FEATURE: Moonlit matches, money troubles and feisty spectators — Rotherham's long lost football teams

FEATURE: Moonlit matches, money troubles and feisty spectators — Rotherham's long lost football teams

By David Beddows | 10/12/2021

FEATURE: Moonlit matches, money troubles and feisty spectators — Rotherham's long lost football teams
ROTHERHAM Town 1910. Town were originally founded as Lunar Rovers.

 

ROTHERHAM Town, Wath Athletic, Methley Perseverance and Middlesbrough Ironopolis are just a few of the many northern football clubs that have disappeared into the mists of time.

Some left a big mark on the local landscape, others less so, and all have stories to tell.

They were active in the game's first decades in the 1800s when football went from something played only in the streets to a more organised team sport.

Several long-gone South Yorkshire football sides are featured in a new book by sports historian Rob Grillo.

“Gone — Yorkshire's Long Lost Football Teams', charts the growth of the game in the region and covers more than 50 clubs from around the county that have, for various reasons, been consigned to the history books.

They, of course, include Rotherham Town, which eventually merged with Rotherham County to become Rotherham United

The original Rotherham Town was founded as Lunar Rovers.

“It's name derived from the fact that in its early days the club often played under moonlight because it had been formed by grocers and shopkeeper,” says Rob.

“Because they didn't have afternoons off, they were forced to play their games much later in the day than usual, hence the name. It's all a bit strange really.”

Many sources state 1878 as the founding date of Lunar Rovers, although another historian, Martin Westby, has traced it back to 1875 when it is possible that the club was playing moonlit fixtures on an informal basis.


In 1887 the club added the “Town” suffix to its title, underlining the fact it was the most senior team in Rotherham.


Town had successes, played in the Football League and, of course, made Arthur Wharton the world's first black professional footballer.


Football lovers looking back at the game in its early years can sometimes get romantic notions about how honest and authentic it all was.


In terms of providing an outlet for working class men (and women) to let off steam on a weekend, football in the 1800s was indeed an honest pursuit, but money often still called the tune, like it does today, and it led to the demise of many “semi-professional” clubs.


That is summed up in a chapter at the beginning of Rob's book about the Bullcroft Colliery Affair.


“They were suspended by the Sheffield and Hallamshire FA for not being able to pay their players, but in practice every single club was the same,” says Rob.


“Sometimes they'd say they would pay up at the end of the season and with some of the colliery teams it was different.


“Rather than pay the players what they owed them, they'd give them an extra job down the pit or extra hours and pay them for doing that.”


It was to the north of Rotherham that some of the strongest, long forgotten football teams were situated.


Wath Athletic (1885-1935), Mexborough (1876-1936) and Kilnhurst (1876-1951) all punched above their weight for their size.


Wath and Mexborough both played in the old Midland League, which at the time was just one step below the Football League.


Wath, in particular, had to pay their players a lot of money and they just couldn't afford it.

The old Wath pavilion.


“So many teams overstretched themselves for short term gain and ending up folding and reforming again,” says Rob. “Teams from Mexborough did that loads of times over the years.


“Players would be paid weekly, even if the team didn't play. It wasn't a big amount of money but it meant quite often that clubs could not afford to pay the wages. In the end they'd end up in debt to the players, disbanding, and reforming a few years later.”


The instability was a shame because the teams did not lack for support.


In an era of no TV, internet and comparatively few counter-attractions, crowds regularly numbered in the hundreds and sometimes thousands.


Rotherham Town had a nomadic existence in its early years in the Middle Lane/Clifton Grove area but the crowds invariably followed them.


An estimated 6,000 people crammed into Clifton Grove to see them win the Midland League against Loughborough Town in 1893 despite the Midland League's insistence of a “four penny gate,” which was considered an excessive amount for many working class football supporters.


Stepping back north again to Mexborough, Kilnhurst and Wath, there was strong devotion too.


“They were working class areas and when they played home matches the whole village would come out and support them,” said Rob.


“They were very much village teams that represented the village. Even the colliery teams, they still represented the village.


“The spectators were very, very partisan and there are loads of instances of spectators causing problems and rioting because their village team was losing.”


Wath Athletic had a big ground provided for them with a big stand while Mexborough won the Midland League and in theory could have been elected to the Football League but their ground at Hampden Road, which is still used for football and cricket today, was never good enough.


It's those sorts of hard luck stories that precede the demise of the old Yorkshire football clubs covered in Rob's book.


Financial problems spelled the end for many of them but a loss of funding from a parent company, an enforced move away from a traditional base, internal problems or the success of a rival all played their part.


Rob's book, his 16th and he says possibly final one, covers clubs from Middlesbrough in the north, Todmorden in the west, Hull in the east and other clubs from South Yorkshire including Wombwell and Grimethorpe.


A Bradford City supporter by trade, Rob added: “It has been great writing about these South Yorkshire teams because I am West Yorkshire based and have written about West Yorkshire football for years.


“Teams like Wath and Mexborough and others from this area I have always been really fascinated by and it has been great researching them.”


*******************

Highthorn Mission, pictured around the time of its victory in the Mexborough Montagu Cup final.

HIGHTHORN was nothing more than a hamlet on the edge of Kilnhurst comprising a couple of a couple of rows of houses — but it had a cracking football team.


In the absence of a club bearing the Kilnhurst name, Highthorn Mission emerged on the scene in 1901 playing on the Old Forge ground, around a mile away from Highthorn itself.


In 1903 the club reached the final of the Mexborough Montagu Cup against Wath Athletic.


After the first match ended 1-1 in front of 2,000 spectators, Highthorn beat the favourites  2-1 in the replay at the Mexborough Town ground watched by a crowd of 4,000.


Despite being briefly suspended by the County FA for non-payment of fines, Highthorn went on to win the South Yorkshire League in 1903/04 and performed better than newly formed rivals Kilnhurst Town for a spell.


Highthorn's light shone brightly but briefly and they disbanded in 1906.

********************

THE FA Cup held special appeal for the “long lost football teams”, like it does for small clubs today


Kilnhurst's first qualifying round tie against Sheffield FC in 1896, for instance,  lured a crowd of 2,000 to the village while Mexborough played in the first round proper of the “English Cup” in 1885/86.
Historian Rob Grillo says: “The FA Cup was a

major business because if they got a home tie against another local team they would get huge crowds, even in the preliminary and qualifying rounds.”

***************************

THE 1885/86 season saw Rotherham Town drawn at home to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup.


As it turned out, Town were to receive £17 10s (plus dinner at the Maypole Hotel in Nottingham) to switch the tie to Nottingham. Forest won 5-0.
The following season, Notts County paid Town £15 to switch grounds and beat them 15-0!


Town had their high-scoring successes in the FA Cup, or “English FA Cup” too, thrashing Doncaster 9-1 in 1888 and bumping them out 7-0 a few years later.

****************************

ALTHOUGH women were involved in football in the Rotherham area and beyond, the history of women in football is largely an untold one.


Women' teams might not have been great in number but the females were involved with teams' committees and were involved in fund-raising etc.


Their role is starting to be acknowledged by sports historians.