The Early Years of Scottish Football

Football has become the people’s sport virtually across the world. The irony of this is frequently commented on because its foundations lie firmly in the elitist English public schools. In these schools, what became the two football codes – Rugby and Association – were developed in the 19th century, probably as an outlet for the excess energy of their pupils, cooped up as they were in the boarding-school system. Children in the rest of society had no such problems with excess energy, of course; most of them were working up to 12 hours a day in factories or down mines, as the Vale’s own John Ferguson liked to recall, but that’s another story.

By the 1850’s both codes had gained in popularity outside of the public schools, but Association Football proved to be more popular than Rugby with English people at large. However, there were almost as many sets of rules as there were public schools, and although these had been reduced by the 1850’s to two major sets – the Cambridge, which predominated in the south of England and the Sheffield, which held sway in the north – by 1863 there was a drive for a single code. Thus the Football Association was formed with the sole initial aim of producing a single set of rules for football, and its inaugural members met in October 1863. The first game under the new unified rules was played in early 1864 at Battersea Park in London. Not all the original members agreed with the new rules and in 1871, some of them broke away to form the Rugby Union.

Association Football was spreading like wild-fire in a totally unprecedented manner and it was actually changing the nature of society. It soon became a mass spectator sport, really the first, which to begin with at least, crossed all social classes not only in Scotland, but even more so in England. A couple of London-based ex-public schoolboys were invited to play for Scotland in the first ever international football game, Scotland vs England in November 1872. Neither could make it, but one of them, Lord Kinnaird, played for Scotland the following year and remained in football until his death in the early 1920’s. He was also the chairman of the banquet hosting the Vale when they went to London to play the English cup holders, Wanderers, in April 1878. Wanderers were a football team made up exclusively of former public schoolboys. In later years the Vale played against the Ex-Etonian team as well.

People in Scotland were obviously aware of football and in July 1867 the first Association Football club in Scotland was formed in Glasgow – this was Queen’s Park Football Club. Queen’s took their name from the Glasgow Corporation Park of the same name, which had only opened in 1862, 5 years before Queen’s were founded. Queen’s first ground was in the eastern corner of that Park, in an area which was later known as Queen’s Park Recreation Ground. The New Victoria Infirmary buildings now stand on that former Recreation Ground. Incidentally, contrary to popular belief, Queen’s Park itself was not named after Queen Victoria, as is usually assumed, but after Mary Queen of Scots who in 1568 had fought, and lost, the Battle of Langside on the southern edge of what became the Park. The Recreation Ground was where Queen’s played their games from 1867 until 1873 when the first Hampden Park was opened 200-300 yards to the east. The Vale played its first “proper” game on this ground – which the Lennox Herald of the time referred to as “Southside Park, Glasgow” – on 21st December 1872 and was one of the last teams to do so, before Queen’s moved into the new, first, Hampden Park in January 1873.

To begin with, of course, Queen’s had no one to play against, but set about remedying that by what they rightly regarded as “missionary” work around Scotland, carrying the message about this new-found sport of Association Football throughout the land – or at least the parts of it most accessible to the Scottish railway system of the late 1860’s and 1870’s. Reflecting the games origins in English private schools, the members of Queen’s Park were all amateurs and predominantly Glaswegian middle class – a traditionally rich seam for Scottish missionary zeal. Like their religious counter-parts, these early members of Queen’s Park were very effective in spreading the message, particularly in the Vale.

It is also worth paying homage to English fair play at this point. In 1871 - 1872, the English FA inaugurated the FA Cup and recognising the sterling efforts of Queen’s Park and the lonely furrow which they were ploughing in Scotland, the FA invited Queen’s to take part in this very first year of the competition. Not only did they invite Queen’s to play in that first FA Cup, but knowing the expense involved in travelling down to England to play ties, they gave them a bye into the semi-final. Furthermore, to minimise Queen’s expenses the FA arranged for the final to be played the day after the semi-final, if Queen’s Park won the semi. At this time Queen’s had about £4 in the bank and were delighted with the arrangements which were made to suit the Glasgow team. In the event. Queen’s drew with their semi-final opponents, the famous English Public School side Wanderers (more below about Vale’s game against them a few years later), and could not stay on for a replay, thus forfeiting the game. However, the generosity of spirit on the part of the FA still shines out 140 years later, in stark contrast to the shenanigans indulged in by Scottish clubs these days when an opponent wants to change a fixture date around a European tie. It’s also in stark contrast to some of the Vale’s and Queen’s attitudes to each other a short time later, but more of that later. Queen’s continued to play in the FA Cup until 1887, when the SFA banned its members from taking part in the English Cup.

An indirect consequence of that was the introduction a year later in 1888 of a game between the winners of the FA Cup and the Scottish Cup, which some creative 19th century marketing man had the good sense to bill as being for the “World Championship”. This was not the first game between the two sets of winners, but it was the first in which the competitions were open only to clubs in the respective countries, so it was a contest between the best two teams from Scotland and England, and hence the title. There should be a statue to that marketing man in Renton, because, of course, in 1888 the title was won by the mighty Renton FC.

A side effect of Queen’s Park’s first trip to London in March 1872 was that they had to cancel a “missionary” tour of the Tweed Valley to go to play in the FA Cup semi-final. That tour never seems to have been re-arranged and thus the Borders were lost to Rugby Football, imported into the area from the North of England.

Later in 1872 the first-ever international Association Football match was held between Scotland and England. A feature of that first international which has gained something of urban myth status in the Vale is that the Scottish strip, or “uniform” as it was called in those days, was based on the Vale’s kit. That St Andrew’s Day in November 1872, Scotland played in dark blue jerseys with a Scottish lion badge, with white knickerbockers and blue and white striped stockings. The Scottish kit hasn’t changed much since. The dark blue jersey was also, from the outset, the Vale’s strip and indeed still is. To begin with the Vale’s knickerbockers were blue (they have been white for nearly a century now) and their stockings were, and still are, red.

First International
An Illustration of the First International Between Scotland and England

By way of a good story it is said that Scotland borrowed the colours and perhaps even the strips themselves, from the newly formed Vale FC. Not so, for two main reasons. Firstly, the Scottish Rugby team had already played an international match in February 1872 against England wearing the same coloured jersey, so it is very likely that this is where the Scottish Association Football colours came from. Secondly, the Vale wouldn’t have had any uniforms in November 1872. They only played their second game at about the time the international took place, and their third one (both these games against Queen’s Park) about 3 weeks after the international. It is highly doubtful that the Vale could afford strips of their own at this time, never mind lending them to the Scottish team. Two other games against Queen’s Park followed in January and February 1873, the latter of these attracting 1,500 spectators, and its quite believable that by then they could afford their own strips. It’s equally believable that with the good conceit of themselves which they were soon showing in other ways, and justifying on the park, they chose the Scottish colours as their own in early 1873, and no Vale person would argue with that.

That first ever international football match was played in Glasgow at West of Scotland’s Cricket Ground at Hamilton Crescent, Partick – still occupied by Wes - between Scotland and England on Saturday 30th November 1872, appropriately enough St Andrews Day. Although a number of clubs had been formed in Scotland by that date, including of course, Vale and Renton, only the Queen’s Park players were good enough or knowledgeable enough about the rules, to play for Scotland, so the Scottish team was entirely made up of Queen’s players. They gave a good account of themselves too, the game ending in a 0-0 draw.

Vale of Leven Football and Athletic Club

By the spring of 1872, the young men in the Vale had caught the football bug, just as their peers had all over Scotland. Up until then the dominant sports in the area had been rowing on Loch Lomond – Loch Regattas were not only big crowd pullers but relatively lucrative for the professional oarsmen – cricket, which had been imported by textile workers coming up from Lancashire and elsewhere in England in the 1830’s, and shinty which was brought into the area by Highlanders coming to work in the local factories. Shinty was played in both Alexandria and Renton, (and in Dumbarton) on the Public Parks in both towns and had probably the largest following of all sports in the area. It was the shinty players who decided to give football a try, although they knew very little about the rules of football.

On Saturday August 24th 1872, The Lennox Herald carried the following report under the head-line “Vale of Leven – Formation of a Foot-ball Club”:

“At a meeting of young men, held on Tuesday evening 20th inst, a foot-ball club was formed here. A committee of 12 was elected to make the necessary arrangements. The following are the office-bearers.

President: Donald McFarlane
Secretary: J B Wright
Treasurer: Joseph McEwan
Custodian: R Cameron

A large park for practice has been granted by Mr John Cameron, Alexandria, and commencement is intended to be made about the end of October.”

If the “commencement” relates to playing rather than the preparation of the football ground, then that would fit in with the likely date for the first visit of Queen’s Park on their initial missionary trip to show the Vale lads how to play Association football.

Up until then, many of these young men had been shinty players, others were cricketers and others were fine athletes. They named the new club the Vale of Leven Athletic and Football Club. This was the first football club to be organised in Dunbartonshire and predates the founding of both Renton and Dumbarton FC’s. The only problem was that at this initial stage, the Club intended to follow the Rugby rather than the Association Football code. That wasn’t such a fundamental error to make at the time as it perhaps seems now. Rugby Football had only broken away from Association Football the previous year, 1871, and probably had a higher public profile since Scotland had already played England in a Rugby International before the formation of the Vale Club. Young lads brought up on shinty probably didn’t know the difference between the two codes anyway.

But Queen’s Park certainly did, and when they heard about the Vale lads’ decision to adopt the Rugby code, they immediately offered to come down to the Vale and show them how to play Association Football rather than Rugby. Sometime in the late summer / early autumn of 1872 the offer was taken up and an exhibition game was arranged on the Public Park at Parkneuk, Alexandria, which was where the Riverside housing estate now is.

Renton FC and Dumbarton FC soon follow

Although the game was organised by Vale of Leven Athletic and Football Club, people came from all over western Dunbartonshire to see what this football thing was all about. Not only did they come to watch and learn, some of them got so carried away that they came onto the pitch and took part in the game. Queen’s must have been very well pleased with this, their first missionary visit to the north-west of the Glasgow conurbation. The Vale immediately decided to adopt Association rules. Of at least equal importance, the spectators at that exhibition game from Renton and Dumbarton went away and formed Renton Football Club a few weeks later and Dumbarton Football Club in December 1872. By the end of 1872, therefore, the Valley of the Leven was home to 3 football teams which were to become pre-eminent in Scotland for the next 20 years. The cradle had been built, and it soon started to rock.

However, old loyalties lingered on and shinty continued to be played alongside football in Alexandria and Renton for some years, and many prominent Vale and Renton players played both games. Two of the Vale’s stalwarts in their cup-winning teams, David Lindsay and John McGregor, were noted shinty players. Indeed Roger Hutchinson in his book “Camanacd!” says that both Renton FC and Vale of Leven FC players lined up in shinty formations, while shinty’s Glasgow Celtic Society’s web-site shows Vale of Leven, with A Smith as captain, winning the Celtic Society Cup in 1880, its second year of competition. The Cup is still one of the 5 grand slam competitions in shinty. By the turn of the 20th century, however, shinty had all but disappeared from the Vale.

The Vale’s first games

The first “proper" game which the Vale played was on 21st December 1872, against Queens Park at Queen’s then home ground, which newspaper reports gave as Southside Park, Glasgow, but which later became known as Queen’s Park Recreation Ground. Although Vale lost 3-0 to Queen’s they gave a good account of themselves. The Vale team that day was:

Bob Parlane in goal, Archie Michie, Bob Jardine, Matthew Nicholson, John M Campbell, Robert Lindsay, Charles Glen, John C McGregor, George McGregor, Duncan Cameron, William Kinloch.

Three of these players were to survive to the Cup-winning glory years.

There is no mention of what colour of uniform the Vale wore that day, and since at that stage Queen’s Park were still wearing a blue strip, its quite possible that the Vale had not yet adopted the dark blue strip, although they certainly were wearing it shortly afterwards. Their first uniform, as it was termed in those days, was dark blue jerseys and knickers and red stockings - only the colour of the team’s shorts, which are now white, differ from these colours to-day.

The preparation of the club’s own park, which had been made available to them in August 1872, was proceeding apace. This became known as Cameron’s Park, named after John Cameron whose field it was. We don’t know exactly where Cameron’s Park was, other than it was “up Doctor’s Loan”, but we do now have a very good idea where Doctor’s Loan was. It was in the area of Upper Bridge Street and may have been Upper Bridge Street itself or perhaps Upper Smollett Street. In the early 1870’s neither Street had been properly laid out nor named, but both had vacant ground which could have accommodated a football park. In Upper Smollett Street it could have been in the area which became the Tennis Club, while in Upper Bridge Street it could have been where Queen Street now is, particularly in the area on which Upper Bridge Street Church was built. The Tennis Club site is the favourite, but the truth is that at present we just don’t know. At that time there were no regulations governing the size of a pitch, and it’s likely that the early Vale pitches were much smaller than a modern pitch.

In any event, the Vale was not at Cameron’s Park for long before moving down to a site somewhere around the corner of North Street and what became Lennox Street. Again, we are not sure exactly where the Park was, although it has been said that it was at the north end of Lennox Street, between the Foundry and what became the RNTF. That’s quite possible since it is recorded that it was next to the Foundry, but not on which side, and old maps suggest that there was more room there for a park than on the south side, but at the moment that is speculation. They may have moved there as early as 1874, and were certainly at North Street by 1876, staying there until moving to Millburn Park in the summer of 1888. North Street Park, as it was known, was therefore the home of the Scottish Cup-winning Vale teams of the 1877-79.

On 11th January 1873 Queen's Park came down to open the Vale's new ground at Cameron's Park. Even that game was frequently stopped so that the Queen's players could explain the rules to the Vale players. The game was a 0-0 draw which probably reflected the circumstances rather than the Vale’s actual performance. The Lennox described it as a “Tough match... both teams worked hard with the Vale players using their great speed to considerable advantage”. Of perhaps greater significance than the result was the fact that the Vale people seemed to have taken football to their hearts. The same Lennox report says that “there was a large assemblage of spectators – the entire parish having seemingly turned out to witness the fray.”

The Vale soon played another two games against Queens, the first probably in February, which the Vale lost, and the second on 1st March 1873. This match, played at Cameron’s Park, was the Vale’s “coming of age” game. It was no exhibition game with regular stoppages to explain the rules but rather a hard fought game in which the Vale gave as good as they got and came away with a very creditable 0-0 draw. The other important factor was the crowd – the attendance was estimated at around 1,500 and confirmed that football was now the number one sport and entertainment in the Vale.

Next - Organising the game in Scotland >


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