by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

13 January 1889: The first reported death from a football injury

In his work published in 1890 entitled The Triumphs of the Football Field, the noted footballer and Aston Villa captain Archie Hunter wrote about the trials and tribulations facing the Victorian footballer. Describing his alarm at the number of players becoming ill after playing football, he wrote, “They play in all sorts of weather during the most inclement part of the year; in the struggle they get tremendously hot and if there are not proper provisions for changing their clothes and having a bath, they run the most fearful risk.

In my opinion the first attention of clubs should be directed to this matter and baths ought to be regarded as an indispensable part of the arrangements. I have known many a gallant and promising player die within a week of playing a match simply because of inattention to these precautions.”

Hunter himself suffered a heart attack, which ended his career in 1890, while playing for Villa against Everton.  He described how “the ground was in a fearful condition after heavy rain. Pools of water and masses of mud made play almost impossible and to add to our troubles a biting east wind was cutting us and seemed to pierce us like a knife. I was playing my hardest when I fell into a pool of water. Just before I had received a severe bruise and with the additional shock to the system I fainted away. On reaching home I was advised to relinquish play and that advice I have taken.”

Despite these dangers no-one had had the misfortune to die of injuries sustained during a game until William Cropper succumbed to his injury on 13 January 1889 at the age of 26.  Cropper was a fine sportsman playing cricket for Derbyshire and being selected for an England XI against the touring Australians in 1888.  He also played football for a variety of clubs, including one appearance for Derby County in the FA Cup in 1886, one of nineteen people to do the “Derbyshire double.”

Although cricket was his first game he was described as improving at football and his effective forward play was considered by at least one newspaper as being instrumental in Staveley’s successful season in 1889/90 in which they had only suffered just the one defeat in 22 games by January 1890.  It was while playing football for Staveley in an away game against Grimsby Town that Cropper sustained his life-ending injury.  After 10 minutes of the game he collided with the Grimsby right-back Dan Doyle whose knee hit Cropper hard in the abdomen.  He was helped off the field in some obvious distress while the game continued ending in a 4-1 victory to Grimsby.  Sadly, throughout the night Cropper’s condition worsened to such an extent that it was felt unsafe to transfer him to a hospital and he died early the next morning in the presence of his Derbyshire CC team-mate and Staveley goalkeeper George Hay.  A post-mortem found that he had a one and a half inch rip in his bowel and the resulting peritonitis is what had killed him.  Some newspapers were commenting that the heavy meal Cropper had indulged in before kick off probably contributed to his death and they warned players not to eat too much before a game.

The Derbyshire Courier was scathing in its condemnation of Doyle and Grimsby Town in general, calling it “a town situated in a county that has for some time past borne an evil reputation not only on football matters, but also on the unfairness of its referees.”   The paper wondered if the act that took Cropper’s life was intended to cause harm, and noted how the question of kneeing in football had been an issue recently troubling the referees.  It also added that football generally was known for its unfair play and because of this Cropper actually never much cared for the “foolish game” of football.

Despite the Derbyshire Courier’s doubts the coroner’s inquest cleared Doyle of any malicious intent, recording instead death by misadventure.  The hearing was told how although Cropper was led from the field exclaiming, “They have killed me” he did not once blame his opponent while he lay stricken.  Witnesses who had been at the game further attested to the fact that they saw no foul play or intention to injure the deceased in the tackle by Doyle.  The referee agreed that he did not see any foul play and remarked that no foul had been called for by the Staveley players.

Doyle told the inquest how had he intercepted a long forward pass to Cropper and jumped to control it with his thigh when Cropper ran into him banging himself on his knee.  Doyle stressed that he had no ill-feeling towards Cropper never having met him before the game, and exchanging no words with him during it.

Cropper’s death affected the whole of the sporting community in Derbyshire and neighbouring South Yorkshire which was a strong bed of football.  Many hundreds of condolences were sent to his family, and flowers lined the route of the funeral procession. Cropper was buried in the churchyard in his native Brimington, a colliery village near Chesterfield.  A fine memorial, which still stands today, made from carved marble and standing over 12 feet high was erected on his burial site six months later from the £70 raised through a fund to his memory.

The player who dealt the deadly blow to Cropper went on to enjoy an illustrious career in the game going on to play for Bolton, and then captaining Everton to their first league title in 1891.  He then joined Celtic, leading them to their first Scottish Cup win in 1892 and then their first Scottish League title in 1893.  He was also picked 8 times for Scotland, captaining them in a game against England in 1894.  Doyle was a Celtic player between 1891 and 1899 and is still remembered today with a book about him called Dan Doyle: The Life and Death of a Wild Rover by Marie Rowan published in 2007.  In the foreword of the book he is hailed by current manager Neil Lennon as “one of the first and most inspirational captains our club has ever had.”  Although successful, controversy was never far away from Doyle and he garnered a reputation as much for his hard-drinking as his hard-tackling.  However, he was also a highly charismatic character and was loved by the fans, so much so that when the Weekly News ran a poll to find Scotland’s favourite footballer he won with over 900 votes more than the second placed William Lambie of Queen’s Park.

Despite his success and acclaim Dan Doyle was to die penniless on 8 April 1918 at the age of 53 in the Glasgow Cancer Hospital of cancer of the throat.   Unlike Cropper who had a memorial on his grave nearly thirty years earlier, in a twist of fate, Doyle was given a pauper’s burial in Glasgow’s St.Peter’s Cemetery in an unmarked grave.  It remained unmarked until 2010 when the Celtic Graves Society, a group dedicated to honouring Celtic’s past heroes, laid a stone on the site of his burial.