Here’s a sporting teaser to help while away the lockdown hours. Which club among England’s 92 football league clubs can claim to be the oldest?
There wasn’t much doubt about the answer until a year ago when a founder member, Notts County, were relegated from League Two. Officially dating back to 1864, though thought to have begun playing matches a couple of years before that date and claiming foundation in 1862, County were long recognised as the most senior of league clubs. Sheffield FC, established in 1857, are still acknowledged as England’s and therefore the world’s oldest club, but though affiliated to the Football Association they have never competed in the Football League.
Following Notts County’s demotion one might have expected the claim of oldest surviving league club to pass on to one of the other 11 clubs who founded the first league in 1888 – alphabetically they are Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Derby, Everton, Preston, Stoke , West Bromwich and Wolves – yet now comes a surprise claim from a club who did not even join the league until 1905.
Crystal Palace existed as a cricket club during the formative years of the Football League, though their stadium did provide a home for the FA Cup final between 1895 and the outbreak of the first world war. Historians, however, have always been aware that a Crystal Palace football club existed as far back as 1862, indeed they helped draft the rules for the first FA Cup competition and managed to reach the semi-finals of the inaugural knockout in 1872, but despite initial success the football club took a two-decade holiday from the game in 1875, thereby missing out on important development years.
The Palace club historian and author Peter Manning believes this unfashionable and somewhat contrary decision – given the booming popularity of professional football at the time – was made to protect the cricket surface. “An analysis of the fixtures at the time suggests football games were stopped because they were damaging the cricket ground,” he says. “This seems a plausible explanation because FA Cup games were eventually banned from Surrey’s cricket ground for the same reason.”
The Kennington Oval, odd as it might seem now, had been the venue for some of the earliest FA Cup finals. Derby’s Racecourse ground, Goodison Park and Stamford Bridge were also used before the final found a permanent home at Wembley in 1923. Importantly, Manning now believes, Crystal Palace did not close as a football club in the fallow years, the footballers carried on playing cricket in summer until 1900, when it merged with WG Grace’s new London County Cricket club.
Once a new stadium was built within the Crystal Palace Company’s parkland attraction specifically to stage FA Cup finals, the footballers had a pitch they could call their own and were in a position to join the league, which they did as professionals in 1905.
“The Crystal Palace was the world’s first major theme park, and without the Crystal Palace Company there would have been no Crystal Palace football club,” Manning explains. “It is ironic that the one surviving remnant of the Crystal Palace Company is now the big crowd-puller and money-earner, but as the founding of the club dates back to 1861 it can claim to be the oldest professional league club in the world. The company would have been extremely proud of what has been achieved.”
The Palace chairman, Steve Parish, said: “I would like to thank Peter Manning for the incredible work he has undertaken researching the definitive history of the club. As a lifelong supporter of Crystal Palace I find it amazing that we have a legitimate claim to be the oldest professional league club still in existence, that we were in the very first FA Cup meetings and that our history dates all the way back to Victorian cricketers and even involves the great WG Grace.”