And an infamous football match
The town of Hyde, seven miles to the east of Manchester, was a product of nineteenth-century industrialisation. Its geography encouraged the mining of coal and the building of mighty factories for the production of cotton cloth. Once a small rural community, it grew into a municipal borough represented by its imposing town hall and an ambitious young football club.
Admitted to the FA Cup in 1887, Hyde FC were unfortunate to be drawn to play their first ever tie at Deepdale, home of Preston North End, the club that was on the verge of supremacy in the English game. Preston won 26-0, the highest score in a first-class match and a record that is unlikely ever to be broken.
Walter Rowbotham, the unassuming schoolmaster in Blessèd are the Meek, reappears as the narrator of the story where here he takes centre stage. Twenty-six Nil is more than the retelling of the events of a football match. It offers a glimpse of life in a northern mill town during the latter part of the 1880s, seen through the eyes of a steady, bookish man who suddenly finds his heart beating faster in his quest for a wife and in a love of his local team.
I completed Twenty-six Nil in the spring of 2021 having spent the previous six months avoiding coronavirus by escaping to the 19th century. I was wrong to think that having published Blessèd are the Meek I had done with writing about Hyde. It did not take me too long to realise that it would be fun to develop the character of Walter Rowbotham who had been little more than a sounding board in the story of James Shore. It also struck me that when he signed off his narration of that novel in 1881, it was only a few years later that Hyde Town Hall would be built and the town’s football team would be established – and go on to play in a remarkable FA Cup tie at Preston whose result still appears in football record books. I had to find a way of combining a story of the blossoming of the modest Walter with the early years of Hyde FC.
As such, despite Twenty-six Nil having one special football match very much at its heart, the novel follows two parallel paths: that of the evolution of a football team and the personal one travelled by the schoolmaster. The linking element is that of ambition, and in some ways unrealistic, overblown ambition, which for all its hubristic undertones is not to be sneered at.
As someone who once thought of becoming a sports journalist, I was excited to be writing about football. Andris Fleet was briefly a reluctant schoolboy goalkeeper in Shillingstone Station, a significant dialogue between Penny and Columbine in An English Impressionist takes place within earshot of an amateur reds v blues match, but football has not been a central feature of my writing until this book.
I owe much to the forensic detail in Mike Pavasovic’s book Charlie Barber’s Boys – A History of Hyde FC and am happy to include my gratitude among the acknowledgements at the back of my book. Meanwhile I have my own longstanding relationship with the club, or strictly speaking, with the club that sprang up after the Great War. Hyde FC folded in 1917 and two years later Hyde United FC was established. My grandfather played for the club for two seasons in the 1920s and my own visits to Ewen Fields began in the late 1960s as a schoolboy. The erection of floodlights in the early 1970s allowed us to enjoy the special thrill of night matches which has never left me.
Civic pride also has a place in the book. By the late 19th century Hyde had established itself as a thriving industrial town, was granted municipal borough status and a number of fine buildings were erected to reflect its growing confidence. The celebration of the Town Hall is an important chapter in the novel and I think offers a contrast to the sorry way in which many of those buildings, integral to the town's heritage, have been neglected in more recent years. For example, I am thinking of the loss of Hyde Baths, the closing of the Library and the sad fate of Hyde Grammar School, opened in 1912 and demolished in 2018 to make way for a housing development.
In the end I wanted to write an optimistic story. I was inspired to discover that, following the defeat at Preston, Hyde FC embarked on an extraordinary unbeaten run and ended the 1887-88 season in a thoroughly positive mood. Similarly I was determined that Walter’s own story, for all its stumbles, should end with the reader smiling.
Post-script (January 2022): I have recently been informed (by my father-in-law) that there is an error in my detail of the cricket match described in Book the Second, Chapter One. Mr Ives explains to Walter that an over is "a run o' six balls bowled". I was previously unaware that until 1889 an over consisted of four balls. Apologies to lovers of cricket for my mistake. I can only say that my research prioritized the history of football and the statistic that matters the most, twenty-six nil, is categorically and indisputably correct.