Football is about the players is a popular cry and it was no different in the 19th century than it is today. The first footballers to be paid were the so-called ‘Scotch Professors’ who were then regarded as more skilful than their English counterparts.
One of the earliest was James Lang, who played for Sheffield Wednesday in 1876 while another, Fergie Suter, played for Darwen and Turton. One of the most prominent amateur players at the time was Sam Weller Widdowson (1851-1927).
He was a ‘hefty athlete’ and described as one of the finest inside forwards of his day. He played for Nottingham Forest and in 1880 for England against Scotland. A sporting all-rounder, Widdowson represented Nottinghamshire at cricket while he has also been credited as the inventor of shin-pads.
Professionalism was legalised in 1885 and one of the players who bridged the two eras was Aston Villa’s Archie Hunter (1861-94). He had learned to play the game in his native Ayrshire and came to Birmingham in search of work in the 1870s.
He was an outstanding centre-forward noted for his dribbling skills and a powerful shot as well as for the ability to shield the ball from opponents. It was said that hundreds of new enthusiasts were drawn each week to football just to watch him play. He finished playing after having an epileptic seizure at Everton in January 1890 and died four years later after contracting tuberculosis aged only 35. The club erected a memorial stone in Witton Cemetery, which still stands.
Arguably the best player of his era was Nick (or Jack) Ross. Born in Edinburgh in 1862, he had previously played for Hearts. Renowned for his green teeth through which he hissed through as he played, Jimmy Catton, football’s foremost journalist of the time, described him as ‘the demon back, and the best I ever saw’.
Ross was mainly a full-back and was noted for his ability to strike long passes, quickly turning defence into attack and, because he was the team captain, for his tactical astuteness, including using the back pass to the goalkeeper.
He had joined Preston North End in 1883 but ironically missed their double-winning season of 1888/89 because he left for Everton for one year. He returned to Deepdale and played as a centre-forward in their Championship winning team. Ross too perished from consumption in 1894.
While players today may be fitter and faster, throughout history the best have still possessed the virtues of good balance, accurate passing, good judgement in all matters and the knack of finding an empty space when not in possession.
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