Tales of Park Life takes a trip back in time, back to the first competitive match played at Clarence Park on a New Year’s Day; 1st January 1898,
The present-day St Albans City was still ten years away from its formation with the users of the Park at this time being the original St Albans Football Club that ran from 1881 to 1904. Clarence Park had opened to a great fanfare in July 1894 and from the start of the 1894-95 season became home to the Saints who had led a nomadic existence until this point.
For the 1897-98 season St Albans were playing in a league for the first time, competing in the Southern League 2nd Division alongside clubs that moved on to become giants in both English and European football. On New Year’s Day 125 years ago our visitors to the Park were Old St. Stephens, who, on seven points from nine games, were two points better off than the Saints who had two games in hand.
St Albans were playing their first league game since drawing 2-2 at home to West Herts (soon to merge with Watford St. Mary’s to form Watford) on 11th December. The Saints had not won a league game since beating Maidenhead 5-1 back in September. Playing up the slope towards what in later years would be known as the York Road end (it was just a track at this time) St Albans were three goals to the good by the interval. The visitors task became increasingly desperate before half time when they lost A.Murrell through injury following a clash with ‘Conny’ Watkins. The second period continued in much the same vein with the Saints chalking up a comfortable 6-0 victory.
Freddy Allen (left), back in the side after missing an 8-1 crushing of Bow side Bohemians in a friendly on 28th December, helped himself to a hat-trick and was joined on the scoresheet by Roland Brown, Walter Giddings and Jimmy Dimmock. Brown, although widely known as Roland and in later years as ‘Tip,’ was born as William and, along with Allen and Watkins, spent part of his playing days with Luton Town.
The St Albans side that day included other players who also spent time with Luton. Goalkeeper John ‘Jack’ Dickerson (below,left), born in Bishop’s Stortford in 1871, was making headway with the Straw Plaiters when he suffered a bad knee injury against Southampton and returned to see out his career with St Albans once fit. ‘Dickie’ was also a cricketer, a top class dancer and a teacher at the Hatfield Road School in St Albans where one of his pupils was a young Wilfred ‘Billy’ Minter – Minter was born on 11th February this season. Jack turned to refereeing at the end of his playing days and oversaw the 1911 Amateur Cup final between Bromley and Bishop Auckland.
Playing at full-back were Bert Sanders (left) and Albert Sharp. Prior to joining St Albans, Dunstable-born Sanders had spent six years with Luton Town and, being a fine musician, opened a shop in Manchester Street, Luton, selling musical instruments. Sharp had previously played for local sides St Albans Abbey and Stanville and later had spells with both Luton Town and Watford. Whilst with Watford he had the rare distinction in those far off days of being sent off twice.
Later in the month, 22nd January, the return fixture with Old St Stephens, at their Shepherd’s Bush ground, was drawn 1-1 with Fred Allen again on target for the Saints. The crowd was around 1,000. Old St. Stephen’s merged with a local club in the summer to form Shepherd’s Bush Football Club. A significant figure in the St Albans side that day was George Wagstaffe Simmons who went on to become a formidable presence in the game and, at this time, was hon. secretary to St Albans. He served the Hertfordshire Football Association for 50 years, including a lengthy run as chairman from 1924-51; he was also a referee at the 1912 Olympics. Wagstaffe Simmons is credited with being the founder of St Albans City and spent almost 30 years as deputy chairman at Tottenham Hotspur.
St Albans ended the season in fifth place in the 12-team Division. Royal Artillery (Portsmouth) won the Division that included the likes of West Herts, Dartford and Wycombe Wanderers . The Saints most impressive league win came on the final day of the season with a 7-1 thrashing of Uxbridge at Clarence Park , Jimmy Dimmock bagged a hat-trick. The previous weekend saw six members of that Uxbridge team feature in their Amateur Cup final defeat to Middlesbrough at Crystal Palace.
The original Saints played in the F.A. Cup this season but, being classed as a professional club, could not compete in the Amateur Cup. As an amateur club, St Albans had taken part in the F.A. Cup on two previous occasions but, in 1897-98, they successfully negotiated two Rounds for the first time. Drawn away to Neasden-based Metropolitan Railway in the 1st Round Qualifying, the Saints pulled off a notable 3-2 victory courtesy of a hat-trick by the Harpenden-born Walter Giddings. Two late goals for the home side gave the approximate 50 St Albans supporters present a nervous final few minutes,
Saints prize was a home tie with London League side Thames Ironworks. Formed in 1895 the Londoners folded in June 1900 but, just a week later, reformed as West Ham United. Winning their opening six league games of the season, the Ironworks were in good form when they arrived at Clarence Park on a pleasant, if a little windy, 16th October. Second half goals from Allen and Giddings gave the Saints a 2-0 win and vindicated the decision of the club to decline a financial inducement by the Ironworks to play the game at their Canning Town home. Strangely, one of the linesmen was Jack Dickerson who was still a player with the home club.
The win over Thames Ironworks was a notable achievement but the likelihood of success in the 3rd Round Qualifying away to Woolwich Arsenal was never going to be anything more than fanciful. Arsenal had turned professional in 1891 and joined the Football League two years later, at the time of this game they were in Division II. St Albans captain Herbert Vinsen won the toss at the Manor Ground in Plumstead but that was about as good as it got for the Saints. A small band of supporters followed the team to the Gunners south London home but were hopelessly outnumbered by the 3,000 home fans. The goals scored column was equally one-sided. Adam Haywood put Arsenal ahead on 12 minutes and by the call of time Arsenal had cruised to a 9-0 win with Fergus Hunt scoring a hat-trick. Making his St. Albans debut at half-back was Conny Watkins. Arsenal progressed to the First Round before losing 3-1 at home to Burnley. Right; Joseph ‘Conny’ Watkins.
The fixture list was supplemented by 17 friendly games that included a return date with Thames Ironworks that was lost 2-1 at the Memorial Grounds in Canning Town. Two friendlies were also played, and won, away to Luton Town Reserves at their Dunstable Road home. The Saints biggest win of the season was an 11-1 thrashing of Anerley on Boxing Day with Giddings helping himself to four goals.
The club played 25 competitive games during the season and, with 22 games each, Walter Giddings and Albert Sharpe made the most appearances. Fred Allen topped the list of goal scorers with a dozen, close behind were George Groom and Giddings with 11 apiece. In off the pitch activity, Wagstaffe Simmons stood down as hon. secretary towards the end of February, due to business commitments. His good friend Jack Dickerson filled in for the remainder of the season.
Line ups for the game with Old St Stephens on New Year’s Day:
St Albans: Jack Dickerson, Bert Sanders, Albert Sharp, Conny Watkins, Herbert Vinsen, Ernest Northern Sharpe, Jack Dimmock, Fred Allen, George Groom, Walter Giddings, Roland Brown.
Old St Stephens: T.Heapy, J.Sullivan, A.Woodword, W.Tench, W.Julian, A.Murrell, L.Fosse, J.Meyer, J.Stanley, T.Nasbet, A.Murray.
A more detailed account of the season can be found here elsewhere on the St Albans City F.C. History and Archives website, and profiles of the players with Luton Town connections can be found on Brian Webb’s excellent website of that club during the Victorian era; thestrawplaiters.com.