In this edition of the ‘Blink and you’ll miss it series’, editor MARK GODFREY looks at a club who rode on the coat tails of football’s Victorian popularity boom, but very quickly realised their own limitations.
The ancient Cheshire town of Northwich – just to the south of Manchester – experienced a population explosion in the 1870s. Census records show that between 1871 and 1881, the town swelled dramatically; from just over a thousand inhabitants to 12 times that number. This coincided with the advent of unified codification of association football, and as new clubs sprang up around the country and the game’s popularity took off, Northwich Victoria was born in 1874.
Named after Queen Victoria – roughly mid-way through her reign as head of the British Empire – The Vics took up residence at their Drill Field ground a year later. Now no longer with us after its demolition in 2002, it sparked controversy a few years ago when local historians questioned claims – which the Football Association had long since accepted – that Drill Field was the oldest senior ground continuously played on by one club.
In order to compete with bigger clubs in the Cheshire/Manchester region, Northwich Victoria amalgamated with nearby Hartford and Davenham United in 1890. The new club retained the Northwich Victoria name but were obliged to relinquish their hold on the Cheshire Challenge Cup, which was then given to the town’s public library. This proved to be the springboard for a brief period of national prominence.
In 1892, the Football League – then just four years old – formed its Second Division, comprising of 12 clubs; one of which was Northwich Victoria. Another – Crewe Alexandra, local rival of Northwich Victoria – was named after the Queen’s daughter-in-law, Princess Alexandra.
Playing in the new tier of the Football League against sides with greater financial clout, forced the club to turn professional. They managed to finish in a respectable 7th position in the Second Division’s inaugural season. The champions were Small Heath, who would eventually become Birmingham City. The highlight of the season for The Vics was most likely the 4-1 home win over Crewe.
It was also during this season that Billy Meredith made his debut at Drill Field. The outside forward made such an impression during his two years with Northwich that he was snapped up by Manchester City in 1894. From then on, Meredith not only became a Welsh international, but is considered to be English football’s first superstar. His career in Manchester (with City and United) lasted another 30 years, until he finally hung up his boots aged 50 after almost 700 appearances. He is often remembered not only for his scintillating forward play, but also for his ignorance of a match-fixing coup that went on around him during his time with Manchester United.
When the Red Devils played Liverpool at Old Trafford in the last game of the 1914-15 season desperate to avoid relegation from the First Division, they bribed their opponents from Anfield to lose 2-0. In the subsequent investigation, Meredith was exonerated. He claimed to be unaware as to what was going on around him.
Northwich’s second and final season as a Football League club was significantly worse than the first. Finishing 15th and last, they won just three games all year, losing every single away game and taking severe beatings both on the road and at home. By now, the finances at Drill Field were stretched beyond their limits and the directors saw no alternative but to resign from the league in 1894 and return to their amateur roots.
The subsequent decades saw The Vics become a well-respected and reasonably prominent non-league club; defeating several league clubs in the FA Cup, reaching a couple of FA Trophy finals (1983 and 1996) and being one of the founder members of the Alliance Premier League (now the National League) in 1979, only being relegated from that level in 2005.
The 21st century has not been kind to Northwich Victoria, as financial problems, relocation and relegation have dogged them at various stages. And in 2012, the Northwich Victoria Supporters Trust formed a breakaway club called 1874 Northwich. Careful to avoid use of the name Victoria or Vics, they have since risen up the non-league ladder and now play in the ninth tier of English football, just one below the ex-Football League club that spawned them just five years ago.