On Saturday, March 30, 1889, thousands of football fans surged towards the pay gates of Kennington Oval in Surrey to watch Preston North End play Wolverhampton Wanderers.
It was FA Cup final day, and only the most ardent of Wolves supporters expected North End to lose. For William Sudell and his players the FA Cup was their holy grail, the prize they had been working towards since the football club was established in May 1880.
From a cricket club trialing soccer to raise money for the rent of land on Deepdale farm, to the most feared football team in Britain, North End’s rise had been dramatic to say the least. They first entered the FA Cup in the 1883-84 season, only to be banned for fielding illegal professional players against Upton Park in round four.
Withdrawing the next season, and then banned again the following campaign, North End’s FA Cup journey did not get going until 1886-87 when they reached the semi-final against West Bromwich Albion. But, exhausted from the demands of travelling and too many games, a worn-out North End conceded two goals in the last 10 minutes to slump to a 3-1 defeat.
The following year Sudell’s men marched all the way to the final, famously beating Hyde 26-0 at Deepdale along the way. But once more West Brom denied the them with a goal in the last 10 minutes. Everyone who witnessed the match claimed North End the better side, but it was cold comfort. The record books showed a 2-1 loss and another failed attempt to clinch the ‘pot’. For all North End’s fame and records the biggest prize continued to elude, and when club captain and talisman Nick Ross left to join Everton after a fall-out with Sudell, fickle fans and newspapers began to signal the end. But they should’ve known better.
North End’s FA Cup final defeat to West Brom had ended a phenomenal 42-game winning streak. The previous season they had recorded 54 straight matches without defeat. This was not the form of a team on the wane, and with the doom-mongers busy at work, North End started the 1888-89 season with a quiet confidence and steely resolve to prove the doubters wrong. This was the inaugural season of the Football League, a formation Sudell and PNE had played a big part in helping to establish. Indeed it was Sudell who suggested it be called the Football League. It was a new event, and while anticipated with relish by the fans, it did not carry the prestige of the FA Cup. Yet for Sudell it was the perfect platform for his team to display their dominance, and they did not disappoint. By January they had won the championship with three games to spare, clinching the title on home turf in a 4-1 victory over Notts County. In February they beat second-place Aston Villa 2-0 to finish the first ever Football League unbeaten. It was an incredible feat, and now all eyes turned to the FA Cup.
The North End team of 1888-89 had been together for some years and was a well-oiled machine. They had adopted and refined the short-passing game of Queen’s Park of Scotland, changing from the common 2-2-6 formation to a more compact 2-3-5. Each player knew his role inside out, and at the head of it all was businessman and visionary William Sudell. Instrumental in the club’s move to Deepdale and development of the ground, Sudell’s close bond with his players and innovative approach to tactics and preparation set the blueprint for the modern football manager. He encouraged his players to become students of the game, and introduced tactical sessions using a blackboard and chess pieces on a billiard table. He took his team to watch opposition matches, and even had a cobbler on hand to change their footwear if the weather demanded. He was the dictator, the boss, and his belief in his team was absolute.
In the FA Cup semi-final on March, 16 1889 at Bramall Lane in Sheffield, North End finally laid their West Brom jinx to rest, defeating the Throstles 1-0. They had reached their second final in two seasons - surely now their time was at hand.
On final day, kick-off was arranged for 4pm so as not to clash with the Boat Race. By 3.40pm the ground was declared full with hundreds of fans being turned away. For the first time the pitch was positioned closer to the pavilion. A wide margin was roped around the pitch, marshalling in a mass of fans 10 people deep.
Behind these rose the embankments and grandstands, all packed to capacity. The old pavilion too was chock-a-block, even its roof was crowned with fans. It was estimated more than 26,000 had paid in – the highest ever attendance for a Cup Final - it was a sight to behold. At 4pm, umpire and Eton legend Arthur Kinnaird yelled “Prepare for action!” and proceedings got underway. Wolves kicked off to a tremendous roar, determined to upset North End’s passing game. But North End rode the early pressure and on 12 minutes when Jimmy Ross hit the bar, club captain Fred Dewhurst followed up to put the Whites one-nil up.
Thirteen minutes later Ross made it 2-0, and the game was all but over. Although Wolves put up a spirited fight, Sudell’s men began to dominate and in the second half with 23 minutes left, Sam Thompson slid in to make it 3-0. When referee Major Marindin blew the final whistle the Oval erupted and the crowd burst on to the pitch in celebration.
Preston North End had won the FA Cup – and had done so in some style, by not conceding a single goal throughout the tournament. The presentation was planned to take place immediately after the game at the press section, but with so many fans on the pitch it was moved to the front of the pavilion and delayed until the teams had changed.
North End’s players wanted William Sudell to collect the trophy, but he furiously insisted the honour fall to their captain, and so old Fred Dewhurst strode up to collect the cup from FA president, Major Marindin. There had been many disappointments on the road to success for Preston North End, and on that fine but overcast day, as the light began to fade over Surrey, Fred Dewhurst turned to the crowd, silver trophy clutched in hands and said: “You know the old proverb says: Hope deferred maketh the heart sick, but the longer the day is put off, the happier we feel when it has arrived.
“One of the greatest pleasures we have in receiving this cup, is to be able to hand it over to the custody of our worthy friend, Mr Sudell. It is through his exertions that we have kept together – Mr Sudell has been a father to the team – and if it had not been for his exertions, I do not suppose we should have been able to win the cup.”
The following Monday the Invincibles arrived back in Preston via train from London. By 7pm up to 30,000 people lined the streets, as workers flocked from the mills and factories to welcome their team home. From the railway station, two bands and the Volunteer Rifles escorted the players to a special ceremony at the Public Hall. As the cavalcade approached, the jubilant folk of Preston descended into a joyful madness. Hats and sticks flew into the air amid wild cheers, as the crowd swelled and strained to catch a glimpse of its heroes and their glittering prize. Preston had never witnessed such scenes!
Though future years would bring a dramatic fall from grace, William Sudell’s role in the push for professionalism and as a founding father of the Football League means his legacy – not just at North End but in the football world at large – should not be overlooked.
As for the players: their performances had brought an attention never before seen. They had been banned, exhausted, and dealt their share of disappointment. Yet through it all displayed an indomitable spirit to emerge triumphant as the greatest team of their age. In the 128 years since, only six other clubs have matched their League and FA Cup double, but not one has done so undefeated. The Invincibles.
l Michael Barrett’s graphic novel: Preston North End – The Rise of the Invincibles is illustrated by Roy of the Rovers artist David Sque and is available via invinciblebooks.co.uk, on Amazon, and in good bookshops.