It’s just over 105 years since Stoke Football Club (as Stoke City was then called) regained its place in the Football League after a twelve-year absence due to bankruptcy. Their re-admission is unique in that they were the only club to gain re-election to the Football League.
Stoke Ramblers was founded in 1863. Stoke Ramblers merged with the Stoke Victoria Club in September 1878 and moved to the new athletic ground across the road. At this time, they were known as Stoke FC. (Stoke Football Club)
In 1888, they became a founding member of the Football League. They finished bottom of the table in the first two seasons. After two seasons, Stoke was outvoted (being replaced by Sunderland) and had to play in the Football Alliance. After a season in the Football Alliance, they were elected back in for the 1891-92 season and remained in the top flight until being relegated in 1906-07.
Stoke Football Club Bankruptcy
Several years of mid-table stagnation later, the club was relegated to Division Two at the end of the 1906/07 season. During that season, attendance plummeted. Unfortunately, it didn’t improve the year after, with attendances dropping to as low as 3,000, 2,000, and even 1,500 by the end of 1907/08. As a result of this rapid decline, there were financial complications, and the player salaries and running costs were more than gate receipts, and Stoke Football Club went bankrupt in 1908.
After the club lost its Football League status in 1908, it re-registered as a new company and played in the Birmingham & District League for the next season. Then from 1909-10, they entered the Southern League Second Division, initially playing in both competitions. Although there was a brief stay in the Southern League First Division, they were back in the Southern League Second Division for 1914-15.
The Stoke Football Club’s annual general meeting in the summer of 1914 had been a stormy affair. The directors appear to have expected an easy ride. However, the team finished in fifth position in 1913-14. They had obtained 16 votes in the re-election for a place back in the Football League (just nine short), while there had been a profit on the year’s trading of £348.
The meeting was a thrice run affair, with opposition led by Alf Barker, one of the individuals who had helped reform the club in 1908. Two directors failed to retain their places on the board in the show-of-hands vote but then won in the ballot based on shareholdings. Allegations of a missile being thrown turned out to be nothing more than a crumpled piece of paper. The board narrowly won through at a third meeting, winning an open vote by 48 to 47 and the shareholders’ ballot more comfortably, by 378 to 168.
New Secretary / Manager
The new secretary-manager Peter Hodge had previously spent five years in charge of Raith Rovers. He had achieved three consecutive top-two positions in the Scottish League Division Two before gaining promotion to the First Division. A knowledgeable and effective manager, he went on to take charge of Leicester and Manchester City after the First World War was over.
There was little transfer activity over the summer, and the squad that started 1914-15 was more or less the same as had finished the previous campaign. The Southern League Division, Two of 1914-15, was dysfunctional. Of the 17 clubs set to take part, 12 were based in South Wales, two in the London area (Leyton and Brentford), two in the Midlands (Stoke and Coventry City), and one in the North West (Stalybridge Celtic). The presence of Stalybridge was not the first occasion a Northern club had joined the competition, for Bradford Park Avenue had been members in 1907-08.
The Southern League
The clubs were essentially a mixture of Football League (or at least Southern League Division One) hopefuls and teams recruited as part of an expansion move by the Southern league to bring professional football to the Welsh Valleys, plus the newly formed Essex professional outfit Leyton who had yet to play a game. One of the skills a secretary-manager required was to arrange the best possible fixture list with at least one attractive home fixture over the Christmas period.
In the Southern League Division Two, other considerations were to be borne in mind. The state of many of the Welsh grounds was appalling, and these were best negotiated in the summer months when there was more daylight, enabling later kick-off times, and the pitches were likely to be in slightly better condition. Time and time again, comments appeared in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel along the following lines: “Frequenters of the Victoria Ground can have no conception of the state of some of these Welsh enclosures” (30 January 1915). Ton Pentre was probably the worst “cramped, uneven, composed for the most part of clinker, and positively dangerous to players owing to the presence of so much glass and clinker” (Staffordshire Evening Sentinel, 13 February 1915).
For good measure, there was also a significant slope to the pitch. Players described the Llanelly pitch as “a fearful handicap” to players, while Barry Town’s ground was “a terrible enclosure … almost knee-deep in the mud”. Pontypridd’s Taff Vale Park boasted the fastest sprint track in the British Isles; the only problem was it ran down the middle of the pitch, from goal to goal. It was about 10 meters wide and, for football, was covered with a light layer of peat. The MidRhondda pitch was described as “more underwater than above it.”
Long Journeys For Stoke Football Club
The long distances to be traveled meant very long journeys and often 4.00 pm (sometimes 5.00 pm) kick-offs for Saturday afternoon matches. As the war progressed, travel became more complicated, and train journeys were often a problem. Perhaps the most challenging journey for Stoke Football Club was their trip to Brentford for a Christmas Day fixture. The players left Stoke at 8.15 pm on Christmas Eve but did not reach Euston until 3.20 am.
After traveling to their hotel, they had supper at 5.30 and were in bed for 6. At 8.30, they were up again and made their way to Brentford, arriving just in time for the 11.15 kick-off. After only a couple of hours’ sleep, the team played well and came away with a 2-2 draw. There were also delays on some of the trips to Wales. Despite leaving for Merthyr before 8.30 am, the players arrived only in time for the 4.00 pm kick-off and changed en route, going straight to the pitch for the start.
Mid Rhondda (based at Tonypandy) was a similar story; the party left before 8.00 am, arrived at 4.30 pm (the scheduled kick-off time,) and the match eventually started at 5.00 pm. Stoke Football Club had wisely decided to begin the season with a trip to South Wales, with fixtures scheduled at Mardy on 1 September and Caerphilly the following day. Unfortunately, the opening game at Mardy was lost, but as Caerphilly had withdrawn from the competition a couple of days beforehand, the players could travel back to the Midlands.
The next fixture was home to newcomers Leyton Orient, resulting in a 3-1 win. There followed a successful run through to that Christmas Day visit to Brentford, with 12 out of 13 games won and just a single defeat away promotion rivals Stalybridge Celtic.
Stoke Football Club FA Cup Record
The FA Cup began with a record 11-0 win over Stourbridge in the preliminary qualifying round but ended with a disappointing defeat at Walsall, members of the Birmingham League, in which Stoke Football Club reserve team competed. However, the promotion campaign received an unexpected boost towards the end of November with the withdrawal of Leyton and Mardy, thus removing the opening day defeat from the league records.
A third club, Abertillery, also dropped out in the New Year, leaving 13 clubs to complete the season. As a result, the division was split into two: those with promotion ambitions (Stoke, Swansea, Merthyr, Stalybridge, Brentford, and Coventry) and the rest. Coventry effectively ran out of money in the second half of the season and was not always able to field an entire team in Birmingham League matches. Brentford, too, drifted away, leaving the remaining four clubs in contention.
Ultimately Stoke Football Club’s championship success was built on an impressive home record: 11 wins out of 12 and a goals tally of 49 for and just five against. However, even after that New Year points boost, it was not all plain sailing. There were two tough fixtures to overcome in March. Firstly, on 6 March, there was a tricky visit to Merthyr Town, who were also in the championship race.
Delays on the rail journey meant the team had to change into their kit en route and go straight into the match on arrival. Nevertheless, a valuable point was obtained in a 0-0 draw. The following Saturday came to the decisive fixture at home to Stalybridge Celtic. Stalybridge might seem an unusual name to be found in the Southern League. Still, the competition was seen as a route to football league membership, and they are not the most northern to have taken part in the competition – Bradford Park Avenue did so in 1907-08. Stalybridge seems to have misjudged the strength of opposing teams and lost four games in the first half of the season, which effectively cost them the title. They were the only team to have beaten Stoke Football Club to date and did not lose a game after mid-December.
The revival in fortunes was undoubtedly linked to their signing almost an entirely new forward line during the season: Laurie Burkinshaw (Sheffield Wednesday), Walter Anthony (Blackburn), Andy Nelson (Port Vale), and Norman Wood (Stockport). They arrived at the Victoria Ground looking for a win, but in front of a 6,000 crowd, Stoke Football Club held firm with Arthur Watkin’s goal earning another valuable draw.
The closing stages of the season were marred by ill-feeling. Stoke’s 4-2 loss at Mid Rhondda on Good Friday followed by their Easter Monday thrashing of Ebbw Vale by a 10-0 margin to clinch the title led to some raised eyebrows in South Wales. This was mainly so as the small contingent of Ebbw Vale professionals all hailed from the Potteries (notably Amos Baddeley, a former Stoke player), as did their manager, Arthur Shallcross, who later went on to become manager of Stoke Football Club after the war.
However, Mid Rhondda’s pitch was noted as being poor, and the team arrived late, delaying the kick-off, which probably explains the result. It was also the case that close rivals Merthyr and Stalybridge still had to meet each other, which meant there was little chance of Stoke Football club losing out on the title anyway.
Merthyr’s chances were further reduced following a 1-0 defeat at Llanelly on 10 April. Allegations were made that the Llanelly players had been bribed to perform at their best. Following investigations, the Mid Rhondda and former Leeds City winger George Cunningham were banned from the FA of Wales. However, Stalybridge, the obvious beneficiaries, seems to have escaped punishment.
Applying For The Football League (Once Again)
Stoke Football Club’s primary aim of achieving promotion to the First Division of the Southern League had been completed. They now set out to better this by applying to join the Football League. They did so in defiance of the Southern League authorities, having decided not to resign their membership before applying.
There were seven applications: Leicester Fosse and Glossop, both seeking re-election after finishing in the bottom two places of Division Two, plus Chesterfield Town, Coventry City, Darlington, South Shields, and Stoke Football Club. The process was that a representative from each club stated their case for membership, and the member clubs then voted on the issue.
Playing strength was not a significant factor. When Stoke Football Club’s turn finally came (the clubs appear to have gone in alphabetical order), their representative’s main point was that the club had a ground that could hold 45,000 spectators. However, their position as founder members would have held them in good stead too. Coventry withdrew their application, and the outcome was decisive: Leicester Fosse 33, Stoke 21, South Shields 11, Chesterfield Town 8, Darlington 4, Glossop 1.
Stoke Football Club Re-Elected
Stoke Football Club was therefore elected to the Football League, although it was not until August 1919 that they could take their place. Like many clubs, Stoke Football Club seems to have almost ignored the war despite this dominated life in the town. When pressed, towards the end of November 1914, the club produced a list of 15 players who had enlisted; not, however, 15 current players but 15 men who had played for the club in the last three seasons.
The War Years
Ray, only one of these was a current player, being the regular outside right for the reserve team. That, it seems, is how it remained until the season ended when several players did enlist, including Reg Forrester (Mounted Machine Gun Section), Arthur Watkin (Transport Section), and Briscoe (the reserve team center-forward). Apart from this, most players who served in the military during the war were conscripted. Goalkeeper Dick Herron managed to hold this off at a tribunal in March 1917 due to his work as a blacksmith in a local colliery but was called up in the autumn. Unfortunately, he was later killed in action fighting with the Sherwood Foresters on 19 September 1918.
The only other fatality from the players from 1914-15 was Stan Ripley, who had made a solitary Southern League appearance during the season, otherwise turning out for the ‘A’ and reserve teams. He died on 10 March 1917. Two wartime players, Tom Kinson and George Limer, also lost their lives.
Players conscripted included Harry Hargreaves, George Turner, Billy Tompkinson, Charlie Parker, and George Clarke. Hargreaves was reported as being a prisoner of war in October 1918 while Turner lost a leg, ending his career.
Stoke Football Club took their place in the wartime emergency competitions, attracting 7,000 fans to their opening game with Preston North End in September 1915. Had they not been elected back into the Football League, they may have faced serious problems as to their future existence.
Gates throughout the country were down significantly, and while many clubs cut their wage bill to match their reduced income, Stoke Football Club does not appear to have done so. The season may have been successful on the pitch. Still, financially it was a different story, and a substantial loss of over £2,300 was made, leaving the club in deficit to the tune of almost £3,000 – significant amounts for this period.
Stoke Football Club Name Changed
In 1919, the club acquired the Victoria Ground. Shortly afterward, the Butler Street stand was constructed, increasing the ground’s capacity to 50,000. Stoke Football Club won promotion from the Football League Second Division in the 1921–22 season under the stewardship of Arthur Shallcross but was relegated the following season. Stoke-on-Trent was granted city status in 1925, which resulted in the club changing its name to Stoke City Football Club.