The Pioneers: The story of Keighley AFC, 1886-89

By Rob Grillo

On October 1st 1886 the Keighley Herald newspaper reported that an association team had existed in the town the previous season, but that it had ‘winked up in a short time’. One can assume, therefore, that the side never got as far as playing any competitive fixtures. It was said that local board school teachers ‘not patronised as they ought to have been’ were behind the failed venture.

However, on October 6th of that year, a meeting at the Acorn Coffee House in Keighley led to the formation of a new club in town. Thus the first properly organised ‘Keighley AFC’ was born. The newly formed club managed to procure a field on Highfield Lane, adopting blue & white as their colours and making use of the Oddfellows Arms as their headquarters. A Mr.Loftus was appointed as secretary, and it was announced that several players already had experience at the game, having played in Lancashire, already an association hotspot at the time. Experience at which sport is debatable, as practice matches were marred by those same players unable to resist the temptation of handling the ball!

What was probably the club’s first ever competitive match was a 1-4 defeat at Meanwood (Leeds). Other defeats followed against Oulton and Meanwood (again), with only one victory reported – against their own second team. The second team did play other sides such as Murton & Varley Employees, and a number of one-off scratch sides were starting to experiment with the game too. A ‘Keighley Britannia’ team is reported to have defeated Newtown Free Wanderers to the tune of 23-1, although Newtown also played informal rugby games in and about town too.

The Keighley AFC first team defeated Earby 7-1 in February 1887, displaying improved form for the rest of the season. Whyte scored four in that game, with Town, Tempest and Drabble also on the scoresheet.

The line up against Earby was: J.Bowker (goal), J.Hodgson, T.Sexton – captain, (backs), F.Stott, A.Morris, E.Britton (half backs), JS Tempest, https://t.co/KFbUgU8mLv, JT Whyte, FA Drabble & J.Williamson (forwards).

The side rarely reported their defeats to the local press, and the next reported game was a 7-1 rout of Barrowford. Other victories over East Lancashire opposition followed, but a measure of their improvement during the season was a narrow 0-1 defeat at home to Burnley reserves in what was seen as a prestigious match for the town.

Lancashire clubs provided much of the opposition the following season. This is not surprising given the radid development of the game in that region, and the ease of access given that there was a direct rail link between Skipton and Colne at the time.

The 1887-88 season opened with a good 3-3 draw against future football league side Nelson FC, then considered one of the top ‘junior’ (in status, not age) clubs in Lancashire. Goalkeeper Bowker was reported as having a poor game against Nelson, this is the day when goalkeeping was a dangerous occupation! Meanwhile, the side had moved a short distance to a ground on West Lane, and had reportedly secured the services of Terry from Darlington and Foxall from Aston Villa.

On October 1887, Keighley travelled to Barnsley Charity Cup holders Ardsley, and went down to a single goal, although they were said to have objected to the fact that the ball was the wrong shape (‘elliptical’). A return fixture with Burnley fell foul of the weather before a match at York City before the end of October where Foxall is known to have broken his arm (result unknown).

The club’s second team also played regular fixtures against East Lancashire opponents as the club gradually raised its status and attendances increased. A fixture at Nelson late in October was cancelled when Keighley could not raise a team, but all worries were dispelled the following month when Leeds AFC travelled to West Lane and was roundly defeated to the tune of 5-0. The game had not really taken off in Leeds yet, and this particular Leeds AFC did not last long.

Travelling was obviously becoming a problem, only nine men made the journey to Staincross, near Barnsley late in November (0-1), and then one week later Leeds Clergy brought the same number to Keighley and went home without their prayers unanswered, defeated 3-1. The following week Keighley arrived late at Robin Hood Swifts (Colne) and as a result the game was shortened. Further games included a win and defeat against Earby (Whyte scored a hat-trick in the 4-1 win), a victory at Kirkstall against a poor Leeds AFC team, and a draw against Ardsley. Burnley reserves defeated Keighley 2-0 at home. Other games again went unreported.

Keighley AFC briefly found itself without a field to play on at the start of the 1888-89 season. Reports suggested that attendances were now on the wane as rugby continued as the ‘boom’ sport in town, and that many potential supporters avoided paying the entrance fee to the West Lane ground – once they had finally managed to secure the field again – by standing on a patch of land on Devonshire Street, which obviously overlooked the ground. A home game was played on the Keighley Parish Church rugby ground, which resulted in a single goal reverse to Morecambe. Morecambe to Keighley was a not inconsiderable distance to travel for a friendly fixture, so it must have been a happy journey home for the Lancastrians.

After a 1-4 reverse at Colne, Keighley returned to winning ways and defeated a newly formed Bradford AFC at Thornbury by 2 goals to nil, enjoying 5-1 victories over Burnley Druids and Burnley Rovers before Christmas, and Leeds Albion later in the season. Again, despite fixtures being played most week, many games were not reported to the local press, although one defeat that did make the pages of local newspapers was a 0-8 defeat at the Blue House ground of Sunderland Albion. Albion was a break-away club from the professional Sunderland FC and in due course went on to become one of the strongest non-league teams in the North East. That the Keighley players were prepared to travel that far, and indeed claim a fixture against such a strong club, is a reflection of the strength of the locals, who must surely have made a weekend of their journey northwards. It was claimed in the press at this time that Keighley AFC was equal to any other in Yorkshire, although this claim is probably not too far from the truth as the ‘association’ game had yet to take off in the county, lagging well behind the progress made in Lancashire and the North East.

One week after the Sunderland game, an improved Bradford AFC left West Lane with a 1-0 defeat, Whyte scoring possibly the last ever goal for the Keighley club.

On April 13th 1889 a West Riding County team took on their East Riding counterparts at the Recreation ground, Scarborough in front of 2000 spectators. The West Riding team consisted of players from just three clubs – Leeds, Leeds Albion and Keighley. In fact, no less than five of the team that won 3-2 played for Keighley: Hodgson, Sexton, Driver (who scored the opening goal), Drabble and Whyte.

Keighley’s claims to be the best in the county can therefore be borne out to be true. That the club suddenly disappeared is therefore disappointing, but perhaps not surprising given that attendances were often meagre compared to the four figure crowds expected at important local rugby games. The public had yet to catch on fully, and the first Keighley AFC died a quiet death in the summer of 1889, ironically just as organised league football was taking off. One wonders what would have happened if the club had thrived, the history of soccer in Keighley and district could have been very, very different.

It was another seven years before another attempt to form a soccer team in the town, and it was not until the early 1900s that Keighley’s public were prepared to accept the sport in anything like the numbers that were sufficient to sustain momentum. By then, the town had missed the boat.

Rob Grillo continues the story of Keighley soccer also on VINCIT

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You will find articles about a broad range of sports on VINCIT with new features published monthly. We welcome contributions about the sporting history of Bradford and are happy to feature any sport or club provided it has a local heritage.

A planned future article on VINCIT will feature the story of Bradford soccer in the 1880s and 1890s.

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