by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

8 September 1888: Preston take their first step towards invincibility

This weekend sees the 125th anniversary of the kick-off of the English Football League’s first matches that were played on 8 September 1888. The league at first consisted of 12 teams, but only ten clubs were involved on the opening day with Notts County and Blackburn having to wait until the following week to kick off their League campaigns.  Those first fixtures saw Wolves and Villa drawing 1-1 in front of 5000; nearly 10,000 watched Everton beat Accrington 2-1; West Brom won 2-0 away from home at Stoke in front of 5000; while Derby won 6-3 in a thriller in front of 3000 at Bolton, where incidentally Bolton’s Kenny Davenport scored the first ever league goal.  Preston North End’s season kicked off in front of 6000 people with a 5-2 win over Burnley, with Dewhurst scoring their first ever goal after just three minutes.  Preston would remain unbeaten for the rest of the season to win the league easily.

Preston in fact won their first six games on the trot, which should have put them to the top of the table except at first there was no table.  It was not until November that giving two points for a win and one for a draw was decided on, before then they were just going to measure the number of games won.  Preston finished 11 points clear of second placed Aston Villa and their league record for that first season was 18 wins, and 4 draws.  They scored 74 times, with their forward John Goodall being the League’s first top scorer with 21 goals.  At the other end of the pitch they conceded just 15 goals.

They also won the FA Cup that season by beating Wolves 3-0 in the final, held at Kennington Oval.  They went through the tournament without conceding a goal in the five rounds played, and with the double achieved earned themselves the nickname The Invincibles.

Preston had been building for a number of seasons towards the position of undisputed kings of football they now found themselves in.  Originally though they had been founded as a cricket club in 1863 and it took 15 years for them to play a game of football.  In 1875 the club had moved to its home in Deepdale and adopted rugby union as a second sport.  This proved to be a failure so the club looking for ways to cash in on the rising attraction of sport in the North West adopted association football.  They played their first match on 5 October 1878 losing 1-0 to Eagley FC.  In May 1880 they made the decision to become primarily a football club, although they were still playing cricket in the summer.

Success wasn’t instant in the first season they played and there are reports that they had lost 16-0 to Blackburn Rovers on 26 March 1881.  Undaunted the club grew in stature and its manager Major William Sudell supplied the vision and drive to make Preston the premier side in the country.  Sudell was an all-round sportsman and had been associated with the club since a 16 year old in 1867.  He had played in that first game against Eagley but was only to make a couple of more appearances.  However it was organisation where his real talent lay.  He was chairman of the club by 1875 and after they decided to concentrate solely on football he became manager of the team.

In 1883 Sudell went on a recruitment trip to Scotland where a revolutionary passing game was being played as opposed to the kick and chase style being played by most of the clubs in England.  The advance of Scottish football was reflected in matches between Scotland and England around this time.  In between 1878 and 1882 Scotland beat England in four of the five meetings between the two, scoring 27 times and conceding 13.  There had been scorelines of 7-2, 6-1 and 5-1 in favour of the Scots.

As professionalism was not yet allowed the players were given generous match fees and highly paid jobs especially in the cotton mill that Sudell managed.  This practice was rife amongst the clubs in the North of England and when London’s Upton Park complained about it after an FA Cup tie in 1884 against Preston the Northerners retaliated by withdrawing from the Cup and, with the support of over thirty other clubs, threatened to form a rival organisation to the FA, with Sudell arguing that trying to stop the inevitability of paid footballers was “like trying to stop Niagara with a three-legged stool.”  Running scared of losing their authority and realising that they were fighting a losing battle the FA legalised professionalism in 1885, with the stipulation though that only players who had lived within six miles of the club for at least two years could be paid.

With this battle won Preston developed into one of the finest sides in England.  From August 1885 until April 1886 they were undefeated for 64 games winning 59 and drawing 5.  On 15 October 1887 they beat Hyde 26-0 in the first round of that season’s FA Cup, still the highest score in an English first class game.  During that season they won 42 games consecutively before surprisingly coming unstuck against West Brom in the 1888 Cup Final.

During that season there had been discussions of forming a League, with the instigator being Aston Villa’s chairman William McGregor who could see that, with the advent of professionalism, more money needed to be generated with regular high profile fixtures rather than a succession of friendlies and occasional cup games.  He kicked off the process by inviting Preston, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton and West Brom to discussions writing, “I beg to tender the following suggestion as a means of getting over the difficulty: that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season…This combination might be known as the Association Football Union, and could be managed by a representative from each club.”   He also asked them to recommend other possible clubs for inclusion.  Three weeks after McGregor sent his letter the clubs met at Anderton’s Hotel on Fleet Street in London, and this was followed by a further meeting on 17 April at the Royal Hotel, Manchester at which the name the Football League was suggested by Sudell and agreed on as opposed to McGregor’s idea of the title of union.  Wolves, Everton, Stoke, Notts County, Burnley, Derby, and Accrington were all invited to join the original five clubs.

It was during this period that the side who were to form the Invincibles was being built.  Notable Scottish players included the diminutive Jimmy Ross nicknamed the little demon, his brother Nick Ross who actually left Preston to play for Everton during the inaugural season before returning to Preston the next season; both were Scottish internationals, as were Sam Thomson and Johnny Graham; other Scots were David Russell, a tough tackling centre-half also known for his career in the music hall, and George Drummond.  Up front was English international John Goodall who went on to write a famous ‘scientific’ study of the game after his career was over.  In the mix were some locals such as Bob Holmes and Fred Dewhurst.  The regular goalkeeper was Welsh international James Trainer who was reported to use an umbrella to shelter if it was raining during games but nonetheless still did enough to be considered by many to be the finest keeper in the land.

Preston and England’s John Goodall

Goodall stressed in his book how tactics were so important to the superiority of the Invincibles.  Here Sudell had come into his own as manager, and was revolutionising how the game was being approached.  Unusual at a time when a committee would normally run the team he had full hands-on control.  He travelled with the players to the game and was described by one as like a father to everyone.  He was the first to use a blackboard to discuss tactics with his players, sometimes also complementing his teachings with chess pieces laid out on a billiard table.  His pre-match preparation was likewise scrupulous. He would take players on trips to scout opposition players; he even took a cobbler to games to adjust footwear to match the conditions.

Preston’s dominance was not going to last though, nor was Sudell’s position as manager.

The team finally lost a game in the second game of the second season, 5-3 away to Aston Villa, and by the end of October had lost 3 of the 7 games they had played and were lying seventh.  They recovered to retain the title by a narrow margin of two points over Everton, but this was to be the last time Preston North End were ever to finish on the top of the table.  They were to finish runners-up in the next three seasons but the days of being invincible were far behind them.

William Sudell, the man who had done so much for the club, resigned as manager in 1892 due to reasons of health but he stayed connected to the club as chairman.  Unfortunately he cared too much for the club and in 1895 he was convicted of embezzling thousands of pounds from the mill where he was still manager and channeling the proceeds into the club in a desperate attempt to stay competitive against the richer clubs such as Aston Villa, Everton and Sunderland.  For his trouble he was given a three-year prison sentence and, on his release he emigrated to South Africa where he died in 1911.

Although Preston faded from the heights they set, the Invincibles are still remembered today.  The fact that 125 years later the Football League still thrives, and that there is barely a country in the world that doesn’t have some kind of football league is a tribute to the start the players and manager of Preston North End helped give league football.