FEARGAL BRENNAN runs us through the history of a club whose Victorian morals makes them stand out from the rest, despite the resultant decline from their once lofty position.
A little trivia to begin. The oldest club currently still in the English Football League is Notts County (formed in 1862) and the first winner of the English Football League was Preston North End (winners in 1888-89).
As events they both stand out as significant, as do a myriad of other firsts for both the English and global game.
In this modern era where a select number of clubs, nay mega-clubs, are dominant, such throwbacks to success serve as a stark reminder to how football was in its earliest forms in Britain.
However, any lover of British football records should really cast their eyes north of the border at Queen’s Park of Glasgow for a real history lesson.
Formed in 1867, Queen’s Park were to very quickly become ground breakers within the Scottish game. Despite the impact that the club was to have on the infancy of Scottish football, their creation was markedly humble. The quote that adorns the club website (history), reads “tonight at half past eight o’clock a number of gentlemen met at No.3 Eglinton Terrace for the purpose of forming a football club.” This brief, matter-of-fact statement summarises the meeting headed by club president Mungo Ritchie and tells the story of a community looking to simply give football to its people, and nothing more.
A year later Queen’s Park played their first game, beating Thistle FC 2-0, as they began their long journey in association football.
In March 1873, they – along with eight other Scottish clubs – formed the Scottish Football Association, having already been members of the Football Association in London since 1870. Despite some alterations along the way, the Scottish FA, jointly formed by Queen’s Park, is still the same institution that governs Scottish football to this day.
As part of their role in formulating and creating the Scottish FA, Queen’s Park also took on the role of providing a Scottish national team. In fact, in Scotland’s debut international game against England in September 1872, Queen’s Park provided all eleven Scottish players for the 0-0 draw against the Auld Enemy. For the ‘return leg’ in London in March 1873, Scotland were beaten 4-2, with seven of those in the team for that game Queen’s Park players, all selected by club captain Robert Gardner. In contrast, the English team that day had representatives from eight different clubs, thus demonstrating Queen’s Park’s prominence in Scottish football.
Symbolically, the national team for those games also sported Queen’s Park’s original dark blue jerseys, which the national side continues to wear today. This was another example of Queen’s Park’s pioneering role in the early history of Scottish football. Perhaps in deference to the new national team, the members at Queen’s Park voted to change the club colours just six months later to the black and white inch striped jerseys that inspired their nickname – The Spiders – as it is said to resemble a spider’s web.
In the same year as the colour change, Queen’s – with the other founder members of the Scottish FA – created the Scottish Cup; the Hoops won the inaugural version of the competition in 1874.
Indeed, the latter part of the nineteenth century proved to be a period of dominance for Queen’s Park, winning the Scottish Cup ten times between 1874 and 1893, a record only bested since by Celtic and Rangers.
Curiously, during this period Queen’s Park also competed in the English FA Cup as did Third Lanark, Partick Thistle, Hearts, Rangers, Cowlairs, Renton and Gretna – the latter’s participation came almost a century after the SFA’s ban on Scottish clubs participating in the FA Cup because – due to their location on the England/Scotland border – it was more convenient to play in England’s Northern League; a Berwick Rangers situation in reverse, if you will. Queen’s, however, are the only Scottish club to reach the final, finishing as runners-up to Blackburn Rovers in both 1884 and 1885.
As standard bearers of the Scottish game, Queen’s Park were invited to play in the FA Cup from 1872, however, financial constraints restricted them to just one appearance prior to the 1883-84 season.
It was at this point, after years of dominance in the Scottish Cup, that the club wanted to test themselves against England’s best. Their first full campaign was an eye-opener for those English sides that faced them as they hammered established teams such as Crewe Alexandra (10-0), Aston Villa (6-1) and Blackburn Olympic (4-0) en route to their final defeat. The following season continued in the same vein, as they beat both Notts County and Nottingham Forest on their way to another runners-up finish.
Queen’s Park had established themselves as a force, not just within Scotland, but across Britain with these victories over clubs with much greater resources. However, in the following two seasons in the FA Cup the club failed to match these achievements and in 1887 the Scottish FA banned all member teams from playing in English competitions, extinguishing any chance of Queen’s Park ever winning the trophy.
Despite their success in Scotland, the turn of the century was to see a real change in the club’s fortunes as domestic football continued its process of significant change.
In 1890, the Scottish Football League was formed, becoming a professional structure in 1893. Queen’s Park declined an invitation to join as they were determined to adhere to their strict amateur principals.
This decision to remain as an amateur club was a fundamental one for Queen’s Park, their initial opposition was borne out of concern that smaller clubs would eventually be driven out of the League through the advent of professionalism. Given their role as early governors of the game it would have been hypocritical of the club to support a move that they deemed as potentially harmful.
However, the decision to abstain from the newly formed League left them in a difficult position, as regular football against quality opposition was difficult to come by, with most ‘top’ clubs now League members.
Therefore, at the start of the 1900-01 season Queen’s Park swapped the Glasgow League for the professional Scottish Football League – joining Division One – but preserving their amateur status in the process.
Certain literature on the history of the club states that Queen’s Park believed that, due to its position as a ‘premier’ Scottish club, their ability to beat acclaimed English sides in the past, and their strong position within the Scottish FA, they could survive as amateurs. In fact, other members of the Scottish FA encouraged the club to alter its stance, warning that they could descend into oblivion, such was the chasm between professional and amateur outlooks.
Retaining their code of ‘amateurism’, which Queen’s Park still abide by to this day, means that the club holds not only the proud record of the oldest football club in the country, but also the only amateur side in the current SPFL.
The move in 1900, though necessary, was to prove a step into the football wilderness for Queen’s Park as they struggled within the blossoming professional game. Despite the league and its members actively encouraging Queen’s Park’s inclusion, the club appeared to be constantly fighting against the tide. Indeed, the League made every effort to help a club they held with significant respect, including not sanctioning any amateur players leaving mid-season and extending Queen’s Park’s player registration periods. In fact, they frequently looked in danger of relegation between 1910 and 1920, yet the League looked favourably upon them, as they were unwilling to see one of the pioneers of Scottish football fall out of the top division. However, the constant loss of players, financial pressures and a sustained increase in the quality of opposing teams, meant that Queen’s Park could hold on no longer and they were eventually relegated to Division Two in 1922.
They returned to the top division immediately, but relegation was to strike again in 1939 and Queen’s Park slipped down to the Southern League as Britain entered into World War II.
Following the end of the conflict, many of the club’s players returned to Hampden Park, the ground that Queen’s Park have shared with the national team since 1904 (Queen’s Park being the owners).
They began the slow process of rebuilding the club, involving a period of yo-yoing between the divisions before eventually winning the First Division (second tier) in the 1955-56 season, their first major trophy since winning the same competition 33 years earlier.
The club did experience a slight renaissance in the late 70s, as ex-player Eddie Hunter took over as boss at the start of the 1979-80 season. Under his leadership Queen’s Park were promoted back into the Scottish First Division. A significant reason for this was Hunter’s moulding of the talent that existed at the club into a consistently performing unit, something several managers had failed to achieve during the 1970s. Departures of the best players were inevitable and proved to be definitive for Queen’s Park, as the club survived just two seasons in Division One before being relegated in 1983.
The 80s were to be a time of frustration and near-misses at Hampden Park, as the club consistently finished within the play-off mix, but ultimately never managed to achieve their goal of promotion.
Hunter was eventually removed from his position in 1994, and the club entered another period of uncertainty, with three managers between 1994 and 1998.
With the restructuring of the Scottish Football League in 1994, Queen’s Park found themselves in Division Three, however, a change in the club’s constitution was to have a real effect on their fortunes.
Since its formation in the nineteenth century, Queen’s Park had steadfastly refused to compromise on their completely amateur status, despite periods of external pressure and poor performance; but shortly before the appointment of John McCormack as boss in July 1998, the club agreed to make some concessions on their amateurism, allowing for the signing of ex-professionals and loanees, as long as they were not paid by the club.
McCormack quickly utilised this change in club policy, signing a number of new players who led the charge to promotion back to Division Two in 1999-2000.
However, this was to be yet another false dawn for Scotland’s oldest club, as they were relegated within a season and a number of their key players exited.
Another period in the lower league wilderness followed, including the club finishing at the very bottom of the Scottish Football League in 2002, before the appointment of Billy Stark as manager in 2004.
Stark was to revolutionise things at the club, placing faith in the club’s young players and finishing fourth in his debut 2004-05 season. Stark’s approach to Queen’s Park was to eventually pay dividends as the club were promoted via the play-offs in 2006-07 after beating East Fife. The season was also memorable for the fans who saw the team knock SPL side Aberdeen out of the Scottish League Cup.
In recent seasons, Queen’s have reached the Division Three play-offs three times, including a second place League finish behind Rangers in 2012-13; each time falling short in crucial matches. During that time a raft of players have moved on to professional clubs, most notably current Scotland international Andrew Robertson to Dundee United (now with Hull City in the Premier League), forcing the club to rebuild.
Nevertheless, at Queen’s Park hope does spring eternal; their play-off victory over Clyde in the 2015-16 season, signalled a return to Division Two and a chance to continue their legacy.
The achievements of Queen’s Park when measured in terms of trophies from 1956 onwards are meagre in comparison to both Celtic and Rangers (and most everyone else for that matter) but following its dominance in the late nineteenth century, Queen’s Park have never been a club obsessed with the pursuit of success.
Indeed, in their initial opposition to league football in the 1890s the club said a move would be against the spirit of the game, playing football for the wrong reasons. This mantra is one that is ingrained within the club; they have foregone the potential to climb the leagues, choosing instead to stay true to their principles rather than try to hop aboard the gravy train.
Perhaps the best example of their spirit is the retention of ownership of Hampden Park. Queen’s Park are happy to share the ground with the national team, a nod to their role in creating the team over a century ago, however, they see no need to downsize in a bid to elevate themselves. They keep Hampden as a sign of their prestige, as the stadium itself – much like their amateur status – is a symbol of what the club stands for.
Celtic and Rangers are by far the dominant teams in Glasgow, yet Queen’s Park retains a loyal fan base, of which around 500-750 attend home games despite their lowly position. The reasons for this affiliation with the club are numerous, with family ties and local proximity playing a role. But alongside this, fans within the local community feel connected to the club through its history, its sense of community and refreshing set of values in the modern era. A club that appreciates its fans on a personal level is a rarity in contemporary football and Queen’s Park offers supporters a chance to be a part of something unique, and their fans revel in that opportunity. Parkhead and Ibrox will have their European nights, but watching Queen’s Park at Hampden (or even Lesser Hampden next door) is special for very different reasons.
Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, and indeed into the twenty first, the club has consistently remodelled itself, to cope with exits, financial issues and a number of other factors that would have killed off most professional sides.
However, as a club it finds a point of identity with loyalty to supporters and playing football for the same pleasure it provided their predecessors with over a century ago. They look to embody the club’s mantra of ‘ludere causa lundendi/for the love of the game’.
Queen’s Park have long ceased to be the most high-profile club in Scotland, or even in Glasgow, but their name has a sense of reverence for Scottish football fans. A club that is synonymous with the development of the game in Scotland and one whose preservation remains important.
FEARGAL BRENNAN – @FeargalBren