What has the Northern League ever done for us?

#5 Sheffield United

March 1889 was, in some quarters, a significant month for English football. On the 16th nearly 23000, at the time the largest crowd to watch an FA Cup game outside of the final, saw Preston North End beat West Bromwich Albion 1-0 in an FA Cup semi-final at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. The gate receipts of £574 convinced the Sheffield United ground committee that a permanent team should be formed to play football at the Lane and so six days later on the 22nd the Sheffield United Cricket Club became the Sheffield United Football & Cricket Club.

Meanwhile, three days later on the 25th at the behest of Charles Craven, the club secretary of Darlington FC, a group of men representing some of the major clubs in the North East area met at the Three Tuns Hotel in Durham City and the Northern League was formed making it the second oldest surviving league in the World.

The paths of Sheffield United and the Northern League were to cross for two seasons in the early 1890’s. United had joined the Midland League for the 1890/91 season but wanting a better standard of football applied for the Football Alliance which had been set up in 1889 as a direct rival to the Football League. The Football Alliance president was also president of The Wednesday FC and it was rumoured at the time that Wednesday actively lobbied against their city rivals to deny them a place in the league. With the Alliance application refused United turned to the Northern League and their acceptance made them the most southerly club in the competition with Darlington as their nearest away game.

United’s first Northern League game at the start of the 1891/92 season was away at the now defunct Sunderland Albion. This was the season that saw referees take control of the game. Previously two umpires, one from each team had officiated, only consulting the referee in the event of a dispute. The umpires were replaced by two linesmen. Goal nets and penalty kicks were also introduced.

The result of the game was reported as 4-3 to United. However one of the Sunderland Albion goals had been a penalty and after the match the referee, after consulting his two linesman, decided that the offence did not merit a penalty and ruled out the goal, making the score 4-2. United’s first Northern League home game was against Darlington and the Blades ran the visitors ragged recording a 7-1 win. Other big wins followed, these included, in a game that saw goal nets in use at Bramall Lane for the first time, a 6-0 thrashing of South Bank. Stockton suffered a similar score in their visit to Bramall Lane whilst Newcastle West End were despatched 5-1.

On the road the biggest win was a 5-0 victory at South Bank whilst three of the four season’s defeats came away from home at Darlington, Newcastle West End and Middlesbrough Ironopolis. The sole home defeat was a 3-0 reverse to Middlesbrough. United ended the season as joint top goalscorers with Middlesbrough Ironopolis on 49 goals from the 16 Northern League games but finished in 3rd place seven points behind champions Ironopolis and four behind runners-up Middlesbrough.

During season 1891/92 two United players, Mick Whitham and Harry Lilley were selected to play for England. Interestingly they both made their England debuts on the same day but in different games! England played two games, both full internationals, on the 5th March 1892. Whitham turned out in the 2-0 win over Ireland in Belfast whilst Lilley represented England in a 2-0 win over Wales in Wrexham. Other Sheffield United players who played in Northern League games who later went on to play for England were Rab Howell and Ernest Needham.

The 1892/93 season saw the Football Alliance merged with the Football League to create the Football League Second Division. United were elected to the newly formed second division but also opted to remain in the Northern League. With competition on two fronts it seemed that United took their foot off the Northern League gas. The goals dried up and only eighteen were scored in the ten games played. However they still managed to finish in third place behind champions Ironopolis, who secured their third successive Northern League crown, and runners-up Newcastle United.

It was a different story in the Football League second division. United had a great season scoring 62 goals and finished runners-up to Small Heath by a point and gained promotion to the top flight by virtue of a test match (play-off) win over Accrington. Surprisingly, given the successful nature of United’s second division campaign, the Northern League games had attracted on average higher crowds to Bramall Lane than the Football League games.

With promotion secured, only four seasons after being founded, United were to go on and establish themselves as one of England’s top clubs of the time. Within ten seasons of their final Northern League campaign the Blades had won the national title once, been runners-up twice and appeared in three FA Cup finals, winning it twice. For sure the club’s Northern League experiences had stood them in good stead. Maybe the current Blades side could do with a couple of seasons in the Northern League!

This post originally appeared on Karl Smout’s excellent Footysphere site. Karl also blogs on the subject of Classic Football Programmes, including a recent post on the Northern League’s centenary match. You can follow Karl on twitter here.

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