FROM THE RAMBLERS TO THE BRITANNIA
BY Vince Cooper
HAVING first opened for business in 1878, The Victoria Ground lasted as the home of Stoke City for 119 years before the club relocated to the Britannia Stadium. It wasn’t always plain sailing for the club or their home, as you can find out here.
The Stoke club was originally formed in 1863 as Stoke Ramblers by some former pupils of the famous Charterhouse School while they were working as apprentices for the North Staffordshire Railway. Their original home ground was called Sweetings Field but in 1878 the club merged with Stoke Victoria Cricket Club and moved their home to the Athletic club ground which soon became known as the Victoria Ground. The first match played at the new ground was the final of the 1878 Staffordshire County Cup with the home team running out 1-0 winners over Talke Rangers before a healthy crowd of 2,500.
The 1877-78 team
In 1885 Stoke turned professional and three years later they became one of the 12 founder-members of the Football League. The first league match in the club’s history took place at the ‘Vic’ with a crowd of 4,524 witnessing a 2-0 defeat by West Bromwich Albion a result which gave the visitors the honour of being the first-ever team to top the table.
The loss was a foretaste of results to come as Stoke finished bottom of the table in each of the first two seasons of the new competition. The second of these resulted in the club losing their league place with Sunderland taking over.
Stoke joined the Football Alliance but immediate success saw them back in the League a year later and although they needed to apply for re-election again they then shot up to a healthy 7th place in 1892-93 and would go on to retain their place for 15 years.
The star of the team in those early years was Joe Schofield.
Locally born and the son of an Alderman, Schofield finished as top scorer in four successive seasons, winning three England caps and representing the Football League twice. He would later manage both Stoke and local rivals Port Vale.
Woolwich Arsenal v Newcastle United. 1906 F. A. Cup semi-final at the Victoria Ground
Despite the team’s lack of success, the Victoria was considered one of the top Grounds in the Football League. In 1889 it hosted the international between England and Wales, four years later staging the same match-up and the ground, ideally situated in the middle of the country, also hosted seven F. A. Cup semi-finals
The hosts won the first clash 4-1 whilst both Schofield and Stoke right-back Tommy Clare played in the second encounter which England won 6-0. After those two matches the ground would wait over 40 years before hosting the national team for a third and final time.
Towards the turn of the century the team was barely keeping alive in the League and more than once they had the goals of much-travelled Scot William Maxwell to thank for their survival. One notable anomaly was the 1898-99 season where they made a run to the F. A. Cup semi-final.
The Wednesday, Small Heath and Tottenham Hotspur were all seen off to set up a last-four clash with Derby County at Molineux. After taking an early lead through Maxwell they were eventually overwhelmed by the star-studded County attack led by Steve Bloomer and fell to a 3-1 defeat.
After a bottom-paced finished sent them down to the Second Division in 1907, both club and ground fell on hard times. The club had money woes and despite selling their best player, Fred Rouse, to Everton for £600 they went bankrupt whilst the Vic was declared the worst in football.
The 1907-08 season saw them finish 10th in the second tier but the bankruptcy forced the club to resign from the Football League. A group of local businessmen led by former referee Alfred Barker, raised the funds to prevent the club from disappearing altogether and the renamed Stoke Football Club (1908) applied for re-election but lost out to Spurs.
Barker took over as manager and the club entered the Birmingham & District League. The ‘new’ club also had a new kit as Stoke wore red and white striped shirts for the first time having donned dark red before. Soon after they switched to red and blue stripes. Attendances picked up even though Stoke were now competing against the reserve teams of league clubs and semi-pro outfits and despite a number of players having been sold to balance the books.
In the 1909-10 campaign the club competed on two fronts having ambitiously entered the Southern League where they played in the Second Division (A) and, indeed, won it, playing ten matches and winning all of them. They then went on to face Hastings & St Leonard’s United, winners of the ‘B’ Division in the championship play off and recorded a resounding 6-0 win.
In that year’s F. A. Cup, Stoke beat Ilkeston and Exeter City in the qualifying rounds earning them a place in the 1st Round proper and a home draw with Newcastle United. A 1-1 draw at the Victoria Ground took the teams to St James’s Park for a replay and United prevailed 2-1 before going on to win the cup.
The attendance of 18,000 for the home match was encouraging enough for Barker and the Directors to start thinking about redevelopment. It was now clear that if Stoke had a good team and good facilities they would draw good crowds.
After winning the Birmingham & District League in 1910-11, Stoke left and focused their attentions on the Southern League with relegation from the top flight in 1913-14 was followed by a change in manager with Scot Peter Hodge taking over and another Second Division title coming their way in the following campaign before the major leagues were suspended due to the outbreak of World War One.
Football did continue during hostilities and Stoke, now back permanently in red and white stripes, took part in the Lancashire Section Primary Competition, competing against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United, regularly drawing large crowds and winning the competition in 1918-19, a season in which they scored over 100 goals.
By the time first-class football returned in 1919 the club was rejuvenated both on and off the pitch. They had purchased the freehold of the Victoria Ground, constructed the 1,000-seater Main Stand, added two covered terraces and increased overall capacity to 50,000. The stand would be rebuilt in the 1920s and a second stand was added opposite and then in 1930 the famous Boothen End terrace was constructed complete with roof.
The Victoria Ground in the 1920s
On the playing side, Stoke applied for inclusion in the Football League and were granted a place in the Second Division. With a new manager, another former referee in Arthur Shalcross.
Seven Stoke players, Richard Heron, Henry Hargreaves, Stan Ripley, George Limer, Frank Shorthouse, Bill Nixon and Tom Kinson, had lost their lives during the war and Shalcross set about strengthening his team in their attempts to play at the top level.
The arrival of prolific goalscorer David Brown from Dundee boosted the scoring ranks but after a wildly inconsistent season Stoke had to settle for a 10th-place finish.
After a season where relegation to the newly-formed Third Division (North) looked a distinct possibility Stoke got their act together in 1921-22. An unbeaten 15-match home run and the goals of Jimmy Broad (he scored 25 in the league) saw them promoted to the First Division.
Stoke finished on 52 points four behind champions Nottingham Forest and level with Barnsley, winning promotion ahead of their Yorkshire counterparts thanks to a better goal average.
But it was to be a short-lived stay. After a disappointing start Stoke were always struggling. Manager Shalcross was fired, replaced for just four weeks by Jock Rutherford who walked out after an argument with the board and the team finished second from bottom, immediately losing their top-flight place.
Attendances were good even with the poor fare on the pitch. Crowds average on the season was just under 20,000 topping out at 44,000 for the visit of Sunderland on Boxing Day. And Jimmy Broad enjoyed another good season, finding the net 23 times in 30 matches. Sadly, everyone else managed to score just one more than Broad combined.
A new manager, Tom Mather, was appointed in the summer of 1923 (he would remain at the helm for twelve years) and he soon began a financially motivated clear out which caused more problems and led to an unfortunate incident at the end of the season.
Stoke had finished 6th and Mather then told ten players, including Jimmy Broad and his brother Tommy that they were being let go to bring down the wage bill. The players then raided and ransacked the club offices causing considerable damage.
With new, cheaper players replacing those released Stoke struggled and barely managed to avoid relegation.
Then in 1925 with Stoke granted city status the club became Stoke City FC but there were no celebrations on the pitch as they finished bottom of the Second Division and dropped into the Third Division (North) for the first time.
Once they’d bottomed out City began an immediate rise capturing the title with a big hand from two key signings. Towards the end of the doomed 1925-26 campaign Tom Mather persuaded Huddersfield Town, to part with forward Charlie Wilson and winger Joey Williams.
Whilst Wilson had played sparsely for Town due to an ankle injury, Williams had made 25 appearances before Herbert Chapman decided to sell him. The pair could do little in the few weeks remaining and when Stoke were relegated Williams completed the unheard-of feat of winning a First Division championship medal and being relegated from the Second Division in the same season.
Another good season followed; with Wilson again top-scoring, this time with 32 league goals, City made a valiant run at a second succession promotion, eventually finishing 5th, five points off promotion.
Wilson added six more in a fine F. A. Cup run. Gillingham, Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City (with a whopping 73,668 present) were all seen off before Stoke fell in the quarter-final to Arsenal.
However in the following campaign the pair helped transform the club. Wilson scored 25 league goals in 31 games, many of them created by Williams, as Stoke romped to the title finishing five points clear.
Another major part of City’s rise at this time, and indeed for a long time to come, was full-back Bob McGrory.
Scot McGrory had started his career with Dumbarton where he made over 200 appearances. He moved south and had a short spell at Burnley who paid a healthy £3,500 for him but where he made just three starts in the club’s 1920-21 title-winning season.
Offloaded to Stoke, the no-nonsense defender quickly became a fixture in the line-up going on to make over 500 appearance in all competitions, and spending ten years as captain before then managing the club for 18 years.
Saddled with a hefty overdraft the club made few signings during the late 1920s and continued to rely on Charlie Wilson for the majority of their goals as they hovered around the top half of the Second Division without threatening to take the next step forward. But one new arrival in 1930 would have a massive impact on the Potters.
Jack Matthews from Hanley was a local boxer who fought under the nickname ‘The Fighting Barber of Hanley’. He wanted his son to follow him into the ring but having taken him to a match at the Victoria Ground when he was just six, Young Stanley became hooked on football.
Stan, who grew up as a Port Vale fan, had his mum on his side and she also wasn’t keen on him entering the ring. They made a deal with dad that if he could reach England Schoolboy international standard he could pursue a career kicking leather rather than throwing it.
In 1929 Stan, with his added incentive and by now converted from his original centre-half position to right wing, made his England schoolboy debut against Wales at Bournemouth’s Dean Court ground. There were a lot of clubs interested in signing the youngster but Tom Mather persuaded the Matthews family that joining Stoke was the best move, partly by offering employment as an office boy at £1 per week so in February 1930 he joined Port Vale’s local rivals.
Matthews made his reserve team debut against Burnley during the 1930-31 season and put in a performance his dad described with the nondescript assessment; “I’ve seen you play better, I’ve seen you play worse”.
In February 1932, on his 17th birthday, Stan signed as a pro and saw his earnings immediately shoot up to the footballers maximum of £5 per week (although Jack insisted he save the wages and only spend any bonuses he received).
The 1931-32 campaign saw Mather make a number of shrewd signings and the team, despite losing striker Wilf Kirkham for the season after he’d suffered a badly broken leg shortly after scoring in the season-opened, were pushing for promotion.
An injury to regular right-winger Bobby Liddle gave Matthews his debut in the March fixture at Bury, a match City won 1-0. But the opportunity proved short-lived with the youngster making just one more appearance before being sent back to the reserves as his team finished the season in 3rd just two points adrift of runners-up Leeds United.
In the 1932-33 season Matthews shared right-wing duties with Liddle as the team romped to the 2nd Division title.
Liddle had been snapped up from County Durham team Washington Colliery in 1928 along with Centre-forward Joe Mawson and these two, with Liddle’s tricky wing play complimenting Mawson’s 16-goal haul that played a huge part in City taking the crown by a point from Spurs with a six-point gap to third-placed Fulham.
So, after a ten-year absence Stoke were back in the big time, but the early stages of the 1933-34 season proved to be a struggle and it took some bold decisions by Mather to secure safety.
On November 4 Mather gave a first-team debut to Frank Soo. Soo had been signed from non-league Prescot Cables for £400 at the start of the year and when appearing at Middlesbrough he became the first player of Asian descent to appear in the league.
A 5-1 defeat at Derby in February left Stoke just one point clear of the relegation places and the return to the 1st Division was in danger of being brief. But Mather snapped up Arthur Tutin from Aldershot for £500 and recalled now 40-year-old Bob McGrory from the reserves to help steady the ship. Six consecutive wins shot them up the standings and helped the Potters to finish in the relative comfort of 11th.
It was also the season where Stanley Matthews truly started to blossom and this was particularly in evidence in the F. A. Cup.
Stoke won three matches scoring a total of nine goals and Stan got four of them. The wins set up a quarter-final clash against Manchester City at Maine Road where, watched by the highest official attendance at a domestic English ground of 84,569, they fell to a single-goal defeat after an error by Stoke ‘keeper Roy John.
The lure of the Cup at this time is evidenced by the fact that just three weeks later the teams met again at Maine Road in a league match and just 13,900 saw City run out 4-2 winners.
Stoke’s first match of the 1934-35 season saw them suffer a 4-1 beating at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday but they turned thing around just two days later, dismantling Leeds United 8-1. The match proved to be another coming-of-age for Stanley Matthews who scored four times and made two more. The calls for the teenager to get a place in the England team grew louder and were heeded when he made his international against Wales in November, scoring the third in a 4-0 win.
The season was another where Stoke had to settle for a mid-table finish. Early results gave hope that they might be able to challenge at the top but a late-season slump saw them finish 10th.
This was despite a 24-goal haul for locally-born Tommy Sale who saw his place threatened towards the end of the season by another local lad, Freddie Steele.
A big change came in the summer when Tom Mather left the club to take over at Newcastle United. Bob McGrory whom Mather had made assistant a year before took over in the hot seat.
McGrory made few changes to his personnel and with wingers Matthews and Joe Johnson proving a constant threat to opponents, his first season at the helm was a huge success. The team finished 4th in the table and although they were nine points behind runaway champions Sunderland they missed out on the runners-up spot by a single point.
Towards the end of the season the manager had a big decision to make. Tommy Sale had been established as the leader of the front line for some time but his place was being increasingly threatened by Freddie Steele and McGrory decided to cash in on Sale, selling him to Blackburn for £6,000 and putting his faith in the youngster.
Stanley Matthews and Freddie Steele
Steele responded with a flurry of goals and was rewarded early in the 1936-37 season when he was called up to play for England against Northern Ireland.
The England team that faced Ireland at the Victoria Ground in 1936
The mid-1930s were going well on the pitch and changes were also being made off it. In 1935 the Butler Street Stand was built with terracing at the front. As a reward for this endeavour, the Vic was chosen to host the game between England and Ireland on 18th November 1936.
The match, the third and final international staged at the stadium, saw a pair of Potters in the line up with Steele joined by Joe Johnson and the hosts run out 3-1 winners in front of 47,882 fans with goals from Raich Carter, Cliff Bastin and Fred Worrell with crosses from Johnson setting up the last two.
Although the 1936-37 season would prove disappointing with Stoke, mainly due to poor performances on their travels, dropping down to mid-table, two specific matches set records which were never broken.
On 4th February West Bromwich Albion visited the Victoria Ground. The meagre crowd of 8,224 were fed a feast of goals. City, with Steele (who would finish the season with 33 goals in 35 games) finding the net five times, ran out 10-3 winners. Then, on Easter Monday a record 51,380 crowd packed the ground for the First Division match with Arsenal, setting ann attendance record that was never beaten.
Steele, who had played in England’s third Home International match against Scotland at Hampden Park and got his team’s only goal in a 3-1 loss, was chosen alongside teammates Johnson and Matthews for their country’s summer tour of Scandinavia.
Whilst Matthews withdrew through injury, Steele and Johnson started all three with Steele banging in seven goals and Johnson also netting two. Somewhat surprisingly neither played for their country again.
Tommy Sale. Two spells
The 1937-38 season should have been another decent one but the team, stricken with injury problems and player dissatisfaction, struggled. Steele suffered a serious injury which caused him to miss almost half of the campaign with Tommy Sale brought back to fill the gap. Meanwhile Matthews was locked in a dispute with the club over benefit payments which saw him hand in a transfer request – immediately turned down by the board.
The team slumped amid these distractions and they went into the season’s final match, a home encounter with Liverpool, needing a win to be sure of retaining their 1st Division status.
Steele, now fit again, had arranged his marriage for the morning of the match. But he made it to the ground on time and got one of the goals in a 2-0 victory which ensured survival.
The 1938-39 campaign proved much less stressful as Stoke, with Steele finding the net 26 times, Sale adding 18 and Matthews now over his dispute and back to his mercurial best, finished in a promising 7th position.
The 1939-40 season started with a win, a draw and a defeat then, suddenly it was over as the Football League was put on hold due to World War Two.
When we kick-off part two, we’ll be looking at the season when Stoke could and perhaps should, have captured the big one, the departure, and return of Stanley Matthews and, at last, a major trophy.