by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

17 February 1906: Goalkeeper Jimmy Ashcroft becomes Arsenal’s first international

On 17 February 1906 goalkeeper Jimmy Ashcroft made his international debut for England away to Ireland and so became Arsenal’s first ever international.

Born in Liverpool in 1878 Ashcroft played locally for Wilbyn’s United FC, Anfield Recreation Club and Garston Copper Works, all in Liverpool.  He was then briefly with Everton before moving south and signing for Woolwich Arsenal, as they were then called, in June 1900.

He made his debut for Arsenal, who were at the time playing in the second division, in the third game of the 1900/01 season against Burton Swifts on 15 September, replacing Thomas Spicer.  Despite letting in the only goal of the game he did enough to keep his place and begin a run of consecutive appearances that was to last for over four years.  In his second season he only let in 26 goals in 34 league games and kept 17 clean sheets, including six in a row, a record only equalled by Alex Manninger in 1998.

Arsenal gained promotion to the first division in 1904, with Ashcroft only conceding 22 goals that season, keeping 20 clean sheets.  In the next season his record of 154 consecutive matches for the club, which was subsequently beaten by Tom Parker in the 1930s, came to an end when injury forced him to miss an away game at Blackburn in October 1904.  He recovered in time to take part in one of Arsenal’s most unlikely results.  On 5 December 1904 Arsenal hosted a friendly against a side called the Paris XI in which the result was 26-1 to Arsenal.  The French team, which consisted of a number of players from various teams had to borrow one of Arsenal’s reserves after one of their own players fell sick.  They had already conceded 11 goals in a game against Newcastle and were hopelessly outclassed by Arsenal.  Their only goal came when Ashcroft, obviously feeling sorry for them, kicked the ball out to a French player then stood back and allowed him to score.  The referee failed to see the generosity of the act though and gave him a stern rebuke.

In 1906, Ashcroft’s ability as a keeper was recognised when he was selected to play for the England side.  He played in all England’s three games in that year’s British Home Championship, starting with a 5-0 win in Ireland.  The Times reported that he had made several fine saves during the game and that he had passed his international test with flying colours.  He then kept another clean sheet against Wales in a 1-0 victory at Cardiff Arms Park, but unfortunately he had a bit of a nightmare in the final game of that season’s tournament, as England lost 2-1 to Scotland at Hampden Park.  He was criticised in the press for his poor kicking and distribution of the ball, but his worst mistake came when he gifted the Scot’s their first goal by catching a shot while standing behind the goal line.   This was his last appearance for his country as he was replaced the next season by Liverpool’s Sam Hardy, who went on to be England’s regular first choice keeper until the beginning of the 1920s, and was considered by many at the time to be the finest keeper ever seen in England.

In 1908, Arsenal, beset with financial problems, reluctantly sold Ashcroft to Blackburn Rovers.  In his eight seasons at Arsenal Ashcroft had played 303 games keeping a total of 108 clean sheets, leaving him fourth in the all-time record of Arsenal keepers who have kept clean sheets.  Only David Seaman, Bob Wilson and John Lukic are above him.

Ashcroft played for Blackburn Rovers over 120 times, appearing in his third FA Cup Semi-Final in 1911.  Sadly an FA Cup final was to elude him; two previous appearances in a Semi-Final with Arsenal in 1906 and 1907 had resulted in losses to Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday, and this time he was to be on the wrong side of a 3-0 defeat to Bradford City.

At the beginning of the 1911/12 season, Ashcroft, who was now in his thirties, was beginning to see age catch up with him.  Alfred Robinson, who was bought from second division Gainsborough Trinity to be the reserve keeper, showed such good form on a pre-season tour to Austria and Hungary that he started the 1911/12 season as first choice. Rovers won the league that season and Robinson firmly cemented himself in the goalkeeper’s jersey, and in 1913 Ashcroft was given a free transfer.  Unable to find a club, he was forced to place an advert for his services in the Athletic News.  Tranmere Rovers responded and signed him up, but his career was cut short with the start of World War One and the suspension of all meaningful football.  Apart from a few guest appearances during the war years, mostly for Liverpool, for who his appearances included two as an outfield player, Ashcroft’s professional’s career was over.  He passed away In April 1943 aged 64, and in some ways he had been unlucky in his career, falling short of an FA Cup Final three times, losing his place in the Blackburn team who then won their first league title, and making a mistake that possibly cut short his international career.  However he set a number of records at Arsenal which arguably make him the club’s first legend, and there is one record that can never be taken away from him, that of Arsenal’s first international.