We Let Our Club Die: Hooliganism, Hooting and the Demise of Wrexham FC

The news report signalling the end of Wrexham Football Club in the Wrexham Advertiser on the 29th February 1884 is terse.  Two sentences record the 1864 club’s death sentence.

In a meeting of the English Football Association on Thursday, the “serious misconduct of the Wrexham Club in the ill-treatment of the referee” in the cup-tie between Wrexham and Oswestry on December 1st was considered, and it was decided that the club be expelled from the Association.  So far as Trainer,  “the offender” was concerned, it was decided to leave the local association to deal with him.

So what happened on December 1st?  Why was it necessary to expel Wrexham from football?

Prince of Keepers: Wrexham goalkeeper Jim Trainer

Wrexham entered the FA Cup for the first time in 1883 and were drawn at home in the first round against Liverpool Ramblers*.  On the morning of the 11th November 1883 the town must have been bustling, buzzing with anticipation of a big game – as it still does now.

But that morning the secretary of Wrexham received a telegram.  Liverpool Ramblers were going to have to scratch – they couldn’t get a team together.

The disappointed crowds would have to wait for their first taste of FA Cup action but Wrexham were through to the second round and were handed the perfect tie – at home to local rivals Oswestry.

In the late nineteenth century, Druids FC were Wrexham’s main rivals. Matches between the two sides were always competitive and frequently violent, sometimes leading to riots. But if Druids were our Chester, Oswestry were our Shrewsbury. We’d got the better of them in the Welsh Cup twice before, and, with home advantage, were looking forward to doing so again in front of a large and partisan crowd.

This time, their opponents did show up.  As did their fans; in large numbers on a special train.

The pitch was sodden and heavy from recent rain.  Oswestry must have fancied their chances of upsetting their more illustrious opposition.

And, despite a bright start for Wrexham, Oswestry did take the lead – a fluke own goal, celebrated wildly by the travelling support. Wrexham resumed the attack, but try as they might they couldn’t make the breakthrough.  They hit the bar, the goalkeeper made a string of improbable saves.

In the end, a superbly struck free-kick drew Wrexham level.  They scored again – an Oswestry own-goal before half-time.  In the second half, both sides traded goals before Oswestry equalised late on.  The match appeared to be heading for a replay.

But near the death, the Oswestry Umpire appealed for a goal.  He’d been loud a partisan all game – his influence on the referee was “all-powerful”.  The referee, Robert Lythgoe, was a well-respected ref but as a former Druids player and committee member, would have had very little love for Wrexham and Wrexham none for him.

Despite many observers testifying that the ball had not gone near the goal; despite no Oswestry player appealing for the goal; despite the Oswestry umpire being the only person who thought it was a goal – the referee awarded Oswestry the goal and consequently the cup-tie.  Wrexham were furious.

At the final whistle, Wrexham fans streamed onto the pitch.  Fans surrounded the referee and were soon joined by incandescent players.  The Wrexham Advertiser describes the scenes as follows:

A large number of boys, and young men — and apparently not gifted with the wisest sense of expressing appropriately their sense of injury — thought fit to mark their indignation at the referee’s conduct respecting the last goal by surrounding him and giving vent to some hideous hooting. 

The conduct of one or two of the Wrexham players was certainly not of a nature as to be commended.

It’s possible the Wrexham Advertiser understated the events after the game.  Wrexham crowds had been violent before.  The summons to the FA claimed that Lythgoe had been “thrown at and very badly injured so that he had to keep his bed for several days”.

Wrexham were disbanded.  The player deemed to be responsible; Jim Trainer – one of the most talented goalkeepers of his era, was a pariah and left Wrexham for good.   He eventually ended up as part of the Preston North End Invincibles team that twice won the Football League.

The former members of Wrexham FC, meanwhile, went and formed a new football club the following autumn under the name Wrexham Olympic; the club that still exists today.

There is an irony that for all the serious threats to Wrexham’s existence in recent years the only gap in 150 years history was brought about by supporters over-reacting to a poor referee.

* Liverpool Ramblers still exist as an amateur club that only plays friendly matches.  Their last FA Cup appearance (and their last competitive match) was in 1884.  The Historical Kits website hosts a picture of the 1883 team that were such a useless bunch of no-shows.