Underdogs, by Keith Dewhurst

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Judging by the description of the 1879 Darwen team as "football's first FA Cup heroes", you'd have thought that they had won the thing, rather than being knocked out 6-2 in the quarter-finals.

But the term "underdogs" is fair enough, given that they came from a small Lancashire mill town and struggled to afford a matching strip, yet only lost to the then mighty Old Etonians – the eventual winners of the competition – after two replays, having been forced to pay their way down to London twice.

In the previous round they had caused a stir by beating another public school outfit, Remnants, bamboozling them with a passing game that was inspired by their two Scottish players, rather than the "smash, dash and at 'em" style favoured by the game's elite of the time. Those Scotsmen, Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, were possibly football's first professionals, and Darwen seem to have been an innovative bunch in other respects: in 1878 they played the first floodlit match in Lancashire.

Keith Dewhurst, who started his working life in a cotton mill before becoming a football reporter, does a sound job of explaining how Darwen's exploits presaged a seismic shift in football power, as the upper-class amateur ethos of clubs based mainly in the south inexorably lost ground to the more hard-nosed, and increasingly more skilful, approach of clubs in the North-west.

At times he weakens his argument with an annoying rhetorical tic, posing a series of questions before revealing that he has no idea what the answers are, and he states unquestioningly that William Webb Ellis originated the game of rugby, a canard long dismissed by almost every historian of the game. But it would take much more than that to spoil this story of early FA Cup magic.

Published in hardback by Yellow Jersey Press, £16.99