Who are ya? The Wanderers come to Croydon

By - Tuesday 9th December, 2014

As the nomadic Wanders FC settles – for now – in Croydon Athletic’s Mayfield Stadium, Nadim Lilani details the rise, fall, and rise of Thornton Heath’s newest residents

If the name ‘Wanderers FC’ suggests a team without drive, without ambition, then it is a misleading one. Rewind over a century and a half to 1850, and one of the oldest names in football was born. Wanderers were so-called as they did not have a fixed home ground. Rather, they played their fixtures in various stadiums in and around London. But there was one venue which they frequented more often than others: The Kennington Oval. A bastion of English sport, many prestigious Test cricket matches also take place at the London arena. And between 1872 and 1892, it hosted 20 of the first 21 FA Cup finals – 4 of which Wanderers won.

In fact, Wanderers emerged triumphant in 5 of the first 7 editions of this historic competition. Charles William Alcock, who spent 14 years at the club, was one of the founders of the FA Cup. A burly centre-forward with a hard shot, he felt that a knock-out tournament would only serve to foster the popularity of football in England.

Admittedly, a large slice of fortune allowed the London team to compete in the inaugural final. At the semi-final stage, Wanderers played out a draw with Scottish club Queen’s Park. A date had been set for the match to be replayed, but the Glaswegians couldn’t afford to return to London. Their subsequent withdrawal sent Wanderers through to face Royal Engineers in the showpiece occasion.

Morton Betts’ 15th minute tap-in made him the first man to score a winning goal in an FA Cup final

Fitting really – considering that Alcock had been one of those to formulate the idea of the whole thing. It was a blustery March day, and 2,000 were in attendance to witness the game at a sun-soaked Oval. Wanderers got lucky again, winning the coin toss. They forced Royal Engineers to play the first moments battling against both wind and sun, as well as their opponents.

The ‘Sappers’ – as Royal Engineers were known – were an army team, and the hardiness of Her Majesty’s Corps was evident in the game’s opening exchanges. Lieutenant-cum-winger Edmund Creswell broke a collar bone in a melee before 10 minutes had passed. But leaving the field of play in the first FA Cup final would’ve been daft, wouldn’t it? Creswell didn’t just play on, he saw out the match in its entirety – witnesses claiming he struggled as a ‘passenger’ on the wing.

The wing was also the starting point of the first – and only – goal of the encounter. With 15 minutes gone, a Wanderers forward – the brilliantly named Robert Walpole Sealy Vidal – steamed down the flank and crossed for striker Morton Betts to prod home. A goal for the history books. Curiously, Morton Betts was not how the forward’s name appeared on the team sheet. Betts played the final under the pseudonym “A.H. Chequer.” It was an alias supposedly derived from the name of his local team, Harrow Chequers. The alter-ego may have been used to dodge a potential cup-tie infringement. This seems unlikely though, as formal registration with clubs was not mandatory in this early era of football. Perhaps Betts thought his name was difficult to pronounce. Or maybe he simply reckoned that ‘Chequer’ just sounded pretty cool. What is certain is that his 15th minute tap-in made him the first man to score a winning goal in an FA Cup final.

Wanderers were connoisseurs of the game, the model to follow, a stellar institution – but then it all fell apart

And the success didn’t stop there for Wanderers. They championed what newspapers described as “some of the best play, individually and collectively, that has ever been shown in an Association game”. They developed the talent of Arthur Fitzgerald Kinnaird – regarded as the finest player of his generation. They were connoisseurs of the game, the model to follow, a stellar institution. In other words, Wanderers were the absolute business.

Then it all collapsed. In the modern era, the decline of a well-run football club is usually linked to one (or a combination) of the following: a) financial troubles b) disparity between the owners and the management or c) flying too close to the sun.

A different problem altogether beset Wanderers. By 1878, football clubs had been established for former pupils of most leading public schools. Thus, the best players decided to play for their respective old boys’ teams instead. This left Wanderers squad decimated. Another FA Cup final appearance was all but a fleeting dream; in the 1878-79 season they were knocked out of the competition at the first hurdle, suffering a 7-2 defeat to Old Etonians. The same opponents sent Wanderers crashing out in the third round a year later. To compound matters, Kinnaird played for Old Etonians in both of these games.

For the reformed Wanderers, a new ground means renewed hope

Such devastation was swiftly followed by a potent shot of realism. More players jumped ship, and the club had to withdraw from the FA Cup in 1880 – they didn’t have enough players to compete. A dark day indeed. By 1881, the fixture list painted a bleak picture: One match per year, against Harrow School each Christmas. Wanderers’ last game was reportedly played in December 1887. They went down 3-1 to Harrow and the remainder of what was a ‘team’ departed shortly afterwards. With no direction, no players, and no hope, the club was forced to disband. Sometimes even the greatest of trees can be felled.

But 2009 saw the phoenix brush off the ashes and rise again. Wanderers were reformed in London, with the descendants of the original club giving their seal of approval. In 2012 they participated in a rematch of the first ever FA Cup final at The Oval. There was to be no repeat of the 1872 result though, as Royal Engineers ran out 7-1 winners. Since that date the new Wanderers revolution has gathered quite some pace. Two promotions in as many years, and they are now competing in the Surrey South Eastern Combination Junior Division 2 – enough to warrant a move to a larger home. As of this week, Wanderers will be sharing the 3,000 capacity Mayfield Stadium in Thornton Heath with AFC Croydon Athletic. With this new ground comes renewed hope. And who knows – maybe, just maybe – another shot at FA Cup glory.

Nadim Lilani

Nadim Lilani

Nadim Lilani is a recent Hispanic Studies graduate from the University of Birmingham. A keen football fan and writer, he enjoys expressing his love for Croydon by documenting all things sport in south London.

More Posts - Website - Twitter