During the Victorian era an inextricable link developed in Britain between sport and the press. Both were mutually beneficial: sport provided a continuous conveyor belt of content for journalists to report whilst newspapers provided enhanced publicity in return. However, the press were not merely commentators and observers of sport with some publications opting to take a more central role in the organisation and development of sporting activities as the century progressed.
This is exemplified by the Staffordshire Sentinel, a regional newspaper that circulated across North Staffordshire and South Cheshire, which established the self-titled ‘Sentinel Cup’ in 1892 to be contested by junior association football teams in the region. The proprietors of the newspaper announced that the purpose of the competition was to foster interest in the junior game and they purchased ‘a handsome Silver Cup’ to be presented to the victorious team. In addition to this, it was also revealed that any proceeds raised would be donated to local charitable organisations.
Key Stakeholders and Purpose
Charity cup competitions were a regular feature of organised sport during the second half of the nineteenth century and they were utilised by stakeholders as an opportunity advance their own agendas. The Sentinel Cup was established because it mutually benefitted various stakeholders.
First, the Staffordshire Sentinel used the competition as a relatively cheap and impactful form of advertisement and self-promotion that would attract new readers whilst perceived investment in the junior game would held to generate a favourable public image. The newspaper had been the dominant publication region throughout the nineteenth century but was facing its first genuine challenge to its readership after the Staffordshire Post was established as a direct rival and competitor in 1892. It is little surprise that the proprietors of the Staffordshire Sentinel were exploring methods aimed at enhancing their publicity, readership and public image.
Second, the Sentinel Cup would also fulfil its public objective of increasing interest in junior football in the region with the competition providing meaningful competitive games at a time when fixture lists were relatively diminutive and were dominated by friendly matches. The Sentinel Cup provided clubs and players with an opportunity to win a trophy whilst also doing their civic duty by raising money for charitable causes.
However, during this period there was no clear definition of what constituted junior football and there were no precise rules dictating age restrictions. Whilst some junior clubs consisted solely of young players others were in effect ‘reserve’ teams or ‘second elevens’ that were comprised of adults that had not been selected for a senior side. These differing interpretations often led to unfair contests, confusion and disputes.
The organisers of the Sentinel Cup decided to tackle this issue by introducing strict regulations to ensure that the competition was fulfilling its remit of developing junior football. It was agreed that no player under the age of twenty-one would be able to participate whilst any player who had represented a senior team in the Staffordshire or Cheshire Senior Challenge Cup during the same season would be ineligible. One representative who attended the inaugural meeting of the Sentinel Cup summarised the purpose of the competition, declaring that:
‘If they were to call this a junior competition they must have junior players competing in it … he would rather as secretary of the juniors not win the cup at all than win it with old men. He objected to men who had been good players but who had lost their speed being included in a junior team. He wanted to see young players given a chance.’
The First Sentinel Cup
16 teams entered the first Sentinel Cup consisting of ten clubs located in North Staffordshire, four from Newcastle-under-Lyme and two based in South Cheshire, with the draw for the first-round ties conducted at the Borough Arms Hotel in Hanley, located across the road from the offices of the Staffordshire Sentinel.
However, the competition was immediately engulfed in controversy after the first set of fixtures had been completed. Hanley Juniors, who had been beaten in their respective game by Talke Alexandra, submitted an official complaint accusing their opponents of using seven over-age players whilst Knutton Rovers, who had drawn against Smallthorne Rangers, ‘protested against Beech, one of the Rangers’ players, on the grounds that he was over age’. To further complicate matters Tean had failed to fulfil their fixture against Coppenhall and Newcastle Albion, who had lost their first-round tie, claimed that the Adderley Green White Star Pitch had been unfit for play.
In response, the organisers of the Sentinel Cup dispelled Tean from the competition, overruled Newcastle Albion’s protest and demanded that Smallthorne and Talke provide proof of each of their player’s age. The regulations regarding age restrictions had immediately been put to the test, but the proprietors claim that the purpose of competition was to ‘encourage and foster junior football’ were underlined when it was announced that Talke had been disqualified for using ineligible, over-age players.
Despite the Sentinel Cup’s early teething problems, the remainder of the competition proceeded without any further incident or controversy and on the evening of 27 April 1893 the inaugural Cup final was contested between Newcastle Swifts Juniors and Smallthorne United. The game was hosted by Port Vale, who had been elected as founding members of the Football League Second Division one year earlier, and reports suggested that ‘there was a fairly numerous company present’ to witness a victory for Newcastle.
The Lasting Legacy of the Sentinel Cup
The first Sentinel Cup final in 1893 sparked a wider interest in the competition that has seen it grow and prosper for the subsequent 125 years.
By 1896 the number of teams entering had risen to 30 and the 1908 cup final was witnessed by an estimated record crowd of 6,500 which emphasised its prominence and popularity within the region. In 1915 the Staffordshire Sentinel expanded the competition, realigning the rules of the Sentinel Cup so that only players under the age of eighteen could compete whilst the Sentinel Shield was established for players under the age of twenty-one. Further football competitions were also introduced in 1977 (Sentinel Sunday Cup), 2002 (Sentinel Schools Shield) and 2012 (Sentinel Girls Festival of Football).
In 1895, three years after the first Sentinel Cup final, the Staffordshire Post closed for business citing losses of up to £20,000. However, the Staffordshire Sentinel resumed its position as the dominant newspaper in the region and moved into the twentieth century as a powerful enterprise, doubling its circulation figures. Whilst this success cannot be attributed solely to the formation of the Sentinel Cup, the popularity of the competition undoubtedly aided the growth and development of the newspaper.
The Sentinel Cup holds the rare distinction of being contested for each of the 125 years since it was introduced and continued unaffected throughout both World Wars despite many sporting competitions being suspended during each conflict. This makes the Sentinel Cup one of the longest continuous association football competitions in Britain and it remains a prominent sporting event in the region in the present day.
Article © Martyn Cooke