In 1902 the Lancashire Evening Post published an interview with Fergie Suter. Fergie once played for Partick FC and on moving to play in England in 1878 became one of the first professional footballers.

fergie suterAuld lichts! Away down the avenues of football history we do cry the lights of other days. Perchance the ever-thickening mist of distance makes the vision dim. Then come with me, and let us see with the eyes of those who looked upon these lights in the hey-day of their brilliance, nay, with the eyes of those who themselves belonged to the shining constellations of the past. Would you share the vision with star which once shone in the Blackburn and Darwen armaments, then come to a cosy fireside at Darwen and make the acquaintance of Fergie Suter — those of you at least who do not know him. The who have already had the pleasure will need no invitation.

Looking at the famous old player as he sat on the opposite side of the hearth, I could not help but notice that he seemed far from well, and he remarked in answer to my first inquiry that he had been below par for some weeks, but was improving. None the less, he was certainly not very strong while the effort of recalling incidents of the past and describing them told on him perceptibly in a short time. It. did so, however, and consequently I bade him “Good afternoon!” long before I should otherwise have done so. Every reader will join in wishing him complete restoration. By way of introduction it may he pointed out that Suter, who was born in Glasgow in ’57. and is therefore 45 years of age, came into English football in October, 1878 – 24 years ago. Those were the days when veiled professionalism was just appearing on the horizon. Suter visited Damen on the last day of 1877, to play on New Year’s Day for Partick against the Peaceful Valley team. From that time until the following October we do not hear much about him, but in the month mentioned he again appeared in England, following James Love to Darwen.

He came in the guise of a stonemason. but he only worked at his trade a week or two. After that he merely played football, and though this was many years before professionalism was legalised he never wanted for money.

“On what plan were you paid in those days,” I ventured to ask. “Well, we had no settled wage, but it was understood that we interviewed the treasurer as the occasion arose. Possibly we should go three weeks without anything, and then ask for £10. We never had any difficulty.”

At the commencement of 1880-81 Suter threw in his lot with the Rovers, and between Darwern and Blackburn he spent his football career on this side the Border, though occasionally he assisted North End, Mr. Sudell once giving him as much as a £10 note for an afternoon’s service in a match against Notts County. He was a wee bit nervous about allowing this little transaction to see the light of publicity, but there is no good reason why it shouldn’t.

‘”Your departure from Darwen to join the Rovers caused some little feeling, didn’t it?” — “Yes,” was the reply, and then he told of that famous scene on the Alexandra Meadows at Blackburn when Darwen and the Rovers met at the beginning of the “eighties” It was Suter’s first season with the latter. Excitement ran high; tempers broke their bounds; Suter and Marshall, the latter of Darwen, came to blows; the crowd surged on to the ground, and the game was at a premature end. This was just about the beginning of the era of big gates, and at the time the match was stopped £284 had been taken. He would plead guilty to feeling a bit timid in the midst of the excited thousands. Some time after that the Rovers and Darwen had to meet on the Leamington road ground — in a Cup tie, if he remembered rightly — and to prevent a repetition of disorder steps were taken to secure, specially strong officials. Major Marindin, says Suter, came down to referee, while he believes the linesmen were C. W. Alcock,  the present Surrey cricket secretary, and N. L. Jackson, the foundcr the Corinthians. a trio who were considered able to control even the enthusiasm of a Lanarkshire football crowd, which were far more excitable than they are today.

Still speaking of the English Cup. let me say that Fergie Suter shared with brilliant Jimmy Brown. H. Arthur, J. H. Forrest, J. Douglas, Hugh McIntyre and J. Sowerbutts the distinction of winning Cup medals in ’84, ’85 and ’86, and that his face glowed with delight as he recalled the great finals of those years, telling me how Queen’s Park were beaten in the final in the first two years, and West Bromwich Albion in the third. “The Queen’s, as they played against us at the Oval in 1884, were the finest side we ever met in those days – before the rise of North End. It was a terrific struggle. Arrayed against us were such men as Watty Arnott and Charles Campbell, both of whom playcd for Scotland against England on ten occasions; then there was George Gillespie in goal, and the big centre-forward. Dr. Smith; while I well remember that Anderson and Fraser were on the right wing. It was a day! Hugh McIntyre played a great game for us, and so did my partner, Joe Beverley, while Jimmy Brown fairly staggered the crowd when he brought off a brilliant dribble which placed the Queen’s one down. Forrest added the second goal with a long shot, and though our opponents scored once we had the pick of Scotland beaten and were Cupholders for the first time.

The year following we again came across the Queen’s in the final, and defeated them, while still a year later we again figured in the last stage. This time our fellow finalists were the Albion. and I can tell you they had a pretty hot team blessed with a lot or the grit which is still associated with the team. There was Bob Roberts, over 6ft., in goal, and they had about as fine a trio of halves as one could wish, while James Bayliss was a splendid fellow. After a tie at the Oval we had to meet on the racecourse at Derby. and won 2-0 in that match. Jimmy Brown, a prince of dribblers, made the most magnificent run I have ever seen. We were being pressed pretty strongly by the Albion forwards when the ball happened to get outside the crowd around goal. Jimmy, ever on the alert, pounced on it, and darting away, ran right along the field, beating three or four opponents in beautiful style. and only finishing by landing the ball into the net. It was not a mere sprint as you see sometimes, but a run in which was meeting opposition at point after point. Magnificent! You never see the like nowadays”

Again carrying his thoughts back to early experiences in English football, Suter commented on the changed conditions. “We used to have some royal times,” he remarked. “Football was enjoyable not only for the sake of playing the game, but for the good fellows one met. What evenings we had in Glasgow, London, and elsewhere, meeting the cream of footballers. The social side of the sport now seems a thing of the past, which is a great pity, for apart from fostering a jovial spirit it brought about many friendships, and also made for fairness on the field. When in the habit of rubbing shoulders with your opponents round the dinner or supper table you never thought of serving him a nasty trick. There were exceptions; but on the whole football was fairer than in more recent days.”

“Of course you had a very good class of men when you came into the game!” “Yes. It was a delight to battle with men like Charlie Campbell, of the Queen’s, N. C. Bailey, Corinthians. the Curshams of Nottingham — a town I always visited with pleasure; and there were lots more of the same type, while I very well remember Lord Kinnaird, then the Hon. Arthur. He was a tremendous worker, always seemed to be in the same place as the ball, and I don’t mind telling you he knew how to charge — an accomplishment familiar to most of the old ones. But it was real shoulder to shoulder work, perfectly fair. Though it would not be allowed to pass muster today. A peculiarity of Lord Kinnaird was that he always wore long flannel trousers instead of knickers. Mention of Lord Kinnaird reminds me of a particularly speedy opponent I had to face when the Rovers met the Old Etonians in the final. This was Macauley. the latter’s centre forward; he had just won the quarter mile championships of the colleges — I believe that was the distance — and he was in grand form, almost as strong, too, as he was fast.

“No centre forward, however, in my opinion came up to the standard of Jimmy Brown in deadliness in front. It fairly did you good to see him glide between the backs and go like lightning towards goal. He was fast and a lovely dribbler, but quite a feature was the excellence of his judgement in gauging the precise moment when to put the bell past an opponent who was coming to meet him. As the half or full back approached he would tap the sphere forward, and depend on his speed to get it again before this or any other opponent could do so. Brown was the beet centre I ever knew.

“You reckon him superior to players like Goodall. Thomson, and Lindley?”

” Their styles were so diverse; indeed, the principle on which they worked was totally different. They were feeders of the other forwards, and Goodall was a master in making openings for his comrades; but Jimmy Brown lay well forward to take chances provided by the wings.”

“Brown’s style of centre play must be practically unknown to-day?”

“Yes; certainly I never see any-one playing on these lines.”

“Speaking generally Mr Suter, how does football in your opinion compare with the play of the period when the Rovers gained their great successes?”

” Well, there are more moderately good players, but I don’t think you have the equals of the best teams of those days. Footballers at the present time, too, are overdoing the short-passing game. North End played it almost perfectly, but they were giants in skill and also powerful physically. But for the ordinary first-class team it is a mistake. It is harder work for your forwards, there is greater risk of injury and to overdo passing is to give the defence more time. The game I should advocate would consist of open, swinging play, with pace and vigour. Get the ball about in this way, and the play is more open, keeps the opposing backsconstantly on the trot, gives your forwards more chance of finding loopholes for a dash, and provide more cause of excitement. The Rovers played a game something like this a year or two ago, and Bury did the same the season they won the Caup. Spectators said the cleverer team lost when Southampton were beaten. I don’t want to discount science, but I do think there is room for a little more of the punch and run style of play, with less passing and repassing.

“Tinsley Lindley suggested to me in an interview a short time since that professionals did not make ground as they ought to do.”

“I certainly think that is a fault of footballers in recent years; it is precisely one of the points I am trying to emphasise. A little more of the go-forward, make-straight-for-goal style would be a vast improvement. And I would not hesitate to allow a little more vigour. Some of the charges by backs and halves in our time would not be permitted to-day; on the other hand. hacking was of very rare occurrence in the eighties.”

“Having referred to method of attack, would you care to express any opinion on the development of defence?”

“On this, that I think the old backs were much neater in their kicking than the present defenders, who seem to affect heavy punching methods, though there are exceptions, including one brilliant exponent whom I will mention in a moment. It ought to he recognised as essential that a back should be a first-class header, and further there should be a definite understanding as to who should be near the custodian in case of sustained pressure.”

Suter’s ideal team — or the nearest to his ideal — was the old North End. The Rovers at their best were never equal to the side which could be picked from Trainer, Howarth, Ross, Holmes, Robertson, Russell, Graham, Gordon, Rose, Goodall, Thomson, Dewburn, and Drummond. He chatted brightly of the brilliants he had known — of Trainer, Herbie Arthur, Bob Roberts, of the North End backs of Beverley, and Tom Vallance. “Ron was a grand back,” he said, “but not in my view the finest that ever lived. Vallance, the captain of Glasgow Rangers, who stood over 6ft., and whose judgement in kicking was magnificent, was the greatest back I have known.”

Amongst halves he talked of his polished comrade, Jimmy Forest, and of Graham — a wonderful man to play behind; and the forwards of whom he spoke most highly included his clubmate Brown. J. Goodall, and the great Corinthian dribbler Cobbold; while he finished with an unqualified tribute to a player of later years — James Crabtree — and Burnley ought to be proud of Suter’s opinion. “A grand back,” he observed, “and the finest all-round footballer that England has ever produced to my knowledge!” Players are apt, perhaps, to award the palm to their own generation, and the opinion gathers emphasis from that fact..

Before leaving I was interested to bear the old Rover express the view that it would be a good thing if the Lancashire clubs would leave the Football League, and form a strong Lancashire League. He thought a powerful Lancashire combination might be formed, and if Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Bury, Bolton, Burnley, Blackburn, North End, and Blackpool were to join with the pick of the other clubs in the Palatinate, a first-rate League could undoubtedly be formed. Expenses would be less, and the journeys being easier would give the working player a better chance; while local rivalry would probably operate favourably in regard to “gates.”

You can read more about Fergie Suter and how two Partick footballers started professional football here.


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