By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
Football has always been the most popular sport in the Army, and probably has the longest history of structured competitions. Several regiments were playing football unofficially in the 1850s and the game in Aldershot appears to have been quickly organised, for in November 1861 it was reported that the “first match of the season” was played in the Camp. In this match the 8th Regiment of Foot played the 53rd Regiment, and a contemporary reporter said that he hoped “to see many such matches played at Aldershot for the amusement of the soldiers, who appear greatly to enjoy the game”.
From the 1870s onwards, organised sport became increasingly popular in the country as a whole, and the rules for the major sports began to be published. Before 1870 football tactics were centred on an individual charge, but the Royal Engineers, Chatham, introduced a new style of play with more long and short passing and much greater emphasis on teamwork. The superiority of this new style was shown in 1871 when the Royal Engineers beat the Wanderers, the leading team of the day. The Wanderers had their revenge in 1872 when they defeated the Royal Engineers in the first FA Cup Final in 1872. The Royal Engineers were FA Cup runners-up again in 1874, finally lifting the Cup in 1875 by beating the Old Etonians 2-0 after a replay.
One of the most important events in the development of Army football was the founding of the Army Football Association in 1888 and the establishment of the Army Challenge Cup in the same year. Based on the successful format of the FA Cup, this was a knockout tournament and 44 units entered the first competition. The first Challenge Cup game to be played in Aldershot was between the 1st Bn Royal Scots and the Medical Staff, played on Thursday 1 November 1888 on the Royal Engineers’ ground. It was reported that the match was played “in wretched weather, and proved a very one-sided game, the Royal Scots winning by no less than six goals to nil”. The Royal Scots played their second round match on Queen’s Parade on 15 January 1889 “in the presence of some thousands of spectators”. They were once again victorious, defeating the 2nd Bn Yorkshire Regiment by 4 goals to 2, after which they “were loudly cheered as they as they returned through the camp to their quarters, the pipers of the regiment turning out and playing ‘The Highland Laddie’ and other Scottish airs.” After another victory in Aldershot against the Somerset Light Infantry, the Royal Scots’ campaign ended when they lost their semi-final to the 2nd Bn South Staffordshire Regiment at Plymouth. The final was played on Wednesday 27 March 1889 at the Kennington Oval, London, between the South Staffordshires and the 2nd Bn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In a close match, the Highlanders proved the stronger team and won by 2 goals to nil.
The Army Challenge Cup Final moved to Aldershot in 1893, played on the 1st Brigade ground on Queen’s Parade. A grandstand was erected on the west side of the ground, in the centre of which was a Royal enclosure for the guest of honour, HRH the Duke of Connaught. Around the other three sides were placed seats for the front row, and behind were rows of military wagons “drawn up after the style of an immense laager, allowing ample scope for the vast concourse to witness the game, and displaying the abundant and ingenious resources of the military”. A crowd of around 15,000 watched the game, on a day when “the weather was gloriously fine and the ground was in excellent condition”. Contesting the final were the 2nd Bn Royal West Kent and the 1st Bn Sherwood Foresters. At full time the scores were level at one goal apiece. Half an hour’s extra time brought no more goals, so the match was declared a draw. A replay was ordered for the next day, and this time the Royal West Kent finally won the match 1-0.
Following the success of this event, the Challenge Cup Final became a regular fixture in Aldershot. It was played on Easter Mondays and attracted crowds of up to 20,000, most of them soldiers. Often attended by senior military officers or members of the Royal Family, the Army Cup Finals became a major social occasion as well as a prestigious sporting event.
The growth in football’s popularity continued into the twentieth century. In 1906 Captain E G Curtis wrote: “What a change in a few years! Football has emptied the barrack rooms (shall it be said the canteens also?)”. In 1913 the Army Football Association took over the Army Athletics Ground in Aldershot, re-named it the Army Football Ground, and made it the permanent home of the Army FA. The number of teams entered for the 1913-14 Army Challenge Cup had risen to 93, and the Leicestershire Regimental Journal wrote that it was “the only thing that one particularly wishes to win”.
The outbreak of war on 4 August 1914 put back the founding of Aldershot’s civilian football club. With very unfortunate timing, a public meeting with the object of forming a “town football team” had been arranged for the same week that war was declared. The meeting was cancelled, and it would not be until 1926 that Aldershot FC was established. The Army Challenge Cup was suspended for the duration of the war, but this did not stop football being played in the garrison, and by October 1914 a military league had been organised by the Aldershot Training Centre.
In 1915 Aldershot Command played two matches against the Corinthians, a famous club who had done much to popularise the game. The Corinthians team had volunteered en masse for the Army, so the matches were billed as Aldershot Command versus Corinthians (Under Arms). The games were intended as a boost to morale, and they certainly generated a great deal of interest. The first match, at the Corinthians’ ground, was a 4-1 victory for the home side. The return tie was played at the Army Football Ground on Saturday 20 March 1915, but unfortunately the hopes of an Aldershot victory were dashed as the Army side was completely outclassed by a team described in the Aldershot News as “quite the best that has ever been seen in Aldershot, and was capable of putting up a good show against the best international teams”. At half time the Corinthians were leading by 6 goals to nil, and by full time the score was Corinthians 11, Aldershot Command nil.
Better fortune attended the Royal Flying Corps, based in Farnborough. By 1916 they could field teams containing professional players who had, before the war, been in notable clubs including Wolves, Everton, Arsenal and Chelsea. In September 1916 the RFC beat West Ham 3-0, and drew to Portsmouth 1-1.
The Army Challenge Cup was reinstated in 1919, and the Cup Final played in Aldershot in 1920 was watched by 15,000 spectators, among them the King and Queen. The Royal Army Medical Corps (Aldershot) took the trophy by beating the 1st Bn Hampshire Regiment 1-0.
The Aldershot Command team had frequently played against local civilian teams, improving relations between the military and civilian communities and raising funds for good causes, such as a match in 1908 in aid of the poor children of the district. So it was no surprise that after Aldershot FC was founded matches between the Aldershot Army and civilian teams became regular fixtures. These had home and away legs, played at the Army ground or the club ground, with both sides claiming victory at different times.
Such was the strength of Army football in the 1930s that some of the best-known league clubs played in Aldershot. Typical was the match played on Saturday 3 November 1934 at the Command Central Ground between the Army and Everton. The ground was described as “a mass of khaki” as soldiers packed the stands, giving the visitors “a real footballers’ welcome” when Everton were led out by their famous captain, “Dixie” Dean. Everton scored after ten minutes and by half time were leading 3-0. To their credit, the Army still tried to attack, with one shot hitting the side netting and one shot on the crossbar, but they were outplayed by Dean’s splendid team and at full time Everton had won by 8 goals to nil.
In the Second World War, so many professional footballers were drafted into the Army Physical Training Corps and trained in Aldershot, that the local teams could field players of a remarkably high calibre. This applied not just to the Army teams, but Aldershot FC also enjoyed a sprinkling of these top professionals. At one point, Stan Cullis, Cliff Britton and Joe Mercer were all together at the Army School of Physical Training, so Aldershot FC fielded the entire England half-back line as guest players. After the war, National Service meant that the Army continued to have high quality professionals in its ranks. To mark the centenary of the Army in Aldershot there was a celebratory match between the Army and Aldershot FC, which the Army won largely through the quality of its National Service players.
In the modern day, football remains the most popular sport in the Army, with inter-unit competitions for both men’s and women’s teams. The connection to Aldershot is as strong as ever. The Aldershot Military Stadium remains the home of Army football and the venue for the Challenge Cup and Minor Units Cup finals, played during the “Festival of Football”. The Army Football Association is based in the headquarters of the RAPTC in Fox Lines, and the new Football Development Centre was opened in Aldershot in 2013. The proud history of Army football continues to be written in Aldershot, the Army’s centre of sporting excellence.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 009, August 2016/September 2016
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.