The following article was published by the Belfast Telegraph on 22 February and is reproduced here with the permission of the author and the newspaper
A ‘GIGANTIC SWINDLE’: WHEN LINFIELD BEAT NOTTINGHAM FOREST IN THE CUP-TIE THAT WASN’T
A famous victory married by controversy
Martin Moore, February 2020
As thousands of local football fans filed out of the Ulster Cricket Ground in the late afternoon of Saturday 9th February 1889, they believed they had just witnessed one of the greatest feats in Irish football to date: Linfield defeating Nottingham Forest 3–1 and knocking them out of the FA Cup. All was not as it seemed, however, and when those spectators picked up that day’s late edition of the Belfast Evening Telegraph, they would have been shocked to learn that the match had, in fact, been played as a mere friendly, and it was Linfield who were out of the Cup, having conceded the tie beforehand. Some readers were angered and felt that they had been conned, and a string of correspondence was published in the Telegraph in the days following the match. Two aggrieved spectators accused Linfield officials of intending to ‘gull’ the public, describing the match as a ‘gigantic swindle upon the public at large’. They suggested that Linfield ought to atone by donating the gate money to charity and threatened to take legal proceedings against the club for the recovery of their entrance fee and expenses incurred in attending the match.
In those days, Irish clubs were permitted to enter the FA Cup, and had done so since 1886, usually with modest results. In the 1888–89 season, four Irish teams took part in the qualifying rounds. In the first qualifying round, Ulster were drawn at home against Everton, who had a Football League fixture against Aston Villa on the same day and chose to scratch. Ulster and the other three Irish teams, who had been given byes, were then drawn against each other in the next round. Linfield easily dispatched Ulster 7–1 while Cliftonville had a similarly easy 5–0 win against YMCA. In the third qualifying round, Linfield achieved what on paper looked like a magnificent 4–0 win against Bolton Wanderers, except Bolton had sent a reserve team over to Belfast, allowing their first eleven to play a Football League fixture against West Bromwich Albion. This left Cliftonville (whose opponents Liverpool Stanley had scratched rather than travel to Belfast) and Linfield to play each other in the fourth qualifying round for a place among the elite last 32 in the first round proper. After two 3–3 draws, Linfield eventually won the tie with a 7–0 victory at Cliftonville in the only FA Cup match ever played on Christmas Day.
Linfield were then drawn to play Nottingham Forest, one of the elite clubs selected for direct entry to the first round proper, away on Saturday 2nd February. As they set off on Thursday evening on the overnight steamer to Fleetwood an ‘immense crowd’ of well-wishers gathered at the quayside, and were treated to an impromptu musical performance by the team on the deck, capped off with renditions of ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Rule Britannia’. After a rough passage across the Irish Sea, they travelled by train to Nottingham, arriving at their hotel by early afternoon on Friday.
Forest, whose number included England international centre-forward and captain, Tinsley Lindley, and future England inside-right Frank Burton, were expected to win easily, despite being unable to field a full-strength team. The home crowd was taken by surprise, however, as the visitors took the lead just before half-time through a John Peden goal that the Nottingham press believed ought to have been disallowed as offside. Forest then scored two quick goals midway through the second half as a snowstorm enveloped proceedings, but Peden scored a second with only a few minutes remaining and forced the game into extra time. Linfield defended bravely and held out for a 2–2 draw and a replay back in Belfast the following Saturday.
There was great anticipation in Belfast. The expectation of a large crowd led Linfield to host the match at the Ulster Cricket Ground at Ballynafeigh (now the Ulidia Playing Fields), as the club at that time did not possess a ground fit for such a tie, and was still playing at the Linfield Mill. A crowd estimated at between five and seven thousand spectators, described by the Belfast News-Letter as one of the largest ever seen at a football match in the city, paid the admission price of sixpence (ninepence for the grandstand), with gate receipts totalling around £66.
The weather was cold and snowy, and the ground slippy. Neither team was at full strength, Linfield’s Sam Torrans (who would soon be awarded his first cap for Ireland) was unavailable and was replaced by former international Joe Sherrard of Limavady. This may have been a clue to astute members of the crowd that the match wasn’t as advertised, but in those days the rules around player eligibility were not as strict as they are today and it was not uncommon for players to make appearances for different clubs in different competitions, and Limavady had not played in the FA Cup. Forest, who had been in Belfast since Thursday morning, were missing Lindley, but eight of the team from the previous week was unchanged.
Forest took the lead after only a few minutes, but Linfield responded immediately, ‘laying siege’ to the Forest goal, had a goal disallowed for offside, and forced three corners in succession. After Burton missed a chance for Forest, from the ensuing goal kick, Peden advanced down the wing and crossed to Samuel Johnston, who equalised. Only a few minutes later, Peden got behind the backs again and another cross was converted to put Linfield in the lead to ‘deafening cheers’ (it is unclear who scored: three different players are credited by different newspapers). Straight from the resulting kick-off, Forest were dispossessed, and after a ‘pretty piece of play’ by Christian, Robert Torrans put the ball in the net to give Linfield a 3–1 lead at half-time. The second half provided less excitement, and play was more even in character, but no further score was added, and Linfield won a famous victory: apparently advancing to the last sixteen of the world’s most prestigious football competition.
But it wasn’t so. After the match, the truth began to emerge that the contest had been a friendly of no consequence. The newspapers first reported that Linfield had scratched before the match because they did not want to incur the cost and inconvenience of a long journey to Kent to play the next round against Chatham on an open ground (where there would be no gate money). While that may have been an acceptable explanation, the Northern Whig did suggest that it was unwise of the club to have attempted a coup on the public: ‘When [the public] learned that they had been “sold” as regarded the character and bearing of the contest, there were those who did not scruple to declare that the match itself was a “flam”.’ The Whig itself, however, observed that, ‘to anyone who watched the play closely there seemed no ground whatsoever for such a suggestion.’
The real reason for Linfield forfeiting the match, however, would emerge over the next few days in the pages of the Telegraph, when Linfield officials responded to criticism from supporters. In a joint letter, John Torrans, the Financial Secretary, and Thomas Gordon, Hon. Secretary, explained that Linfield had inadvertently fielded an ineligible player, William Johnston, in the first match in Nottingham. (Johnston fell foul of a rule requiring a player, prior to a Cup tie, either to have played at least two matches for his club, or to have been a member of the club for 28 days.) ‘Some good friend of Irish football’ had then ‘taken care to inform the Forest Football Club’, and at 3.30pm on the Friday afternoon before the match, Sam Widdowson, former England international and vice-president of Forest (as well as inventor of the shin pad), met with Linfield officials. He gave them an ultimatum: scratch by five o’clock, or Forest would inform Charles Alcock, secretary of the Football Association, who had already agreed to convene a committee meeting at an hour’s notice, which would undoubtedly throw Linfield out of the competition. Linfield conceded, and at the same time, both clubs agreed to keep the matter a secret from both teams, ‘for the Linfield team were so determined to beat the Forest team that, had they been told of the arrangement which had been come to, they would certainly not have played.’ Torrans and Gordon defended the agreement as the ‘best under the circumstances’, since Linfield played the match in earnest. The Nottingham Evening Post suggested that Forest had threatened not to play the match at all if Linfield did not scratch.
Torrans’s and Gordon’s explanation did not go down well with the public. While the decision to scratch may have been understandable, it was the decision to keep the matter a secret that angered many. ‘W. McN.’ queried why advertisements for a Cup-tie had been carried in the press on Saturday morning if Linfield had scratched the evening before, and insinuated that Forest had agreed that Linfield could keep the whole gate in return for scratching. He even predicted that Linfield’s actions would probably lead to the break-up of the Linfield team. Gordon subsequently replied to refute the accusation and also stated that Linfield had not formally communicated to Forest their decision to scratch until just before kick-off on the Saturday. Writers under the names ‘Fair Play’ and ‘Honesty’ accused Torrans and Gordon of deliberate fraud and threatened legal proceedings. ‘Sui Jure’ called for Torrans and Gordon to be replaced by men who would ‘know how to conduct the affairs of the club with a knowledge of what is right and what is wrong’. Another correspondent, ‘Pro Bono Publico’ was more concerned that there was an ‘informer’ within the ranks of Irish football, and asked Torrans and Gordon to name and shame the individual ‘so that the public would have as little dealings as possible with a man that betrayed his own countrymen’.
In the end, the affair blew over. While John Torrans did offer to refund ‘Fair Play’ and Honesty’ their gate money, the gate was not donated to charity, there were no legal proceedings, and it was not the end of the Linfield team, which would soon go on to establish itself as the best in Ireland. Nottingham Forest lost to Chatham in the next round after two draws. Linfield entered the FA Cup again in the following two seasons, but lost to Distillery in the final qualifying round and then Nantwich at the first hurdle in 1890–91, which was the last season in which Irish teams entered.
LINFIELD: T. Gordon (goal); S. Close and R. Morrison (backs); J. Torrans, J. Christian, N. McKeown (half-backs); Joe Sherrard, G. Gaffikin (right wing); R. Torrans, J. Peden (left wing); S. Johnston (centre forward).
FOREST: A. Pike (goal); C. J. Caborn, V. Stevenson (backs); A. Smith, H. Pike, S. Norman (half-backs); G. Tutin, F. Fox (right wing); F. Burton, T. Jeacock (left wing); O. Tolley (forward).