Bed of Roses

By Tim Adams  |  23 Jan 2015

I grew up sleeping with the FA Cup next to my bed. When friends came round, I’d recite to them the story that had been told to me countless times by my dad in response to my incessant questioning at bedtime. The cup had been won by my great-grandfather and Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeeper Billy Rose in 1893, following a 1-0 victory over Everton.

Billy— – who, with a name like that, may well have come straight from a Boy’s Own comic— – was also England’s first-choice goalkeeper, and on that day kept a heroic clean sheet against a strongly fancied Everton side. A local businessman, so inspired was he by the team’s triumph, had replica cups cast in silver, half the height of the real thing, for each of the 11 Wolves players.

If my friends didn’t believe my story, I produced a piece of evidence that obliterated any doubts they might have had. Inside the cup I kept a cigarette card which showed the Wolves line-up from the 1884 final. B. Rose stared out in sepia, from under a cup-winner’s cap, displaying – —I’d argue— – an unmistakeable family likeness (if you discount the wispy moustache). On the morning of cup finals, while watching the famous Leeds team get off the bus to face Sunderland, or Arsenal’s Charlie George ready himself to make history against Liverpool, I’d take out the tin of Brasso from under the kitchen sink and polish the cup in front of the TV. On nights before my own big games, for the junior school first XI, I half-remember kissing it for good luck. My only defence is that I was 10 years old.

In my years of watching the game since then, I can’t help but feel that a little of the lustre of that trophy must have rubbed off on me. I’m not much of a puritan, but when it comes to football, I’ve always felt imbued with an inbuilt Corinthian spirit. I saw matches, any match, as a battle between innocence and experience, art and commerce. I would always prefer the team I supported to lose with style than to win with cynicism; an attitude that, as an Aston Villa fan, was rewarded more often than not, even if it was rarely met with sympathy on the terraces. I couldn’t help thinking that the spirit of the game, that elusive spectre, nearly always seemed most apparent when it was clearly played for love, not money. In the 1970s, when players still lived up the street, you could just about convince yourself that it might be the case. When he first came to Villa from Scotland, Andy Gray lived in a semi-detached round the corner, the same as ours. By the time he left for Wolves, for a British-record transfer fee, those days were pretty much over and, when he eventually wound up at Sky, they had been comprehensively usurped by the new reality of global corporations, billion-dollar brands, sheikhs and oligarchs.

The classic study of the importance of games is a book called Homo Ludens by the social historian Johan Huizinga. It was Huizinga’s contention that, in wealthy nations, ‘a far-reaching contamination of play and serious activity has taken place. In activities of an outwardly serious nature hides an element of play. Recognised play, on the other hand, is no longer able to maintain its true play character as a result of being taken too seriously and being technically over-organised. The indispensable qualities of detachment, artlessness, and gladness are thus lost.’

When I used to imagine the kind of games in which my great-grandfather was involved, not long after the sport itself had been formalised as competition, it seemed to me that those latter Eden-like qualities would have been very much in evidence. It was easy to convince yourself that you could see precisely that sense of ‘detachment and gladness’ in the half-smile playing around the lips of the Wolves players who had first won the cup 120 years ago. It meant a lot, I guessed, but it did not mean everything. My old man has a handwritten letter, sent to his grandfather in February 1884, that seemed to confirm this view. The letter is from one C.W. Allcock, at that time the Secretary of the English Football Association, and gives some indication of the levels of commitment and organisation expected of players in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The correspondence details the arrangements for the upcoming international against Ireland for which Billy Rose, aged 23, had been selected. It would be his first cap. ‘I enclose your ticket for Belfast via Holyhead,’ the note reads. ‘Train leaves Euston at 8:25am tomorrow.’ The letterhead, ‘The Football Association’, has been written by hand and roughly underlined. There is a hastily scrawled postscript notifying him of change to the hotel arrangements.

Billy caught the train and England won 8-1.

Of course, it is always worth being wary of the idea of golden ages. Upon digging a little further into his past, the original spirit of the sport begins to look a little more complicated than my Billy-Rose-tinted imagination might suggest. My great-grandfather was among the first men anywhere to make a living from playing a team game. Censuses suggest that he supplemented his income with some joinery work, and as an army reservist. In any fixture of gentleman versus players, he would have been firmly in the latter camp, and so he moved, it seems, where the money took him. In one decade he played for eight teams, turning out for Preston North End, Slough-based Swifts FC, east London outfit Corinthians and, most memorably, Wolves.

Even in the 1880s, a familiar argument was raging about the ability of wealthy clubs to buy success by luring the best players on the promise of lucrative bonuses. In response, the FA was arguing for a maximum wage – in other words, for financial fair play. Billy Rose was instrumental in helping to form the first players’ union, which campaigned for players to operate as free agents on a ‘show me the money’ basis, as a way of sharing in football’s huge popularity.

And was the game itself really any less serious? Admittedly, it is hard to find any mention of that cup final in the newspapers of the time, beyond a line or two displaying the result. Even so, those match reports that do survive suggest it would have kept talkSPORT occupied for weeks on end. The match was played at Fallowfield in Manchester. The ground’s official capacity was 45,000, but that didn’t stop more than 60,000 from turning up. There is a photograph of the crowds on rough dirt banks in flat caps and bowlers pressing close to the pitch, with Billy Rose in the foreground, patrolling his area.

The surge of supporters is said to have grown so strong that, as the match went on, the crowd spilled over the touchline and onto the pitch, making the playing area narrower and narrower with each passing minute. Everton’s flying wingers were reportedly impeded and intimidated by Wolves supporters. By some accounts, by the time Wolves’ second-half goal – “a hopeful lob from distance” – found the net, the action was concentrated in a fairly narrow channel down the centre of the pitch. Gladness and artlessness didn’t seem to feature, let alone detachment. Everton demanded that the match be replayed, but Wolves were having none of it and the result stood.

Billy Rose retired from the game a couple of years later to become a publican in Birmingham. Of course, he displayed his replica cup behind the bar. And there it no doubt began, year by year, to take on the mythological status it was afforded, three generations later, as it sat on my bedside table.

Tim Adams writes on sporting, cultural and literary matters for The Observer newspaper.
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