By Laura Jones
County cricket and football are natural sporting bedfellows. The seasons only overlap in the late spring months and for those with a natural sporting disposition they allowed sportsmen to perform throughout the year.
It used to be common to find cricketing footballers. Denis Compton played football for Arsenal, county cricket for Middlesex and international cricket for England. Even up until the 1980’s the duality of sportsmen could be found in Ian Botham who played for Scunthorpe United but more famously cricket for Durham, Somerset, Worcestershire and England.
In 1889 it was a Derbyshire athlete that made the headlines on the 13th January that shocked both the football and cricketing worlds. William Cropper, a footballer for Staveley FC, died from an on the pitch accident, whilst playing against Grimsby Town FC.
Little is known about William Cropper the footballer. He’d played locally in east Derbyshire for five or six years for Spital, Bockington Works and for Staveley FC, a team where he was excelling as a footballer.
Staveley FC were an amateur team who had ambitions of becoming a professional outfit. In August 1888, only five months before Cropper’s accident, the club settled on registering the team as professional and applied to appear in a number of cup competitions including the Sheffield and Hallamshire Cup. In their first season in the Hallamshire cup Staveley reached the final at Bramall Lane but eventually lost 2-1 to an injury depleted Rotherham United.
After Cropper’s death, his club Staveley FC, had their application to become a professional team rejected due to the low population of the village and because they had sold a large chunk of their land to the railways for expansion of the line to Chesterfield. This decision would eventually force them out of existence.
During William Cropper’s career he had what looked to be a bright future with Staveley but it was as a cricketer that he was most noted for. On the announcement of his untimely death most newspaper’s reported him as a ‘Derbyshire cricketer’ rather than as a footballer.
Cropper made his first appearance for Derbyshire at the age of 19. He started as a promising batsman and evolved into a useful all-rounder with his left arm medium pace deliveries and competent fielding. He was described as ‘reliable and smart’ by the Sheffield and Rotherham Telegraph. Hardly a fanciful description but Cropper was a solid and capable man to have on your team.
The accident took place a on cold January match day. There were high winds at the ground and the pitch surface was slippery but both teams were tough and resilient. Staveley had a reputation for being hard tackling and competitive. It’s alleged other teams nick named them ‘Old foot and mouth’ because they weren’t afraid to get a foot in or keep their mouths shut.
Their opponents, Grimsby Town, were hardly the shy and retiring types either and it was expected to be a hard fought battle at Clee Park, the home of Grimsby, with both teams being described as ‘robust’.
The match started at 2.30pm as normal. The game had only been in play for eight minutes when the innocuous challenge occurred.
William Cropper was playing right wing or inner right forward as it was called then and he was charging along the line towards the Grimsby goal.
A ball was crossed to Cropper’s teammate Charlie Coalbrook but it sailed over his head. The ball was now loose with Cropper racing towards it but he wasn’t the only one heading towards the ball.
Little may have been known about William Cropper but his competitor Daniel Doyle was notorious. Depending on whom you believe Doyle was a Scottish football superstar, a mercenary, a hero, a killer. He had a mind ‘like a weather vane’ that was likely to go off any direction at any time but as a footballer he was unquestionably brilliant.
Doyle had been acquired by the Grimsby Town chairman on one of his ‘fishing expeditions’ north of the border. According to Bob Lincoln, former Grimsby player and director, in his book Reminiscences of Grimsby Town Football Club, Scottish players were described as ‘salmon’. The chairman knew he had landed himself a big fish in Doyle.
It was in his later career that Dan Doyle’s bad boy reputation would be forever etched in Scottish football history. He made excessive demands and threats whenever renegotiating his contract. Doyle knew that if his threats weren’t met his talent would be snapped up elsewhere.
Doyle’s former club Everton sued him after he broke his contract. Doyle asked for his wages to be paid up front for the season, where he would then take a minimal amount as weekly wages. Everton agreed to this and paid him a total of £111. Doyle was contracted to play from May 1891 to April 1893. Doyle terminated his contract on 8th August 1891 to begin a contract with Celtic. Although Celtic were still an amateur club at the time they offered Doyle more incentives to return including a pub where he could be landlord. Doyle accepted Celtic’s terms and terminated his contract with Everton.
Doyle’s defence was that he had played for 14 weeks for Everton and that he had always been willing to pay back the difference in the wages he had been paid up front. As the English season doesn’t play competitively between May to August, Doyle effectively claimed wages for not playing any competitive games.
Even though Doyle had treated Everton with contempt, they continued to woo him back to the club for years afterwards. Despite his character his footballing ability was never in doubt, even by a club burned by the defender before.
The Athletic News described Doyle as ‘a splendid player but is in possession of a bad temper and his refusal to obey the referee and his subsequent conduct in setting the FA at defiance will certainly not be allowed to pass unnoticed.’
Doyle’s reputation would be forever tarnished by the run he made towards William Cropper and the media and fans never let him forget it.
Pastime magazine an English sports magazine, said of Doyle, ‘He is undoubtedly able to play a scrupulously fair game for he has received unsolicited testimonials to this effect from coroners’ juries. On the other hand, he has certainly the power of taking care of himself in the melee, as the disasters which have befallen those who have come into collision with him amply testify.’
A shocking indictment for any footballer to receive in the press, especially as he was exonerated of any wrong doing in the collision with William Cropper at the inquest.
Both Cropper and Doyle jumped to collect the loose ball that had passed over Coalbrook’s head.
They both attempted to ‘breast’ the ball but in the jump Doyle kneed Cropper in the stomach and the Staveley winger dropped to the floor. Realising that he was severely hurt Cropper asked to be taken off the pitch. Some articles report Cropper melodramatically shouted ‘They’ve killed me’ as he was taken from the field but whatever the truth the unanimous view was that Cropper was screaming in agony.
There are some discrepencies in exactly where Cropper was taken. The inquest says William died in the dressing rooms but Grimsby Town player at the time Bob Lincoln said he was taken across the street to Charlie Parker’s Cocoa House where doctor’s attended him all night. It was deemed too dangerous to move him from wherever he was taken.
William Cropper died the morning after the game. His post mortem discovered a one and a half inch tear in his intestines which caused his premature death.
A memorial was erected to honour the life of William Cropper in Brimington cemetery. In Sicilian marble, a football, cricket bat and stumps were carved surrounded by a laurel wreath with an inscription to remember the popular sportman.
There is a tragic twist to the tale in that allegedly William Cropper hadn’t wanted to play as he had been appointed groundsman at Lord’s cricket headquarters the previous day. However Lords do not have a record of this job being offered to the unfortunate cricketer.
Grimsby Town football club became a pariah of the fixture list with teams from the area refusing to play them because they were ‘too dangerous to play against.’ An unfair reputation carved out from one accidental clash.
Dan Doyle, the villain of our piece, went onto have a very successful career with Celtic but he was forever marred by Cropper’s death. A unfair result for both Doyle and William Cropper.