Another day, another piece of gold plucked from the pages of popular STAND as we continue our showcase of some of the best content from the fanzine last season. John Coyle has been writing for popular STAND since the very first issue back in 1998; a true font of Rovers knowledge, a gentleman, and, lucky for us (and you), a very engaging writer as well. In issue 68 he looked back at the career at Rovers’ forgotten international, the great Charlie Richards.
Voice of the Pop Side – The Forgotten International
Just imagine how excited we would be nowadays if Rovers signed a player from Manchester United who had represented England at full international level a mere five years earlier? That was the situation in March 1903 when Charlie Richards travelled across the Pennines to join the Intake-based Rovers. Yet less than a couple of months later, Richards’ professional career was over and Rovers were on their way out of the Football League and back into non-League football. He had also suffered the humiliating experience of playing in a club-record defeat. Let us appraise the career of the man who became the first to wear a Rovers shirt after sporting an England one.
Charles Henry Richards was born in Burton-on-Trent on 9th August 1875, the son of John, a brewer’s labourer, and Charlotte. The 1881 census shows him as a scholar, the sixth of eight children and living at 8 Victoria Street, Burton. Ten years on and the teenage Charles had followed his father into the brewery industry, although the family had moved to 335 Uxbridge Street and his mother had passed away. It was probably around this time that the young Charles began to play football seriously, and he turned out for Gresley Rovers, the romantically-named Newstead Byron and then for Notts County. However, it was County’s rivals from across the Trent, Forest, who first saw his potential and signed him in 1895. The twenty-year-old Charles Richards, known to the fans as Charlie, made his Football League debut in January 1896, playing at inside-right in a 0-0 draw at the City Ground against Bolton Wanderers. A week later, he scored his first goal in a 3-1 home victory over Sunderland and he ended the 1895-96 season with a promising return of five goals from 11 League games as Forest finished 13th in Division One. Charlie stood 5 feet 6 inches tall and at the height of his career he weighed in at just under 12 stones. Contemporary reports described him as stocky, rather unspectacular yet a good forager who linked the play well and had an eye for goal as well as the ability to bring out the best in a winger.
1896-97 saw Charlie become a regular member of the Forest forward line, scoring in each of the first three games of the season and going on to net eight in a total of 26 League games as Forest moved up two places to 11th. He played at inside-right or centre-forward alongside the likes of the Capes brothers, Arthur and Adrian, the two Freds, Forman and Spencer, and the winger Tom McInnes. It was a good time for Charlie, and in the spring of 1897 he married Mary Ann Elliott, aged 19, in Nottingham. Even better was to come the following season.
Season 1897-98 was a memorable one for Nottingham Forest and Charlie Richards. He started the season slowly, but eventually made the inside-right position his own, partnered regularly on the right wing by the Scotsman McInnes. New Year’s Day 1898 gave a hint of things to come, as Charlie scored twice in a 6-3 win over The Wednesday at Olive Grove, and a few weeks later he bagged another brace as Forest beat Grimsby Town 4-0 in the FA Cup. In the next round he repeated the dose as Gainsborough Trinity were dispatched and he scored again in a thrilling 3-2 victory over West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns to take Forest into the semi-finals. There they met Southampton, still members of the Southern League, and after a 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane the replay was held at the Crystal Palace. This game was played in a blizzard and during the second half, with the scores level; the referee took the teams off the field. However, after ten minutes they returned, in no better conditions, and Forest, who had been distinctly second best, took charge. McInnes gave Forest the lead and then Charlie notched the second, even though Southampton’s goalkeeper complained that he could not see due to the snow. The Hampshire club lodged an official protest, but the FA allowed the 2-0 win for Forest to stand and they were in the FA Cup Final for the first time ever.
The 1898 Final was played at Crystal Palace and pitched Forest against their East Midland rivals Derby County. Derby were firm favourites, having beaten Forest 5-0 in the League a few days earlier. Two goals from Arthur Capes gave Forest a 2-1 interval lead and just before full-time McPherson scored a third to send the cup to Nottingham. Charlie hadn’t hit the headlines in the final, but he had his winners’ medal and his six goals had done much to earn Forest their first major trophy. They may have also caught the eye of the England selectors, because just before the Final Charlie, along with team-mate Frank Forman, had been selected to play against Ireland in Belfast. The game was played at the Solitude Ground, home of Cliftonville FC, on 5th March 1898 and England earned a narrow 3-2 win. So Charlie ended the season with a FA Cup Winners’ medal and an England cap. Life must have been sweet for the 22-year-old from Burton.
From here, Charlie’s career began a slow but perceptible decline. He scored only once in 18 games in the 1898-99 season for a disappointing Forest side and in January 1899 he was transferred to second division Grimsby Town. He made his debut for Town on 7th January 1899 in a 2-4 defeat at Glossop North End, but a few weeks later he notched his first goals for his new club, scoring the first hat-trick of his professional career in a 5-0 home win over Loughborough Town. He clearly enjoyed the sea air, ending the season with 13 goals from 20 appearances. The following season he was even more prolific, ending up as Grimsby’s top scorer with 20 goals as they finished 6th in Division Two. He also scored in a 3-1 victory over Rovers in a FA Cup qualifying match. Town reached the First Round proper where Charlie’s new team were paired against his old one, but there was to be no fairytale return to the City Ground as Forest won the tie 3-0.
In 1900-01, Charlie added to his collection of medals as he helped Grimsby to the Division Two championship. He wasn’t as prolific, scoring only nine goals, though he finished joint top-scorer, but it was Town’s vastly improved defence and an unbeaten home record that saw them to the title. The 1901 Census found Charlie lodging at 64 Tiverton Street, Cleethorpes, along with his wife, recorded as “Annie.” He was described as a “Football Player- Prof(essional).” Charlie had lost his place in the Town side towards the end of the season and maybe this persuaded him to seek pastures new, because in the summer of 1901 he moved to another Second Division side, Leicester Fosse. He made his debut for Fosse on 7th September 1901 as they lost 0-2 to Woolwich Arsenal at Plumstead. Meanwhile, on the same day, Doncaster Rovers were beginning their Football League career with a 3-3 home draw against Burslem Port Vale.
The move to Leicester didn’t really work out for Charlie. He scored only five goals in 25 games and by March 1902 he had lost his place in a team that finished 14th in Division Two (debutants Rovers were 7th). So he was on his way again, this time to Manchester to join a team in the process of changing their name. Newton Heath FC had almost gone out of business in 1902, and after being rescued by some local businessmen they changed their name to Manchester United. Their first game under their new name was on 6th September 1902 when they faced Gainsborough Trinity at the Northolme in their opening Division Two fixture of the season. United returned to Manchester 1-0 winners, the only goal scored by Charlie Richards, who was making his debut. Despite his goal, contemporary reports suggest that he played poorly, and he made only seven more League appearances for United, dropping out of the side altogether after January 1903.
In March 1903, Charlie made the final move of his professional career, crossing the Pennines to join Doncaster Rovers. Rovers were suffering what might be called “second season syndrome” and were struggling near the foot of Division Two. A lack of goals and disappointing away form had contributed to their plight. Charlie made his debut on 21st March 1903 in a 0-3 defeat at Woolwich Arsenal. The next three games were better, producing a draw at Chesterfield and home wins over Lincoln and fellow-strugglers Burnley. On Easter Saturday, though, Rovers travelled to Birmingham and were destroyed by a rampant Small Heath side who won 12-0, although Charlie had what would have been his first Rovers “goal” chalked off due to offside. Then two days later Charlie’s former club, Manchester United, rubbed salt in the wounds by beating Rovers 4-0 at Clayton. A goalless draw at home to Leicester meant Rovers ended the season third from bottom, and at the Football League AGM they were harshly ejected from the League to make way for newly-formed Bradford City. It was a sad way for Charlie Richards, England international and FA Cup winner only five years earlier, to end his professional career.
So what became of Charlie Richards? Well, we know only a little, but we encounter him again in 1911. He was living at 83 Kennington Road in Radford, Nottingham, along with his wife and his two surviving children, Mabel, aged 12 and Leslie, only two months old. Four other children had died at young ages. Charlie is described as a “Coal miner- hewer” but also as an invalid, suggesting that he was too ill to follow his occupation. He had probably worked at one of the neighbouring collieries, Radford or Wollaton. The census was taken in early April, and by the end of the month, Charlie was no more. He passed away at home on 27th April 1911, aged only 35, his death certified as being from myocarditis (acute) and syncope. The former is inflammation of the heart muscles, usually the result of infection and the latter is sudden fainting, often a symptom of underlying heart disease. His death was reported by Mary Ann, who became a widow with two young children at the age of 33.
There is little in the reference books about Charlie Richards, and even the histories of the club where he gained his greatest fame, Nottingham Forest, mention him only in passing. Until now, his date of death has not been recorded. Charlie had only a brief career for Rovers, but it is worth remembering that he was the first former England international to pull on a Rovers shirt. His story also reminds us how different life was for professional footballers at the beginning of the 20th century to what it is now.
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