In the beginning - Burnley FC 1880 to 1890

Last updated : 12 June 2013 By Tony Scholes

There were a number of clubs formed to play rugby union in the 1870s and one club which took the name Burnley Rovers was one of them.

Association Football, to give it its full name, was becoming established and the Lancashire Football Association had been formed but rugby remained the number one sport in Burnley.

Our next door neighbours Padiham had made the switch in the late 1870s but it would be two years later before the club we now support decided to make a similar change.

The Bull Hotel where the change of code was agreed on 18th May 1882

There were a number of clubs in the town who were all making the move and the then Burnley Rovers played their first game with the round ball late in 1881. The change had been made and on 18th May in the following year the decision to change code was formally agreed at a meeting at the Bull Hotel, situated on the corner of Manchester Road and St. James Street.

The gentlemen involved could never have known that the result of their decision would be to have such an effect on the lives of so many of us over 130 years later.

It wasn’t just Burnley Rovers who made this change, there were teams throughout the borough making the same decision and the Calder Vale based Rovers were by no means the biggest team in the town, they were just one of many and most of them, apart from those in more outlying areas carried the town’s name.

The Bull Hotel decision was soon followed by two more of equal importance and significance. The first was to drop ‘Rovers’ from the name, a decision cherished by the modern day supporter, and in 1883 they accepted an invitation from the town’s leading cricketers Burnley Cricket Club to join them on their land at Turf Moor.

The now Burnley Football Club moved to Turf Moor in January 1883 and only one club, Preston North End, have been at their current ground longer than Burnley.

Burnley, its is believed, played in a pale blue and white kit in those early days – so there would certainly have been no Clarets Mad around at the time – and initially, just as was the case with the rugby, all the fixtures were mere friendly games.

We were soon rebels too and we took on the Football Association whose rules would not permit any kind of professionalism. Burnley paid some of their players and that was very much in breach of those FA rules. Because of this we had to field a complete reserve team of amateurs in an FA Cup tie against Darwen. It resulted in an 11-0 loss which remains the club’s heaviest ever defeat.

Burnley had led a group of other clubs in forming a breakaway called the British Football Association and eventually they forced the FA’s hands and from the summer of 1885 the governing body had no option but to allow clubs to pay their players.

With the new rules Burnley were quick to establish themselves as the top club in the town and there were rumours that the better players were being paid as much as £2 per week with the lesser players also earning around 5/- per week.

Burnley needed some support. The club's main income was coming from donations from Charles Massey but the townsfolk gave them the support they needed as the team got better and better due to the ability to pay decent wages.

Football was soon to change and the professional clubs of Lancashire and the Midlands formed the first ever league in 1888 – the birth of The Football League. Such was the stature of Burnley Football Club by then that it was invited to be part of this league and again those committee members responsible made the correct decision and accepted the invitation to become one of the twelve founder members of the new league.

It must have been an exciting time although for Burnley it didn’t get off to the best of starts with the team suffering a 5-2 defeat in the first ever league game at Preston. Most of us can remember the team from the last game but how many can recall Burnley’s first ever team for a league game?

It read Smith, Lang, Bury, Abrams, Friel, Keenan, Brady, Tait, Poland, Gallocher, Yates. The goalscorers were Gallocher and Poland scored our goals.

A week later we recorded our first victory against Bolton. Having trailed 3-0 we went on to beat them 4-3 with Poland again on the scoresheet and Tait getting a couple.

The most memorable result, and for all the wrong reasons, was the 7-1 home defeat against Blackburn. Poland, a centre forward, played in goal that day after the regular goalkeeper had emigrated to Australia. It would be another 114 seasons before Burnley again conceded that many goals in a home league game.

The season was no great success, we finished in ninth place in the twelve team league but there was recognition of one of our players Jack Yates. He was called up by England and made his international debut against Ireland in March 1889.

He made an impression too, scoring a hat trick in a 6-1 win in the game played at Anfield, then the home of Everton. It was a fantastic start to his international career but it never went on from there and he was never selected again. He remains the only England player to average three goals per game.

The 1889/90 Lancashire Cup winning team

The following season, and the last full season in the decade, was heading for disaster when we drew four and lost thirteen of the first seventeen games. We were adrift at the bottom with only five games to go but then a change of form lifted us one place.

We won the next four games and drew the last one, scoring eighteen goals into the bargain, and it was vital. It left Stoke bottom and they became the first ever team to be relegated and were replaced by Sunderland.

Burnley Football Club were well and truly on their way and if you really needed any further proof, we won our first ever trophy in the 1889/90 season, lifting the Lancashire Cup. And who did we beat? You’ve guessed it, it was Blackburn and the score was 2-0 with Alex Stewart scoring both goals.