by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

9 February 1878: Blackburn Olympic make their debut

On 9 February 1878 Blackburn Olympic played their first game, a friendly against another Blackburn team, St. Johns, which resulted in a 2-0 win for the new team.  The club, which was formed by the merger of two already existing clubs, Black Star and James Street, was to survive for just over 11 years, but in its short existence it helped shape the future of football.

Unlike their more illustrious rivals, Blackburn Rovers, who were well funded and composed of ex-public school boys, the Olympic team was formed chiefly from workers in the local mills and factories.  They initially played their games on a pitch owned by Blackburn Cricket Club in Higher Oozebooth, then various other sites around Blackburn before eventually securing a ground adjacent to the Hole-i’-th’-wall pub on Shear Brow Hill that had previously been used by a club called Queen’s Own but had become defunct after losing most of their players to Blackburn Rovers.  While attendances were normally between 1000 and 2000 people for Olympic games, they attracted a record 10,000 for a game against Preston in 1884.

In April 1878, the club entered its first competition, the Livesey United Cup.  They won this by beating St. Mark’s, another Blackburn club, 2-0 in the final.  They followed this up by winning the Blackburn Association Challenge Cup, a knockout competition for local teams, in 1879 and 1880.  Buoyed by this success the club decided to set its goals higher and entered the F.A. Cup in 1880.  The first two seasons saw them being eliminated in the First Round, first losing 5-4 to Sheffield, then to Darwen the next season, 3-1.  However they did win the East Lancashire Charity Cup in 1882, beating their rivals Blackburn Rovers in the final.

Following on from this success they approached the 1882/83 FA cup with more confidence.   They beat Accrington, Lower Darwen, Darwen Ramblers, and Church to reach the Fifth Round where they defeated the strong Welsh team Druids.  This set up a meeting with a team from the south of England for the first time, namely Old Carthusians.  The team of former pupils of Charterhouse School had won the FA Cup two years previously and were expected to beat Olympic.  However Olympic easily won the tie 4-0 at a neutral venue in Whalley Range, Manchester, in a game that was delayed by over an hour for the want of a football.  This victory meant a meeting with another team of ex-public schoolboys, Old Etonians, in the final at Kennington Oval.

Before the final the Olympic coach, former England player Jack Hunter, took the team away to Blackpool for several days training; this was the first time such an idea had been carried out.   In addition to this, Hunter paid attention to the players’ diet.  In Victorian Britain the poor diet of most of the workers meant that they were physically less well developed compared to their well-fed upper class compatriots.  While away in Blackpool he ensured his players ate well, meaning lots of fresh seafood, especially oysters, and no beer.  If they couldn’t match their opponents in size he was going to ensure they would beat them for speed and stamina.

The Old Etonians were hot favourites going into the final.  They had won the Cup twice already, beating Blackburn Rovers in the previous year, and also been beaten finalists once. Ten of their eleven players had Cup Final experience behind them, including the legendary Arthur Kinnaird who would captain the Old Etonians in what was to be his ninth F.A. Cup Final.  On 31 March 8,000 people poured into the Kennington Oval for the final, including over 1,000 who had made the trip from Blackburn.  The score at full-time was 1-1 after Olympic’s Arthur Matthews had equalised Harry Goodhart’s opener for the Old Etonians.  A half-hour of extra-time was called for, and with the Old Etonians having been reduced to 10 men after an injury to Arthur Dunn in the second half, the training methods of the Olympic coach were seen to pay off as the superior stamina of the Olympic team showed through, and in the 20th minute of the extra time John Yates scored the winning goal.

The final was a watershed for football in many ways.  It was the first time a northern side had won England’s premier football trophy, it was also the first time an entirely English eleven had done so too, but, crucially for the development of the sport, a team compromising of working class footballers had beaten a team with links to the public schools and universities for the first time, marking a shift in the power base and the way the game was played. The southern public schools were still resorting to scrimmages and violent tackles, but Olympic were playing in the passing and dribbling style that had been developed in Scotland.

Upon their return to Blackburn the team were feted as heroes for what the Blackburn Times called “a signal victory of the plebeian over patrician Englishmen.”  They were greeted at the train station by thousands of cheering locals who were letting off fireworks and waving coloured lights.  No fewer than six brass bands were there too to add to the atmosphere.  At the civic reception for the team that followed a celebratory parade, Olympic’s captain, Albert Wharburton, proclaimed, “The Cup is very welcome to Lancashire. It’ll have a good home and it’ll never go back to London.”

In the next season both Rovers and Olympic reached the Semi-Finals, and Olympic must have been fancying a second consecutive Cup win after beating the highly regarded Northwhich Victoria 9-1 in the Quarter-Finals, admittedly in a game that saw the Cheshire side use four different players in goal after their keeper injured his wrist. The highly anticipated final between the two Blackburn teams never transpired though as Olympic lost 4-0 to the Scottish team Queen’s park at Trent Bridge, Nottingham in front of what then was an enormous crowd of 17,000.  Such was the crowd that the game was repeatedly held up due to the spectators pouring onto the pitch, and while the game was in play the Olympic keeper was unable to stand on his goal-line due to the spectators crowding around his goal.  After the game Olympic appealed against the result and called for a replay citing the encroachment on the pitch as disrupting their game, but to no avail.  Blackburn Rovers won their Semi-Final against Notts County and went onto beat Queen’s Park in the Final.

The following year saw the beginning of the demise of Olympic.  They began to lose their players to a Rovers team who could offer more in terms of facilities and payment, although officially the game was still amateur.  In the next season they lost in the Second Round of the Cup to Rovers, who cemented their place as Blackburn’s top club by going to win the Cup for the second consecutive year.  There were still some bright spots for the Olympic team though; in 1885 Olympic had the honour of one of their players, James Ward, being selected to play for England for a game against Wales.  Another Olympic player, Tommy Dewhurst, had been selected the year before but had been dropped after getting involved in a fight during a game against Northwhich Victoria.

With the onset of professionalism in 1885, Olympic found it impossible to compete with the larger and wealthier Rovers, and when the Football League was formed in 1888 and only one club from each town was invited to join, in this case Rovers, Olympic’s death knoll was sounded.  They lost their best players to teams offering better wages, and as they tried to compete their debts spiraled out of control.  They stuttered on in the newly formed Combination League for a season, but they finally folded in September 1889.

Blackburn Olympics star might have shone only briefly, but it shone brilliantly, and in many ways they were key figures in wresting the control of football away from the Public Schools and Universities who had so far dominated the game, and for that they should be remembered.