At the end of the 1887-88 season the great Scottish footballer Nicholas John Ross left Preston North End to join Everton. The move sent a wave of sadness upon the North End faithful. It also loosened the tongues of the gathering doom-mongers, eager to signal the end of William Sudell’s so-called Invincibles.
Nick Ross, aka Jack, was talisman and team captain – manager William Sudell’s first signing in a group of Scottish ‘professionals’ who joined Preston in the summer of 1883. They became known as the Scottish Professors, and in five years from that summer when Sudell unabashedly began his quest to forge the greatest team in the world, North End won 241 games, lost 26, and scored more than 1,300 goals. It was a fantastic achievement. But for all the fame and records that came their way, the FA Cup continued to elude them. Having narrowly lost the ’88 cup final to West Brom, people started to mock Sudell and his desire to win the trophy. Many claimed his team were finished, over the hill. However, as the new age of the Football League dawned, those who thought this were strongly mistaken. The truth was that Preston North End were just warming up.
The annals of my hometown club boast of many a famous Scot. To the uninitiated I’m always happy to drop names such as Alex James, Bill Shankly and Archie Gemmill. But when researching North End’s Invincibles, although I already knew something of the Scottish Professors, what I didn’t know was the story of two men with Scottish connections who arrived before the Professors. These two footballing missionaries
played a significant part in the club’s formative years, and helped set North End on a path to success that only the brazenly ambitious Sudell could ever have imagined.
In 1878, looking to raise funds to keep up with the rent of their new ground at Deepdale Farm, the North End Cricket Club trialled the game of Association Football for the first time. Two years later a team was officially founded and one of the most dramatic stories in the history of football began. In 1880, with local cotton mill manager Sudell at the helm, the fledgling soccer club had a long way to go to reach the levels of its more established Lancashire neighbours, Blackburn Olympic, Blackburn Rovers and Darwen FC. And it was from Darwen the somewhat mythical figure of James Gledhill emerged. Of Scottish lineage, Gledhill was first a teacher, next a chemist, and then a medical student at Glasgow University. In Glasgow he played football for Partick Alliance before returning back over the border to line up for Darwen FC alongside the famous Fergie Suter. On the field Gledhill cut a dominant figure; tall, with a beard, he would always play in long white trousers with his braces pulled over his jersey. Charismatic and a skilled orator, Gledhill travelled Lancashire giving lectures on his football philosophies. Using a blackboard he outlined his thoughts on what could be achieved with a team of experts, and it’s believed one of these lectures greatly influenced a young William Sudell. Indeed it’s claimed Gledhill would on occasion visit the Deepdale Hotel, the then headquarters of North End, to give guidance. Later, perhaps fearful of becoming pigeonholed as a teacher-chemist-doctor-footballing-philosopher, the bearded chameleon disappeared into the legal world in search of a new challenge.
The second missionary was North End’s first Scottish footballer, James McDade. Described in the 1881 census as a 26-year-old tinsmith, McDade is thought to have arrived from Neilston near Glasgow. Although one of the club’s best players his main talent lay in coaching, and he became a guiding light on tactics. When his playing days ended he worked for the Leyland Steam Motor Company (later Leyland Motors) and is credited with designing a steam valve used in the company’s first vehicles.
With Sudell implementing Gledhill’s teachings at Deepdale and McDade pulling the tactical strings, North End made quick progress. By May 1883 the club was flourishing and hopes were high. Blackburn Olympic had just become the first northern team to win the FA Cup, and despite the considerable gap between the two clubs, Sudell saw the prestige such a win could bring and began to dream of similar success. Having established themselves as the best team in Preston, Sudell decided it was time to conquer not just Lancashire, but the whole of the football world. It was time to visit Scotland.
Illegal professionals had been signed from Scotland since the 1870s. Scottish players were blessed with a more scientific approach to football than their southern counterparts. They arrived unhindered by public school methods and the charging traditions of London’s amateur teams, and it didn’t take long for northern clubs to recognise the benefits of hiring them. Aware that Glasgow had already been emptied of its best players, Sudell set his sights elsewhere. His friend, the journalist Jimmy Catton, introduced him to two brothers who happened to work for the Preston Herald newspaper – and thus Jock and Tom McNeil became North End’s connection to the finest footballers in the Scottish capital.
North End had already adopted the short-passing game of Queen’s Park, and over time the new signings would help refine and bring the team’s combination play to near perfection. First to sign that summer, Nick Ross, was the captain of Heart of Midlothian. Aged 20, a flagger and slater by trade, Ross was a supremely gifted player with a ferocious desire to win. In him Sudell spotted a kindred spirit and a man he could build his team around. At first an attacking player, Ross later moved to the full back position and became known as the ‘Demon Back’, one of the greatest and most feared players in the game. Following Ross was George ‘Geordie’ Drummond, aged 23, from Edinburgh St. Bernard’s. Highly recommended by Ross, Geordie was a prize-winning sprinter with the ability to play anywhere he fancied. Another addition was David ‘Davie’ Russell, who joined from Stewarton Cunninghame. Hailing from the same village as the then North End captain John Belger, Davie had skills and tackling to match his vibrant personality – and as an aspiring music hall artiste and comedian, was good for team morale.
Belger had been at North End a while before the new arrivals and was a much-loved club captain and crowd favourite. Known as ‘The Goalkeeper Smasher’, his nickname belied fine dribbling skills and prolific finishing. But for a tragic injury in December ’84, he would surely have been a part of the famous Invincibles of 88-89, and deserves to be acknowledged as North End’s first truly great player.
More Scots followed as part of Sudell’s ruthless mission for success. His blatant disregard for the rules on amateurism saw his club banned from the FA Cup and at loggerheads with the FA. But Sudell eventually won the fight, and as the driving force behind turning the game professional became one of the most powerful men in football.
As for his players, their performances brought an attention never before seen. They suffered exhaustion and were dealt their share of disappointment. Yet through it all they displayed an indomitable spirit to emerge as the greatest team of their age. By the end of March 1889, North End had silenced their critics. The Invincibles, having stormed the first ever Football League without suffering a single defeat, were heavy favourites to beat Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup Final. That afternoon in Surrey, North End’s eleven contained one Welshman, four English (three from Preston) and six Scots. After just 12 minutes captain and local lad Fred Dewhurst put the Whites in front. Then on 25 minutes Jimmy Ross, younger brother of Nick and known as the ‘Little Demon’, made it 2-0. In the second half as Wolves tired North End took control, and with 23 minutes to go Sam Thomson from Ayrshire put the game beyond reach. When the whistle sounded Preston North End had at last won the FA Cup – and done so in style, by not conceding a single goal throughout the tournament.
Up to 30,000 people lined the streets in Preston to welcome their team home. By all accounts it was a sight to behold. The remarkable journey of North End’s Invincibles is one of the most important stories in the history of football. In turn it must also rank as one of the most important in Scotland’s football history – for without the missionaries and Scottish Professors, that incredible journey would not have been possible.
Michael Barrett’s graphic novel Preston North End – The Rise of the Invincibles is available online at invinciblebooks.co.uk, Amazon, and from all good bookshops.