The tale of Queen’s Park: the early innovators who became last of the amateurs

The tale of Queen’s Park: the early innovators who became last of the amateurs

The year is 1872. Ulysses S. Grant is elected president of the US, Yellowstone becomes the world’s first national park, and the first case of Horse Flu is reported in Toronto, Canada, which will substantially disrupt life in North America by mid-December.

Meanwhile, on 30 November, the first international association football match to be retrospectively recognized by FIFA as “official” takes place at Hamilton Crescent, Glasgow, between Scotland and England. And remarkably, the whole Scottish team is comprised of players from just one single club.

If someone says the word Glasgow to you, what images does it conjure up as a football fan? I am guessing the Old Firm – Celtic vs Rangers, Green vs Blue, Catholic vs Protestant – the two historically strongest teams in Scotland involved in one of the world’s most passionate derbies. Two teams which, while sworn enemies, need each other to feed off, as seen during the recent years when Rangers’ absence from the top flight resulted in the loss of this great match-up.

What you might not be aware of, however, is that halfway between the famous theatres of Ibrox and Celtic Park, to the south, sits the 52,000-capacity Hampden Park, home of the national team, which was built in 1903 and was the biggest stadium in the world at the time.

Hampden Park was in fact the third stadium built in the area under that name. The very first was initially used in October 1873 by the oldest club in Scottish football. That club wasn’t Celtic or Rangers but a team nicknamed The Spiders, who were formed way back in 1867, making them the oldest club in the world outside of England and Wales. That club is Queen’s Park.

Queen’s Park have an important role to play in the history and development of the modern game that we know and love. In those days, they dominated Scottish football. Indeed, the early playing rules in Scotland were developed at Queen’s Park. The were also the instigators of the Scottish Football Association and the first-ever winners of the Scottish Cup in 1874.

As mentioned, 1872 saw the maiden game between Scotland and England, the former fielding 11 players all from the same team: you guessed it, Queen’s Park. The game ended 0-0 and had the great claim that the two teams used the following formations: Scotland went 2-2-6 while England fielded a more attacking 1-1-8. How the game ended 0-0 with those formations is anyone’s guess.

Highlighted by such formations, early football tactics were pretty rudimentary. It often consisted of giving the ball to one player, who then rushed upfield surrounded by teammates in a battering ram formation more similar to what we now recognise as rugby. But yet again, Queen’s Park moved the game forward. It was there that a revolutionary new tactic was invented. What if, instead of just charging with the ball until tackled, one passed the ball to a colleague when challenged?

This idea of combining together as a team, which led to the term “combination football”, helped Scottish football lead the way. Queen’s Park were the Barcelona of the 1870s, with this sharp, alien-like, movement of the ball. In March 1872, the Spiders were drawn to play against Wanderers in the FA Cup – Scottish teams took part in this famous competition until 1887 – and crushed them 5-0. A description of the game in the press included the following: “The play was now in the centre, the Queen’s Park men dribbling and passing, while their opponents indulged chiefly in heavy kicking.”

One can only imagine the stunned Englishmen watching on, monocles dropping in shock as their faces reddened beneath their handlebar moustaches. The gall of those bounders! Teamwork: what an outrageous proposition.

And so, from 1874 to 1893, Queen’s Park won ten Scottish Cups – still the third-highest total behind Celtic and Rangers – and even participated in two FA Cup finals, the only Scottish team to ever do so. They were probably the leading team across the Isles at the time, and therefore within the world.

So where did it go wrong for this club of innovators? Why did such a dominant force fade into the background? The answer to that lies in the next key development of the game: money.

When Queen’s Park were strutting their stuff and revolutionising the game, football was still a gentleman’s pastime dominated by players from public school backgrounds who played to enjoy camaraderie, healthy exercise and a few hearty drinks after. These players were usually professionals in other fields for whom football was just an amateur hobby on the side.

Early FA Cup competitions were won by teams such as Oxford University, Old Etonians and Old Carthusians – names dripping of cigar smoke, hallowed halls and back-slapping chums. But as competitions developed, the game spread into more working-class areas, especially in the north of England, until in 1983, the Old Etonians were shockingly defeated by one such outfit, Blackburn Olympic.

Long before Jack Walker and his steel money brought success to the industrial Lancashire town, Blackburn Olympic were formed. The town revolved around cotton, with mills employing thousands living a tough life fraught with danger and monotony. Football proved to be an attractive diversion and rose swiftly in popularity. However, the idea of a working-class team lifting the FA Cup was an anathema to the ex-public schoolboys that they concocted the Football Association. Surely some skullduggery must be behind such happenings.

The players of Blackburn Olympic were amateurs in that they all worked for local mills. But then again, did they truly “work” for these mills? For example, before the FA Cup final, the team had gone to Blackpool for several days of special training. But what were mill-workers doing missing several days of work? Were they still being paid during this trip? And who were these Scottish workers who played for the team? What had induced these talented footballers to leave their homeland and come south to work in a mill?

The answer, of course, was that Blackburn Olympic were arranging “jobs” for their players and supplementing their income with additional payments. These included the Scottish players, known as the “Scotch Professors”, who brought down their passing game to many of the northern teams.

And so as the northern teams began to dominate English football, tensions soon came to a head. Preston beat Upton Park in the FA Cup, who then protested against the presence of paid players in the Preston ranks. Debate raged until around 30 northern clubs threatened to break away from the FA if professionalism was not allowed. And so, in July 1885, the inevitable occurred and the professional era came into official existence.

The Scottish FA, however, were having none of it. They withdrew their teams from the FA Cup in protest. Unsurprisingly, money spoke and a significant number of Scottish players relocated south of the border, to the extent that when Preston won the first-ever Football League in 1889, they fielded ten Scottish professionals.

The Scottish Football League was launched in 1890 on an amateur basis, but Queen’s Park declined to join, on the supposition that, like in England, it would be a sham and not truly amateur. And so it proved. It didn’t take long for it to be obvious that clubs were accumulating talent through financial incentives. By 1893, Scotland too bowed to the inevitable and formalised professional football. 

So what do you do if you are Queen’s Park – you are one of the innovators of the game and you believe in the amateur spirit – and see all around you paying for talent? The obvious answer is that, if you can’t beat them, join them. But this is where the story of Queen’s Park takes a remarkable twist. They decided to remain an amateur club while still playing within the Scottish League system. And they keep doing so for over 125 years.

Up until 2019, 126 years after Scotland approved professionalism, Queen’s Park stuck to their guns as an amateur outfit. Having been founded as the oldest club in Scotland, it meant they’d effectively been amateur for 152 years. Their pride in such included sporting the Latin motto Ludere Causa Ludendi (To Play for the Sake of Playing).

As the decades rolled by, maximum wages were introduced then abolished, The Bosman ruling was rendered and super-agents sent player wages into the stratosphere. Ashley Cole almost crashed his car when he heard Arsenal were only going to pay him a miserly £60,000 a week.

And still Queen’s Park held out as a final bastion of the amateur spirit, sticking to the Corinthian spirit. One almost pictures a team stuck in time, still patrolling the field in knickerbockers and finely waxed moustaches, whilst being overrun by youths in shiny, sponsored shirts. But there is a nobleness in their decision.

There was one downside to this noble stance, however: before 1893, Queen’s Park played in two FA Cup finals and won ten Scottish Cups; after 1893, they have won nothing except lower division titles.

Eventually, though, cracks appeared. In 1998, the club was stuck in the fourth tier of Scottish football. Something had to be done and so its constitution was amended to allow the signing of former professionals, providing that they still remained unpaid by Queen’s Park. Before that point in time, even ex-professionals were not permitted within Hampden Park. The manager, John McCormack, then stretched the interpretation of the new constitution to permit the loaning of professionals. And lo and behold, Queen’s Park went on to win the league and gain promotion in 2000.

Unfortunately this new approach didn’t yield increased success for long. The next season saw Queen’s Park relegated again before then finishing bottom of the last tier the following year – the first time in their history that they sat at the base of Scottish football. 

The 2012/13 campaign saw Queen’s Park joined by one of their big city neighbours, Rangers, following their fall into administration. And in April 2013, Rangers hosted Queen’s Park in front of almost 50,000 fans, setting a new record for a crowd at fourth-tier level, who watched the 4-0 thumping dished out by the big boys.

Unsurprisingly, Rangers ran away with the title that year, while Queen’s Park made the playoffs but lost out to Peterhead. One member of that team was a young Andy Robertson, who wisely decided on accepting an offer to play for the Spiders rather than starting university, a decision that proved a wise choice in light of his subsequent career trajectory.

Up to this point, Queen’s Park still played their home games at the famous Hampden Park. The craziness of that situation was epitomised by Hampden having a capacity of almost 52,000 post-Taylor Report, while Queen’s Park’s average attendance was around 600-700 souls. One can only imagine the atmosphere within the vast cavernous ground as fewer than a thousand people packed together in a small group to cheer on their beloved club.

But Queen’s Park still owned the famous ground, with a lease granted to the SFA expiring 2020. In 2018, a deal was agreed by which the SFA would purchase Hampden Park outright from Queen’s Park on expiry of the lease for £5m. Queen’s Park used some of those proceeds to develop their neighbouring training ground, known cutely as Lesser Hampden, into a 1,774-capacity stadium for home games. Having played their last game at Hampden in March 2021, they have ground-shared with Falkirk, Patrick Thistle and Stenhousemuir as they continue to develop Lesser Hampden.

With plans in place to downsize their stadium, and the threat of being overtaken by teams from the Highland and Lowland Leagues, the Spiders realised that their long-held model of amateurism was no longer feasible. And so in 2019, after 152 years of proud amateur status, Queen’s Park decided to vote on whether to become professional. If 75% percent of members voted in favour, they would finally be able to hire players on full-time contracts, fend off offers from competing teams, and receive compensation for players moving on.

The realisation that they were developing youth players who then just moved elsewhere upon turning 18 was becoming too much to bear. The motion was presented on 14 November 2019 and saw 91 percent of the members vote in favour. The last bastion of amateur football was felled. 

Emotions were understandably mixed. “The committee of the club plotted a course to try to defend ourselves against the threats of other ambitious clubs around us wishing to become a senior league club,” former Queen’s Park striker Crawley told BBC Scotland. “We are keen to arm ourselves to fend that off and progress. It was head against heart. The heart of a lot of the membership would be we really don’t want to do this, but we have to do it.”

The club’s official Twitter site thanked fans for their involvement, stating, “We recognise the difficulty in introducing this resolution. However, we believe this will enable us to plan for a bright future as we face up to the challenges of moving from the national stadium and maintaining our senior league place.”

Was the move successful? Well, the 2019/20 season was ended early by the COVID-19 pandemic but the summer saw Queen’s Park use their new status to sign several professional players. And lo and behold, 2020/21 saw Queen’s Park promoted to the third tier as champions, a full 16 points ahead of second place Edinburgh City. And if that wasn’t enough, the 2021/22 season saw Queen’s Park promoted yet again through the Championship playoffs, defeating Airdrieonians over two legs.

As of today, Queen’s Park now sit atop the Scottish Championship, promotion from which would take them into the Premiership and back with the likes of their lofty neighbours, Celtic and Rangers.

There is a part of me that is sad to think that, in order to survive, Queen’s Park had to finally bow to modern pressures and lose their status as the only amateurs still standing. But despite this change, Queen’s Park still have an amazing legacy that they can proudly cling to.

For their first five years of existence, they never conceded a goal. For their first seven years of existence, they never lost a game. They won the Scottish Cup ten times and even participated in two FA Cup finals. They are even credited with being the first team to play two halves of 45 minutes each with the novel concept of a half-time break, as well as introducing free-kicks, turnstiles and crossbars. Imagine a game of football without crossbars.

The Spiders came up with the heretic notion of passing the ball rather than just rushing it upfield – a notion which some teams still struggle with even today. They organised the first Scotland vs England game and fielded the entire Scottish team. And then they maintained their amateur ethos despite their last trophy of significance being the Scottish Cup in 1893.

Somewhere, a former Queen’s Park director is looking down from above. “Damn fine to see our boys getting back to where they belong. But playing for money, well that is just utter rot. Man should stretch his sinews for the pure love of the game itself.” And with that, he puffs on his oversized cigar, downs his 15-year-old single malt, and twiddles his beautifully waxed moustache. 

By Dominic Hougham

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed