One of the great sporting heroes of Victorian England was put in charge of a new football club which threatened to eclipse local rivals Crystal Palace. MARK METCALF, the co-author of a new book, explains how Fred Spiksley came to south London
Fred Spiksley played for Sheffield Wednesday and England between 1891 and 1903 before, in 1905, becoming the secretary-manager of the Southern United Athletic Company Limited. Southern United’s owners believed that with half a million residents in south-east London, there would be enough fans locally to build a financially successful football club.
The owners also hoped that by having a national sporting hero in charge of their team, Southern would be an immediate success.
In 1893, Spiksley was the first player to score three in a game against Scotland when England won 5-2 at Richmond.
He had been the star of the Wednesday side that in 1896 reached the FA Cup final. This was played at the Crystal Palace against Wolverhampton Wanderers before a crowd of 48,836.
It was Spiksley, an outside left rated the finest ever by Herbert Chapman, who opened the scoring that day with a goal that according to The Times was “scored in the first few seconds” and according to The Manchester Guardian was scored when “less than 20 seconds and passed.” The Morning Post stated “in about a quarter of a minute Spiksley registered the first goal”.
Sadly, the exact time of Spiksley’s goal cannot be confirmed officially. No one thought to ask the referee afterwards if he had noted it in his notebook and there was no reason for him to do so as it was not common practice in 1896. According to the former FA historian David Barber, the FA does not have the referee’s notebook and they have no idea if it still exists. All this has allowed Louis Saha to become known as the scorer of the quickest goal in an FA Cup final goal, when his effort for Everton against Chelsea in 2009 was recorded at 25 seconds.
Wolves equalised after eight minutes, but four minutes later came the winning goal from Spiksley that he later described as the best he ever scored.
He was around 35 yards out when he hit a ball that had the Wednesday fans in the crowd groaning as he appeared to have badly miscued his shot. When the spin took hold, the ball swung violently and at just three foot off the ground smacked against the far right-hand goalpost before entering the Wolves net.
So powerful was the strike that when the ball hit the back of the net, it rebounded back on to the field. This left Wolves keeper Billy Tennant totally confused. After he kicked it away, he missed the game restarting as the shocked crowd tried to work out exactly what they had just witnessed. At the end of the 90 minutes, Tennant asked when the replay was, believing the game had finished 1-1. Only when Wednesday went up to collect the trophy did he realise that Spiksley’s shot had won the match.
In 1905, Spiksley returned to south London. His new role at Southern United also allowed him to continue playing although a serious injury in 1903 meant he was no longer the great player he had once been. Southern United were placed in Division Two of the Southern League and had found a suitable home at Brown’s Athletic Football Ground in Nunhead.
Brown’s Field had an interesting history. King Edward VII, the son of Queen Victoria, had gone shooting there when he was Prince of Wales and it was reputed that WG Grace had frequently played cricket there in the 1890s. No doubt this would have brought a smile to Spiksley’s face, as in the past cartoons had compared him with the cricketer among the sporting greats of the time.
Most people reached the ground by walking up the hill from Nunhead railway station before turning into an alleyway that led to the backs of terraced housing in Ivydale Road and the ground entrance. Brown’s Field was well-drained and the football pitch was one of the largest in the country at 117 yards long and 75 yards wide – this at a time before the size of pitches was more closely regulated as today.
Just as today, there was great demand for land for development, so the number of suitable football grounds was diminishing and securing such a good enclosure was no mean feat. What was considerably less satisfactory was the failure to accrue sufficient funds to allow for the recruitment of a squad of players good enough to compete against other newly formed clubs, such as Crystal Palace.
Spiksley was nevertheless highly enthusiastic in his new post, which he combined with secretly working for another newly formed club, Chelsea, to find players for Gus Mears’ side.
Spiksley scored as his side beat Reading Reserves 2-0 away and on 28 October 1905, Brown’s Field hosted its record crowd of 7,000 when Chelsea beat Southern United 1-0 in the FA Cup. In January 1906, with his side in fifth place in the table, Spiksley was sacked. Soon after, Southern United went bust. The Southern United directors had gambled in thinking big but without the resources to match their ambitions the whole affair had been a disaster.
Spiksley went off to play for Watford in 1906 and later went on to become the first man to coach on three different continents with spells in Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Mexico, the United States and Peru. While at Nuremberg in 1914 he was thrown into prison when the World War started. He was able to trick his way home.
- Flying Over An Olive Grove: The Remarkable Story of Fred Spiksley, A Flawed Football Hero by Clive Nicholson, Ralph Nicholson and Mark Metcalf, with a foreword by Chris Waddle, is published by Red Axe books at £19.99. It is available via www.spiksley.com
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