Every football historian knows the story. On 12 September 1885, Arbroath played in the opening round of the Scottish Cup against Aberdeen-based Bon Accord, and the official scoreline reads as 36-0. Aside from games widely accepted to have been thrown by the opposition for a variety of nefarious reasons, the result remains the largest margin of victory in a professional football match around the globe. But why so heavy a defeat?
These were the very infant days of the game and, at the time, any Scottish club could enter the cup. Arbroath were hardly veteran campaigners – the club was only formed in 1878 – but Bon Accord were relative novices, sitting at just a year old. There’s also a story that the competition entry forms were sent to the wrong address, arriving instead at the home of Orion Cricket Club, who then entered a team that would consider any accumulated endeavours achieving a mere 36 as a pretty poor effort.
It’s a nice story, but the dates of the club’s formation of a football team suggest it’s a myth. It may just have been that the Bon Accord that turned up at Arbroath’s Gayfield Park with just nine players, no goalkeeper and no standard kit were simply a minor club who were soundly beaten by a professional outfit.
Defender Andrew Lornie, a gas-fitter by trade, was the unfortunate selection amongst their number to be placed between the sticks, and the other gaps in the side were reportedly filled with spectators from the crowd. Some 90 minutes later, the game was written into the record books when referee Dave Stormont officially recorded the outcome as three dozen goals to the home side without reply.
The name Bon Accord was apparently selected by the nascent football club to commemorate the rallying call used during in the storming of Aberdeen Castle by William Wallace and his army late in the 13th century during the Wars of Scottish Independence. It’s perhaps a little ironic, therefore, that, unlike in the earlier famous encounter, the Arbroath forwards were hardly in need of heroic assaults to win the day.
There’s an interesting twist to this tale, though, perhaps far less known than the result at Gayfield Park. It suggests that 12 September was a particularly difficult day for football clubs based in Aberdeen. Less than 20 miles away from Arbroath, in Dundee, another team from the city where the Dee and the Don enter the sea were fighting a losing battle as well. Dundee Harp faced Aberdeen Rovers in a game that could, and perhaps should, have eclipsed Arbroath’s exploits, and painted an entirely different picture of the history of football.
Following the lead of a similar community in Edinburgh, which led to the formation of Hibernian Football Club, Dundee Harp was formed in 1879 by the large Roman Catholic population of Irish descent based in the Tayside area, as a branch of the Catholic Young Men’s Society based in the Tay Street Halls. Their original colours were green and white, but by the time of the game against Aberdeen Rovers, this had evolved into an all-green shirt.
In their seven-year existence up until September 1885, Harp had enjoyed a fairly nomadic history. Their first home, which ran until 1881, had been Magdalen Green, near the Tay Bridge, before a further two-year stay at Tayside Park and then a brief visit to Viewforth Park. Eventually they moved to what became known as Harp Athletic Grounds, where the game against Aberdeen Rovers took place.
As they mainly competed in regional competitions around the East of Scotland, the name of Dundee Harp wasn’t widely known but, had it not been for the intervention of the club secretary at the time, a man whose name is now lost in the swirling mists of time, it may well have been that Dundee Harp was the answer to the perennial football quiz question about the largest margin of victory in a professional game, rather than Arbroath.
The years between the mid-1880s and the turn of the decade saw Harp claim a number of honours around the area and, as with the shootout for goals galore on that Scottish Cup day, their main rivals were Arbroath. Both clubs were founding members of the Forfarshire Football Association in 1883, comprising 18 clubs of which no less a dozen were based in the city of Dundee. Such compression of clubs led to the Dundee Charity Cup being a fiercely competitive competition.
A couple of years before that day in September 1885, Harps had won the Dundee Charity Cup and finished as runners-up in the inaugural Forfarshire Cup, losing to Arbroath 2-1 in a controversial final that was deemed to be completed after just 85 minutes when a crowd invasion precluded its full run of time. In the following season, it was Harp’s turn to lift the trophy. Revenge was gained for the previous season’s farrago when they eliminated Arbroath in the semi-finals before defeating another club from the same city to win the trophy, running up a remarkable 15-1 victory.
The team that faced Aberdeen Rovers had established a decent cup pedigree, something they would go on to enhance in the following few years. In that 1885/86 season, they retained both cups, beating Arbroath 5-3 in the Forfarshire Cup Final, and won the trophy for a further successive time the following year, finishing as runners-up in the Dundee Charity Cup.
In 1889, they would reach the city final once more, but this time, in strange circumstances, would end up as neither winners or runners-up. A 2-2 draw with Wanderers in the final remained unresolved, as a request by each club to be awarded a third of the gate money for any replay was refused.
If that seems a trifle strange compared to contemporary times, it must be remembered that these were very much the nascent days of organised football across Britain with occasions such as this, and large margins of victory, hardly unusual. All of which takes us back to the game on 12 September at East Dock Street Park.
One of the reasons cited for Harp’s increasing dominance of football in the area was Tom O’Kane. The full-back was the son of an Irishman and a Kirkaldy mother who had joined Arbroath a few years earlier. He had been part of the team that triumphed in the inaugural Forfarshire Cup for the club, but in September 1885, he moved to join Dundee Harp, taking his cup winners medal with him just in time to make his debut for the club in a certain Scottish Cup encounter with Aberdeen Rovers.
It was a move hardly likely to endear O’Kane to supporters of Arbroath, and reports suggest that whenever the two sides met, a particularly raucous reception would be reserved for the former player. For all that, it seems that O’Kane weathered such storms with a fairly phlegmatic demeanour and continued to live in Arbroath throughout his time playing for Dundee Harp.
The Forfarshire Cup provided a private battlefield for the rivalry between Arbroath and Dundee Harp, but when the Scottish Cup was incepted, it opened up a much wider field of conflict, where both clubs discovered that outside of their previously inured localised rivalry, there were plenty of other ambitious clubs willing to trade metaphoric blows with them.
A third-round game for Arbroath in 1878/79 and a similar run for Harp four years later was the zenith of their early endeavours, but when the clubs were drawn against each other at the same stage the following year, at least one would progress. A draw in Arbroath was settled by a 2-1 reply victory for the home team in Dundee, but a five-goal defeat for Harps in the next round minimised any bragging rights.
The following term saw another derby clash between the two as they came out of the hat together in the first round of the cup as Arbroath gained revenge. During the following season, the two clubs would be kept apart in the first-round draw, with each facing Aberdeen-based opposition. Arbroath would entertain Bon Accord and Dundee Harp would host Aberdeen Rovers. The total number of goals scored across both would pass 70, but the final tally remains in doubt.
By this time, the Scottish Cup had become an increasingly important trophy to pursue, but the small matter of dominating your own back yard still had the siren calls of urgency, and it could be argued that the Harp move to take O’Kane down the road to Dundee would serve both purposes, but perhaps with a particular regard to the latter.
Inducements made to the player in order to encourage the move have been disputed between reports, but there’s little doubt that the Irish element in his parentage would have been emphasised, quite probably along with undisclosed financial incentives. Whatever the value of the persuasion deployed, however, it had the desired result and O’Kane donned the Harp green shirt for the 1885/86 season, meaning he would advance the club’s aspiration – at the same time, diminishing those of Arbroath, a particularly beneficial bonus in the Forfarshire Cup, which Harp would secure later in the term.
When the first-round draw was made, O’Kane may well have been relieved that he would not be facing his old teammates. Little did he know, however, that the two clubs would be locked in combat of a different kind. Both Aberdeen clubs were deemed unlikely to give either Arbroath or Harp any serious competition, with local press suggesting double figures may even be reached, but none probably contemplated any serious regard for 30-odd goals apiece.
As with their fellow sacrificial lambs up the road in Arbroath, Aberdeen Rovers arrived in Dundee with a less than full strength complement of players, and were compelled to face Harp with just ten men. While Arbroath were filling their boots up the road, the Dundee team launched into their visitors with gusto. By half-time they were 16 goals to the good and Tom O’Kane must have been enjoying his debut.
The problem with such a deluge of goals – and even more followed after the break – is that inevitably maintaining an accurate scoreline becomes difficult. The fact that the home team hadn’t conceded was clear enough, but the tally at the other end was less so. It’s reported that the referee remarked to a club official how difficult it had been to keep up to speed with the rapidly rising number of goals, but had counted 37. As things would transpire, what probably seemed like a simple difference of opinion would later lead to a place in history being scorned when the official disputed the figure, asserting it had been a mere 35, supported by a list of the individual goal scorers he had noted down.
His tally had included ten for the team captain, D’Arcy Junior, with D’Arcy Senior probably somewhat embarrassed to have merely bagged a single strike. McGirl was credited with a double hat-trick, while Murphy bagged five, Murray four, and Neill, Rock and Lees plundered a hat-trick each. The amended total was agreed and passed to the Harp secretary to telegraph to Scottish FA headquarters.
The difference seemed inconsequential at the time. Even in the early days of Scottish football when large winning margins were not that unusual in the oft unequal confrontations that took place, thoughts were that it may be a record tally. No-one knew of the ramifications at the time, but later it would become clear that the unknown club official’s intervention had in fact talked Dundee Harp out of the football record books.
Delighted with both his debut and his new team’s triumph, O’Kane offered to treat his teammates and club officials to supper at a local pub where, perhaps after the imbibing of a few glasses of beer, he hit on the idea of ramping up the celebrations by sending a telegram to his old club ribbing them about the scoreline and the success the club had enjoyed. In somewhat sensible tones, the telegram was dictated and sent.
Within an hour, Arbroath had replied in equally staid terms congratulating Harp on their success, but asserting that Arbroath had gone one better, and notched a 36-0 victory. The message was received with hilarity by the group who had, by now, been enjoying the beverages available for some time. No-one took it seriously that the response from 40 miles up the road may well have been accurate, rather than mere jest.
Sometime later, O’Kane travelled back to his Arbroath home by train, and arriving at the station fell into conversation with a local police officer. A discussion about the number goals scored at a particular game ensued, and it quickly became clear to the returning O’Kane that the local Bobby wasn’t referring to his game but the one at Gayfield Park. When, with the terrible fact dropping on him like a wet blanket, he was told that the final score had been Arbroath 36-0 Bon Accord, he realised that the telegram received back in Dundee had been accurate.
The following day, O’Kane returned to Dundee and tracked down the Harp club officials, insisting they should contact the referee and tell him that they had made a mistake and his tally of 37 was correct. It was a forlorn quest. When the referee was contacted, it quickly became clear that with the result had been lodged with the FA and nothing could be done to change the matter. The record belonged to Arbroath – and would stay that way.
A dozen weeks later came Harp’s 5-3 triumph in the Forfarshire Cup final. It was a revenge of sorts, although a Pyrrhic one. To have come so close to footballing immortality and then to have probably – one cannot be sure of the true result in either of the games – have it dashed away by an overly zealous club official must’ve haunted Dundee Harp and for some time, especially to have lost out to local rivals.
Rather than offer sympathy to the men in green who may have been the true record holders on that day, it may be more apposite to spare a thought for the clubs on the receiving end. Aberdeen Rovers took a fearful beating and probably cared little about the final tally, but their embarrassment would be minuscule compared to that endured by Bon Accord, who forever will be the club that suffered the biggest defeat in football history.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze