To claim that a certain team is better than any other is always a matter of opinion and open to debate. However, in the case of Ilkeston football, there was none finer than the one that represented the town in 1898/99.
Of course, if you were magically able to stage a match between the current team and those who played in 1898/99, the current team would win. Superior fitness, speed and tactical awareness would make sure of that. But one can only compare teams to how they fared in the era in which they actually played and the late nineteenth century Ilkeston Town team, under that jurisdiction, was the best.
It would be fair to claim that the 1898/99 team was amongst the top 50 professional clubs in the whole of the country, including Football League clubs. To back up this bold statement here are some facts.
The Football League at the time comprised of just 36 clubs, spread evenly over two divisions, and the overwhelming majority were based in the North and the Midlands. Teams dropping out of the Football League invariably found themselves in the Midland League as a result with others moving up from the Midland League to take their place. Ilkeston Town were members of the Midland League themselves at this time.
However, the Midland League was not the strongest league below the Football League at this time. That honour went to the Southern League, set up in the mid 1890s for ambitious professional Southern based clubs in an area which had, and still was, predominantly amateur. The Southern League had three divisions at the time, with a first division comprising of 13 clubs, two regionalised divisions, and it had a total of 31 clubs in total. This compares to the Midland League's membership of 14 clubs, made up of 10 'non-League' clubs and 4 reserves teams from the Football League. Such was the standard of the leading Southern League clubs that in 1900 Southampton became the first club from that league to reach the FA Cup Final and Tottenham Hotspur won it a year later. Even so, it would be fair to say that the Midland League clubs would have been more than a match for the Southern League clubs in the lower half of the first division and below.
Without a 'Pyramid' in place the only method to test the strength of leagues outside of the Football League is to look to the clubs' performances in the FA Cup. In 1898/99, teams in the First Round proper found themselves in the last 32 of the competition. The 18 First Division clubs were exempt from the qualifying rounds as were 4 of the clubs from the Second Division. The remaining 10 clubs were made up of 2 Second Division clubs who had progressed from the qualifying rounds, 4 Southern League clubs, 2 Midland League clubs and 1 each from the Northern Alliance and Lancashire League. The two Midland League clubs in the First Round, Heanor Town and Kettering, were both knocked out at this stage by First Division clubs, and only two non-League clubs reached the last 16, both of whom played in the Southern League.
The qualifying rounds give an even greater picture. Of the 10 Midland League clubs who entered the FA Cup in 1898/99, all but one, including Ilkeston who lost 4-2 at Second Division Burton Swifts in the third qualifying round, were knocked out of the competition by Football League clubs. The only team not to have been eliminated by a League club, Long Eaton Rangers, were knocked out by fellow Midland Leaguers Heanor Town. The 40 teams that took part in the fourth qualifying round included 10 teams from the Second Division, 8 from the Southern League and 5 from the Midland League, the rest being made up from a variety of leagues from around the country. Because of the geographical nature of the FA Cup draws no matches took place between Southern League and Midland League clubs so it is impossible to judge the relative merits of these two leagues by this means. Nevertheless the information above is sufficient enough to suggest that the Midland League was the second strongest league outside of the Football League at this time (only the Lancashire League came close to challenging the Midland League's strength).
Ilkeston Town came second in the Midland League in 1898/99 and based upon what we know it can be claimed without fear of contradiction that they were in the top 50 clubs in the country at this time. To put this into perspective, the Ilkeston Town team that finished eighth in the Blue Square North in 2009/10 would be ranked about 130th. Yet despite the fantastic achievement that Ilkeston Town made in 1898/99 it was nevertheless a season that ended in great disappointment. Ilkeston had looked to be certain champions a few weeks before the season's end.
Town had built up to the 1898/99 season with significant progress during the five previous years. They were a Derbyshire League team in 1893/94, the season when the brand new and highly acclaimed Manor Ground was opened. The club showed great ambition and wanted to bring top class football to the town and they entered the Midland League in 1894. Over the following seasons many players were signed who had experience of playing in the Football League. However, despite regular attendances of over 2000, it was becoming clear by the late 1890s that they were overstretching themselves financially. The result was a vastly reduced squad for the 1898/99 season yet this turned out to be to their advantage. Town had a settled team throughout the season with precious few team changes as they remained remarkably injury free. Indeed, the most serious problem was the loss of form suffered by the left winger and the difficulty the club had in finding an adequate replacement. Here is a list of the squad, including their Midland League appearance and goal records for the season:
TOM MARTIN (GOALKEEPER) Made 6 appearances for Nottingham Forest before joining Town in 1898. Was an ever present (26 appearances) in the 1898/99 season and stayed with the club for a further year.
GEORGE SMITH (RIGHT BACK) Formerly with Hinckley Athletic he joined Leicester where he made 25 appearances. Had a trial at Preston North End before joining Town in 1895 and gave them terrific service being an almost automatic choice until 1901. Was an ever present in 1898/99.
ALLAN HARDY (LEFT BACK) Born Ilkeston 1873. Local talent who had been a regular in the team since 1894. Missed only one game in 1898/99 but left at the end of the season to join Wigan County. Within months he signed for Blackburn Rovers for whom he made 42 appearances.
GRAINGER (LEFT BACK) Made a single appearance in 1898/99 in Allan Hardy's absence.
FRED SANDAY (RIGHT HALF) Joined from Long Eaton Rangers in 1894 and immediately became captain. Was a regular in the team until 1900 and missed just two games during the 1898/99 campaign during which he scored 1 goal.
JACK BARKER (RIGHT HALF) Played for the team in Sanday's absence making 2 appearances in total in 1898/99. Left in 1899 for Heanor Town where he developed into a good right winger and he returned to Ilkeston for the 1900/01 season. He then signed for Stockport County where he made 2 League appearances.
JOE PEACE (CENTRE HALF) Arrived for a three year spell at Ilkeston in 1897 when Heanor Town were forced to disband for a season. An ever present in 1898/99, with 1 goal to his credit.
WALTER ROSE (LEFT HALF) Born Borrowash. Made his League debut with Derby County and made 5 appearances after starting out with Derby Midland. Then joined Second Division Loughborough Town where he scored once in 30 appearances prior to joining Ilkeston in 1896. He was an ever present in 1898/99 and scored 1 goal but returned to League football at the end of it when he re-signed for Loughborough where he made an additional 31 appearances and added one more goal to his tally. He later rejoined Ilkeston, spending the 1900/01 season with the club.
JIMMY DRAPER (OUTSIDE RIGHT) Formerly with Kimberley he spent a year at Sheffield United where he scored three times in 12 appearances. Then signed for Ilkeston in 1897 as an inside right but had moved into a wider role by 1898/99. He was an ever present in 1898/99, scoring 7 goals, and stayed with the club until 1901 by which time he had returned to an inside forward role. He was suspended by the club for 6 weeks in 1900 when he missed a train thus forcing Town to play a match with just ten men.
ALBERT CARNELLY (INSIDE RIGHT) Born Nottingham 29/12/1870. Played for Notts Mapperley, Notts County and Loughborough Town but it was at Nottingham Forest where he made his League debut and he went on to score an impressive 24 goals in 52 games for the Reds. He then joined Leicester where he scored 10 times in 28 appearances prior to signing for Southern League Bristol City. Signed for Ilkeston before the start of the 1898/99 season and scored 9 goals in just 11 games before rejoining Bristol City for £10 in December. Also had spells at Thames Ironworks and Millwall Athletic before spending one last season at Ilkeston when he re-signed in 1901.
DICKY WOMBWELL (INSIDE RIGHT) Born Nottingham 1877. Signed from Bulwell as Carnelly's replacement and made a big impact scoring 7 goals in 16 appearances. Left at the end of the 1898/99 season for Derby County where he scored 17 times in 85 games to begin a decent career in League football. Moved on to Bristol City for whom he made 92 appearances and scored 19 goals before signing for Manchester United where he scored 3 times in 47 games playing as a winger. He then moved into Scottish League football with Hearts and then returned South to play in the Southern League with Brighton. His final League club was Blackburn Rovers where he scored once in 15 appearances and in 1910 he retuned to Ilkeston for a brief stay with Ilkeston United.
SAM RAYBOULD (CENTRE FORWARD) Born Chesterfield 1875. Started out as a teenager with Ilkeston Town before moving to Chesterfield. He then entered League football with Derby County where he scored twice in 5 games before returning to Ilkeston late in the 1894/95 season and stayed until 1897 before joining Poolsbrook United. He signed for Ilkeston for a third time in Spring 1898 and missed just 2 games in 1898/99 scoring 17 goals including 3 penalties. He left at the end of the season for a brief stay at Bolsover Colliery before embarking upon a fine career in League football. Initially at New Brighton Tower of the Second Division where he scored 10 goals in just 13 games it was at Liverpool where he made his name. He helped them to the League title with 16 goals in 1900/01 and was top scorer in the whole of the Football League two years later with a remarkable tally of 31. In total he scored a post War Liverpool record of 119 goals in 211 games and although an England cap eluded him he did represent the Football League. He ended his League days with Sunderland, where he scored 13 times in 27 games, and Arsenal for whom he scored 6 goals in 26 appearances. He ended his playing days at his home town club.
ROE (FORWARD) Little is known about this player apart from that he deputised for Sam Raybould on one occasion early in the 1898/99 season.
CHARLIE ROSE (CENTRE FORWARD) Brother of Walter. Started out with Derby Midland before making 5 League appearances for Derby County. Joined Ilkeston Town in 1898/99, making a single appearance before moving to Second Division Loughborough Town for hom he scored twice in 23 games. He rejoined Ilkeston in 1900 and set a record for local senior football when he scored 7 times against Burton Wanderers in January 1901.
GEORGE DUNN (INSIDE LEFT) Made a single appearance with Derby County before becoming a great servant to Ilkeston Town following his arrival in 1892. Scored their first ever Midland League goal in 1894 and remained with them until the end of the 1898/99 season, during which he was an ever present with 3 goals to his name.
JIMMY BURKE (OUTSIDE LEFT) Scotsman who started out as a wing half playing in the Scottish League with Third Lanark. He then moved across the border to join Newark Town before entering League football with Notts County where he made 15 appearances and scored 4 goals. Grantham Rovers was his next club but he soon returned to League football with Lincoln City for whom he scored 7 times in 52 games. A return to Grantham Rovers followed before he signed for Ilkeston Town in 1897, ending his first season as top scorer. Played regularly in 1898/99 but lost both his form and his place after appearing in the first 22 games, during which he scored 6 times. Remained at the club for the 1899/00 season, reverting to the left half position of old, before leaving in 1900.
LOVE (OUTSIDE LEFT) One of a trio of left wingers tried following Jimmy Burke's loss of form. Made 2 appearances in 1898/99.
JOHN HAMILTON (OUTSIDE LEFT) Former Derby County forward who scored twice in 12 League appearances for The Rams. Made 1 appearance in 1898/99.
STAPLETON (LEFT SIDED FORWARD) Made 2 appearances in 1898/99, one at inside left and the other in a wider role.
Form in the early weeks of the 1898/99 season was steady and it gradually improved so that by mid October they topped the Midland League. Three months later they had increased their lead at the top to seven points. However, their impressive feats on the pitch led to jealousy from other quarters. Rushden Town returned home from Ilkeston with a 3-0 defeat which provoked a response from their local newspaper that the Ilkeston press described as 'literary rot' and 'laughable in its idiocy'. The Northamptonshire newspaper had written, "Ilkeston supporters, ye are pigs, and likewise sons of pigs, and don't forget it. You're a disgrace to your native pigsties, and I poor my contempt on you in its most unutterable form. That's too good for such creatures as you are."
In early February, Town travelled to Long Eaton and won 4-2. Little did they know at the time that this was going to be their final league victory of the season. Only one more point was gained, and slowly but surely, the chasing pack made up ground. It was an agonising time. Sam Raybould missed a twice taken penalty in the 1-0 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday Reserves. Late in the season they were dealt a severe blow when Allan Hardy injured a leg and had to retire before half time in the match at Heanor. Heanor went on to beat ten man Ilkeston 3-0.
Despite Ilkeston's ill fortune the Midland League committee were convinced that Town were going to take the title, to such an extent that they prematurely nominated Ilkeston as the club to take part in the annual Champions v Rest of the League fixture (which Town lost 2-1 in early April).
Town's final league fixture was on Easter Tuesday, at Leicester Reserves, following a gruelling period of three games in four days. The season was due to finish some 25 days later but the Ilkeston committee naively agreed to play the Leicester game when they did following an agreement made with their Leicester counterparts. Leicester said that they would not include players with first team experience if the game was played on Easter Tuesday.
The agreement was broken. Not only did Leicester change their minds but they also selected nine first team players. Not surprisingly Leicester 'Reserves' won 1-0. Ilkeston immediately appealed to the Midland League but no rule had been broken. Leicester escaped with a reprimand while Ilkeston faced an agonising wait to find out if they had done enough to win the title. With their season over they topped the table with 32 points but Chesterfield lay just one point behind with a game in hand and a better goal average. Third place Kettering were two points behind with two games in hand whilst fourth place Doncaster Rovers, below midtable at Christmas but in a great run of form, had two games left but were three points behind with a vastly inferior goal average.
Four days after Ilkeston's final game Chesterfield blew their chance by losing 4-3 but Kettering kept their own hopes alive by drawing with Mexborough. A fortnight later, on April 22nd, Mexborough ended Kettering's title dream with a 2-1 win but Doncaster beat Sheffield Wednesday Reserves 4-1. This meant that Doncaster were the only team who could prevent Ilkeston from winning the title and they had to win their last match, against Ilkeston's friends from Rushden. Doncaster won 6-0.
There were several factors behind Town's failure to win the title, many of which have already been outlined. Another reason was their relatively poor away form which saw them pick up just 7 points from 13 games. But it was the Leicester match that rankled. The Midland League secretary, Mr A Kingscott was sympathetic, describing Leicester's actions as "grossly unsportsmanlike conduct" and that Town had suffered "the vilest luck that can befall any club." Even the Leicestershire FA was moved to contact Ilkeston. Mr JE Carpenter, an official from the LCFA, wrote: "Through no fault of your own you have been deprived of the championship. I much regret the main cause of it, and trust that in the near future your club will reap such success as shall in some way compensate for the manner in which they have been deprived of the honour which I believe was their due."
Such success did not come Ilkeston's way. While champions Doncaster Rovers became a League club two years later Town were out of business within four years.