Many of us have played football over the park – just a kick around between mates pretending they were their favourite player. My own haunt as a child was Popes Meadow in Luton – we usually had at least four Bruce Rioch’s in our games. Games amongst ourselves included “attack versus defence”, “headers”, “F.A. Cup” usually followed by the “European Cup.” These were warm up games for the main event – a game between all those present – usually around 5 v 5. However, some days a challenge was issued to a similar sized group of lads playing nearby. A challenge was more likely if we thought we could beat them, having sneakily kept an eye on them beforehand. Challenges are as old as the game itself.
The clip below is from the Sporting Life of 1st September 1884. Herbert Spratley, the new secretary of Luton Wanderers issued a challenge to play games at Christmas. Wanderers played Rugby as well as Association Football (Rugger and Soccer).
When Luton Town were formed, challenges were immediately issued. The club minute book reveals that at the first committee meeting on the 18th April 1885
“it was decided that the Secretary send amongst other challenges to the following clubs:- Old Etonians, Grove House, Old Forresters, Old Wykehamists, Wellingboro’ Grammar School, Prairie Rangers, Hendon, Old Westminster’s, Hotspur, Berks and Bucks, St Albans etc etc”.
The following clip from “The Sportsman” of 23rd December 1887 shows that newspapers had devoted spaces for clubs to issue challenges. Some clubs helpfully described their strength – to date I have not found a club describing themselves as “weak.”
Luton did find opponents for the 27th December 1887. Phoenix from London came to Dallow Lane and suffered a 4 2 defeat. The unwritten part of the challenge was the hospitality shown by the home club. Luton had a fine reputation in this respect. A tidy, attractive town in the Chiltern Hills was a draw for many especially smog ridden Londoners. Luton always sent a committee member to meet their opponents off the train. A dressing room, water and towels were provided. A fine after match tea was provided at the Club HQ at the Midland Hotel, on the corner of Manchester Street and Williamson Street. A sing song, recitations and poems rounded off the day. Friendships were formed which could prove very useful in the future.