Dr Tosh Warwick

Manchester Metropolitan University | Heritage Unlocked

07591093136 | t.warwick@mmu.ac.uk


Playing a competitive fixture behind closed doors will soon prove the new normal to today’s supporters, who will experience the match from the comfort of their own homes, ending for many decades-long continuous attendances at games.

However, the experience of playing a competitive match behind closed doors is not unprecedented. Back in 1898, football on Teesside faced a similar challenge as that posed by coronavirus when a Smallpox outbreak centred on Middlesbrough.

Lots of the challenges faced during the outbreak were similar to today. Matches were postponed as a result of the virus, including the Cleveland Cup and League fixtures which were instead played at free times during the following season!

In 1898, Middlesbrough FC were on a fairly unfamiliar road to glory as the club progressed to the semi-final of the FA Amateur Cup, a trophy they had won for the first time three years earlier, and were only two wins away from bringing silverware back to Teesside.

Yet, it was not the challenge posed by upcoming semi-final opponents Thornaby that proved the biggest threat to Boro’s path to a Crystal Palace final but rather the smallpox epidemic that was ravaging the town. Following an outbreak in late 1897, the smallpox escalated in February 1898 in the town. The FA Amateur Cup tie was initially scheduled to take place in neutral Darlington but the local authorities were not keen to see fans congregate in the town with the potential of spreading smallpox.

At a meeting of the Darlington Corporation’s Health Committee on March 7, two days after Boro’s Northern League tie at Tow Law was called off due to the epidemic, a letter was read from a ‘prominent medical gentleman’ and quickly ‘much indignation was expressed’ at the proposed tie taking place in the town.

It was decided a letter be sent to the Darlington directors expressing concern at the possibility the ground would be used for the tie the following week.

The Football Association’s appeal

It was decided by the FA that the Amateur Cup tie be postponed and a solution sought by the competition organisers. The Middlesbrough FC minutes detail a special meeting of the Directors on 5th March detail the Football Association’s appeal for Boro to pull out of the game:

Emergency Committee suggest you should scratch in consequence of unfortunate epidemic, matter considered serious. Trust in the best interest of the sport you will adopt this course please telegram Thornaby also Howcroft, Coatham Redcar and to me. Wall, Football Association.

Middlesbrough FC’s directors decided not to withdraw from the competition.

With closed gates

The FA Amateur Cup Committee decided that as a result of the smallpox epidemic and postponed semi-final between Middlesbrough and Thornaby should take place ‘with closed gates’ and that ‘only players be allowed to take part who have medical certificates as to their freedom from the disease’.

Eventually, the FA arranged for the tie to take place in secret at Brotton in East Cleveland. Poetically Richard Piers Rayner’s Middlesbrough FC: The Unseen History imagines the game taking place witnessed only ‘by a couple of disinterested sheep and a passing tinker’. Catherine Budd’s Sport in Urban England confirms the secret nature of the tie, citing a contemporary report on the affair:

The match was played “with closed gates”…it was reported that though “many keen footballists had been on the alert for the past few days, those who knew the location of the match were very limited in number.”

When the tie was finally played at Brotton there was more drama. After trailing 1-0, Boro fought back through goals from Bishop and Wanless to win the derby tie and secure a place in the final. Further glory would follow in the final at Crystal Palace as Boro ran out 2-0 winners against Uxbridge to bring silverware back to Teesside.