Me Owd Duck on a pioneer
It’s well known that the oldest club in the Football League is Notts County. The second oldest club is Nottingham Forest. Formed in 1865 in the Clinton Arms pub in the aptly named Sherwood Road, the decision to stop playing Shinty and start playing football was a key one. Forest’s first competitive game was against County in 1866. It was won by a touch down, or was a 0-0 draw depending on your sources. They were allowed to handle the ball back then. Early football looked very much like rugby.
You see, football as we know it was not suddenly invented, it was developed over a period of time by a number of pioneers and one of the greatest of these was Samuel Weller Widdowson. He was born on April 16, 1851, in Hucknall Torkard. He was named after the great comical character in Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers as his father loved the character.
Sam was a truly all-round competitive sportsman. He was a swimmer, a sprinter, a hurdler and an oarsman. In 1878 he made his one and only appearance in a first class cricket match, scoring 15 runs for Notts in a game against Lancashire. Proper appearance records were not kept until Forest entered the FA Cup in 1878, but it’s likely that Sam made more than 100 appearances for the club. He also played for Notts County on a number of occasions. You can see Sam in many early Forest team photos. He was 5 feet 8 and weighed 11 stones. He had a mop of jet black hair and the fashionable moustache of the time.
He played his first game for us against Newark in 1869. He played in defence on that day, but went on to be goalkeeper and then centre forward for the team. The size of the team was not fixed until the FA rules were produced in the 1880s so in 1871, he was part of a team of fifteen that defeated Chesterfield.
Sam is most famous for an act that at first he was ridiculed for. Under what was known as ‘The Sheffield Rules’, hacking players was allowed – substitutes were not. Injured players just had to go and lurk on the wing. To combat avoidable and manageable injuries, Sam, by now Forest’s captain, cut down some cricket pads and invented the shin guard, worn on the outside of the sock.
Sam was a Victorian gentleman playing a game that was still very much a middle class one. To play for Forest he would have had to pay a subscription of a shilling a week. Forest prided themselves on being an amateur club and during the week Sam was busy building up a thriving trade as a lacemaker. Sam was an intelligent football player. As Forest’s captain he devised a system of two full backs, three quarter backs and five forwards. This team formation was adopted by just about every English side up until the Second World War.
In 1878 Forest entered the National Cup competition for the first time. Five hundred people turned out to watch Sam lead the team out to beat Notts County in the first round at the Beeston Cricket ground. Forest were 2-1 up by half time, but the players, fortified by sherry and ale at half time, managed to end the game as 3-1 winners. Arthur Goodyer was the scorer that day. He went on to become Forest’s first full England international that same year. Sam’s only England cap was earned a year later in a 5-4 defeat of Scotland.
The cup run continued with victories over Sheffield, the Old Hanoverians and Oxford University. Victory against them meant that Forest became the first club to reach the semi-final of the FA Cup in the first year they entered the competition. Sadly, in that semi-final they came up against a very experienced Old Etonians side who beat them 2-1. In one game that season the umpire asked if he could use a whistle rather than a flag to show his decisions and Sam liked the idea. The modern referee was born.
The following season, Sam became player-chairman of the club. In fact, at this point Sam was Nottingham Forest, and he led them to a second FA Cup semi-final in 1880. It was around this time that he decided evening games might be a good idea. He experimented with gas floodlights but it was too dangerous and the gas ran out. He returned to the club in 1909 after he had retired to try again this time with electric floodlights and this time his idea worked.
Sam remained chairman and treasurer of the club for four years. He played his last game for Forest in 1887. The next year he attended the second ever meeting of the newly formed Football League on Forest’s behalf, but Forest were turned down for entering the league as they refused to embrace the professional game.
Sam was made an England selector and at the age of 40 made an appearance in an international trial for the national side when they were a player short. He continued to play for Heanor Town until he was 45 years old, then became a referee.
In an exhibition game at the City Ground, James Brodie of Liverpool introduced his bright new idea, the goal net. The referee at the game was one Samuel Weller Widdowson who approved the idea and the phrase ‘back of the net’ was born.
Sam married Harriet Mary Laslett in 1879. Sam was never one to do anything by halves and they had nine children. He stayed in Nottingham all his life. In 1912 he became Director of the Beeston Picture Palace Cinema. He died aged 76 on this day in 1927, and the world was a poorer place for his passing.
Samuel Weller Widdowson, a true football pioneer and Nottingham hero.
I’ll see thee.