The Owd Reds – The Brief History of Accrington F.C.

The list of the original twelve members of the Football League contains 11 teams many of whom have competed at or near the highest level in the game ever since. Some, like Everton, Wolves, Burnley and Aston Villa are still in the top tier to this day and others do not have to go too far back in their history to remember their own time at the top.

Then there is the one that didn’t make it; Accrington F.C.

Accrington is in the heart of Lancashire, four miles from Blackburn and six from Burnley. The Football Club was formed after a meeting in a local pub in 1886 and they were one of a number in the area including Bell’s Temperance, Accrington Grasshoppers and Peel Bank Rovers but it was the team carrying the town’s name that rose to the top.

The ‘Owd Reds’ (red was the chosen colour simply because that was what was available in the local shop) used the Thorneyholme Road venue of the Accrington Cricket Club (pictured above) as their home ground and first competed in the FA Cup in the 1881-82 season. They were drawn to play Queen’s Park in the 1st Round but the Scottish giants withdrew sending Accrington through to the 2nd Round where they were drawn to meet Darwen, another of the top Lancashire teams of the time.

The match, played at Darwen’s Barley Bank ground was watched by; ‘a good sized attendance somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000’ and they saw the home team record a 3-1 win.

A 1st Round 6-3 defeat to eventual winners Blackburn Olympic saw Accrington out in 1882-83.

The early stages of the cup were run on a regional basis in those days and in the 1st Round of the 1883-84 competition Accrington were given a home tie against Blackpool St John’s. An easy win was anticipated and the Owd Reds duly qualified for the next stage with a 4-0 success.

In the 2nd Round saw Accrington drawn against Blackburn Park Road. They had choice of ground (they were drawn at home) but decided to play the match at Park Road’s ground as their own was unavailable.

Park Road played the match under protest as Accrington were being investigated after rivals Church had claimed that they had paid one of their players – Beresford – to move to the club.

Accrington won the match 3-2 but were summoned to London to appear before the F.A. placing the result in doubt. They were found guilty of the charge and expelled from the association. After appealed against the decision they were reinstated but eliminated from the cup.

1884-85 saw Accrington drawn to face Southport Central in the 1st Round. A comfortable 3-0 win ensued but more problems followed.

The F.A. were trying to clamp down on professionalism and a meeting of the Lancashire clubs saw Accrington, along with Astley Bridge, Bolton Wanderers, Preston Zingari, Bolton Association, Clitheroe and Rawtenstall withdraw from the competition.

In fact, it appeared that the Lancashire clubs were being singled out for carrying out a practice that was going on virtually throughout the country and they protested vehemently.

The actions caused divisions between the North and South, and indeed between some Lancashire clubs. Blackburn Olympic chose to stay within the F.A. which caused Accrington to withdraw from a Lancashire Cup tie against their rivals in protest.

In an attempt to resolve matters, the F.A. formed a sub-committee to consider the issue of professionalism and whilst this was going on Accrington were cementing their position as one of the top clubs in the county, including an impressive win over Preston North End among their results.

The line-up in 1886

An uneasy truce came about across football with the FA permitting professionalism and in the 1885-86 season Accrington were back in the FA Cup.

With a match at Blackburn Olympic taking place on the same day (which they won 4-3 with two of their goals coming from a player called Macbeth) considered of more importance, Accrington sent out a reserve team to play Witton in the 1st Round and won 5-4 but they were knocked out at the second stage losing 2-1 to Darwen Old Wanderers.

In the 1886-87 cup competition the Owd Reds were given a trip to Scotland in the 1st Round. They faced Renton and, hampered by a number of their new players being ineligible, fell to a 1-0 defeat.

In the 1887-88 competition 1st Round Accrington were drawn to play Rossendale and, despite the absence of star man ‘Jud’ Haworth, ran out 11-0 winners.

George ‘Jud’ Haworth (above) had become the first Accrington player capped by England when appearing in the 7-0 win over Ireland in February 1887, and went on to gain five caps for his country, scoring in the 5-0 win over Scotland in 1888

The 2nd Round draw brought Burnley to Thorneycroft Road and ‘The Dodger’ writing in the Athletic News, reported: “If ever I had a lively afternoon out it was on Saturday.”

Burnley went a goal up through Macrae and then doubled their lead when McFetteridge scored with what ‘The Dodger’ called: “A lawnmower shot,” through goalkeeper Stevenson’s legs.

Accrington piled on the pressure in the second period and Burnley ‘keeper Scotty was kept busy almost throughout the second 45 minutes. Eventually the breakthrough came and Accrington scored three times in a hurry and with, according to ‘The Dodger’ : “In addition to the usual manifestations of frantic joy, one fellow ‘wizzed’ a canine specimen up in the air.”

“It was a case of the nearest article at hand.” ‘the Dodger concluded.

Burnley fought back and put the home team under pressure but the Reds held on to record a win in: “One of the most exciting tussles ever seen.”

Accrington’s winner was scored by England international winger Joe Lofthouse.

Lofthouse (above) had originally played for his home town club Blackburn Rovers and joined Accrington in 1887 for two years before returning to his original club.

Lofthouse won seven caps for his country including one during his time with Accrington, appearing in the 6-1 win over Ireland at Anfield in March 1889.

Next up in the cup for Accrington was a visit from Blackburn Rovers. With the Owd Reds having lured both Lofthouse and Harry Fecitt from Rovers during the previous summer and having beaten them in the final of the previous campaign’s East Lancashire Charity Cup, there was great rivalry, and indeed some animosity between the two teams and great interest in the match with special trains laid on from the neighbouring towns and a crowd of 6,000 assembled at Thorneycroft Road.

Former Rover Fecitt gave Accrington the lead in the first half causing the attending Rifle Volunteer Band to; ‘strike up a lively tune’.

The score remained 1-0 until half-time and when the teams changed ends Rovers, with the wind now at their backs, took control scoring three times without reply.

On 23 March 1888 a meeting of interested clubs was convened by William McGregor, the Chairman of Aston Villa with a view to forming a league and at a second meeting at the Royal Hotel in Manchester on 17 April it was announced that the Football League had been formed and would start play in September.

Accrington’s first match

The first league fixture list gave Accrington a trip to Anfield to play Everton and almost 12,000 fans were present although they had to wait with kick-off delayed for twenty minutes after it took the visitors over two hours to make the journey.

After a goalless first-half the home team took the lead in the second period and shortly after Accrington goalkeeper John Horne rushed out to clear the ball and clashed with Everton forward Billy Lewis before slumped to the ground; ‘groaning and partly insensible’.

A Doctor was called and ran onto the pitch, reviving Horne who immediately asked; “Did they score?” He was responded to in the negative and seemed pleased but had to leave the pitch after it was discovered that he had fractured a rib.

Scottish defender John McLellan was forced to take over in goal and soon after George Fleming scored his and Everton’s second. The 10-man Owd Reds fought back, halved the deficit through J. Holden and continued to press but failed to find an equaliser.

Accrington’s second league match was also away from home and they battled out a thrilling 5-5 draw at local rivals Blackburn Rovers, leading until four minutes from time.

The next two matches were also played away from Thorneyholme Road as the Reds home ground was still being used by the cricket team and a draw at Derby was followed by a 4-2 victory at Stoke.

The fifth match of the season was Accrington’s first at home with Wolves the visitors and it resulted in another exciting draw. This time the Reds held the lead until 30 seconds from time when their visitors equalised.

3,000 were in attendance at Thorneyholme Road a week later and they saw a 6-2 win for the home team over Derby.

Accrington’s next match was against Preston North End who had played six matches and won them all. ‘The Free Critic’ writing in the Athletic News reported: “On a grand day – brilliant sunshine and no rain – an enormous crowd turned up at the rather out-of-the-way ground.

“Everybody in Accrington who could possibly spare the time and the necessary sixpence put in an appearance.

“The stand was completely packed and all round the field was a mass of human heads attached to bodies we could not see.”

There was a paying attendance of over 7,000 and a total crowd approaching 8,000 and they saw Accrington take the field in their red shirts described by The Free Critic as: “More flaming than ever.

“It has now run to a shirt with a collar, and to give them a respectable sort of appearance, sixpence each has been spent on a tie.”

The match was very keenly fought and although North End may have just had the better of things neither team managed to score.

Next Accrington travelled to Perry Barr to face Aston Villa and, leading 3-1 halfway through the second half they conceded three times to turn victory into defeat.

Accrington maintained a decent level of form throughout and finished that first-ever league season in seventh place with 20 points from 22 matches. The cup was a disappointment once again as a 1st Round draw at home to Blackburn Rovers was followed by a 5-0 loss in the replay.

Billy Barbour was the team’s leading scorer with 13 goals in all competitions whilst goalkeeper Horne – despite that rib fracture – was one of two ever-presents along with Scottish full-back John Stevenson.

One of Accrington’s new signings for the 1889-90 was Scottish forward James McLuggage. He only made eight appearances for the Owd Reds before returning north of the border but would go on to earn his own place in football history.

In the early 1890s professional fouls had become a bigger part of the game and in an effort to stamp out cynical play the four home associations decided to introduce the penalty kick as a way of deterring this.

On 6 June 1891 an Airdrie Charity Cup match between Royal Albert and Airdrieonians saw the award of the first-ever spot kick. Confusion ensued and the Airdrie players initially lined up in front of the goal until ordered back behind the ball by the referee. McLuggage then stepped up to fire the momentous kick past Scottish international goalkeeper James Connor.

Later the same year Accrington themselves were on the wrong end of the first-ever penalty kick given in the Football League when Billy Heath scored against them for Wolves in a 5-0 win.

The 1889-90 season proved to the best Accrington enjoyed during their brief time as a Football League club.

Again the Reds started the campaign on the road and a 4-2 win at Bolton with McLuggage among the scorers was followed by 2-2 draw at Burnley.

The first home match was against Accrington’s biggest rivals, Blackburn Rovers and a crowd of around 6,000 were at Thorneyholme Road – where a new pavilion was under construction – to see the neighbours clash.

Accrington went in front early through Jonty Entwistle but a pair of goals from Joe Lofthouse, who had switched from the Reds to the Rovers in the summer, turned the match . But a late equaliser from newcomer Entwistle earned the Reds a share of the points.

The first loss of the season came at Wolves the following week but Accrington continued to hold their own and would the finish the season with a record of nine wins, six draws and seven defeats.

In the Cup Accrington were drawn to host fellow league club West Bromwich Albion in the 1st Round and a 3-1 win was nullified when Albion’s complaint about the pitch being unfit was upheld. A week later the teams met again with a new pitch laid out on the cricket field and the Reds triumphed again, this time 3-0.

Any hopes of a possible trip to The Oval were ended in the 2nd Round where Accrington were beaten 2-1 by eventual finalists Sheffield Wednesday.

The following season saw the team slip down to 10th in the standings and this was followed by 11th place in 1891-92 with 2nd Round cup defeats in both campaigns.

At the end of both seasons the club had to apply for re-election alongside the highest placed teams in the Football Alliance but on both occasions their application was accepted.

For the 1892-93 season a 2nd Division was introduced with teams in the bottom three positions in the top flight playing test matches against the second sphere’s top three to determine who would play in the following campaign’s 1st Division.

The new season got off to the worse possible start for Accrington with a 6-0 home loss to eventual champions Sunderland. 

They finally recorded a win in their fourth match of the season – coming from behind to beat Sheffield Wednesday but never managed to escape the league’s lower reaches finishing 15th of the 16 teams.

This sent the Reds to Nottingham to play a one-off promotion/relegation ‘test match’ against Sheffield United and they suffered a 1-0 defeat.

The only good thing to come out of the season was on an individual level with inside-forward Jimmy Whitehead becoming the third Accrington player capped by his country.when starting for England in a 6-0 over Wales at Stoke’s Victoria Ground in March 1893.

Whitehead, from nearby Church, was sold to Blackburn Rovers for £100 in the summer and would move on to Manchester City before ending his career at Accrington Stanley.

Rather than drop down to the 2nd Division Accrington decided to resign from the Football League and the club spent the next two seasons in the Lancashire League finishing 4th and 12th.

Accrington kicked off the 1895-96 season in the Lancashire Combination where opponents were mostly league clubs’ reserves or local teams like Oswaldthistle and Rawtenstall. A number of their best players had followed Whitehead and left the club in the summer and more departed as the season progressed.

On 18 January 1896 Accrington barely managed to find 11 players and were thrashed 12-0 by Darwen in a Lancashire Cup tie. The team was described as; ‘but a raggy remnant of their former selves.’

A Week later they were due to meet Burnley reserves in a Lancashire Combination match but were unable to fulfil the fixture, withdrew from the competition and folded.

And just like that, the Owd Reds were no more. Their record for  the season was expunged.

Little seems to have been reported on what actually happened but the club had clearly fallen on hard times financially and there was, it seemed, no way back.

A Phoenix, in terms of Accrington Stanley, would emerge from the Ashes of Accrington F.C. but as of mid-January 1896 one of the Football League’s original 12 was no more.