Manchester Rugby City: 19th Century Rugby

 

In January 1878, Stoke City came to Manchester to play Manchester Association at the Longsight Cricket Club in a game of football, by which I mean the 11-a-side no hands round ball affair.

If the Athletic News is to be believed, those present were drawn to this event for its sheer novelty, for “an association game is somewhat of a rarity in the neighbourhood of Manchester.”

A year later, after Manchester Association organised an association tournament in front of a sparse audience, the Sheffield Telegraph claimed that “the association game has apparently no fascination in Manchester.”

Back then, Manchester was unquestionably a rugby town – indeed, the above tournament was made up of rugby teams trying their hand (or foot) at the kicking game. There was a rugby club in every neighbourhood, and often more.

Manchester football club, founded in 1860 and still going, was consistently the best team in the region, and its home in Whalley Range was a centre of northern rugby – numerous internationals were held there.

They were soon joined in the city by Manchester Rangers, Sale, the Free Wanderers of Didsbury, Birch of Rusholme, Cheetham, and more. Elsewhere in the district, Salford, Swinton, Broughton Rangers and Rochdale Hornets started attracting big crowds and, importantly, local stars from across the social spectrum.

In 1895 rugby broke in two, as the Northern Union was formed, protesting the strict amateurism imposed by the RFU. A great many Manchester clubs went over to the new code and, until the war, it remained very popular. Many of those who remained loyal to the RFU often struggled to maintain interest.

At the same time, all rugby was threatened by the rise of the association game, buoyed by the advent of the Football League (also formed in Manchester), the 1893 FA Cup final, held in Fallowfield, and the success of Ardwick AFC and Newton Heath, who became Manchester City and Manchester United respectively. By the turn of the 20th Century, rugby was no longer the winter pastime of the Manchester people.

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