By Keith Brookman
100 years ago today, on 28th August 1920, Bristol Rovers played their first ever Football League match and were beaten 2-0 by Millwall, at the Den, in front of a crowd of 25,000.
Both clubs, along with all of the Southern League’s First Division clubs, were elected to the newly formed Football League Third Division in the summer of 1920. It was not until 1921/22 that it became the Third Division (South) when a Northern section was also formed.
Millwall Athletic had, in fact, been founder members of the Southern League and were the undefeated champions in that competition’s inaugural season in 1894/95 and they retained their title the following season.
Rovers did not compete in the Southern League until 1899/1900 when they finished tenth in the 15 team First Division, while Millwall were in seventh place. The games between the sides that season both ended in home wins, Rovers winning 3-0 at Eastville and Millwall 2-0 winners at their North Greenwich home.
Rovers, of course, were Southern League Champions in 1904/05, a season when Millwall finished in 15th place in the now 18 team First Division.
Millwall moved to their new home, at The Den in 1910, the official opening taking place on 22nd October that year and the clubs continued to meet in Southern League action until 1919/20, though neither ever won the title again.
And so, when they first met in the Football League on August 28th 1920, they were certainly not strangers to one another.
The match report of the game in the Western Daily Press (kindly supplied by Eric Whitlock of the Bristol Rovers History Group) makes for an interesting read, if only for the style of reporting back then.
The opening paragraph reads; ‘The Millwall and Bristol Rovers game at New Cross (note it wasn’t referred to as the Den!) attracted one of the biggest League gates in the history of the club, well over 25,000 being present when Kenny beat Fort with the toss, and the homesters Sharpshooter Broad kicked off facing the sun.
‘…Though they were beaten the Rovers put up a very good show and were a trifle unlucky in their defeat.’
The report continues; ‘In the first half they were every whit as good as Millwall, and twice Bird came within the veriest fraction of scoring. Up to the interval honours were even and the blank scoresheet was a fitting reflection of the level balance of play.
‘Just before the interval, however, Bird was injured. He had cleverly beaten two men and was just about to put in a terrific drive for goal when McAlpine, Millwall’s half, got his foot to the ball. The force of the impact strained the guides of Bird’s ankle and he was carried off the field. True, he returned after the interval, but he was almost a passenger to the end of the match.’
Both of Millwall’s goals came in that second period and were described as follows; ‘Voisey got a goal with a good long shot and when Broad later added a second, the game was as good as over.’
The report concluded that; ‘The new men of the Rovers team did well especially Kenny, who worked like a Trojan, and Bird. The half back line was easily the best department of the team and Steele the pick of last season’s players.’
The report from the Millwall end went along these lines; ‘The game itself did not develop into anything spectacular and both teams were evenly matched during the first half, which ended goalless.
‘Six minutes into the second half ‘Banger’ Voisey picked up a loose ball and from fully twenty yards struck a thunderous shot which Stansfield in the visitors goal could only divert into the net.
‘They kept up the pressure and were justly rewarded with a second goal seven minutes later. Centre forward Jimmy Broad was responsible for the goal, heading in a perfect centre from left winger Dempsey.
‘Millwall continued to press forward but found that the Rovers defence had settled and were not to be breached again.’
Millwall: Lansdale, Fort, Hodge, Voisey, Riddell, McAlpine, Waterall, Travers, Broad, Sutherland, Dempsey.
Rovers: Stansfield, Bethune, Panes, Boxley, Kenny, Steele, Chance, Bird, Sims, Bell, Palmer.
Five members of that first ever starting XI in the Football league had previously played Southern League Football for Rovers, including goalkeeper Harold Stansfield who had appeared in 57 league games in that competition after joining the club in November 1912. He always wore glasses when he played, which was very unusual for any player, let alone a goalkeeper!
Although contact lenses had been thought of at that time, it wasn’t until the 1950’s/1960’s that a satisfactory design was perfected, so Stansfield would have had no option but to wear glasses when playing.
He appeared in the club’s first three Football League matches, the third of which was the reverse fixture against Millwall. The Lions won that game 2-1 and Jesse Whatley took over in goal for the following game.
William Panes signed for Rovers in 1916 and played regular football during wartime. He made 18 league appearances in the club’s final Southern League campaign in 1919/20 and went on to appear in 74 Football League games for the club.
David Steele arrived at Eastville in November 1919 and scored once in 21 Southern League games. He went on to make 67 Football League appearances before finding fame with Huddersfield Town, helping them to become the first club to win three consecutive league titles. He also appeared in the 1928 FA Cup final and won three full Scottish international caps.
He later managed both Bradford PA and Bradford City, as well as his former club Huddersfield Town.
Stephen Sims, born in Bedminster in 1895, scored the winning goal in Rovers’ first ever league win, against Newport County. Prior to that he had scored nine goals in 32 Southern League games after joining the club from Leicester Fosse in July 1919.
He joined Burnley in 1922, Weymouth in 1924 and Bristol City in 1925 before returning to Rovers in 1926 and his overall Rovers record when he left again, in July 1927, was nine goals in 79 league appearances.
William Palmer also enjoyed two spells with Rovers. He appeared in 23 Southern League games for the club in 1912/13 before a move to Everton where he won a league championship medal in 1914/15.
He returned to Rovers in 1919 and scored twice in the final Southern League campaign, going on to score ten goals in 45 Football League appearances for the Gas prior to subsequent moves to Gillingham and Doncaster Rovers.
The other six players were all signed ahead of that inaugural Football League season. John Bethune had previously played for Heart of Midlothian and Barnsley and went on to make 30 league appearances during his one season at Eastville.
Harold Boxley had appeared in seven league games for Derby County before he arrived at Eastville in August 1920 and in three seasons with Rovers he scored eight goals in 47 league games.
David Kenny, another arrival in the summer of 1920 had previously played league football for Grimsby Town and in his only season with Rovers he made just 11 league appearances and became the first Rovers player to score an own goal in the Football League, ironically, against Millwall in the game at Eastville.
George Chance would score 11 goals in 80 league appearances for Rovers over four seasons following his arrival at the club in the summer of 1920. He signed for Gillingham in 1924 and in April 1925 ended up at Millwall, for whom he went on to play in 175 league games.
Harold Bell had appeared in 15 league games for Barnsley prior to arriving at Eastville, also in the summer of 1920. After appearing in the club’s first ever league fixture he made just one more league appearance, against Brentford in November 1920. He was released by the club at the end of their first Football League campaign.
Walter Bird also spent just the one season with Rovers, scoring five goals in 21 league games in 1920/21 and he is credited with scoring the club’s first ever Football League hat trick, scoring all three goals in the 3-1 win against Brighton on 25th September 1920.
We should also mention the club’s first ever manager in the Football League; Ben Hall was recruited by Chairman George Humphreys and became the club’s first full time manager. Prior to that Alfred Homer had been secretary/manager from 1899 and he remained at the club, as secretary, until 1928.
Hall had played for Grimsby Town, Derby County, Leicester Fosse, Hyde and South Shields. He had spent time as trainer at Huddersfield Town before his arrival at Eastville and he was in charge of the club for just that inaugural Football League season. He left the club in May 1921 and was succeeded by Andrew Wilson.
Sixty year old Chairman George Humphreys was clearly an influential figure at the club as before the beginning of their first season as a league club, he announced that the club was debt free as he had paid for Eastville in full which meant that the club owned 19 acres of land, including the stadium site and land up to the Thirteen Arches railway bridge overlooking the site.
The club didn’t wear blue and white quartered shirts for that first league campaign. The new kit consisted of white shirts and navy blue shorts and socks, colours they would wear for the next decade.
The Rovers team photo for 1920/21 is reproduced here and though he isn’t mentioned in the caption, Harold Stansfield is stood between Jesse Whatley and Alfred Sydney Leigh. As for the two ‘civilians’ at either end of the back row, I can only assume that one of them is manager Ben Hall whilst the other gentleman could well be trainer George Endicott.
Whilst also appearing in the first ever league game at the Den, Rovers were also the opposition when Millwall played their last ever game at that venue, on 8th May 1993. A 3-0 Gas win probably wasn’t in the script for that afternoon, but it was achieved, thanks to goals from Lee Archer, Mike Davis and Marcus Stewart.