MODERN footballers are a pampered lot! Ask them to play on a Sunday one weekend, a Saturday the following weekend, with a game on the Wednesday in between, and all you hear is that they've had to play 3 games in 6 days, and that they're in danger of burn out.
How would this lot have coped with conditions 100 years ago?
For much of the 20th Century most football was played on Saturday afternoons, whilst there was always the bonus over the festive period of a game on Boxing Day (unless it happened to fall on a Sunday – Sunday football was strictly forbidden until the 1970s).
Another consideration was that until the 1950s football was also played on Christmas Day (again, unless it fell on a Sunday), meaning that football could be played on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day, i.e. two days running. However, if Christmas Day fell on a Thursday, you were left with fixtures being played on three consecutive days;. Thursday (Christmas Day), Friday (Boxing Day) and Saturday (the normal day for football). There was no question of spacing the games out to give the players a break! Christmas 1913 was such a year, and so it was that the players of Wednesbury Old Athletic embarked on a programme of three games in three days.
Most football supporters a hundred years ago were male, and most of these would have been blokes who grafted long hours for little pay, and who had little leisure time. Football was cheap to watch, and there were none of the distractions that we nowadays take for granted, such as television, internet, computer games and the like. Consequently, crowds flocked to football whenever it was played, and games that took place over the festive period, which were usually local derbies, often attracted huge crowds. It was simply a case of supply and demand, albeit long before the phrase was ever coined.
The 1913-14 football season saw Wednesbury Old Athletic Club (WOAC) playing in the Birmingham & District Football League (B&DL). There was no official football pyramid then, but with the Football League consisting of just two divisions, the B&DL was probably equivalent in standard to the present day Football Conference, where the likes of Kidderminster Harriers currently ply their trade.
The Old Athletic competed in an 18-club league where its opponents included the reserve sides of Albion, Villa, Wolves, Birmingham, Stoke & Coventry City. In addition, the likes of Kidderminster Harriers, Shrewsbury Town, Walsall & Wrexham, all of whom subsequently played in the Football League, took part – plus Darlaston, Worcester City and Stourbridge. Completing the set were four clubs who are no longer with us, namely Brierley Hill Alliance, Dudley (no connection with the modern-day Dudley Town), Wellington Town & Willenhall Swifts.
Wednesbury Old Athletic had joined the B&DL three years earlier and were by now an established club, having finished 12th, 12th again and 13th in the three previous seasons. However, with Albion and Wolves on their doorstep, attendances at their Leabrook Grounds home had not lived up to expectations, a situation exacerbated by an upsurge in the Albion's performances, which had seen The Baggies promoted as Division Two champions in 1911 and FA Cup finalists a year later. Consequently the Wednesbury club was struggling financially in a professional football environment, a situation not helped by a poor start to this season which saw the Old Athletic in 17th place as the festive programme started.
Thursday December 25th saw Old Athletic hosting near neighbours Darlaston in a B&DL fixture in the by-now traditional fixture on Christmas Day morning. The two clubs had first met on Christmas Day in 1900, and continued to do so every peacetime season until the Old Athletic's demise in 1924, unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, or the clubs were playing in different leagues.
The Wednesbury line-up for this game was: goalkeeper Bert Hobday; full backs Goldie and Corbett; half backs Fieldhouse, Bollington and Vale; forwards Beardmore, Kingston, Whistance, Butler and Harrold. Enthusiasm was high amongst the supporters of both teams. Darlaston opened strongly and held the balance of play for the first fifteen minutes or so, but did not test Hobday in the Wednesbury goal to any extent. Then the home team asserted themselves and until half time did virtually all the attacking.
Butler and Fieldhouse put in good shots but they were cleverly dealt with by the Darlaston keeper. A rare Darlaston attack saw Brown head towards goal, only for Vale to head away with Hobday beaten. The home team then pressed with vigour, but the interval arrived with the score sheet blank.
The second half began like the first, with the visitors prominent, but after fifteen minutes with nothing to show as a result they fell away. The Old Athletic began to assume the upper hand, but again defence prevailed, and although Darlaston rarely crossed the half way line the home team could not register a goal. Towards the end the game became more exciting and Darlaston repeatedly attacked, Vale saving an almost certain goal with a goal-line clearance. However, at the end of ninety minutes play the score line remained blank.
The Wednesbury Herald reckoned, 'Butler was perhaps the best man on the field, for throughout the game little skill was shown by the other forwards.' The Midland Advertiser, meanwhile, added that Wednesbury and Darlaston 'played a strenuous match'. Honours were said to be fairly even throughout and despite the intense rivalry between the players of the two clubs a clean game ensued. ' Some idea of the vigour introduced into that exchange can be gleaned from the fact that when the ball was cleared after one terrific assault on Darlaston's goal there were four players lying on the battlefield!'
The gate for the game amounted to £106 which, with the normal 4d (pre-decimalisation) admission charge, would equate to over 6,000 spectators. However, it was not uncommon for admission costs to be raised for such games, and a 6d admission charge, for example, would have equated to just over 4,000 spectators. Either way, the thought of thousands of people turning up to watch a football match on Christmas Day morning between a team from Darlaston and one from Wednesbury in the 21st century is unthinkable!
Strange as it may seem, Wednesbury Old Athletic had another home game on Boxing Day morning, this time against their other close neighbours Walsall, in another League fixture. The Wednesbury team showed a couple of changes in the forward line from the previous day's game, Male and Smith replacing Whistance and Kingston.
There was a strong wind blowing when The Saddlers kicked off, but with this behind them it was Wednesbury who were the first side to become aggressive. Harrold, who had recently joined the club, played splendidly, sending in a capital shot, though Male spoilt the effort by being offside.
The Saddlers soon got into their stride but the shooting of their forwards was off target. A combined move by the Walsall forwards saw Wootton hit the side netting, while from another attack Crossley put in a miserably weak shot from a good opening.
Wednesbury's new forward line showed up well, Male being particularly effective. Rushton, the Saddlers' keeper, saved from Butler, who shortly afterwards skimmed the crossbar with another shot. Crossley then had a glorious chance for Walsall, but shot yards wide.
Bates was conspicuous for a brilliant run, sending in an excellent centre which Walker got his head to. Hobday, the WOAC keeper, cleared with difficulty but Wootton shot wide. Beardmore then got through for Wednesbury but Rushton saved.
Another Walsall attack looked dangerous but Green shot feebly and Hobday punched away. At the other end Male had a good chance, which he missed, but the Walsall defence were generally playing a good game. Green then forged his way through the home defence and passed to Walker, whose shot skimmed the upright. A goal seemed inevitable when Walker broke through, but he delayed his shot and was charged off the ball, seemingly unfairly, but appeals for a penalty went unheeded. Half time arrived with the score somehow goalless.
After the break Walsall had by far the better of the exchanges. Walker again hit the side netting before, at long last, The Saddlers scored on 51 minutes. Bates received the ball from Humphries and eluded several opponents before scoring 'with a capital shot'.
A rare Wednesbury flourish saw Rushton running out to block a shot by Butler, who then shot over from another chance a few minutes later. On the hour, though, Walsall scored a second, decisive goal. Green forced his way through and although his shot struck a defender, it rebounded to him and he scored with a low shot.
There was a lot of wasted time during the remaining half hour, but Walsall had most of the play, without adding to their score. Crossley came closest to adding to this when shooting just over the bar from Bates's pass.
Wednesbury tired perceptibly as the game progressed and were unable to make any material headway, though a rare breakaway resulted in Rushton saving from Butler.
When the game ended the final score was Wednesbury Old Athletic 0 Walsall 2. The Wednesbury line-up was; Hobday; Goldie, Corbett; Fieldhouse, Bollington, Vale; Beardmore, Smith, Male, Butler, Harrold. The 'gate' amounted to £70, which equated to somewhere between 2,800 and 4,200 spectators, depending on whether the admission charge was 4d or 6d.
The Walsall Observer, in summing up the game, described it as 'a typical holiday match and the spectators, who included a large contingent from Walsall, saw plenty of exciting incidents'. It also added that 'several players on both sides were over vigorous at times and stoppages for injuries were frequent. Walsall had five persevering forwards, but they missed several ridiculously easy chances through over-anxiety'. As for Wednesbury, 'they were well served defensively but their forwards, having looked troublesome in the first half, faded badly in the second.'
Although not commented upon at the time, it is worth pointing out that The Saddlers' players had not played on Christmas Day, unlike their Wednesbury counterparts, which might well have contributed to Walsall's second half superiority.
Having failed to score in the two games so far, Wednesbury entirely changed their forward line for the third game in three days. Beardmore, Smith and Harrold were left out, with Jimmy Adams being called up, whilst Kingston