It will probably come as no surprise that the history of English football snobbery directed toward America is almost as long as the history of the game itself. But such snobbery is not necessarily a bad thing. In 1905 and 1909 a team of gentleman amateurs called the Pilgrims landed in America to show the natives a thing or two about how the game ought to be played. Kensington’s own Philadelphia Hibernians had a few lessons of their own to share.
It probably goes without saying that because the Pilgrims were amateurs it didn’t mean they weren’t good. In the decades immediately following the creation of the FA in 1863 the amateur spirit had for a time been ascendant over attempts to create professional teams. When the FA legalized professionalism in 1885, followed soon after by the formation of the Football League in 1888, amateur teams could no longer expect to compete at the top flight. Amateur players could and the Pilgrims had many such players, including team captain Fred Milnes, who played for Sunderland, as well as players from Woolrich Arsenal (now known simply as Arsenal), Fulham, Notts County and Southampton. Philadelphia hadn’t fielded a professional team since the mid 1890s.
While the Pilgrims were not a standing team, they had the advantage of having played together far longer than many of the picked sides they would face during their tours in America. During their 1905 tour they played 12 matches over 2 months in Canada and the United States, scoring 72 goals while conceding seven, losing but one game.
All of them being public-school educated, the avowed purpose of the Pilgrims was to spread the game of soccer in American universities, going so far as to offer the services of top English coaches. As it turned out they only played one college side during the 1905 tour, a team made up of, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “past and present” players from the University of Pennsylvania. In front of a crowd at Franklin Field of “between 3000 or 4000 persons” the Penn side went down 10 to 0.
Following the Pilgrims first visit to America the number of soccer programs at American universities did increase. But this was probably related more to a growing backlash against the violent play in American gridiron football. A New York Times report in 1904 stated that some 21 deaths had occurred in the college football season that year. Soccer seemed to many to be a less violent alternative.
Soccer had lost out to gridiron football in American universities in the 1870s. Aside from a few notable attempts to revive the game, it was not until suburban Philadelphia’s Haverford College fielded a team led by Richard M. Gummere in 1902 that soccer began to reappear on American campuses in earnest. Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale soon were also fielding teams. Gummere proved to be something of a soccer prophet: when he went to Harvard for graduate studies he helped to establish the game there.
If the on field violence of gridiron football wasn’t enough, some college administrators decried how the drive to win corrupted the amateur spirit and led student athletes to neglect their studies. Even President Theodore Roosevelt – whose son had just joined the Harvard freshman football squad - got involved, calling representatives from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to a meeting at the White House where he urged them, as David Wangerin writes in Soccer in a Football World, “to redraft football’s rules to encourage safer and fairer play, and to better uphold the ideals of amateurism and university life.”
When the Pilgrims returned for a second tour of America in 1909, such concerns were probably not in the minds of American soccer fans. They simply wanted to see a good team from the birthplace of the game. That they did as the Pilgrims continued to dominate, scoring 123 goals while allowing only 12 in 22 games, winning 16 and losing two with four draws.
In Philadelphia the Pilgrims were scheduled to play three matches: one against a picked team from the Associated Cricket Clubs League (ACCL), one against Hibernians, a club from Kensington and the champions of the Pennsylvania League, and then a final game against a picked All-Philadelphia team. Because, with the exception of matches scheduled to be played on a holiday, almost all league games at that time took place on a Saturday, that two of the games were scheduled for a Tuesday and a Thursday was noteworthy since the vast majority of the city’s soccer players and fans were immigrant factory workers.
The picked team of the ACCL may have come close to being social equals to some on the Pilgrim squad in the class consciousness of the day but they were no match on the pitch. Some 1500 spectators turned up at the Merion Cricket Club in Haverford on November 2, 1909, to watch the home side lose 3-0. Despite the fact that, in the words of the match report in the November 3, 1909 edition of the Inquirer, several of the Pilgrims “were in a more or less crippled condition,” the visitors had played a fast game, “much too fast for the home team.”
Two thousand spectators showed up to see the Pilgrims meeting with Hibernians at the Germantown Cricket Club in the Manheim section of the Philadelphia on November 4, 1909, even though “a terrific wind and rain storm” had swept over the city shortly before the kickoff. According to the match report from the November 5, 1909, edition of the Inquirer, the game started with the visitors appearing “tired and listless.” The Inquirer reported that the “Irishmen quickly sized up the situation and throughout the game plugged in the most persistent fashion” with a “hard, aggressive” style of play.
After a scoreless first half and another storm, the Pilgrims played with the wind at their backs, leading many spectators to think they would finally “wake up and make things lively for the Hibernians.” This they did but, “[f]ifteen minutes from the re-start, the Hibernian forwards got away and a misunderstanding between Bayley [right fullback] and Milnes [left fullback] let in Andy Brown [outside left], who scored with a fairly fast, low shot, the backs impeding [goalkeeper] Lemoines view of the ball.”
With the goal scored, “the partisans of the Hibernians went wild with joy and the cheering was kept up for several minutes.”
“Thoroughly aroused by the reverse,” the Pilgrims attacked furiously and the “Hibs goal had several narrow escapes.” At one point a Pilgrims corner kick went through the goal “but it did not touch another player, and was therefore disallowed.” (Yes, the rules were different then. Goals were not allowed from direct free kicks until 1927.) It was a historic victory and the first loss suffered by the Pilgrims during their 1909 tour. The Inquirer reported the next day that “there was great rejoicing in Kensington last night over the victory of the Irishmen, and the defeat of the tourists will give a great boost to local football.”
The “great boost” proved not to be immediately measurable: in front of “8000 spectators” at the Germantown Cricket Club two days later, the All Philadelphia team lost 9 goals to 0.
On November 10, 1909, the Fall River Rovers of Massachusetts drew with the Pilgrims 1-1, beating them three days later 2 goals to 1. Soccer continued to spread at American universities. Despite periodic concerns about violence in the game, college football would continue to thrive and capture the imagination of the nation. Though the first professional gridiron football league, the Ohio League, had been formed in 1903, it would take decades for the National Football League, originally called the American Professional Football League when it was formed in 1920, to supplant college football’s popularity. Professional soccer specifically, and soccer in America generally, would yet face many ups and downs.