The Original Reds

Chapter 13 – 1896/97

‘Does the Association not want the Workington Club to be successful? Is there a conspiracy against the men in Red? Certainly, every small reason or excuse is grasped with relish in order to put unwarranted obstacles in their way’ – Workington Star.

Repeating the success of the previous season was always going to be difficult, but nobody could have foreseen just how difficult, and tragically, things were to turn out.

The Senior League was reduced to just seven teams, as although Frizington White Star had joined, both Imperial Rovers and Carlisle City had left. 

After beating Maryport in an opening friendly, Workington began their league season on the 12th September with a home match against Keswick. Things didn’t start well, with Keswick arriving late, and, as a result, the second half was reduced to just thirty-two minutes. Captain Harry Landells had an eventful game, scoring the Reds goal in a 1-1 draw, but also missing a penalty. Workington lined up as follows:
Cassidy: Dawson, Harwood, Jones, Landells, Madden, Small, Smith, Swift, Waite and Wildgoose.

The following week, for a home match against Black Diamonds, the Workington team showed four changes, including McGuirk taking his place in goal. The changes certainly didn’t work, as Workington suffered only their second, but heaviest, defeat in league football to date. The final score of 5-1 was as shocking as it was unexpected.

Things could only get better and, for a while, they did. Workington won their next four league matches, although, other than a 5-2 victory at Frizington, they were far from convincing. John Fisher was however the hero in a home match against Moss Bay, scoring all of Workington’s goals in a 3-2 win.

Punctuality was clearly not at the top of visiting clubs’ priorities, as, following the earlier issue with Keswick, the home match with Maryport was reduced to just thirty-five minutes each way due to the visitor’s late arrival.

The weather also played its part in disrupting Workington’s season, with heavy rain causing the league match at Distington to be abandoned after seventy minutes.

In the FA Cup, for the third time in four seasons, Workington were drawn to face Southport Central. The match took place on the 31st October, at Southport, and resulted in a 2-0 defeat for the Reds.

Unbelievably there was yet another late arrival issue in Workington’s next home match against Frizington Rovers. The away team won 2-1, but Workington appealed the result on the basis that the match finished early due to Frizington’s late arrival. The Association committee, strangely in light of other decisions, dismissed the appeal.

A 2-1 away win at Moss Bay, and a 5-3 win at Keswick, saw Workington reach the New Year still in with a decent chance of retaining their league title. However, all that was to change very quickly.

The first blow came with the news that Maryport had withdrawn from the league, and all of their results, including the Reds 2-1 victory in November, were declared void. This was followed by the league suspending Distington for breaking a number of fixtures, and their results were also declared void.

Finally, the league heard an appeal by Frizington against their 5-2 defeat by Workington in October. The reasons for the appeal were not clear, but they were sufficient for the league to rule in their favour, and the match was ordered to be replayed.

All of this resulted in three of Workington’s six league victories being wiped out, and leaving their chances of retaining the league title in tatters.

After losing another league match, at home to Black Diamonds in January (in a match postponed from earlier in the season), Carlisle City visited Ashfield on 16th January for a friendly fixture. What happened on that day could be seen as a portent of what was to occur later. The match was ‘competitive’ and became increasingly so as Workington built up a 3-0 lead. After seventy minutes Carlisle had a man sent off, and that was the end of the game! Two other Carlisle players had walked off in sympathy, and the ref decided enough was enough.

With the league gone, the Reds were left to concentrate on the two remaining cup competitions.

After receiving a bye in the first round of the County Cup, Workington required extra time against Moss Bay before goals from Claridge, R. Smith and J. Smith saw them through to the semi-finals.

The following week, 20th February, saw Workington play their first match in the Town Championship. The rules of the competition had been changed, and it now consisted of the town’s three senior teams, Workington, Moss Bay and Black Diamonds, playing each other twice in a league format. The Reds first match, at Black Diamonds, was a disaster, and ended in a 4-0 defeat.

The return fixture, a fortnight later, saw Workington turn the tables by winning 3-0, which meant that everything depended on the matches against Moss Bay.

Before playing the first of these matches, the Reds faced Distington in the County Cup semi-final. Despite being suspended from the league, Distington were allowed to play in the cup. The match was held at Moss Bay, and was a personal triumph for the Reds Robert Smith, who scored no less than five of the Reds goals in a 6-0 win. 

The next match was the away game against Moss Bay in the Town Championship. The result was a one all draw, which was not what either club wanted. However, Workington appealed the result on the basis that Moss Bay had fielded two unqualified players. The rules of the competition said that only players actually living in the town were eligible to play, and Moss Bay agreed that two of their players had recently moved out of the town. Despite this admission the Reds appeal was, amazingly, dismissed! Workington now had to win their last match, at home to Moss Bay, to win and retain the championship.

Before the deciding game with Moss Bay, on the 27th March Workington travelled to play Carlisle City, for the second season running, in the County Cup final. Strangely the match was to take place, yet again, on Carlisle’s Warwick Road Rugby Ground, which, for a Workington versus Carlisle game, cannot surely be said to be a neutral venue!

The Workington team that lined up in the final was:
McGuirk: Dawson, Landells, Swift, Waite, Fisher, Claridge, Bailiff, R. Smith, Harwood and J. Smith

‘Hothy’ Brown again took his place in Carlisle’s side against his old club. Recent heavy rain had left the pitch very wet, and it cut up badly as the match went on. In addition, there was said to have been a strong wind throughout. The conditions however did not seem to bother the Reds, who were said to have been the better team, and two goals from Claridge, together with one from each of the Smiths, saw them retain the cup. The final score of 4-2 did not, by all accounts, flatter them.

The decision was made to present the cup, on the pitch, immediately after the game had finished. This turned out to be a grave mistake. As the cup was handed over a large crowd gathered around both the Workington players and the presentation party, and the situation turned ugly. What started as shouting and swearing quickly turned to the throwing of clods of earth and other objects toward the players.

The Carlisle team had already left the pitch and retired to the changing rooms, leaving the Workington team isolated and the target of an increasingly hostile crowd. The trophy was handed by captain Landells to the secretary of the County Association for safe keeping, and he then led the team, with difficulty, out of the ground and to their waiting Wagonette. Objects continued to be thrown, and the players were being physically assaulted. Even when they reached their transport the growing mob tried to pull the players out of their wagon. As they made their way along the Warwick Road the street was lined with people who continued to attack the players and throw anything they could find at them. Several players were hit, including John Fisher, who was hit twice on the temple by thrown stones. This stunned him, and other players pulled him to the floor of the wagon to protect him from further injury.

When the team eventually reached the Viaduct Hotel, where they were to get changed, it was seen, by a correspondent from the Workington Star, that most Workington players had received injuries: one had a two inch cut to his head, one had ‘a slit nose’, another had a cut to his cheek, and one had ‘a lump on his head over which his cap would not stretch’. It is believed the latter was in fact John Fisher as, despite being hit on the head at least twice, witnesses specifically do not mention that he received any cuts.

Eventually returning to the safety of Workington, the team were met by a friendly, cheering crowd, as well as the Workington Volunteer Artillery Band, who accompanied them to a reception at the Old Crown.

At first John Fisher’s injuries were not thought to be serious, and indeed he returned to work, as an iron worker at the Derwent works, the following Monday. However, by the end of the week, he began to feel extremely ill and had to stop work. It appears that he sought medical attention in July as his condition worsened, complaining of severe head pain. Within a week he became confined to bed, and eventually became completely paralysed on his left side, and partially paralysed on his right side.

John Fisher died in the early hours of the 20th November 1897, as a direct result of the injuries he received following the cup final some eight months earlier. He died just a week before his twenty-first birthday.

It was harrowing to read the transcript of the inquest into John Fisher’s death, especially the evidence given by his father, who had to watch his son’s gradual deterioration and ultimate death. The cause of death was given as ‘severe brain injury, consistent with being struck with a stone’, and the verdict of the inquest jury was one of ‘manslaughter by person or persons unknown’. There was criticism at the inquest of the Policing of the match, which had consisted of the presence of just one, possibly two, Constables. The Police view of what had happened was that there had been considerable gambling on the result of the game, and the trouble had possibly been caused by disgruntled punters.

Nobody was ever prosecuted in connection with John Fisher’s death.

It seems irrelevant under the circumstances, but Workington had to fulfil their remaining fixtures to complete the season. On the 3rd of April, the week after the Cup Final, Workington faced Moss Bay, at home, in their final Town Championship match. Needing a win to retain the trophy, the Reds could only manage a goalless draw.

There then followed a home friendly against a Sunderland ‘A’ side, which resulted in a 2-0 defeat, before the final match of the season on the 24th April. This was the away league match against Frizington White Star, the original of which Workington had won 5-2 in October before the league upheld an appeal by Frizington and ordered a replay.

As if to make a point, and apart from McGuirk, Landells and Waite, Workington fielded their entire reserve side in what was described as ‘a farce’. A player called Hallam, making his only ever appearance for the Reds first team, scored, but Frizington’s 9-1 victory represented Workington’s heaviest ever defeat to another local side.

So, the season ended with Workington retaining the County Cup, but only finishing third in the league, and tragically losing one of their most promising young players.

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