Blackburn Olympic no longer exist. Even more astounding is the fact they have not played a match in over 135 years. Founded in 1878, the Lancashire club would be dissolved just 11 years later in 1889. However, it is not for their longevity that they retain an undeniable importance to the history of football but it is for their role as one of the game’s first ‘professionals’. We now know football as a professional game, but in 1878, the year of Olympic’s establishment, the sport was distinctly amateur. Football’s codification had been born out of the establishment’s desire to see a return to seemingly forgotten Christian morals of teamwork, leadership and courage with on-the-field battles aiming to mimic real-life wars and conflicts. The game’s growth however, by the time Olympic first entered the FA Cup in 1880, had seen a shift in football’s demographic with working-class men increasingly taking up the sport and the ever-growing middle-classes seeing more and more opportunities to profit financially.
There are many towns and cities across the world that are synonymous with football and Blackburn is certainly no different. Even in spite of early Victorian football’s London-centrism, by the mid 1870s, the town saw over a dozen active clubs. The best known of all was Blackburn Rovers, founded in 1875 and influential in the dissemination of the game in Lancashire. The establishment of Blackburn Olympic as a club would come three years later following the merging of two existing sides from the local area, Black Star and James Street. Starting in 1875, the excavation of Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games is believed to have inspired the name of the club with its adoption similarly seen in a number of teams across the UK around this time.
Olympic were an instant success. Originally playing with ‘combined rush’ tactics, they would win smaller local competitions and the Blackburn Association Challenge Cup twice in 1879 and 1880. The victory in 1880 over local side Perseverance, was watched by an impressive 2000 spectators. Such was the draw and attraction of the game in Blackburn, its local cup saw a gate not far from the 6000 at England’s premier competition, the FA Cup Final. Moreover, the area’s larger competition, the Lancashire Association Challenge Cup saw upwards of 8000 fans turn out for its final. Olympic’s domination of the Challenge Cup in Blackburn was no doubt helped by the lack of participation from the town’s larger clubs, Blackburn Rovers and Darwen. These sides could be found competing in the nation’s larger tournaments with the Lancashire Cup and of course the FA Cup providing clubs with a greater level of prestige and quality.
So much of football’s early history would be intertwined with the FA Cup. Its earliest editions had been dominated by Wanderers FC, a team primarily created from the alumni of one of England’s most prestigious public schools at Harrow. Amateur football, and indeed amateur sport in general, had placed great importance on the principle of ‘playing for the sake of playing’. Sport’s primary aim at the time was to educate public schoolboys into becoming a new Englishman, brave in battle and adhering to increasingly forgotten Christian morals. Even with an increase in participation from northern and midlands sides, the southern amateurs would continue to dominate the competition, with the Old Etonians becoming the nation's strongest side by the turn of the decade.
Olympic would first enter the FA Cup in 1880. Drawn against football’s oldest club, Sheffield FC, they would narrowly be defeated after a thrilling tie ended 5-4. Despite the defeat, the match had been played in difficult conditions and only a ‘miraculous’ save from Sheffield’s goalkeeper had denied Olympic, who had come from 5-1 down, the chance of a replay. Perhaps frustratingly for Olympic, both Rovers and Darwen would progress with the former reaching the second round and the latter the semi-finals. Defeat would not deter the club from entering the competition again for the 1881/82 season, this time actually drawing Darwen in the first round. Disappointingly for Olympic, the tie was once more away from home. The club had spent around £100 a year earlier on improvements to their fantastically named ground, The Hole i’ th’ Wall, and a home tie would have brought an impressive gate and a financial boost. Once more, a first round exit would follow as Darwen reached the fourth round only to be beaten themselves by Blackburn Rovers. 1881/82 would become an incredibly significant season for the ‘working-class’ northern game as Rovers eventually made it to the final in London.
Although Blackburn Rovers would lose the tie to the Old Etonians it marked a decisive shift in where the power lay within football, at least on the pitch. Off the field clubs, particularly those in the north of the country were redefining football in more ways than one. Blackburn Olympic were at the forefront of a new ‘professional’ approach to the game. We now know professionalism as being defined by receiving payments to play, but Olympic would go beyond this, even undertaking three weeks of ‘special training’ to work on both ‘fitness and tactical play’. Football was moving towards an attitude where the will to win outweighed any notions of playing for the sake of playing. Taking on funding from local businesses further assisted the club in achieving their ambitions of FA Cup glory.
The 1882/83 FA Cup campaign would arguably be its most important as Olympic once more entered into the first round but with the added bonus of being granted a home draw against Accrington. A 6-3 victory would be followed by further victories over Lower Darwen, Darwen Ramblers and Church before setting up a quarter-final tie with Welsh club, Druids. As with each other tie which had preceded the fixture, Olympic were drawn at home. The Hole i’ th’ Wall would see 3000 spectators in attendance, demonstrating the growing popularity of the side and a comfortable 4-1 victory. Meeting the Lancashire club in the semi-finals would be 1881 winners, Old Carthusians, a side composed of alumni from Charterhouse School, Surrey. For Blackburn Olympic, a side featuring weavers, iron workers, loomers and plumbers, their upper-class opponents would be their social antithesis. Athletic News dubbed the fixture a tie between ‘patricians and plebeians’ and were surprised by Olympic’s speed and condition, noting the week the club had spent in Blackpool to train for the encounter. In front of a ‘godly number of people from Blackburn’, Olympic were described as akin to ‘freshly painted butterflies, sparkling here and there with their speedy runs’. Winning 4-0, the result was indeed seen as a statement victory further consolidating football’s shift towards working-class professionalism.
It is the final fixture against Old Etonians that seals Blackburn Olympic’s place in football history. Matches between the sides were rare, as the southern gentlemen would rarely seek to play games against their ‘social inferiors’. Much of the pre-match build-up in British newspapers focussed on Blackburn’s use of training prior to the final. Bell’s Life was one such publication. Frequently alluding to the lack of playing time the Old Etonians had together and the ‘luck and pluck’ of their 11, it was clear who those in the south wanted to win. Furthermore, commenting on Olympic’s use of training before the match, it mentions that such a practice had been taken up by other clubs, like Blackburn Rovers. A ‘training mania’ had begun. The Blackburn Times was clear in what victory for Olympic would mean for the club, stating that it would ‘make a name for themselves as no such provincial club had made before’. Arriving at the Kennington Oval, which had long been a symbol of the ‘muscular Christianity’ of the upper-class establishment, was a large number of supporters from Blackburn. Their presence was greeted by most as almost alien. One article would refer to their chant of ‘Coom Olympics, put on another shovelful’. The writer passes it off as a ‘manufacturing metaphor’, with the industry of the north clearly at odds with the idea of a southern gentleman.
After 90 minutes the final was level. Olympic’s Alfred Matthews would cancel out the opener scored by Etonians forward Harry Goodhart. At full-time, it was agreed by both teams to play an extra half hour to determine the winner of the contest. In front of 8000 supporters, James Costley would score the goal to settle the tie and win the cup for Blackburn Olympic. The match had been described as ‘fast and furious from beginning to end’. The Derby Daily Telegraph noted how the Old Etonians were ‘pumped out’ and their condition rapidly deteriorated whereas Olympic grew stronger as the match wore on. Clearly, the impact of strict and dedicated training in the weeks leading up to the final had the desired effect. With Olympic almost scoring more but for some excellent defending, the future of football was about to change forever. Sporting Life would be disappointed by the outcome, preferring to highlight the aggressive and cynical nature of Olympic’s football. Nevertheless, the cup was heading north and would not return to the capital for another 18 years with the gentlemanly amateur sides never claiming the trophy again.
The fallout from the final would introduce the game to its next great debate. That of amateurism vs professionalism. The rest of the 1880s would be dominated by calls, mostly from southern-based sides, to eradicate the professional element of the game. It was becoming increasingly clear that footballers playing for sides outside of the capital were being paid to play. This was usually seen through a form of ‘veiled professionalism’ as broken-time payments were made to cover the loss of wages and the promise of wider employment in the local area saw players move across the country. Olympic were undoubtedly a working-class team, but as Taylor notes, the club had a strong middle-class organisational element with the eagerness to win seeing financial incentives increase from that moment. Olympic themselves would fail to win the FA Cup again and reach no further than the semi-finals the following season. By 1889, the club would sadly be dissolved due to financial debt and an inability to continue competing against the more supported and increasingly more successful, Blackburn Rovers. The nail in the coffin would come with Rovers being chosen as the town’s representative in the professional Football League founded in 1888. Nevertheless, Blackburn Olympic’s impact and importance to football history is monumental. Their FA Cup triumph would mark the game’s first major turning point, proving professionalism’s inevitability and introducing fresh ideas based around training and tactics. Working-class football had won and it was here to stay.
Written by Ben Jones (@TFHBs)
©The Football History Boys, 2023
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