Blackburn Rovers 1896

Football's Pioneering Managers: Tom Mitchell

Professor Matt Taylor recalls Tom Mitchell, who not only played a key role in making Blackburn Rovers the best team in England the 1880s and early 1890s, but also helped found the Football League in 1888.
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A key figure in the early days of Blackburn Rovers, Thomas Brown (T.B.) Mitchell played an important role in the emergence of professional football itself. Born around 1843 in Dumfries in Scotland, he worked in Glasgow as a commercial traveller before moving to England in the late 1860s.

A profile in the Athletic News noted that Mitchell had been associated with Blackburn Rovers since the club’s formation in 1875, regularly following them ‘all over the country’. The earliest accounts had him becoming secretary in 1884 but it now seems more likely that he didn’t take over until 1887.

At this time, Rovers were the best team in England, having won three consecutive FA Cups from 1884. With Mitchell at the helm, aided by chairman Dr. Morley, director John Lewis and trainer Jack Hunter, the club became a leading force in the first decade of professional football. They finished third in the inaugural Football League championship in 1888/89 and gained two further FA Cup victories in 1890 and 1891.

If like most football secretaries at the time, Mitchell’s focus was mainly on administration, he nonetheless played a key role in signing players. His links to Scotland almost certainly helped him acquire some of the best talent from north of the border. Among those he successfully tempted south were Vale of Leven’s John Forbes, Dumbarton’s George Dewar and Leith Athletic’s Geordie Anderson.

By the mid-1890s, Rovers’ form had declined significantly. With the club struggling to avoid relegation, and players accused of lacking fitness and motivation, Mitchell submitted his resignation in October 1896, the committee finally accepting it the following January.

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Blackburn Rovers 1891
Blackburn Rovers 1891

Mitchell's Rovers lifted the FA Cup in 1891, beating Notts County in the final, having also won the competition a year previously.

However, he wasn’t out of work long. Ambitious Woolwich Arsenal, then in the Football League’s Second Division, picked the Scot from 50 applicants for the manager’s post in June 1897. On his appointment, one London journalist noted that there was ‘not a better known, more highly respected or popular man’ in English football.

The Woolwich Herald thought the directors had ‘obtained the best man possible for the office’. Even so, and despite taking the Gunners to fifth in the division, Mitchell resigned in March 1898 amid rumours of tensions with the directors.   

It was to be Mitchell’s last position in the game. He moved back to Blackburn, where he was recorded in the 1901 census as a ‘Retired Secretary (Football Club)’. Yet he continued to be remembered in Lancashire and beyond as an important figure in shaping the emerging national game.

According to the Morning Leader, ‘none have taken a more active part [than Mitchell] in the rapid advance of the sport in England’. He played a key role in the creation of the Football League – even suggesting its name according to one account – and was recognised elsewhere as a ‘master of organisation’.

Like many 19th century administrators and managers, he was a top rank referee. He was also a sportsman in a wider sense, regularly partaking in shooting and training greyhounds.

He died in 1921 in Blackburn, the town that had become his home and which he had helped take to the pinnacle of the early football world.       

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