Skip to content

The West End Invincibles: When Shields were Flying High for the First Time

Between 1899 and 1901 North Shields Athletic, only newly formed in 1896, were already enjoying success, winning the South Shields and District League and Cup, then coming runners up in the Northern Combination in their second year of joining. Following this, they continued to rise up the regional leagues until football was suspended after the outbreak of World War I.

The Shields Lads on Alnwick Moor in 1901 with the Northumberland Minor Cup. They only lost 3 out of 23 league matches that season.

After the 1901 season, Shields became a victim of their own success, as despite harbouring ambitions of building a grandstand and even challenging Newcastle United’s dominance locally, a number of their players were poached in the close season and their rise was temporarily checked.

A Protean Game

During these first few years, the Laws of the Game had settled to bear close enough resemblance to what we have today, but a few fossilised rules remained. For instance, the 1898 edition of the Laws includes the following clauses:

  • Ends shall only be changed at half-time.
  • A player shall not intentionally handle the ball under any pretence whatever, except in the case of the goal-keeper, who, within his own half of the field of play, shall be allowed to use his hands in defence of his goal, but not by carrying the ball. The goal-keeper may be changed during the game, but notice of such change must first be given to the referee.
  • In no case shall a goal be scored from any free kick. 
  • A player shall not be charged from behind, unless he is facing his own goal, and is also intentionally impeding an opponent. The goal-keeper shall not be charged except when he is holding the ball or obstructing an opponent.
  • A player shall not wear any nails except such as have their heads driven in flush with the leather, or metal plates, or projections, or gutta-percha, on his boots or on his shin-guards.

That a team must be 11 players, a game 90 minutes (unless agreed otherwise), the maximum pitch length reduced from 200 to 130 yards, and a halfway line drawn, were only brought in a year prior to this.

Marred by Trouble

We complain about the amount of fouling in elite football today, which serves as a model trickling down to all levels, but the game was evidently a much rougher affair back then, as this report from the Shields Daily News on 17th October 1900 shows:

      “A short time ago, I was reading a book by a well known authority upon football and other pastimes. Dealing with football, the writer referred to it as one of the most gentlemanly games that could be played by young men. If the author of that book had been on the Dock Road enclosure, West End, North Shields, last Saturday, and witnessed the football match between two local teams (North Shields Athletic v. Preston Colliery Athletic) he would undoubtedly have changed his opinion, or added to his original remarks “under ordinary circumstances.”
      When these two clubs have an engagement they appear to forget they are playing before a large number of spectators, and ought to conduct themselves properly, and keep control of their tempers.
      On the fixture card at present in my possession both clubs have got the date down as a combination match, to be played on the Prestonians’ ground. This was prevented owing to their ground being let to the circus people for that day. The officials of the two clubs, it appears, decided to play it as a friendly on the Shields men’s ground, with the result as appended:—
      A few scrapping matches, several free kicks for fouls, a considerable amount of arguing, and eventually the game brought to a standstill, ten minutes after half time, by the referee refusing to finish the game, after he had been hustled by the spectators.
      This sort of thing might be expected among junior teams, but when such clubs as Shields and Preston indulge in rowdyism there must be something radically wrong. If the Prestonians and Shields Athletic cannot meet without causing scenes on the field similar to what happened on Saturday, all future fixtures, even “combination” ones, ought to be cancelled.

      On the ground there was a good deal of talk about the Preston men having commenced the roughness first. but in my humble opinion I think both clubs were very much to blame. Instead of one of them attempting to stop the rough play they all appeared to vie with one another in seeing who could play the roughest without being pulled up by the referee.
      In the first half of the game Preston scored two goals through the instrumentality of Ormston and Bell. The former player put the leather through the sticks from a penalty just in front of the home citadel. When the referee awarded the penalty, his decision was disputed, but after ten minutes haggling, the Shields men allowed them to have it, with the above result.
      Johnson and Harrison scored two beauties for Shields in the second half, shortly after changing sides. Two minutes later Harrison again put through, but the goal was disallowed, the referee declaring the player offside when be put through. When the Shields players and supporters became aware of the fact that they were going to lose their winning goal ructions were in the air, and nasty remarks were heard, a good many of which were not fit for publication.
      One old gentleman, addressing himself to me, said:— ”Mr Reporter, if you don’t put in the paper the disgraceful conduct there has been here this afternoon, I will write to your editor, and get you the sack.” With a threat like that I have no alternative but to state exactly what occurred. It is to be hoped it will be a very long time before anything occurs to mar the harmony of another match on the Dock Road Enclosure.”

* A combination match was a distinction made in earlier times where passing was emphasised, rather than dribbling and charging direct for the goal line. This encouraged teamwork and these games lent themselves to greater displays of sportsmanship. Spectators would turn up to see the ‘science’ of football rather than the more agricultural form of the game. By the turn of the century it merely meant a friendly, though this was a clearly a misnomer.

Thank you to Trudi Thompson for inspiring these tales. Her incredibly well researched book Men From The North: The Grand History of North Shields Football Club can be bought here: 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *