Researched and written by Steve Clare
Games involving the kicking of a ball have existed throughout history. According to FIFA, the "very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise of precisely this skilful technique dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC in China.”
The modern rules (or more precisely laws) of football are based on the mid-19th century efforts to standardise the widely varying forms of the game played at the public schools of England.
During the 1850s many clubs unconnected to schools or universities were formed throughout the English-speaking world. Some came up with their own distinct codes of rules. Most notably of these was Sheffield FC, formed by former public school pupils and, having been established in 1857, are recognised as the world’s oldest football club. The Football Association was established six years later in 1863.
In 1872 an influential football administrator, C.W. Alcock, suggested that a Challenge Cup be established for which all clubs in connection with the newly formed Association be invited to compete. It is, of course, now known as the FA Cup, arguably the greatest club cup competition in the world.
By the turn of the 19th Century football in England was already well organised. However locally, and more precisely in Didcot, the game was played seemingly on an ad-hoc basis. A team going by the name of Didcot Village FC played on Station Meadow (now Cronshaw Close) and also, with the consent of the land owners, on a field near Britwell Road. Another team, Northbourne Wanderers (who consisted mainly railway workers), were playing on Northbourne Sports Ground.
In the history of English football the most noteworthy event of 1907 was the death of C.W. Alcock (the administrator who ‘invented’ the FA Cup). But for a small part of Royal Berkshire a more significant happening occurred when Didcot Village FC and Northbourne Wanderers amalgamated to form Didcot Town Football Club (exactly 50 years after the formation of Sheffield FC).
In the early days, and before joining any leagues, the new club played friendly matches on Fleet Meadow in extremely basic conditions. There were no proper changing facilities, least not by the standards of today; the goal posts were made from gas-pipe tubing and the pitch-lines were drawn using a biscuit tin with a hole in it pulled along by a piece of string.
In 1912 George Smallbone became club secretary. His appointment brought a massive improvement in the new club’s set-up. Organisation and better playing equipment followed, which paved the way for affiliation to the Berks & Bucks Football Association. At the same time Didcot Town joined the North Berks Junior League; and the club’s first success was only just around the corner.
Rivalry amongst clubs was prevalent even a century ago. This was no better illustrated when Didcot’s newly formed committee received letters threatening “to do damage” had Town won a game prior to a local derby with Harwell.
The first silverware in the club’s history was claimed in 1913 when Diddy beat Radley in the North Berks Junior Cup. The final was played in Abingdon in front of a huge crowd. This had been anticipated by the Didcot committee, and a police presence was requested. At a cost of five shillings (25p), two policemen were made available and they ensured the estimated one thousand spectators enjoyed Town’s victory with no reported problems.
Football had to take a back seat from 1914, with the outbreak of the Great War, and every club throughout the country many of the players and officials were called up to join the army. One of these Diddy volunteers was Private 15662 George William Haycroft, who joined 5th Battalion Royal Berks. Haycroft had played a key part in the club’s Junior Cup success and had a trial for Reading Reserves just before he enlisted. Sadly he was wounded in action and died a few days later in hospital at Abbeville on 11th October 1915. He was one of six men (either playing or in an official capacity at the club at the outbreak of war) who were to lose their lives in action in the First World War.
In 1918 (at the end of hostilities) it was decided that all of the club’s footballers who had served in the Great War would be remembered on a Roll of Honour:
S Lewthwaite*, G Beck*, W Walters, E Quartermain, H Hawkins, W Bennell, W Stroud*, N Jones, G King, G Haycroft*, W Brown*, E Talbot, R Ambrose, E Alder, P Fisher*, J Napper and D Campbell.
* Those who did not return from the war
Incredibly the club’s mascot, a teddy bear, had gone to France with the volunteers and had been safely returned to Didcot. But, alongside the Roll of Honour, it subsequently went missing, most probably because the club was still without a permanent home.
Post-WW1 Didcot Town FC re-entered the North Berks Junior League with a Reserve side playing in the 2nd Division. By 1923 the club comprised of two teams playing regularly on Saturdays, but there was soon to be added a third side under the Didcot Town ‘umbrella’. Didcot Wednesday FC (like the more famous and still-going Sheffield Wednesday FC) was a team made up mainly of local shop workers who couldn’t play Saturday football, but who had a half-day off for early closing on Wednesdays. They played in the Reading and District League and the club’s teams now found themselves playing games at Edmonds Park, Cow Lane and in a meadow owned by Mr Napper near Haydon Road. Not an ideal situation and finding a permanent, single base became a priority.
Towards the end of 1923 a lease was secured from Mr A T Loyd on land at Station Road. The ground was opened by a local MP in November, and the club was to call the Station Road its ‘home’ for the next 76 years.
The football club appears to have entered nearly two decades of relative stability but this, sadly, was not mirrored in the world of politics and the country once again faced war in Europe by 1939.
Back in 1927 the First Team had entered the Reading and District League (Division One). The club were runners-up in 1935-36 and eventually gained promotion to the Premier Division for the three years prior to World War II.
But football was the last thing on people’s minds as the 1930’s came to a close….