Fergie Suter played a signficant part in the game’s development in the 19th century both as a pioneer of a new way of playing and as a recipient of financial reward.
When in 1878 Fergie Suter not only suffered the disappointment of being rejected by his local club Glasgow Rangers, but also faced the consequence of Britain’s industrial decline, he knew exactly what to do: go south. This was where his services as a stonemason and one of a new breed of footballer would be better appreciated – or even rewarded.
He had been south before but this time he left Glasgow with a one-way train ticket in his pocket. His journey was not simply a personal milestone, it was a small piece of a wider body of evidence that football was undergoing profound changes.
Among the changes was the way the game was being played – and it was Scottish teams who had been pioneering this change by developing the so-called passing game. Up until now football had been mainly a dribbling game with one man tapping the ball forward while his teammates fell in behind him waiting to start a dribble of their own when he lost the ball.
Suter was in the vanguard of this innovation – an acknowledged master of the ingenious idea of passing the ball forward – that created a more free-flowing spectacle. And as a vastly improved spectacle football started to attract more and more spectators who were prepared to pay a fee to watch matches.
Such was football’s popularity since the new way of playing spread that, as Suter boarded his train in Glasgow, there was even talk of players being paid for their services.
Still, though, the future into which Suter stepped was an uncertain one. It was no more than an outside chance that he might become slightly less poor than he was already.
Another Scot, Archie Hunter, who went on to captain Aston Villa to victory over West Bromwich Albion in the 1887 FA Cup final, said that he and Suter both came to England in 1878 ‘…and we two led the Scotch Exodus, as it has been called’
Hunter, who has been described as one of Victorian football’s first household names, also said in his book, Triumphs of the Football Field, that when Suter went to the go-ahead Lancashire club Darwen he ‘practically taught that club the game’. By which he meant that Suter taught them the new passing game.
No one objected to his doing this, though. It was the spin-off of clubs being able to charge spectators because of the game’s sudden popularity, and therefore putting them in a position to pay players, that would help make Suter what many regarded as a villain of the piece.
At first everything seemed harmless enough as Suter settled into his new life in east Lancashire. But, such was the fevered atmosphere now enveloping competitive football in the area, neighbourliness had come to mean jealously watching how other clubs conducted their business.
The question of the reprehensible practice of paying players for their services was growing particularly sensitive. It was why, after Suter played for the Blackburn side Turton in the final of a cup competition and a club official was handed prize money of £3 ‘that he pay Suter out of it’, a rumour spread rapidly.
A dastardly deed had taken place that meant the footballing community of the north-west had a Scottish mercenary in their midst.
This may not have been strictly against the letter of the law, professionalism would not be officially banned – and then only briefly – until 1882, but it did grievously offend its publicly proclaimed spirit.
More accusatory murmurings followed when Suter, having been poached by Darwen, gave up his day job but still managed to live quite comfortably. The obvious conclusion was that he was being paid for doing something other than chipping away at lumps of rock.
He had pursued stonemasonry with enthusiasm in Scotland, moving from Blythswood to Partick to be near new building sites. Now, though, he offered the unlikely claim that he was abandoning it because the stubbornness of the local Lancashire stone made his arms and hands swell. What sort of granite, people wondered, had he been happily chiselling into shape in Glasgow?
A letter to the editor of the Football Field accused Tom Hindle, the secretary of Darwen FC, of being ‘one of the first to introduce so-called professionals into Lancashire’ and asked darkly: ‘Can Mr Hindle explain the circumstances attending Suter’s first appearance for Darwen?’
The furore caused Hindle, an accountant from a respectable middle-class family, a great deal of discomfort. Keeping professionalism and sport apart was a shibboleth of his social circle – ‘a sordid grasping after easy money’ was the typical view of one opponent of professional football – but Hindle also found himself pulled in the opposite direction by his allegiance to Darwen FC.
Hindle would never admit the club paid Suter – or any other player. But the evidence was as conclusive as it could be that the Glaswegian now received payments and other favours for playing for Darwen.
Suter’s own view of the consternation caused by what the new moneyed classes regarded as the tawdry practice of footballers receiving remuneration for their services seems to have been fairly relaxed.
He probably knew enough of history to be aware that other sports, usually under the influence of an aristocracy who had long regarded sporting competition as little more than a gambling medium, stood aloof from worrying about moral implications of professionalism.
For example, Thomas Waymark, whose patron was the Duke of Richmond, was a paid cricketer, and openly so, more than 100 years before Suter was born.
What Suter would certainly have known was that some of his contemporaries who played cricket were being paid – a match between the Gentlemen (amateurs) and Players (professionals) had been an annual fixture for years. And an old football adversary, Tommy Marshall, openly received prize money for winning sprint races.
Suter was quite sharp enough to reason that the idea that footballers should not be similarly rewarded was untenable.
The journalist J.H.Catton wrote some years later that members of the Darwen club contributed a little each week ‘to keep Suter in the necessaries’.
In time he would be proclaimed – by Archie Hunter, among others – as the first professional to set foot on a football pitch.
This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojonpublished by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback.