Shoot for the moon — ambition and downfall of Rotherham Town

Shoot for the moon — ambition and downfall of Rotherham Town

By Gareth Dennison | 10/11/2020

Shoot for the moon — ambition and downfall of Rotherham Town


ROTHERHAM Town were initially called Lunar Rovers because the only opportunities for games were on holidays or moonlit nights.

The shopkeepers and others who formed the club had no prospect of closing early for a match — and there were no floodlights in 1878.

They became the borough’s premier team superseding the likes of Rotherham Wanderers and the original Thornhill club.

Lunar Rovers played home games in a field behind Clifton Grove, then at Middle Lane, before moving to what became known as Clifton Lane, sharing with the cricket club, and soon becoming known as Rotherham Town FC.

Charles Stoddart, who became the town’s first knight, was club president, with Walter Musson the first captain.

By 1884 they were entering every competition they could — but early results were not encouraging.

They lost 5-0 away to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup preliminary round, having sold home advantage for £17 10s and a dinner out.

Pulling a similar swap deal the following year led to £30 in the coffers — but a 15-0 drubbing at Notts County.

The football club were exiled from Clifton Lane in 1886 because the cricketers felt the annual £5 rent was not enough to cover clearing up the mess left.

The footballers moved to Cocker’s field behind Sherwood Crescent, off Wellgate, but this did not prove ideal.

Jack Parnham, who researched the club, wrote in the 1980s: “This was not a happy choice of ground. There was too much ‘up hill and down dale’ about it for good football to be played there.

“When a row blew up over the tactics allegedly used by Kilnhurst in beating Rotherham in a Hallamshire Cup tie, the Kilnhurst club replied to criticisms of their gamesmanship by offering to play a return game in aid of the Rotherham Hospital ...provided that the match took place on a football ground! Clearly Rotherham's patch of land did not come into this category.”

Once differences were settled, Town moved back to Clifton Lane and built a 500-seater stand.

They beat powerful Ecclesfield 5-2 in January 1888 — the same night Rotherham’s market hall burned down — and the match itself had plenty of sparks. One ploy had been for the visitors to discard their own colours for stripes similar to Town’s.

The victory helped them to the Wharncliffe Charity Cup final, where Town lost narrowly to Sheffield Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, this game did not pass without its unsavoury incidents either,” said Jack. “After snow had been cleared from the ground, controversy arose as to whether it was even then fit for play.

“Rotherham responded to suggestions that the game be played as an exhibition match by insisting: ‘the final or nothing’. They got their own way, but not before the team had been kept hanging about in the cold for an hour.

“The Wednesday players meanwhile, had been waiting in the warmth and comfort of the dressing room.”

Towards the end of the 19th century, there were much bigger crowds heading up to see town at Clifton Lane. Some 4,000 turned out when Preston’s “Invincibles” visited during 1888/89, beating the hosts 4-1.

Later in the season, Town beat Staveley at Bramall Lane to win the Sheffield and Hallamshire Challenge Cup, parading the trophy through Rotherham in a wagonette on their return.

“There were scenes of wild excitement, with the streets packed with cheering crowds,” said Jack. “Anything won from Sheffield was worthy of celebration.”

This era saw a fierce rivalry with Rotherham Swifts, who had been formed in 1888 by Fred Micklethwaite, a former Town goalie and secretary, and Pigeon Cote Inn landlord J Pearce, but only lasted a couple of seasons.

During a cup replay at Clifton Lane, the overly rowdy atmosphere saw Town keeper Arthur Wharton hospitalised after being kicked by someone in the crowd.

There was literal mud-slinging by Town fans after the match and Swifts star Rab Howell was struck on the head with an umbrella outside the clubhouse.

In the 1889/90 Sheffield and Hallamshire Cup final, Town held Sheffield United to a goalless draw in front of a crowd of 5,000.

The Rotherham club asked that the replay be at Clifton Lane. They had to compromise, playing at the Swifts’ ground at Holmes, but successfully attracted a similar crowd and defended the cup.

Royal Arsenal’s lack of professionalism had seen them boycotted by southern teams and left them seeking fixtures further north.

They did not win friends in Rotherham by withdrawing at the last minute from a match at Clifton Lane on Christmas Day 1890, saying it was too frosty.

The £5 compensation for Town was a tenth of their actual losses on the fixture — and contributed to more financial troubles.

A departure from Clifton Lane to a new ground at Clifton Grove was announced in August 1891.

This was the result of many factors, notably that Clifton Lane’s new owners were the Racing Company, which intended to use the ground for parking for the events at Herringthorpe races.

Clifton Grove residents were fairly welcoming of their new, footballing neighbours — especially considering the club’s enclosure blocked their countryside views.

Season one at the new home saw Town secure the Midland League Championship with a 4-1 victory over Wednesbury Old Athletic. At half-time, former captain Walter Musson paraded a goat which was dressed up and displaying the words: Play up, Rotherham.

Finances were decent at the end of 1891/92, with Town recording a £158 profit, but the imposition of a minimum four-penny gate price for the following season caused controversy.

There was a difference of opinion about how this might affect attendances at Clifton Grove. It was believed that Town had passed up being a founder member of the Second Division because a compulsory tariff rise would have been involved.

But after winning the Midland League championship for the second year running, Town showed some ambition and successfully applied for membership of the Second Division in 1893.

A crowd of up to 6,000 was there to watch Town clinch the title, beating Loughborough 3-1 in April 1893.

Improvements were made at the ground, the occasional alcohol licence secured and a cycle track proposed.

Town joined an expanded Second Division alongside Liverpool, Newcastle United and Woolwich Arsenal. But the spread of cholera and difficulties in the coal industry affected gates, while injuries contributed to a disastrous start to league football on the pitch.

Town finished second bottom and only stayed in the division after Middlesbrough Ironopolis resigned.

The 1894/85 season was better, but speculation began the following season about how much longer Town could continue. There were problems with paying rent on the ground and a quick turnover of club secretaries.

An article in the Athletic News said: “Rotherham Town had had a very hard struggle during the past season, and have occasionally been in the habit of turning up with only ten men in league matches.”

By January 1896, the directors decided they would no longer dig into their own pockets to cover the team’s expenses.

Subscriptions were appealed for, a benefit match held and even a fundraising grand ball arranged. This staved off the potential humiliation of being the first league club to fold mid-season.

But no application was made for re-election to the Second Division in 1896.

The Advertiser called for information to be made public about what had become of the club and the funds raised. A long-awaited AGM was held in August 1896. Few shareholders turned up and there was no point in arguing.

The balance sheet was read, accepted and that was that for Rotherham’s first prominent football club.

A second Rotherham Town formed in 1899 and merged with Rotherham County in 1925 to form Rotherham United.

* TOWN made history in September 1892 when they had the distinction of being Liverpool’s first opponents at Anfield.

But the honour for Rotherham became a rather dubious one as the hosts made themselves at home with a 7-1 victory.

The Liverpool Daily Post reported: “The initial event on the programme of the new Liverpool club was brought off last evening, at Anfield-road, the attraction being Rotherham Town (Midland League Champions).

“Only a moderate number of spectators turned up to witness the encounter. Play ruled in favour of the Liverpudlians from the start.”

Everton had moved out of Anfield in 1891 over a rent dispute.