When The Lambs Were Best In The Land

Those making the most of their time during lockdown might have watched a popular Netflix box-set (amongst many) called ‘The English Game’ which was a six part series based part-factually about two footballers largely, the upper-class Arthur Kinnaird, arguably the game’s biggest ambassador in the 19th century, a nine time FA Cup finalist and FA Cup committee member from the age of 21. The Old Etonian was also president of the FA for over 33 years, and the working-class Fergus Suter, who is said to be one of the first ever recognised ‘professional’ footballers after leaving his job as a stonemason in Scotland to move to Darwen from Partick in 1878 before two years later controversially joining Blackburn Rovers where he would become a three time cup winner.

One team that gets a mention a lot in Julian Fellows’ terrific drama ‘simply because they were a bloody good side back then’ is Notts County.

Now it is no secret that Notts County are of course one of the world’s oldest, and back in the days before the football league had even started, Notts, the lambs, as they were called back then, were rubbing shoulders amongst the elite of newly titled association football that was gaining popularity across the country.

They even had a few stars of their own.

Wilford born Harry Cursham is said to be one of the best of his time. Now long forgotten when compared to the likes of Jimmy Sirrel, Les Bradd and even Tommy Lawton, but Cursham was a 19th Century superstar and arguably County’s greatest ever player too.

Cursham still holds the record in the FA Cup for scoring more goals than anyone else in the competitions 149-year history. 49 goals in 44 games, he also represented England eight times scoring five goals including a hat-trick against the Irish.

Along with his brothers, Arthur and Charles, Harry represented Notts County in the days when the FA Cup would be a simple matter of deciding ‘the best’ football team in England.

County’s first ever FA Cup tie was on 3rd November 1877 when they would face Sheffield FC in a 1-1 draw, before losing the replay 0-3… In the first match Arthur, playing then for Sheffield scored against Notts County who of course saw Harry on target for them… In the second match, sibling rivalry would be won by older brother Arthur, who twice scored for Sheffield in their comfortable win.

Notts would come back a year later at the same stage and would be beaten by Nottingham Forest 3-1 at Beeston Cricket Ground in what was then the largest ever attended game of football in Nottingham (over 500) to crash out of the competition again, and in 1879 it would be tougher still as the Foresters would thump County 4-0. Reds rubbing noses of the lambs who had earlier dropped them from their fixture list due to the artisan’s background said to be not up to those more ‘well to do’ opponents who Notts much rather played.

Despite the losses, Cursham and County however were making progress. The following year a 4-2 replay win (after a thrilling 4-4 draw) against Derbyshire saw Notts go into round two where they were awarded a bye, in the third round Notts lost to Aston Villa 1-3 and the following season at the same stage, the Villains needed two replays to eventually knock out Notts again.

By then, Notts had already recorded their record cup win. An 11-1 thumping against Wednesbury Strollers in a second round replay (on this day, December 10th 1881) after the original match was void with County 5-3 up. Wednesbury complaining that the referee of the first tie was locally born Leonard Lindley, brother of Forest player Tinsley and a personal friend of many County players, this lead to a replay and a first neutral official used in a match, these days of course, something that is fundamental just for a game to take place.

The replay in Derby was comprehensively won by Notts. Harry Cursham scoring six, although he always ‘claimed’ that it was nine. Perhaps with two brothers in the team the official scorer was confused, to this day we’ll never really know.

One thing we do know however is that by 1882/83 Notts were well and truly on the march for success. Feared for what they did to Wednesbury and taken seriously from the competition they gave to Aston Villa. County were considered to be one to watch for the way they played.

By now the Cursham’s were in full flow, Arthur and Harry both playing side-by-side, by then, regular England internationals, along with Stuart McRae and Alfred Dobson, a Notts side littered with the countries finest, a 6-1 thumping of Sheffield followed another bye and a 4-1 drubbing of Phoenix Bessemer where 6ft2in forward William Gunn (more famous for his cricket) was amongst the goals with two.

The County side was big, powerful, intelligent, both Arthur and Harry also played cricket for Notts, Gunn of course for England with eleven tests, he could throw a ball into the box single handed in the days it was allowed. They say it was ‘because of him’ that the modern throw-in rule now stands with two hands over the head used today.

Notts would reach the semi-finals beating the Wednesday 4-1 in Sheffield and finally Aston Villa at last, 4-3 in the Quarter Finals thanks to a hat-trick from Harry, Gunn scoring the other.

The best team Notts ever had? The side would lose to Old Etonians in the semi-final, a team who on the day featured Arthur Kinnaird.

12 months later it would take Fergus Suter and Blackburn, the richest club in the land, to knock out Notts at the semi-final stage. County had already proved to be best in the city, easily thumping Forest 3-0 after beating Sheffield Heeley in round one. They were best in the region too, beating Grantham 4-1 in the third round, the side then saw off Bolton after a replay and the Swifts over two games, Blackburn however a tougher test, 1-0 winners, some say the best two teams in England.

Rovers beat Scottish side Queens Park in the 1884 final who themselves knocked Notts out at the Quarter Final stage a year later before seeing off Forest in a semi-final replay. By now professionalism was well into play, more and more teams would enter a growing cup competition with talks ongoing about creating a league, of course in 1888 Notts with eleven other teams, would form the original Football League, of course, they would win the cup in 1894 beating Bolton 4-1 but by then they would win it, the first to do so as a Second Division side. Before that only success however, history states that before professionalism and the birth of the football league, Notts were up there as best in the land. Exciting to watch, the best players, feared by many, oh how long it’s been since we’ve said that.

*Main image @TrentBridge the Notts County team with the huge William Gunn and below centre Harry Cursham.

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