Football 1899: A familiar tale of referee's, money and lust for power

A CENTURY AGO - Aston Villa ruled, a schoolboy stole cricket's headlines and Fitzsimmons lost boxing's world heavyweight title
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AT THE turn of the last century, the Queen Vic was an unamused monarch rather than a fictional East End pub, and news of hostilities in South Africa concerned the Boer War rather than Test cricket. But some things do not change, and football was riven by power struggles, on and off the park, much as it is today.

The biggest corporate movers and shakers of the modern era, Manchester United and Arsenal, were, it is true, still small fry, operating as Newton Heath and Woolwich Arsenal in the old Second Division. In many other respects, however, the British football scene in the final days of 1899 was not so dissimilar to the game in its pre-millennial incarnation.

For a start, there was a ding-dong championship race in the First Division. It involved the Manchester United of their day, Aston Villa, and challengers from Yorkshire in the shape of Sheffield United. The unbeaten Blades led the table throughout the festive period and were not overhauled until the final third of the campaign.

Villa then put on a surge of the kind Sir Alex Ferguson may need in order to burn off David O'Leary's upstarts from Leeds. After mixed fortunes in their "holiday" fixtures - a 4-2 defeat of Sunderland before an above- average gathering of 20,000 at Villa Park on 30 December was followed by a 2-0 setback at Bury on New Year's Day - they lost only one of their last 13 games. It was their fifth title in seven seasons which also brought two FA Cup triumphs.

The previous spring, in the first-ever relegations and promotions, Wednesday (as Sheffield's other League club were then known) had been demoted and replaced in the top section by Manchester City - a scenario that could well be re-enacted next May. Glossop North End, whose elevation with City made the Derbyshire town the smallest ever to have a First Division club, were already on their way back down by Christmas.

Although Glossop won just four of their 34 matches, one of their victories came against Villa on 16 December through a goal by their new pounds 260 signing from Third Lanark, Davidson. The Second Division's bottom team, Loughborough Town, fared even worse, winning only once all season and conceding exactly 100 goals on their way into football oblivion.

Twelve of those goals would be given up early in 1900 to Woolwich Arsenal, at their Manor Ground at Plumstead in South-east London, which was then the League's only southern outpost. But the soon-to-be Gunners finished the old century with a result that would be more characteristic of their successors, drawing 0-0 away to Leicester Fosse on 30 December.

On the same afternoon, the forerunners to Manchester's multi-million pound empire won 1-0 at Gainsborough Trinity - watched by 2,000 souls - only to ring in the new year by losing 2-1 at home to Bolton. The game drew 5,000 spectators to their pre-Old Trafford premises of Bank Street, Clayton, where it is believed there was no megastore.

Intriguingly, given the recent debate about the early staging of the FA Cup's third round, both Woolwich Arsenal and Newton Heath had been knocked out before Christmas by New Brompton (later Gillingham) and South Shore. Yet the new order soon began to assert their credentials. United's first title came in 1908, seven years after Liverpool's (whose famous Spion Kop terrace was, incidentally, to take its name from a South African hill which staged a bloody battle on 24 January 1900).

In Scotland, Rangers were well on their way to retaining the championship. Celtic, who eventually finished second, would have to be content with taking three of the only four points dropped by their great rivals. Moreover, the top six in the final standings for 1899-1900 are all members of today's Premier Division (though whatever became of ninth-placed St Bernard's?). It was also the year in which Queen's Park, the celebrated amateur club, paid pounds 10,000 for a plot of land in Glasgow which they developed into Hampden Park. With a strange symmetry, the new, rebuilt Hampden has this month been bailed out of its financial difficulties by the Scottish FA.

Then, as now, referees were a controversial, nay reviled, breed. The Glossop Chronicle's football reporter, "The Scout", wrote after the local club's 4-1 defeat by Derby County on Boxing Day (which included two goals by the Alan Shearer of his day, Steve Bloomer): "The question of when a penalty shall be given and when a man is offside seem to have no presence in his brain."

Jim Smith and John Gregory could not have put it better. Penalties, which had been introduced only eight years earlier, were always "disputed" - no change there, then - and one Jimmy Crabtree blazed a trail later followed by Gareth Southgate when he became the first England player to take - and miss - a spot-kick. Since England beat Ireland 13-2 at Sunderland, his wastefulness was not costly.

Away from the goalmouth action (goal nets were also then in their infancy), the real conflict as 1900 loomed was the ongoing row over whether or not footballers ought to be paid for playing. Professionalism had been legalised in 1885, three years before the Football League was founded, but the Football Association's chairman, Charles Clegg, remained implacably opposed.

Clegg, like many of the present FA hierarchy, was a Sheffield man. In December 1899 he reiterated his stance against the corrupting influence of money in football, adding that he regarded the buying and selling of players as "most objectionable" and "unsportsmanlike".

Dubbed "the Napoleon of Football", he wanted a maximum transfer fee of pounds 10, but the fight was already lost. Players were changing hands for pounds 300 - the first pounds 1,000 deal was barely five years away - and Villa admitted paying a signing-on fee of pounds 50 to one recruit.

One hundred years later, Clegg may well be turning in his grave. Not because his beloved FA Cup now has a sponsor, or because the latter-day Steve Bloomers can now earn pounds 30,000 a week, but because a club to whom he was devoted for six decades, Sheffield Wednesday, are on course to emulate Glossop's inglorious demise.