In 1882 a smaller club in Blackburn formed by the Factory and Mill workers in the town, known as Blackburn Olympic, who 2 years previously had only ever taken part in local competitions in and around Lancashire, were about to cause one of the biggest upsets in footballing history (At this point, at least).
Jack Hunter is a name, that isn't a widely renowned name in the footballing world but he should be. He should be one of the most famous names in the world as he shaped the way footballers even today live and the way that teams play.
The 1880’s was changing football already, after a previously 1 dimensional style of passing and brutal tackling, Scotland (Mainly Queens Park) had developed a new style of passing, essentially the original tiki-taka. This style of football was adopted by teams in Lancashire and this is where the north slowly became a force. However what Jack Hunter did was add a whole other level to this. In his eyes football wasn't only about the way that the team played but it was about how the players lived. Jack knew that teams from working class areas like Blackburn couldn't possibly match the public school teams of the south when it came to diet and therefore size, so what he did was focus Olympic’s core values around speed and fitness.
Hunter was the Pep Guardiola of the era, after making his team fast and fit he then decided to revolutionise football tactics. At the time most teams (Prepare yourself for this) would play SIX up top but Hunter’s tactics were based around the new passing style of play so instead of the usual, Hunter would drop one back into midfield for a solid 2-3-5 formation. As comical as this may sound this change was revolutionary. This was the original midfield overload and it worked!
That year Olympic had been, at most, ignored. Their achievements in the earlier rounds had been pasted off as routine and lucky, but it was in the quarter final that heads started to turn. Olympic were drawn against the best team in Wales, Ruabon Druids. Olympic were massive underdogs against a team full of powerful Welsh internationals. But at half time ,after Olympic scored first, it was 1-1. Surely this was as close as the factory team would come? “Blackburn Olympic had to play uphill in the second half” Read one of the national papers. But the fitness and tactics showed, Olympic ran away with it 4-1. (Despite playing uphill) This win caused some commotion, at least, in Blackburn. Rovers had been knocked out and now it was the factory workers and weavers of the town that looked to take on the public school old boys from the south.
Once again Jack Hunter would change the game, the week before their semi-final against Old- Carthusians, Jack took his team away from their homes and factory jobs for a relaxing week in Blackpool. Whilst there he would monitor his team intensely, their diet which he based around Oysters and NO bear. He would also make sure his team would do a cardio session every morning along the coast, whether walking or running. His team had to stay fit!
As a result of this rest and relaxation week, Olympic walked over the Carthusians. They took an early lead and never once looked close to loosing it. Hunter’s tactics had worked perfectly, the fitness of his team and the formation that he introduced had bested the FA Cup winners of only two years prior.
Now the smaller of two teams based in a small working class Mill town were in the final of the FA Cup, but now they would be tested to their limit, they would play arguably the best team in the world and to this point the dominating force in the UK and the leading light of football on the planet, The Old Etonians.
As is customary the final would be played in London. But not at Wembley but at the formally known Kennington Oval (The Oval today). Surely this would be it, surely the run which many were calling luck would end.
8000 people turned up to the Kennington Oval many wearing monacles, top hats, with their walking sticks and specially made suits, no surprise they were here to watch their boys show some class against the northern whipping boys. As always the Old Etonians started the better and to no surprise of the capacity (And record) crowd they took the lead. The game as they saw it was going exactly as expected. These northern working class wannabes were being taught a footballing lesson by their home county superiors.
The game wore on and in at the start of the second half the unthinkable happened, Olympic equalised. Then something changed, the powerful tackling and direct play from the Etonians wasn’t working, they found themselves chasing the ball. Blackburn Olympic were not constantly on the offensive, they were passing the ball with no intent of attack but instead to create. They made the Etonians chase the ball, they shrugged off their tackles and wore them down, pass by pass. Even when the Etonians did go on the attack they found that their shots on goal were stopped by Thomas Hacking a goalkeeper who revolutionised the position, his abilities did not rely on size but instead on agility. Leaping athletically across the goal the stop the Old boys winning the game.
For only the fourth time in FA Cup history the game went to extra-time. The Etonian crowd were wiping their brows with their handkerchief ‘s because something wasn't right. Their boys were out on their feet, whereas these unknown factory workers looked ready to go. The fitness training had paid off and as a result they were about to win the ultimate prize. Jimmy Costley a weaver and relatively unknown player but described as a skilful winger and superb dribbler scored three minutes into added time, Olympic had the lead and they never came close to loosing it.
Blackburn Olympic had created history, the first northern team to win the FA Cup, they turned so the tied so dramatically that a London based team would not win the cup again for another 18 years!
6 years later Blackburn Olympic were dissolved, despite their success they couldn't compete with the money of the other teams in the area, their players were poached by Rovers and The Olympic just couldn’t compete.
Blackburn Olympic and player/manager Jack Hunter had changed the game, although their history was short, had changed football forever. Hunter who was a defender himself professionalised the game, made players watch their weight and focus on fitness. He set a precedent that the rest of the world had to meet. After the dissolving of Olympic Hunter found himself coaching at Rovers and even became club groundsman at Ewood. He had almost single handedly turned the tied and paved a way for Blackburn Rovers to become the force that they would eventually become Hunter even help Rovers onto a record 6-1 victory against ‘The Wednesday’ in the 1889-90 FA Cup final.
So next time you see Barcelona pass a team to death, next time you see Spain play with a false 9, when you next see the revolutionary Pep Guardiola completely outclass an opponent remember, that style of thinking and willing to break the mould was started in our small Mill Town but not by our Blackburn Rovers but by Blackburn Olympic.
Thanks for reading.