On the 19th of May, 1888, Renton F.C. became ‘Champions of the United Kingdom and the World’, by beating West Bromwich Albion, in a challenge match.
When Renton F.C. won the ‘World Cup’ in 1888, the footballing world was in its infancy and almost exclusively played by English and Scottish clubs. Therefore, the game against West Bromwich Albion was a ‘World Cup Championship’ by default. Those who disparage Renton’s claim are surely ignoring that, had West Brom won, it would have made the exact same claim.
Renton FC was formed in 1872 and, at that time, Dumbarton FC, Vale of Leven and Renton were challenging Queen’s Park and Cambuslang for major honours in Scotland. The three clubs from West Dunbartonshire were all there when the Scottish League was formed, in 1890.
Tontine Park, the home of Renton FC, was described by contemporaries as a compact ground, whose eastern boundary was a Dalquhurn Works lade. Punting a ball into the lade was an excellent way of running down the minutes if Renton was leading in a tight game. To begin with, the pavilion was 100 yards from the pitch, but in 1886, a new pavilion was opened on the ground, which had been its home since 1878.
Renton’s motto was ‘Never Say Die’, long before clubs like Sheffield United and Hartlepool United chose the same dictum. A character called Peter ‘Big Pate’ Campbell developed some hardy training methods, designed to make Renton the strongest club in the country. He also introduced a sort of miracle drink, known as ‘Chicken Bree’, which consisted of raw eggs and Port. Partially psychological, the players believed this secret ingredient helped them become physically stronger.
In 1888, Renton faced Queen’s Park in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. It was a clash of styles; the refined game of Queen’s Park against the blunt force of Renton. Renton not only had home advantage, but had the winter conditions in its favour. The match was played on the 14th of January, when even cattle would refuse to go onto the field. The hardy Rentonians had no qualms about the conditions, which totally negated the passing game of Queen’s Park, and won the game 3-1. The subsequent final was a formality as Renton beat Cambuslang 6-1, which to this day remains the biggest ever margin in a Scottish Cup final.
A few days later, a letter appeared on the doormat. It was from West Bromwich and contained a request for a game from the Board of West Bromwich Albion, whose team had just beaten Preston North End to win the FA Cup final. West Brom offered to come to Scotland, but proposed a match on neutral ground to determine the best club in Britain. Renton agreed and Cathkin Park, home of Third Lanark, was chosen as the venue for the match to decide who would be the ‘Champions of the United Kingdom’ – and the World.
The match nearly didn’t take place at all as on the day it was like a scene from the Apocalypse. Newspapers of the time report that the game was played in the foulest of conditions, with the field a quagmire. A terrible thunder storm had swept the city during the night and four people had died as a result of being hit by lightning. In the face of all this, the ‘Baggies’ could have been excused if they’d had second thoughts. Despite the conditions, Renton was up for the game and strongly urged that it should go ahead. There were 6,000 people in the stadium, a huge number for that time, and West Brom reluctantly agreed, because otherwise they’d have made the trip for nothing.
Once again, the power of Renton, fuelled by ‘Chicken Bree’, prevailed. The Scottish players were better able to handle the conditions and won the game by a handsome margin. Two of Renton’s goals in the 4-1 victory were scored by the McCall brothers, Jamie and Archie, who were both Scottish internationals.
Perhaps Renton was a tad adventurous in its proclamation to the press of world supremacy and its hanging a sign with the legend ‘Champions of the World’ above the pavilion in Tontine Park. However, it was certainly more than a meaningless game on a dreary Scottish Saturday. Two weeks later, Renton won an exhibition game (away) against Preston, who later that year, went on the win the first ‘Double’ in England, thus further validating Renton’s claim to be the strongest team in the world.
Football’s first World Championship trophy is an unimpressive piece of work, by the way. It’s around a foot high and made of inexpensive pewter – homemade by the Blacksmith of Renton. The trophy’s permanent home is somewhat grander – the Scottish Football Museum in one of football’s sporting cathedrals; Hampden Park, Glasgow.
Unfortunately, that success was the peak of Renton’s achievement. As a result of their performances, a lot of players left for England, where they could be legally paid. The creation of Glasgow Celtic, in that year of 1888, didn’t help either, as it attracted many good players. There’s an amusing story about some Renton fans who tried to throw some English scouts into the river to discourage them from reporting on their players.
In 1897, after five matches in the Scottish league, Renton dropped out and was declared bankrupt, being ultimately disbanded, in 1921. Subsequently, the County Council acquired Tontine Park and, in 1928, the Tontine Park Estate, known as The Valley, was built. A plaque in the garden of a house in Tontine Crescent used to mark the centre spot of the pitch until quite recently – it has somehow disappeared.
In 2008, an amateur team under the name ‘Renton FC 1872’ was resurrected to play on fields near the old Tontine Park, which is a nice tribute to the first ever World Champions. So, next time it comes up on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ or someone in the pub tells you that Uruguay was the winner of the first World Cup, you can tell them “nah, it wisnae, it was Renton FC.” Surely, Renton can never be deprived of that title!