Remembering Fergus Suter, the first footballer to get paid to play

Fergus Suter
Illustration by Akshay Narwekar
Remember when David Beckham had to explain to the Yanomami tribe that he made a living by kicking a ball around? We take a look at the first person who employed himself in such a ridiculous way – Fergus Suter

The thought of emerging as a footballing professional is a dream that has rattled the consciousness of every single one of us — at least at some point in our mortal lives. So strong is its sway over some people that they refuse to give up on it, despite the given evidence of the fact that they should. Sometimes, when we buckle down to our daily routines, we take an admiring look at the weekend’s highlights, wondering how ‘cool’ it would be to get paid to play.

And the paychecks wouldn’t need to make us rich. Just enough to get the bills paid. The knowledge of being so good at football that one produces more than one earns, would be more than enough, it could write paeans between our ears. Pipe dreams.

When William McGregor founded the Football League (the first organised football league) in 1888, all of the clubs that took part in it contained a lion’s share of paid players. By then, the sport had transformed from a hobby of wealthy gentlemen and university students to a serious job for those who knew how to play. Stands and terraces were constructed and entry fees were collected from those who wanted to entertain themselves with a bit of association football.

Funds were used to pay local lads for not working, encouraging them to train instead, and soon enough, clubs began to compete for the most talented players. In 1893, Aston Villa paid a fee of 100 pounds to West Bromwich Albion to acquire the services of Willie Groves.

But who was the first footballer to get paid to play? As far as we know, his name was Fergus Suter.

Fergus Suter (1857–1916), the lone son of David Suter, a journeyman stonemason, and his wife, Catherine (née Cooke), was born at 159 Shamrock Street, Glasgow, on 21 November 1857. By the year of 1871, the Suter family had moved to Merkland Street in Partick with a five-year-old girl named Hannah Lemon. Fast-forward seven years ahead, and witness now tweenager Fergus stalling his own career as a second-generation stone breaker, averring that Darwen’s yellow stone was too hard to work. In any other case, this rationale would have been accepted without objections, but Suter’s coinciding move to England to play for Darwen F.C. aroused a fair bit of suspicion amid the people involved.

For quite some time before the transfer, Suter had represented Partick teams from 1876 onwards before being attracted by a move to England in September. In an age where it was forbidden to pay any money for the services of a football player, how could a son of a Scottish stonemason leave his own career behind in England?

It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that Suter was going to receive compensation of some sort for his work at Darwen. The man himself thought, after seeing a cricket professional at his craft, that playing football was just as reasonable as any other job, and there was no sense to pretend like that wasn’t the case.

“‘On what plan were you [and James Love] paid in those days?’ [Suter] was asked, responding: ‘Well, we had no settled wage, but it was understood that we interviewed the treasurer as occasion arose. Possibly we should go three weeks without anything, and then ask for £10. We never had any difficulty.’”

—Lancashire Daily Post, 13 December 1902

Suter had apparently felt like it was imperative to move to Darwen, having lost his job in Partick due to the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank, and the following dismissal of all Peter McKissock’s employees. After learning about his fellow Partick player James Love’s move to Darwen F.C., Suter wrote to the club president Tom Hindle, proposing for some game time and using his stonemason’s experience as a disguise to delve into the city of Darwen and their beloved club.

Suter responded well to the preceding confusion and made an immediate impact. Together with ex-Partick bloke Love, he inspired Darwen to become the first northern side to reach the last eight of the FA Cup in 1879, crashing out after being handled by the eventual winners, Old Etonians.

According to journalist J. H. Catton, “members of the club contributed a little each week to keep [Suter] in necessaries”.

However, after just two seasons at Darwen, Suter made another judgement call and betrayed the club that had previously appointed him as their captain by switching his alliance to their arch rivals, Blackburn Rovers. Again, the public suspected that money, and improved terms, had something to do with the move (even affairs with servants were thrown into the mix). And they were right indeed, as it turned out that Blackburn had offered Suter £100 and asked him to don their colours in return.

Despite a strong case, Darwen were reluctant in making an official complaint, given the fact that their own way of luring Suter to England was particularly dirty open secret. The tension between the clubs gradually grew to Jay Gatsby–Tom Buchanan-esque heights, and Suter was either a demon or a saviour, depending on who you asked.

Hence when Darwen and Blackburn Rovers faced each other for the first time in November 1880, a violent pitch invasion forced the game to be called off.

Before the match had even begun, Darwen’s officials teased their Blackburn counterparts for hiring Scottish players by declaring that their squad would include only “Darwen-born-and-bred” men. And in the second half, perhaps inevitably, Suter was driven to a fight with one of the Darwen players.

Understandably, Darwen’s and Blackburn’s next reciprocal match was cancelled, and they would never play against each other in any other competition than the FA Cup.

Two years later, Suter’s Rovers lost the 1882 FA Cup Final to the gentlemen of Old Etonians. Despite Old Etonians’ prestigious past, Blackburn were expected to triumph, having gone through the season unbeaten. This would turn out to be the last time for an amateur club to win the competition.

By the year of 1883, the English football was moving towards professionalism with such impetus that the FA struggled to keep up. The short-lived, yet pioneering in terms of equality and professionalism, side of Blackburn Olympic won the FA Cup with a practically professional squad but, on the other hand, Accrington F.C. faced expulsion from the FA for attempting to hire playing executives.

One year later, Preston North End were thrown out of the same competition because they confessed to paying players in order to level the field.

Blackburn Rovers, however, remained undetected. Having boosted their ranks with the arrival of Scotland international, John Inglis, they went on to win back-to-back-to-back FA Cup titles in 1884, 1885 and 1886, with Suter dictating the tempo from the full-back position.

Ironically, Fergie (effectively) withdrew from the game in 1888—the same year the Football League was formed and a few years after the FA had legalised the employment of professional football players. He is now considered to have played a pivotal role in aiding Blackburn Rovers’ rise to the top of English football.

Having once been rejected by Glasgow Rangers, he is thought to have developed a high sense of dignity during his club career. Unfortunately though, he’s an electrifying figure we’ll never get to truly know. First, there were no TV cameras present at the time, rendering and capturing his heroics. Second, you’d have struggled to find anybody keen enough to keep the books about concealed cash payments from gate cash or alleged odd jobs in local firms. And third, details of Suter’s time at Darwen and Blackburn are covered mainly through anecdotal evidence and word-of-mouth legends, which have allowed fiction to creep into the story.

Anyhow, when Fergus Suter died in 1916, he died a pioneer. He had been good and he had known his value.

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Marco Heta

Found writing in third grade, discovered football in seventh. Five years later, combined them.