutes. In a dramatic game Morren and Bennett scored and McKay struck twice. United came away 4-3 winners.

A run of 1-1 draws followed. Away to Nottingham Forest Almond scored United’s goal, and at the Lane Priest scored for the draw against Bury. On the same day Villa had gone into their game against a pointless Blackburn Rovers at the top of the table, the only team to have taken maximum points so far. It came as a shock then when Blackburn ran out 4-3 winners to send the Blades back to the top as the only team still unbeaten. On October 2nd Almond again hit the Blades solitary goal away to Wolverhampton Wanderers with a stunning hook shot ten minutes from the end but Wolves had given United a scare and Foulke had been largely responsible for saving the point.

If United had had trouble scoring at the end of September October got off to a flying start with the Blades hitting ten goals in two games. At home to Blackburn Rovers on the 4th Bennett and Almond were on the score sheet again for United and Needham rounded off the scoring for the Blades with a hat trick, including a penalty and two strikes from distance, to give United a thrilling 5-2 victory. This match was Cunningham’s debut but Mick Witham’s last for the club with Harry Thickett returning. Five days later United hit five past Bury at Gigg Lane in another 5-2 win. Bennett, Almond, Morren, Cunningham and Needham were the scorers. The program suggested that such results may have gone to the players heads.

“We have a lot of fine players – every one of them wanting sugar plums every time they play. Men of that stamp are no good to us”

The 16th saw United away at Olive Grove trying to keep the run going against Wednesday. The program had urged

“Let the keynote of your trumpeting on Saturday next at Olive Grove be Play Up, United! Display your colours prominently and do not strike them whether fortune smiles or frowns”

The Blades were less free scoring in a cagey match in which Foulke again stood out. The match was won for the Blades in the fourth minute by a brilliant cross shot by Bennett who also rattled the bar with a powerful shot after a mazy run from his own half. The attendance of 24,000 brought record gate receipts of £620. The following week Preston were visitors to an injury hit Lane but McKay and Needham, who had been shunted out to the left wing, were the scorers in a 2-1 win. Harry Johnson played his first match and would figure later in the season.

On October 30th United travelled to Merseyside along with a thousand fans to play third place Everton and continued the excellent run with a 4-1 win. Everton took the lead with a goal from Bell, a former Wednesday player, but a goal from Cunningham and two from Almond sent the Blades into the break with a 3-1 lead. Shortly after the restart a long clearance up the field by Foulke found Bennett who “touched it between the backs, and scored a brilliant fourth goal”. The match became bad tempered towards the end as the ex-Wednesdayite Bell had gone out with the intention of nobbling Foulke, or as the Telegraph put it, he played “a fearless and dashing game with apparently one idea and one only, namely that of capsizing Foulke”. As he charged at the United keeper Foulke fell “full length on Bell” As Foulke recalled

“Just as I was reaching for a high ball Bell came at me, and the result of the collision was that we both tumbled down, but it was his bad luck to be underneath, and I could not prevent myself from falling with both knees in his back.

At the time I weighed about twenty-two-and-a-half-stone, and I knew I must have hurt him, but when I saw his face I got about the worst shock I ever have had on a football field. He looked as if he was dead. I picked him up in my arms as tenderly as a baby, and all I could say was ‘Oh dear! Oh dear!’”

A newspaper reported that “the old Wednesday man had to be carried off the field badly shaken. An interruption took place at this point, the referee cautioning the crowd for throwing stones at the United custodian”.

United went on another run of draws following the win at Everton. Away to Derby County McKay scored for the Blades in another game where Foulke was man of the match and in another 1-1 draw Cunningham netted away at Blackburn. The next match, at home to Nottingham Forest on December 4th, saw yet another 1-1 draw with Almond scoring United’s goal. Villa’s four defeats however, including the indignity of losing to Wednesday, meant United were still top and two points clear.

December was a bad month for the Blades with their worst dip in form of the season so far. On the 11th their fourteen match unbeaten start to the League season came to an end with a 2-1 defeat away at Stoke. This ended a five match losing run for Stoke who had gone into the game second from bottom and the Stoke players were carried off on chairs at the end of the game. On the 27th Wednesday visited Bramall Lane looking for revenge. An entertaining match, it set a new attendance record of 37,389 and brought in the blockbusting total of £962. Wednesday pressed hard and United were somewhat fortunate that Earp of Wednesday scored an own goal to level the score at 1-1. Two days later at Bramall Lane, on a pitch described as a “sludge heap”, Liverpool inflicted United’s second league defeat of the season, 2-1, and Villa went top again.

As 1898 dawned Unitedites were wondering if they were about to see more of the same with United getting off to a flying start before tailing off. Although United were only one point behind Villa with two games in hand, two of these were against the League leaders in back to back games. Also, the chase for the title had become much closer. Villa had 24 points to United’s 23, but Wolves and West Brom had 22 points each, Wednesday had 21, and Everton were on 20. New Years Day saw a welcome boost of confidence with a 3-1 win over Notts County at the County Ground which sent the Blades back to the top. The goals came from Bennett and the new man Ralph Gaudie, who scored twice on his league debut to put United top by one point with a game in hand.

Next up was the double header against Villa first at home then away. Villa had yet to play in the New Year and came off the back of three games without a win. Both sides made meticulous preparations, United going to Matlock baths and Villa travelling to the Droitwich baths.

23,587 packed the three sides of the Lane on January 8th for the first match where Walter Bennett “slipped by Evans, evaded Crabtree, and shot with tremendous force into the roof of the net” to secure a crucial 1-0 win for the Blades which put them three points clear at the top with a game in hand.

A week later United travelled to Birmingham for the return leg. A huge crowd of 43,000 witnessed one of the games of the season. “Luck seemed against us early in the game” Needham recalled, “and we soon lost the services of our centre forward (Gaudie), who retired with a broken nose. He did not return till ten minutes from the finish”. Both teams hit the woodwork in the first half, but at half time the score was 0-0. With so much to play for in a virtual title decider it had been a rough game and during the break the United dressing room looked like a hospital ward. Bennett had picked up a limp, Rab Howell had a nasty gash above his eye and Foulke had to “pick the skin off his knees, where it hung in shreds”. United started the second half with ten men.

Early on Villa scored from a penalty but there was controversy when the Blades were only awarded a free kick at the other end although one spectator claimed that “the offence was clearly within the fatal line”. Gaudie returned to the pitch and United pushed forward for the vital equalizer. Eighty minutes were on the clock with Villa still holding a one goal lead when Howell pushed forward and struck a cross into the Villa box. McKay rose and nodded the ball towards the goal. Cunningham had read the move, and as the Villa defenders scrambled back, he slammed the ball into the roof of the net to level the scores.

The crowd was in hysterics for the last ten minutes as both sides went all out for the winner. Wheldon of Villa had a good chance but drew a stunning save from Foulke. “It wanted less than a minute to the end”, an observer said,

“when Gaudie, Priest and Cunningham outmanoeuvred Bowman. He half cleared, but not sufficiently and ere he had a chance of recovering himself, the ball was at Cunningham’s toe, and sped into the net before the crowd had realised the possibility of another goal”.

United had beaten Villa 2-1 but Gaudie collapsed again at the final whistle. Such was the excitement that a woman sitting in the Directors box “who had had the gift of an elaborate box of chocolates before the match, incontinently flung the contents over the Villa committee as she waved the box delightedly at the victorious team”.

 United scoring away at Villa
United won much praise for their performance. The league’s founder, William McGregor, hailed the Blades “all round excellence. No player”, he said, “unless it be Needham, overshadowing another”. Prior the match one Birmingham paper had branded the United half back line “midgets” but McGregor claimed that they were “unequalled as a trio by any other team in England”. United had now opened up a four point lead and had effectively seen off Villa’s challenge as results from elsewhere saw them slump to fourth. Villa’s neighbours West Brom beat Preston 3-1 to overtake Villa and move into second and Sunderland’s fifth straight victory, 2-1 over Bury, saw them go third. United beat Wolves 2-1 at home with goals from Almond and McKay to keep a five point gap over Sunderland who were now second.

Sheffield United’s F.A Cup exploits that year were a splash of cold water. They were drawn at home against Burslem Port Vale in the first round and Needham’s penalty secured a 1-1 draw. The replay was played in gale force winds and United lost 2-1. The match was a one sided affair in United’s favour, so much so that Foulke wandered up to the half way line to watch the game. Suddenly Port Vale were on the break and Foulke was stranded out of his goal speed not being one of his strengths. Port Vale scored their winner and afterwards Stokes described Foulke’s walkabout as a “tactical error”. United’s goal was scored by Harry Thickett, a popular player who had just recovered from a year out with Typhoid Fever.

Three days after the F.A. Cup defeat United travelled to Anfield looking to avenge the defeat at the Lane in December. They bounced back from the Cup setback and beat Liverpool 4-0 with goals from Cunningham, Johnson and two from Logan. Two days later United were back in Sheffield playing host to Bolton Wanderers. Priest and Bennett scored for the Blades with Logan getting two for the second game in a row in another 4-0 win. A 1-1 draw in a friendly against Southern League side Tottenham Hotspur, in which Morren scored for United, was followed by two disappointing home results with a 1-0 defeat against Notts County and a 0-0 draw with Everton. Things looked worse going into a vital match with second place side Sunderland when United were thrashed 4-1 by Wednesday in a friendly at the Lane with Cunningham scoring the Blades only goal.

The match against Sunderland at their new Roker Park ground on March 5th was a nightmare for United. The north east club went into the match unbeaten in nine games and 30,000 fans arrived, so many that the roof of the wooden shed United were using as a changing room was filled with fans craning for a view of the pitch and, unable to take this weight, the roof collapsed. During the match the spectators pushed up to the touchline and play was stopped four times when the crowd spilled onto the pitch. It was a personal nightmare for defender Rab Howell who turned two innocuous crosses into his own net. It marked the end of his time with club and he only appeared one more time before being packed off to Liverpool to be replaced by Harry Johnson. Bearing in mind Howell’s financial troubles it has been suggested that this might not have been entirely accidental, that was certainly the furious Foulke’s belief. In the end Sunderland were 3-1 victors United’s consolation predictably coming from the boot of Cunningham. With five matches left to play, Sunderland were only three points behind with a game in hand.

United’s title ambitions looked to be stumbling but the 1-0 win over Scottish Champions Celtic at Bramall Lane came as a welcome boost. The Scot Ralph Gaudie scored the winner. It was more grim news two weeks later however when United were beaten 2-0 away by West Bromwich Albion. With Sunderland up next, United had now failed to win in four league games, while the Mackems had stretched their unbeaten run to eleven matches. They were now only one point behind with a game in hand.

April 2nd saw the biggest game of the league season so far when Sunderland came to Bramall Lane looking for the victory which would send them top with two matches left. The game had caused controversy even before a ball had been kicked. This game clashed with a full program of home nation’s football and Needham was away playing for England. However Teddy Doig and Hugh Wilson, two of Sunderland’s star players, had been called up for Scotland but had been refused by the Roker Park club owing to the importance of the Sheffield United match. Though quite within their rights to do this it created a feeling of unsporting behaviour prior to the game.

25,000 crowded into the Lane to watch a tense game between two evenly matched teams with the Championship in their sights. There was little to separate the sides in the first half but in the second United put Sunderland under pressure with “one of the most brilliant expositions of football ever seen”. Another reporter described the match as “a brilliant attack against a brilliant defence” and only an excellent display by Doig in the Sunderland goal kept the scores level. Another Sunderland player who impressed in this match was Peter Boyle, a tough Irish full back who would join United at the end of the season. Fourteen minutes from the end Fred Priest swung a free kick into the box which was half cleared but fell to Johnson who struck through a crowd of players to score the winner. With two games to play United had a two point advantage.

A large travelling contingent swelled the crowd to nearly 20,000 for United’s visit to Bolton on April 8th, Good Friday, while Sunderland were playing just up the road at relegation strugglers Bury. These two matches would decide the title. The day started badly for Sunderland who were reduced to nine men after twenty minutes of play. At Bolton United had problems as well as their forward George Hedley, an amateur, missed the match when his employer refused to release him. This was forgotten when Needham scored a fantastic goal for United, weaving through the Bolton defence and slotting the ball past the Bolton keeper, Sutcliffe, even stopping to ask him “Which side would you have it?” before knocking it in. It was the only goal of the game and when United fans got home they heard that Sunderland had been beaten 1-0 by Bury.

Despite the setbacks of late February and March United had seen off challenges by Aston Villa and then Sunderland to secure the League for the first time and break the Sunderland/Aston Villa stranglehold which had existed since Everton won the League in 1891. Sheffield United were Champions elect of English football.

On the 11th Bennett scored both United’s goals in a 2-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion at Bramall Lane in the last league match of the season. They started this game, true to form, with only ten men as Simpson, their reserve full back, “couldn’t get to the game in time”. United finished the season with 17 wins from 30 to second place Sunderland’s 16. The difference was that United had drawn 8 games while Sunderland had dropped points, particularly in a poor start to the season, drawing only 5 but losing 9 to United’s 5. It must also be noted that that many of the Blades 1-1 draws were kept so by Foulke’s excellent form in goal. Walter Bennett had been the season’s top scorer in the league with 12 goals and Almond was just behind him with nine.

A Wednesday player, Fred Spikesley, claimed that United had invented a new style of football this season with “Long swinging passes from the centre to the outside forwards, and wide passing from the halves, backed up with tremendous dash and strength”. On the 16th Sheffield United turned out to play Celtic at Parkhead in the second leg of the ‘Championship of Great Britain’. Celtic led for much of the game, but in the last minute John Almond scored for the Blades and they were 2-1 winners on aggregate. A banquet in the team’s honour was held in the Cutler’s Hall and the players were rewarded with a medal and a bonus of £3.

Championship winners medal, front and back

There was more good news for United in the close season when it was announced that the Duke of Norfolk was willing to sell the Bramall Lane ground to them for £10,125, far below its true market value. A company was set up to run the ground with the stated intention

“To promote and practise the play of cricket, football, lacrosse, lawn tennis, bowls, bicycling, and tricycling, running, jumping, physical training, and the development of the human frame, and other athletic sports, games and exercises of every description, and any other game, pastime, sport, recreation, amusement or entertainment, but not pigeon shooting, rabbit coursing, or racing for money”.

A loan of £10,000 was taken out at 3% interest and was finally paid back in 1947.

It wasn’t all good news for United though as they lost some important players at the end of the season. Bob Cain and Kenny McKay were approached by up and coming non league side Tottenham Hotspur. This caused a lot of ill feeling in Sheffield as the Blades would receive no fee for them moving to a non league outfit. They cancelled the order for Cain’s Championship medal and withdrew his £20 bonus. The move was a bad one for Cain however and he was unhappy in London and asked to return to Bramall Lane but was snubbed. John Cunningham was sold to Aston Villa.

Cain’s replacement at left back was Peter Boyle from Sunderland who became United’s first Irish international. He was tough tackler often called ‘dirty’ and despite a successful spell with United he left the club under a cloud in 1904. In front of him in the half back line Harry Johnson had made the right half slot his own towards the end of the Championship winning season starting a family association with the club which would last until 1941. He had been offered terms by Barnsley but had chosen the Blades actually joining the club back in 1895. A contemporary said that he could “play on the heaviest ground without turning a hair, was resolute to a degree, a fair but strenuous player whose heading was almost perfect”. Needham described him as

“one of the most promising half backs I know, and a thoroughly hardworking member of the team. He is fairly rapid, can play a good individual game, and yet feeds his forwards well without being showy. He can shoot for goal with the strength of a Hercules”

He was personally popular too, “scrupulously fair, a cheery companion and wonderfully clever”. Like Boyle he would live to see a son play for the Blades. Up front inside right George Hedley turned professional and inside left Billy Beer and centre forward Charles ‘Oakey’ Field came through.

United’s 1898 – 1899 League season was dismal after a bright start that saw them top of the League in October until they went to Anfield on the 29th. George Allan, the Liverpool centre forward and Scotland international, had “sworn before the match to knock Foulke into the back of the net” and whenever he was close to Foulke, whether the ball was there or not, Allan would charge full pelt into the United keeper. After a while Foulke parried a shot into touch and the inevitable charge came from Allan. What happened next grew into one of the most famous stories attached to Foulke; that of picking up centre forwards and throwing them around. The Liverpool Daily Post was unequivocal

“Allan charged at Foulke in the goalmouth, and the big man, losing his temper, seized him by the leg and turned him upside down”

Foulke remembered it a little differently

“In reality Allan and I were quite good friends off the field. On it we were opponents, of course, and there’s no doubt he was ready to give chaff for chaff with me. What actually happened on the occasion referred to was that Allan (a big strong chap, mind you) once bore down on me with all his weight when I was saving.

I bent forward to protect myself, and Allan, striking my shoulder, flew right over me and fell heavily. He had a shaking up, I admit, but quite the worst thing about the whole business was that the referee (Mr Thomas, who had refused to abandon the game against Villa a couple of years before) gave a penalty against us and it cost Sheffield United the match”

After this United’s form tailed off and they finished third from bottom. United did however maintain their good record against Wednesday earning a 1-1 draw at Olive Grove in front of 16,000 in October and winning 2-1 at the Lane before a crowd of 32,000 in December. These results would have disastrous consequences for Wednesday at the end of the season.

But the season still went down in history as United overturned a decade of underperformance in the Cup and went on to win it for the first time. Needham said at the start of the season that he thought United had the ability to do well and the management were clearly taking the Cup seriously sending the players to Lytham to train. The campaign opened on January 28th 1899 away at First Division high flyers Burnley in a 2-2 draw with Beer getting both United’s goals on a frozen pitch. The replay was on the following Thursday and Bennett soon put the Blades in front until Boyle gave away a penalty from which Ross hit the equaliser. It looked like being another replay until Tommy Morren scored a rare goal.

After a decent result like Burnley United were unfortunate to draw First Division opposition in the next round, Preston North End away. United were in the lead at Deepdale after Hedley and Bennett scored but Preston fought back to force another replay. This was another tense affair after Chalmers put Preston ahead and Needham had a penalty saved by the outstanding Peter McBride. But United threw everything at Preston and eventually they cracked. Needham hit a cross into the box only to see it turned in by a defender and when United were awarded a second penalty Needham made up for his earlier miss. The Blades were through to the third round of the Cup for the first time.

Unfortunately it was another tough draw, away to Cup holders Nottingham Forest on February 25th. Britain was in the middle of a cold snap and pitches around the country were frozen solid but 9,000 Unitedites made the trip to Trent Bridge to swell the crowd to a massive 33,500. One fan recalled that “the two Sheffield train stations were besieged by intending passengers…”

This support did not help United initially and the Blades soon suffered a setback as John Almond was injured early on and had to go off at half time. United were a man down for the second half and Forest pushed with Capes hitting a vicious shot to the top corner. Amazingly Foulke threw all twenty stones across the goal and got a fingertip to it, according to the Telegraph it was “worthy of the greatest goalkeeper in the world”. But in doing so he tore a muscle in his right thigh and had to be carried off, after much effort, by six men to the derision of the Forest fans. Desperate to take advantage Forest kicked Needham from one end of the pitch to the other but it failed to pay off when, four minutes from the end, Beer roasted the Forest full back and laid on a cross on a plate for Fred Priest to fire home.

United traveled back to Nottingham on March 18th to play Liverpool in the semi final. When the Liverpool keeper Storer was flattened by one of his own defenders Hedley took advantage to put United in front but George Allan returned to haunt United and grabbed an equalizer. By half time Liverpool were in the lead when a communication break down between Thickett and Foulke allowed Morgan to nip in and score. With time running out Needham burst up the left, crossed and Bennett reacted to hook it into the net and earn another replay.

The Cup semi final at Nottingham

On the following Thursday Liverpool and United faced each other at Bolton. The first half finished with Liverpool one up thanks to a goal from Walker who scored through Foulke’s legs. Six minutes into the second half United’s nemesis, George Allan, took a free kick which crept in to double their lead. United fought back and turned the tide of a thrilling game and within two minutes Beer had pegged it back and Bennett pulled United level after the hour mark. This time it was Liverpool’s turn to attack and they raced back into a two goal lead with only eight minutes remaining after Allan completed his hat trick and Captain Alec Raisbeck scored. Needham looked at his dejected team mates and urged them “We have nothing to lose: if they score again we’ll be no worse off, but one last effort might save the day”. Needham recalled “I took the chance of having only one back, one half back, and thus eight forwards”. It soon paid off as Fred Priest scored with a long shot and the delirious crowd swept onto the pitch. No sooner had order been restored and the game restarted than Storer fumbled a shot and Priest popped up to peg Liverpool back to 4-4.

The third attempt to separate the two teams was held at Fallowfield in Manchester, the ground which had hosted the chaotic Cup final of 1893. It was totally inadequate for the 32,500 who turned up and play was frequently stopped because of the crowd spilling onto the pitch, one stoppage lasting 50 minutes while the fans had a game themselves. United had Bennett and Johnson out through injury and Tommy Morren was missing for a large part of the game. George Allan resumed his vendetta with Foulke and the Liverpool player was “laid out for a short time” but he carried on his phenomenal record against the Blades that season with a goal after six minutes. But when half time was reached (an hour and a half after kick off) it was apparent that the match could not continue in the circumstances. Worried that the fans would try and get their money back, the players were persuaded to go back onto the pitch while the match proceeds were whisked away for safe keeping.

Two thoroughly exhausted teams arrived at Bolton for the third replay on Thursday March 30th. Morren had not recovered from a knock he’d picked up at Fallowfield and Needham stepped into the centre half slot despite being taken ill in the dressing room before kick off. Even so he kept George Allan quiet and for the first time he failed to score. Liverpool adopted tough tactics to take advantage of United’s tiredness by booting them whenever they could, indeed, after the match three Liverpool players were suspended and two severely censured. Like two punch drunk heavyweights the teams looked lead footed and the deadlock was only broken five minutes from the end when Billy Beer hit the long awaited winner. As a sad post script to this titanic clash George Allan was dead by the end of the year after contracting tuberculosis. 

A week before the Cup final on April 8th 1899 Thickett (standing, second from left) and Needham (standing, second from right) line up for England against Scotland at Villa Park. They helped England to a 2-1 win

Foulke and Bennett in Sheffield preparing for the game

For their first Cup final United went away to Skegness to train. The day before the match the team traveled to London and stayed in the Court Royal Hotel near Crystal Palace and were shown around Parliament by Sir Howard Vincent, the Conservative MP for Sheffield Central.

Crystal Palace

On April 15th 1899, an afternoon which switched from bright sunshine to light drizzle, Sheffield United faced the previous years FA Cup runners up Derby County in front of 78,833. Harry Thickett started the game with broken ribs from the semi finals, but it is a myth that he was wrapped in forty yards of bandages. It was also untrue that he drank a bottle of champagne at half time. Derby had selection headaches too. Archie Goodall was severely punished for his failure to turn up for a pre semi final training session and had been suspended.

Fans at Crystal Palace

United won the toss up but the predictions of an easy United victory were quickly cast into doubt. In the first fifteen minutes Derby forced a succession of corners and when one of these fell to England centre forward Steve Bloomer he whipped in a cross which caught out the United defence and John Boag put the Rams one up after 12 minutes. Indeed, United were actually on the back foot for much of the first half and they went into the changing room trailing by one goal and a little downhearted. Director Tom Bott remembered how

“Billy (Beer) said we were sure to win. He said the Derby lads were all puffing and blowing and he mentioned one opposing player who was calling his colleagues names and causing them to fall out with one another”.

He continued, “I went back to my seat for the second half a lot more confident”.

1899 Cup final

Even so the early second half pressure came from Derby. Bloomer was one on one with Foulke but hit it wide and another shot from him was only stopped with a stunning save. This geed United up and just before the hour mark Needham broke away down the left and sent in a cross. It looked as though Fryer, the Derby keeper, had it covered but Walter Bennett slipped away from his marker and headed it in from his fingertips. Six minutes later United took the lead when Billy Beer jinked through the Derby defence and slotted home.

The Blades were now in total control of the game and on the 70 minute mark John Almond poked home a Bennett cross and there was a further blow for Derby when they lost the injured left half Johnny May. From a Harry Johnson free kick Fred Priest scored late on and United ran out 4-1 winners and FA Cup holders for the first time in their history. Needham said that it had been the easiest game of the tournament and looking back at the grueling journey to Crystal Palace it is easy to see why but Derby had been the best side for an hour and had the usually prolific Steve Bloomer been on form (a phenomenal 238 goals from 375 games for Derby) the match may well have gone differently.

Exhausted United players wait to meet Lord Rosebery

Understandably there was little mood for such introspection on the day. Outside the ground Needham climbed onto a table in front of a wild crowd and said

“I think we have earned this cup. We have had to play hard for it, and I’m sure there is no man in this ground more proud than I am now. I am also proud of having such a team to play with”.

Later on Bloomer asked him if he could hold the Cup. Despite being the best goal scorer of his day, with 28 goals for England in 23 appearances, that was as close as he ever got to the Cup.

Football’s popularity was now such that a plenty of celebrities of the day turned out to watch the game. Lord Kinnaird the great amateur player was joined by former Liberal Prime Minister Earl Rosebery, Imperial jack of all trades Cecil Rhodes and future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour who presented the Cup. A Telegraph reporter asked Foulke what his opinion of Balfour was. He simply said that he “didn’t think much of him”.

United’s fame had even spread as far as Brazil where one newspaper reported that

“At the football match which took place yesterday at Crystal Palace, there were 70,000 spectators. Lord Rosebery made a speech in favour of athletic sports. The first prize fell to Mr. Sheffield.”

When they arrived home Unitedites had further cause for celebration. Wednesday had not only been beaten by Newcastle and relegated but kicked out of Olive Grove and forced to move to the site of an old pig farm at Owlerton on the outskirts of the city.

1899 Cup winning side

The 1899 Cup winners return home

A cartoon in the Athletic News from 1899

After the excitement of the Cup win the Blades focused on the League for 1899-1900 and they got off to an unbelievable start going on an unbeaten run of 22 league matches equaling Preston’s run in their 1889 double winning season. Everton, one of the top sides in the League, were stuffed 5-0 on the opening day at Bramall Lane. By mid January United had faced every team in the Division at least once and were top of the League, four points clear with a game in hand over second place Aston Villa. The Blades faced Bury on January 20th needing only to avoid defeat to break Preston’s record. Bury went all out to beat United and the score was 1-1 when Fred Priest went off injured. With United down to ten men Bury snatched a winner. Afterwards Foulke said “We’ve not only been beaten; we’ve been badly shaken” and to this day Bury have been known as ‘The Shakers’.

Program for an FA Cup tie against Leicester Fosse, January 27th 1900

Nevertheless United were still top of the table when they faced Second Division Wednesday in the FA Cup for the first time on February 10th. The recent shift in the fortunes of the two clubs, with Wednesday’s homelessness and relegation and United’s League and Cup winning success, had stoked the already bitter rivalry to fever pitch. The Telegraph noted that “No football match in local history has been so heavily (and heatedly) discussed, or so eagerly awaited”. Wednesday were top of Division Two but experts were still tipping United to win. Despite freezing cold weather a crowd of 32,381 brought in gate receipts of £1,183 but with the score 0-0 the match was abandoned five minutes into the second half due to renewed snowfall.

A week later the match was finally held at the Lane but only thanks to the last minute efforts of volunteers clearing snow from the pitch. The conditions did little to encourage flowing football but neither did the aggressive attitude of the two teams and in 1926 a journalist, J.A.H. Catton, looked back and said “This tie must linger in memory as a very unpleasant affair”

Early on George Hedley put the ball in the net for United but it was disallowed for handball. After twenty minutes Wednesday took the lead when Brash’s shot beat Foulke. In the second half the ill tempered game degenerated into little better than a punch up when Wednesday’s keeper, Massey, and wing legend Fred Spikesley were injured. Plenty of niggles, digs and hacks followed before John Almond equalised for United with ten minutes left.

The replay, just two days later, was United’s first visit to Owlerton. The Independent was concerned about the bad feeling the previous match had generated and worried that two days was not enough for tempers to calm. The Telegraph echoed this, pleading with both sets of players to “bury the hatchet”. The referee, John Lewis, “visited the dressing-room of each set of players, and told them they must observe the laws and spirit of sport. He intimated that if any player committed an offence he would send him off the field”

The pleas fell on deaf ears and 23,000 fans witnessed “a disgrace…a game of wild excitement that sadly tarnished the image of Sheffield football”. Wednesday’s centre forward Harry Millar was missing due to an injury from the first game, but after 38 minutes Harry Thickett scythed into his replacement, George Lee, who was carried off with a broken leg. Catton recalled that it was “quite an accident. No blame attached to anyone”. Even so football went out of the window again as both teams clattered whichever opposing player was closest.

Straight after the break Bennett cut into the penalty area but was hacked down by Langley and Needham put United ahead from the resulting penalty. Twenty minutes from the end John Pryce lunged at George Hedley and both went off, Pryce after a red card, Hedley for treatment. With five minutes to go Langley went after Bennett again and was sent off with Bennett, like Hedley and Lee, leaving the field for treatment. Billy Beer managed to score a second but the Telegraph complained that “Under the circumstances, there was no very great glory attached to the victory, with one goal scored when Wednesday had ten men and the other when they had only eight”. In the next round United were knocked out after a replay by eventual Cup winners and bogey team, Bury.

Wednesday’s move to Owlerton on the north eastern fringes of the city solidified the footballing divisions in Sheffield. As previously discussed, in the early days many football fans had been to see whichever team was at home that weekend but support increasingly took on a geographical character with support broadly divided between almost exclusively Wednesday areas such as Parson Cross, Wadsley Bridge and Hillsborough, and United strongholds in the south and centre of the city, notably Heeley, the Manor and Handsworth. Other factors besides geography have been suggested. The most resilient has been the idea of Wednesday as the city’s artists while United represent the artisans an idea which has been supported by Wednesday’s long history of fiscal incontinence. Even as late as 2003 then Blades manager and life long Unitedite Neil Warnock explained that United

“…are traditionally the city’s underdogs. Most of our fans are from the bread and marge end of the city. Wednesday were posh, with bigger houses and more money. United have always been a bit muck and nettles”

This may have a little more truth in it. The prevailing winds in Sheffield are westerly, blowing in from the west, and so the smoke and soot poured out by the steel works in Attercliffe and Tinsley ended up falling on the east. Thus, Wednesday’s move to the clean and desirable west end with its better off residents brought them better off fans. This idea has stuck, though anyone who has ever walked through Parson Cross may argue with the image of urbane sophistication.

Wednesday’s new home also gave them their nickname; Owls. Until United’s formation, and for some time after, both clubs had been known as ‘Blades’ or ‘Cutlers’ owing to the steel industry. Reporters who wish to differentiate the two teams sometimes used the terms ‘Laneites’ and ‘Groveites’. Eventually United won the monopoly on the Blades moniker.

This partisanship saw football support develop some of the characteristics we now commonly associate with it. Blades fans soon had a terrace song adapted from music hall;

“Now, boys, now, boys, now for a jolly spree,
Ran, san, tiddly-ann, come and have a round with me;
Come and have a round or two, I don’t care what you do,
But I say, clear the way, for the rowdy dowdy boys”

As one of the most famous footballers of his day Needham was soon appearing on cigarette cards

The Cup battles with Wednesday may well have depleted the Blades towards the latter stages of the season but quite simply they were beaten into second place by an Aston Villa side which was back to its unstoppable best. A bright spot was the signing of Bert Lipsham in February. Lipsham came from Crewe and took Fred Priest’s slot at outside left. He was a powerful runner who was capable of shooting with some power and he quickly became a crowd favourite.

Fred Preist and Bert Lipsham

The 1900-1901 season was ultimately disappointing for United. They never really got going in the League and finished 14th and even the progress in the Cup proved illusory. The Cup run started against Sunderland on a freezing cold early February morning. Sunderland were second in the table and United were coming off the back of a 4-0 drubbing against Stoke but the Blades showed their trademark inconsistency to beat Sunderland 2-1 with Foulke saving a penalty. They made the trip to Roker Park in the League a week later and were beaten 3-0. The reward was another tie against First Division opponents, this time Everton, but two Walter Bennett goals saw the Blades victorious at Bramall Lane.

It was typical of United’s season that they played Wolverhampton Wanderers in the next round the week after being beaten by Preston and turned in their most impressive display of the season. In a scintillating first half Priest, Hedley and Bennett added to an own goal from Barker to put United four up at half time, a score they held. The Wolves and England goalkeeper, Tom Baddeley, asked afterwards “What chance has a fellow against such forward play as that? We ought to have had two goalkeepers”. In fairness Wolves had their chances, particularly when, at 1-0, they were awarded a penalty which Foulke saved.

Indeed, with two saved penalties in three rounds Foulke had been one of United’s best Cup players that season but all was not well with him. The club was forced to print a statement that

“The attention of the committee has been drawn to the most iniquitous and scandalous treatment of our players by certain sections of the crowd behind the Bramall Lane goal. Their language is most dirty, to say nothing of the bitterness with which they taunt Foulke and Bennett. It has become so warm that today a large staff of detectives has been engaged to catch the delinquents, and it will go hard with the wrongdoers”

The fans were probably infuriated by the teams inconsistency; nevertheless, Foulke was dropped for the first time in December.

Needham (standing, far right) and Bennett (seated, far left) turn out for England against Scotland in a 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace on 30th March 1901

If the Blades were to repeat the Cup success of two years previously they were going to have to do it the hard way as their semi final draw was against Aston Villa on April 6th at the City Ground in Nottingham. Prior to kick off United were weakened by the terrible news that Harry Thickett’s wife had died.

Nevertheless United went in front in a thrilling match when Lipsham slammed in a cross which Hedley flicked on perfectly to Priest who blasted the ball in off the underside of the bar. But Villa were not the top side in Britain for nothing and their equaliser was stunning. Garraty picked the ball up from John Devey and went right past Johnson and Beer before firing an unstoppable long range shot past Foulke. United fought back and just before half time Walter Bennett crossed for Fred Lipsham to score but United were unable to keep Villa out and Devey scored a late equaliser to earn a replay.

The Blades spent the week training in Skegness before facing Villa at Derby the following Thursday. United turned in a classy display as two goals from Fred Priest and one from Walter Bennett did away with an Aston Villa side at the top of its game to take the Blades to the final.

Ever popular Skegness was the venue for pre match training with a program of “regular diet, short walks, and being kept together”. Even so, London newspapers were branding the side “A TEAM OF CRIPPLES” which prompted a reply in the match program

“After tea we while away the time, and another visit is paid to the piers, and Foulke throws, and nearly knocks a gull from its perch…The cripples are certainly looking and feeling A1, while Foulke says he could eat the ‘blooming ball’”

1901 Cup final program

The stage was now set for United’s second appearance in the Cup final when they faced Tottenham Hotspur at Crystal Palace in front of a crowd of over 110,000 on April 20th 1901. Spurs were the first professional side from London to reach the final and were technically a non League side but they played in the Southern League which many considered to be as strong as the Football League and contained no player from south of Nottingham. Even so United were favourites.

The crowd at Crystal Palace

Early on United justified it, piling pressure on Spurs and just before the 20 minute mark Priest struck a low shot from middle distance which put the Blades in front. Spurs fought back and won a free kick about 20 yards which found Sandy Brown unmarked to equalise. In the second half Spurs came out passing the ball around smoothly and quickly and within five minutes they had taken the lead. Spurs player/manager John Cameron broke down the right and cut his pass back inside to Sandy Brown who turned past Thickett and hit a vicious shot at the underside of the bar. Within two minutes though United had controversially equalised. Lipsham crossed from the left wing and the ball was safely caught by George Clawley, the Tottenham keeper, but Bennett crashed into him and the ball spilled into the goal. One reporter claimed that the ball was “fetched out smartly” by Clawley and hadn’t crossed the line but the referee, Mr. Kingscott, allowed the goal to stand.

“The Tottenham supporters did not let Mr Kingscott off the hook. They kept up a running commentary that was rustically to the point, on his looks, walk, mannerisms, and parentage”

Spurs press for a goal

1901 Cup final

The match finished 2-2 but for the rest of the game “Every United shot was accompanied by ironic shouts of ‘Goal!’”.

In contrast to the beautiful weather of the first game the replay, held a week later at Bolton’s Burnden Park, was played in gloomy showers. This, coupled with the rebuilding of Bolton station and the refusal of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company to offer cheap tickets, led to a disappointing attendance of just 20,000. “All the elaborate police and other arrangements which had been made to control and restrain an expected gathering of at least 50,000 persons went for nothing” one paper complained “…the contingent of local firemen who had brought up their hosepipes in order to play on the mob should it prove unruly were denied any greater pleasure than a free view of the play”. In expectation of vast crowds of hungry fans descending on Bolton local caterers had prepared

“…a mountain of meat pies baked, acres of sandwiches cut and buttered, hundreds of hams roasted and spiced, tons of German sausage, black puddings and saveloys…and sufficient beer to float a line of battleships”

They were disappointed and there was so much unsold food afterwards that the day passed into local legend as ‘Pie Saturday’.

Cup final replay

The match was also a damp squib as far as United were concerned. Spurs kept up the pace of their passing and Clawley didn’t have a save to make until 25 minutes were up whilst Foulke was kept busy. Even so, five minutes before the break, United snatched the lead when Needham started a quick move by knocking the ball out wide to Bert Lipsham who zipped his cross in first time to find Fred Priest who stabbed it home. Sadly, in the second half, United collapsed and Tottenham scored three goals, dominating the play in doing so. The Times commenting that “the match on Saturday did honour to both teams. It was the best football seen in the final tie for some time”.

1901 Cup runners up

The Cup result was a bitter blow to United but there were some positives from the season as Walter Bennett was selected twice by England on the back of the Cup performances. Added to this the Blades progress in the Cup had earned £4,000 which went towards a total income from football at Bramall Lane of £11,666 and a profit of £2,550. Cricket had been confirmed as the poor relation bringing in just £530. The club’s new found wealth allowed improvements to be made to the ground. An enclosure was built at the Bramall Lane end of the football pitch and a new cricket pavilion was built. Further additions were Alf Common, an inside right from Sunderland, who was to run into controversy when he left Bramall Lane, and Bernard Wilkinson who began playing regularly at centre half.

Alf Common

In 1901 – 1902 Sheffield United again failed to mount much of a title challenge but there were two results which really showed the team at its best. On New Years Day 1902 the Blades beat the strong but declining Aston Villa side 6-0 at the Lane in front of a bumper crowd of 27,576. The only crowd to top that was for the other game, when United pumped Wednesday 3-0, but they ambled to a finishing position of 10th and the excitement was, once again, to be found in the Cup.

United’s run started fairly easily with a 2-0 away win over Northampton in late January. Back on a snow covered Lane for the second round United had been drawn against fellow Division One side Bolton. The Lancashire side had most of the first half but were only one up at half time. It was a match marred by fisticuffs among the players but in the second half Needham set up Bennett to equalise and Priest chipped in with the winner.

United’s third round opponents were Newcastle United, one of the teams of the coming decade, for a spot in the semi finals. Newcastle were strong league performers and were favoured to go through to the semis for the first time in their history in front of a crowd of 25,000. Despite this United started brighter and Priest opened the scoring for the Blades when he sprang Newcastle’s off side trap. United were on top for most of the second half but lost a man injured either side of half time and they were punished fifteen minutes from the end when Foulke spilled Roberts shot and Orr stuck the ball in to level for the Magpies.

The replay at Bramall Lane was described as “One of the finest games” with some fantastic football played by both sides. Fred Priest continued his great scoring run in the Cup getting United’s first goal. Both sides continued to press but Newcastle snatched an equaliser just before the break when McColl cracked a twenty yard shot through a crowded penalty area. There were more chances in the second half and Harry Thickett tackled brilliantly on the line to prevent Gardner tapping into an empty net. Alf Common, who had been outstanding at St James’ Park, scored the winner for Blades.

United were in the semi finals of the Cup for the third year in a row and were facing Derby County at the Hawthorns on March 15th. 40,000 turned up but were treated to a dull match in which United went behind inside ten minutes. The equaliser came from George Hedley early in the second half but the Derby keeper, Fryatt, probably could have saved it if he hadn’t broken off to waste his time pleading for off side. With the last kick of the game Harry Johnson smacked a shot against the post but the result was 1-1 and another tedious replay followed.

The replay was at Wolverhampton and the high wind played a part early on when a harmless looking cross drifted and twisted past Foulke to give Derby the lead after five minutes. Eight minutes before half time Hedley played the ball in from the left to Priest who surged through the middle and shot powerfully and the parried ball fell to his feet and he slotted in the rebound. Needham went off injured but United still had the better of the play but were unable to make it count. And so, on March 27th, United faced Derby at the City Ground with Billy Parker, a future director of the club, replacing the injured Needham. Parker was given the daunting task of muzzling Steve Bloomer but, in only his second match, he pulled it off and United finally broke the deadlock when Hedley knocked Lipsham’s cross to the feet of Fred Priest who buried it.

United’s opponents in the final were Southampton who, like Spurs the previous year, were Southern League Champions and had been the beaten finalists in 1900 so they had plenty of talent and experience. Harry Wood, Saints captain, was appearing in his fifth final.

The match was played in searing heat and was no classic. A crowd of 74,000 turned up and space was at a premium. “One man”, reported the Manchester Guardian,

“carried a hook, a rope, and a board. He made a sort of botswain’s chair, and hooked himself to the top of a high post”

Alf Common gave the Blades the lead early in the second half and both he and Bennett were clogged out of the game soon afterwards. A minute from the end the game came to life when a poor United clearance went as far as Arthur Turner on the wide right for Southampton. He crossed the ball back in and found Harry Wood, unmarked and miles offside. Instinctively he shot past Foulke and would have been as surprised as the immobile United keeper to hear the referee, Mr. Kirkham, blow up for a goal. J.A.H. Catton claimed the ball had “the ball grazed the knickers of Peter Boyle” though he was about the only person in the ground apart from the officials to think so. “Wood”, the Telegraph said,

“knew he was off side, and said so, so did the Southampton directors in the dressing room, so did the crowd which cheered with its tongue in its cheek when the point was allowed, and so did those in the pavilion whose names and reputations are national where football is concerned”.

United were faced with yet another replay.

The match ended in confusion and spirits ran out of control. “One blackguard”, the Telegraph reported,

“from whom better might have been expected judging by his attire so far forgot himself as to hit out and strike Needham in the face: but, phlegmatic as the Sheffield United skipper is as a rule he could not take that without response, and a straight left and a straighter right made an unmistakable impress on the scoundrels face. It was rumored yesterday morning in town that it was Foulke who had hit back, but the assailant may be glad it was only Needham”.

After the match the linesman, JT Howcroft, recalled that

“Foulke was exasperated by the goal and claimed it was miles off side. He was in his birthday suit outside the dressing room, and I saw FJ Wall, secretary of the FA, pleading with him the rejoin his colleagues. But Bill was out for blood, and I shouted to Mr. Kirkham to lock his cubicle door. He didn’t need telling twice. But what a sight! The thing I’ll never forget is Foulke, so tremendous in size, striding along the corridor, without a stitch of clothing”

In his book ‘Great Sporting Eccentrics’ David Randall claimed that Foulke wasn’t about to let Kirkham’s cubicle door get in his way.

“He seized the cupboard door and began trying to wrench it from its hinges. It was in this rather compromising position that the naked goalkeeper was discovered by the secretary of the Football Association and several other worthies. They somehow managed to soothe the savage Foulke and shepherd him gently back to his dressing room”

For the replay on April 26th Bennett was replaced by Billy Barnes. J.A.H. Catton found the naked Foulke on the prowl again.

“The following Saturday the Final was replayed at the Crystal Palace, and I went down to the dressing cubicles in the pavilion to ascertain the teams before they went out. Peter Boyle saw me and most indignantly denied that the ball ever touched him, and threatened to do all manner of things with my poor body. No doubt he was annoyed and at the moment heated…So I temporised about optical delusions and mistakes to which all men are subject.

Then there appeared in front of me a naked giant-one William Foulke, the Sheffield goalkeeper, who stood all six feet two inches and pulled down the scale at twenty stones. If ever man deserved the name of The Mountain he did. Foulke was good tempered and sought to quell the storm by humour. So he put himself in fighting position and said: "Come on, lad. You're just about my weight" - and I was a miserable five feet and under eleven stones. I could have laughed, but Boyle's brow was menacing.

The situation was far from pleasant, but Ernest Needham opened the door of his cubicle and pulled me inside. "Nudger" Needham surprised me by saying that I had left the Press Box and never saw the goal. I explained, and my peril passed. There is no doubt that I was mistaken-but two of the officials were the same”

United went after the Saints from the first whistle. The Times claimed that

“A weeks quiet rest had certainly had a subduing influence, and the teams showed that even with such a prize at stake good football can be played without sacrificing either robustness or pace”.

George Hedley

After three minutes John Robinson, Southampton and England keeper, spilled Bert Lipsham’s cross and George Hedley put the Blades in front. Sadly passions spilled over once again.

“The ball had gone into touch and Common, impetuous as ever, dashed after it for the throw in. Just before he reached the ball a spectator jumped up and kicked it with great force at the lower part of Common’s body at the same time using a choice piece of ‘Billingsgate’. The United player resented this, and in the heat of the moment struck the spectator”.

United on the attack

For much of the second half United looked comfortable until, twenty minutes from the end, Albert Brown latched onto a pass from Turner and hammered the equaliser past Foulke. This spurred the Saints on and they began to really carry the game to United for the first time but with 80 minutes on the clock the Blades caught them with a sucker punch. Harry Johnson knocked the ball out of defence, wide to Needham who curled a high shot towards the far corner of the goal. Robinson was at full stretch but chose to catch it rather than tip it over. He spilled the ball at the feet of Billy Barnes and the replacement poked home the winner. In their third Cup final appearance in four years Sheffield United had won the trophy for the second time.

Harry Heap's cartoon

The 1902 Cup winners

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