By Vince Cooper
SWANSEA Town Football Club we’re initially formed in 1906 and, without a permanent ground, played matches at various locations including Victoria Park, between the city centre and the area known as Mumbles.
That initial club only lasted a couple of years but in 1912 the club was reformed and managed to raise the £2,000 share capital to apply for, and be granted, entry into the Southern League.
In a traditional rugby stronghold it took a while for football to gain some support. There had been previous attempts to start a Football Club in the area – most notably Swansea Villa and Swansea F. C. but Town were the first club to generate sufficient local interest and financial support.
Upon being formed the club took up residency at Vetch Field which was to remain their home for 93 years. In the first season the surface was still made up mostly of coal ash and many players wore knee pads to guard against burns.
Vetch Field was no stranger to football even before Town moved in. After initially being an area of mostly wasteland where vetch, a plant used to feed cows, grew, the owners, the Swansea Gaslight Company had leased it to the Swansea League in the 1890s, with coal ash pitches laid out for youngsters to play on.
During this time there were cycle and horse racing circuits laid out on the ground and it also hosted fairs, boxing matches and circuses. It was also used as the campground for Buffalo Bill and his Indians when they performed in South Wales.
The field was also home, during this period, to the Swansea Association Football Club but they were kicked out when the Gaslight Company retook possession of the land and began using it to store coal for their nearby gasworks.
The Gaslight Company had asked for permission to build on the land in 1912 but were turned down after objections from residents in the local (Sandfields) area. So instead they granted a seven-year lease to the new football club. From signing the lease, the club took just 11 weeks to level the playing field, form banking for spectators and build a changing room.
The imposing building close to the ground which can be seen in photographs is, in fact, the County Jail although immediately surrounding Vetch Field were streets packed with houses, giving the ground itself a somewhat ‘crammed-in’ feel and making development difficult as the area of land was small and didn’t allow for expansion outwards.
’’The Vetch Field as it will be’
Town joined the second division of the Southern League (which was made up mostly of Welsh teams) and created the banking, using railway sleepers to achieve the desired effect. They adopted the all-white kit of the Swansea rugby club and have worn it for most of their existence with the only change being a period where they switched to black shorts.
The 1912-13 team
The first match
That first season was a pretty good one. The inaugural match at Vetch Field took place on 7 September 1912. It attracted a healthy crowd of 8,000 who saw the ‘local’ team (made up of imports from English clubs) draw 1-1 with Cardiff City. Cardiff would go on to win the 2nd division of the Southern League but Swansea finished in a very creditable third place.
Billy Ball. Star forward
Town also claimed silverware in their first campaign. In the Welsh Cup they saw off Milford, Mond Nickel, Llanelly, Wrexham and Merthyr to reach the semi-finals where they came up against Cardiff again, winning the game 4-2 after being two down thanks largely to a hat-trick from star forward Billy Ball
In the final the Swans came up against Pontypridd and after a goalless draw in front of 8,310 fans at Ninian Park, a crowd of 10,000 saw them win the replay at the Mid-Rhondda Ground, Tonypandy with a goal from R.T. Grierson.
One of Town’s other star players during that first season was veteran winger Jimmy Swarbrick.
Having already played for Blackburn Rovers, Brentford, Grimsby Town, Oldham Athletic, Southport Central, Stoke and Port Vale, Swarbrick spent a single season in Wales before hanging up his boots. Quick and a tricky dribbler, Swarbrick became a fan favourite during his single season at the Vetch.
The South Stand
Before the 1913-14 season the South (Centre) Stand was built and turf was laid to replace the ash and cinder pitch was had been used in the first campaign. The South Stand was where the dressing rooms and offices were located and the seating consisted of wooden benches.
For the next two seasons the team continued to challenge close to the top of the Southern League Second, with consecutive fourth-place finishes. They also went close in the Welsh Cup again, reaching the last four in 1913-14 and finishing runners-up to Wrexham, after a replay in the 1915 final.
Vetch Field regularly attracted crowds of over 12,000 at the time with these attendances rising to over 15,000 for F. A. Cup matches, always a major draw.
Player-manager for the early seasons was Walter Whittaker an experienced goalkeeper who had played for no less than 13 clubs before moving to South Wales. Much to his, and everyone else’s surprise his contract was terminated in 1914 and he moved on to Llanelly where he spent the 1914-15 season. He sadly succumbed to pneumonia in 1917 aged just 38.
Former Leicester Fosse manager John Bartlett had taken over for a season before football ground to a halt with the outbreak of World War One, and he guided the team to fourth place in the Second Division of the Southern League and to one particularly memorable win.
Town beat Port Vale and Bartlett’s old team Leicester Fosse, both by a single goal, to make the First Round of F. A. Cup where they were given a daunting home tie against First Division champions and five-times winners of the trophy Blackburn Rovers.
Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers
A crowd of 16,000 were crammed into the Vetch for the visit of the champions and for the third successive cup tie the Town defence kept a clean sheet. Amateur Ben Beynon who had switched codes when signing from Swansea rugby club a year before and who was only playing because he was too young to join the Army scored the only goal to record the massive upset.
Another top team awaited in the Second Round with Swans drawn to play Newcastle United at St James’s Park. The match, played in front of 30,000 fans, went to extra-time and finished as a 1-1 draw but Swans were finally knocked out when the teams met at the Vetch a week later with United winning 2-0.
During the war years the ground was used for anti-aircraft purposes and the team played their matches at St Helens, better known as a venue for rugby and cricket internationals but which had, In fact, staged the 1894 Home International Championship match between Wales and Ireland. St Helens was also famous as being the place local poet Dylan Thomas would often visit to watch the Glamorgan cricket team play.
A number of Town players fought in the war and two – sadly – never returned. Full-back Joe Bulcock who often captained the team and did so for the famous win over Blackburn, lost his life at the Fourth Battle of Ypres while the popular Ted Mitchell left Swansea to fight on the front. He returned to South Wales in 1915 to marry his childhood sweetheart Dolly Jones but was soon back in France and was killed in action on 6 January 1916.
League football resumed after World War One for the 1919-20 season and with the Football League having expanded, the Southern League was reorganised with Swansea moved up to the First Division.
There was a new man at the helm with former Southend United boss Joe Bradshaw taking charge at the Vetch. Their new boss led his team to a respectable ninth-place finish but tragedy struck during that 1919-1920 campaign
In March 1919 Swansea played a friendly against Barry Town. Lining up for the opposition that day was young winger David ‘Tich’ Evans who had performed well against the club a couple of times before.
That day Evans was outstanding in a 3-3 draw and just prior to the start of the 1919-20 Swansea paid Barry £100 for the youngster. Earlier that summer Evans had married his childhood sweetheart Fannie Hawkins. After Town had made a poor start Evans was drafted into the team and his excellent wing play undoubtedly helped results to improve
Tragically, Evans’ wife died during childbirth in December 1919 and just two weeks later, the team were training at the Vetch in preparation for an FA Cup match with Gillingham. Evans had failed to show up and there was no response when a message was sent to his lodgings.
A contemporary report.
Player-coach Jack Nicholas, who, it was said, had taken a ‘father-like’ interest in Evans since the sad passing of his wife, started looking around the ground and saw a man laying underneath the grandstand. It was the 24-year-old Evans who had committed suicide by cutting his own throat.
The loss of such a promising and popular player was keenly felt and unsurprisingly the team’s form suffered.
Competing in the first division of the Southern League having been one of four teams promoted from the final campaign before war broke out they finished 9th in a season that was clearly overshadowed by the tragedy surrounding one of their star men.
The Football League
The 1920-21 squad
The following year Swansea were competing in Third Division of the Football League after the Southern League was incorporated into the national competition. To mark their elevation to league status the club increased the maim stand so that it now ran the length of the pitch.
Manager Bradshaw scoured the country looking to strengthen his squad and one of those he signed was Wilf Milne who had been playing for local teams in Northumberland was encouraged to sign for Swansea despite interest from Manchester United and West Ham United.
The manager reputedly convinced Milne to move to Wales by buying him a fish and chip supper and the cost of that meal might well be the best money the club ever spent.
Milne had to watch from the sidelines for the first six matches but once he got in he was rarely dislodged for the next 16 years.
When he finally hung up his boots in 1937, Milne had made just under 600 league appearances for the club, a record that stands to this day. His final two appearances in the 1936-37 season came as stand-in goalkeeper after regular custodian Stan Moore was injured.
In 1921 the Vetch hosted the first of 18 international matches it was to stage when Wales beat Ireland 2-1 with goals from Stan Davies and Town’s own Billy Hole.
Locally-born Billy would go on to make almost 400 starts for the club and would later be followed into the first team by sons Alan and Barrie, who would go on to win 30 caps for his country
During the early 1920s the club were fighting for promotion on a regular basis. In February 1924 they paid Plymouth Argyle £1,280 for Jack Fowler and the Cardiff-born forward proved the difference-maker. In the remaining games of the 1923-24 season the new man scored six times in 14 appearances to give a hint of what was to come.
Jack Fowler – Goalgetter
With Fowler banging-in a division-leading 28 goals, Town pipped his former club – and Town’s arch-rivals Plymouth Argyle to the 1924-25 title and earned promotion to the Second Division.
The title was secured in the final day of the season thanks to Town’s 2-1 win over Exeter City with goals from Fowler and Len Thompson. Chairman Owen Evans to said after the match: “This is the greatest thing in Swansea’s history. I am overwhelmed with the team’s success”.
Fowler would play 167 times for the club scoring 102 goals before leaving for Clapton Orient in 1930. He also made six appearances for Wales – all whilst with Swans – and scored three times.
Earlier in 1925 Vetch Field had staged its second international. This time England were the visitors and they beat the hosts, who featured two Town players in Fowler and Ernest Morley, 2-1 in front of 8,000 fans.
The 1925-26 season, the club’s first at the higher level, proved to be a memorable one. Swans finished in 5th place the the Second Division and Fowler scoried 35 goals. Alongside this the team enjoyed their best FA Cup run to date.
One of only four second division sides forced to enter at the first round stage they overcame Exeter and Watford before travelling to top flight Blackpool and securing an excellent 2-0 win. A 6-3 hammering of Stoke in round four was followed by a 1-0 victory at Millwall.
The quarter-Final brought the mighty Arsenal and their legendary manager Herbert Chapman to South Wales and a crowd of 25,100 were there to witness a famous victory for the hosts.
After a goalless 40 minutes in which the home team were well on top thry finally took the lead just before the break through Len Thompson.
The second half saw Jack Fowler lead an assault on the Arsenal goal. He missed an easy chance and had another effort disallowed for offside before finally smashing the ball past Gunners’ keeper Harper to double the lead.
The Western Daily Mail celebrates the famous win over Arsenal
Arsenal pulled one back late on through a wind-assisted long-range effort from Alex Mackie but the Swans held on for a famous win.
A Mascot at White Hart Lane
The semi-final was against star-studded Bolton Wanderers at White Hart Lane. Swans set off for London with Jack Fowler predicting a ‘two-goal win’ amid high excitement. But it was the Lancashire side who scored twice in the first 25 minutes, eventually running out 3-0 winners much to the disappointment of the estimated 2,300 who had made their way from South Wales to form part of the 25,476 crowd. Wanderers would go on to beat Manchester City in the Final.
At the end of that highly successful 1925-26 season (although defeat in the Welsh Cup final to underdogs Ebbw Vales gave it a disappointing end) Swans lost a key man when manager Joe Bradshaw left. The former Fulham player decided to return to West London and his managerial and talent-spotting skills would be sorely missed.
Fowlet scores against Arsenal in 1926
Having lost their boss the club directors decided not to appoint a new manager, instead going for ‘selection by committee’. This led to a disappointing campaign and seemingly aware that the new approach wasn’t working, the board appointed former Scotland international Jimmy Thompson as manager in April 1927.
Thompson spent four years in the post but would find that the club, heavily in debt, were regularly selling their best players and expecting him to get results with lesser talent. The Scot performed manfully during his time at the helm but the best he could manage was to keep them in the second tier.
The Vetch from the air
The West Stand
In the summer of 1927 the double-decker West Stand was built and this would tower over the rest of the stadium, with seats for 2,000 people above covered terracing.which held 4,000. The upper deck gave a magnificent uninterrupted view of matches and was described by locals as the ‘eight wonder of the world’.
Surprisingly, given the lack of success with the ‘no manager’ policy before, the club decided to revert to it after Thompson resigned in 1931. Performances failed to improve and the club’s financial position worsened considerably. The only glimmer of light was the 1932 Welsh Cup final where they beat Wrexham in a replay at the Vetch after drawing the initial match at the Racecourse Ground.
The second experiment with management by committee ended when former Scotland international Neil Harris was appointed in 1934.
By this time the club’s situation, both on and off the pitch, had reached an all-time low and the new boss’s main task was to keep Town from going under.
It proved to be an extremely tough period. Whilst Harris spent much of his time trying to raise funds off the pitch, the team on it was ageing, with stalwarts Joe Sykes and Wilf Milne retiring.
Sykes had joined the club from Sheffield Wednesday in 1924 and was immediately made skipper, leading the team to promotion in his first year. When the wing-half hung up his boots in 1935 he has made 345 league appearances.
One of Harris’s first signings was veteran striker Jimmy Brain, formerly of Arsenal (he had played for the Gunners in that famous win for Swans in 1926) and his goals helped Swans retain there second tier place for the three seasons he spent in South Wales before moving on to Bristol City.
Replacing Brain was another veteran in former Welsh international Tommy Bamford, formerly of Wrexham and Manchester United, who remained at the club until league football ceased at the outbreak of World War Two.
In June 1939, Neil Harris, having just about managed to keep the club in the Second Division once again, resigned from his position as manager and joined Swindon Town. Haydn Jones took over at the helm but the former Hull City and Lincoln City boss would have to wait six years before he got the chance to show what he could do.
In Part Two of The Story of the Swans’ we will pick up when Town get going again after the Second World War with a new man at the helm and a new forward sensation about to burst through.