For those of a certain age who yearns for the days of indoor football competitions on our screens (see the Tennent’s Sixes) it should be known that the first major indoor footballing event was actually scheduled in 1905.
In the winter of 1905, an American entrepreneur launched an eccentric scheme to create Britain’s first indoor football league. The venue was London’s Olympia, the largest indoor arena in the country, its grand hall seating 9,000 spectators under a 115-foot-high barrelled roof. The idea was to recruit an in-house team of famous players and invite the country’s leading clubs to compete against them for a national indoor trophy. The man behind the ambitious enterprise was Kentuckian theatre manager Edwin Cleary, a career-hopping former trainee priest, law student, railroad builder and Shakespearean actor.
Weeks of preparation culminated in the laying of the arena’s artificial pitch – a thumb-thick carpet of green coconut matting. Reported to be the “biggest carpet ever made”, it cost £5,000 – equivalent to more than £400,000 today. Football’s first artificial surface was said to be “as good as a well-kept lawn”. “Spectators are likely to witness very fast games,” reported the Times. “The carpet is soft and rather spongy to the touch, but the football bounced well and fairly true on it.”
Cleary recruited 22 well-known professionals, 19 of them current or ex-internationals, offering them £4 per week – equal to the maximum wage then allowed by the FA. Most were veterans, approaching retirement or recently retired, and they welcomed the opportunity to extend their careers. Among them were Scottish internationals Tommy Hyslop, Robert Marshall and Tom McInnes, and – most notably – Wales and Preston North End goalkeeper Jimmy Trainer. Described as “the best custodian in the world”, Trainer kept goal for Preston’s “Invincibles” during their unbeaten Double-winning 1888-89 season. Now 42, he was contracted to play for and organise the Olympia team.
There was, however, a major problem. FA rules prohibited players from taking part in unsanctioned matches or competitions, and the FA Council refused to sanction football at Olympia. Any players who took part would be banned, and no FA-affiliated clubs would be allowed to participate. Cleary decided to carry on with the scheme regardless. He had already invested too much money to walk away.
Trainer stuck with it, too. He needed the money to support his 10 children, and had reason to leave Preston, having recently been the subject of lurid local newspaper reports regarding “wife desertion”. He resigned as a director at Preston and moved to London. “I feel sorry that the famous goalkeeper should in any way have to run counter to the FA,” wrote a contributor to the Lancashire Evening Post, “but an old player cannot be blamed for thinking financially in such a matter.” Most of the other recruits also headed to Olympia, although Jimmy Crabtree, once of England and Aston Villa, refused, saying: “I finished my career honourably and I shall remain loyal to the Association.”
Olympia’s first indoor football match was played on Christmas Eve 1905, and was regarded as “quite a success”, despite its unusual circumstances. The match, a scratch game between Cleary’s 22 players, was preceded by a meal and cabaret and it was noted that the audience didn’t know whether to dress for dinner or for football. Once the game got underway, they cheered loudest when the ball was kicked into the crowd rather than when a goal was scored. And it was a painful experience for Trainer. He sustained broken ribs in a heavy charge from an opposing forward.
“Football played indoors, under the glare of electric light, and before an audience composed in part of ladies and gentlemen in evening dress, is certainly something of a novelty,” said the Derby Telegraph. “It must be confessed, however, that the latest form of entertainment at the Olympia does not provide the excitement of a League fixture… It is an exhibition of the game and nothing more.”
In the FA-enforced absence of the promised leading clubs, initial interest gave way to indifference. After just 16 days and 15 games, the indoor football enterprise folded. Promoter Charles Cochran, who had plastered advertising all over the capital, admitted the indoor game “did not seem to catch the imagination of the Londoners”. “The whole show was a fiasco,” he said. “It was a pity.”
Ultimately, it was an idea many decades ahead of its time, long before indoor football, artificial pitches or floodlit games became common. Edwin Cleary lost more than £10,000 in the venture, and was declared bankrupt. His huge carpet was cut into pieces and sold off for a shilling a yard. He did bounce back, however, inventing an oil lamp that made him a fortune. He later became an acclaimed war correspondent for the Daily Express.
Jimmy Trainer fared less well, being effectively ruined by the indoor football failure. He remained in London, proposing a new scheme involving League clubs playing baseball, but it came to nothing. He died in poverty in 1915, with obituaries remembering him as the original “Prince of Goalkeepers”.