Classic Match | Bristol Rovers 1908

While football had been played at St James Park since 1894, the first professional football match took place just over 110 years ago on 5 September 1908.

Since originally forming as St Sidwell’s United in 1901, Exeter City Athletic Football Club had spent the first few years of their existence as an amateur side, playing friendly fixtures and competing in the Plymouth and District league.

That all began to change in 1907 when Jack Banks was hired as the club’s first paid player/coach. Then, in the following spring, the club committee arranged a 21 year lease for St James Park and began to draw up plans for improvements to the ground to include a ‘grandstand, dressing rooms, banking and full accommodation for 15,000 spectators’.

As a result of the progress off the pitch, and the vision for the future of the club, the committee unanimously adopted the scheme to turn professional and to apply to join the Southern League First Division.

The application was granted, and so the first fixture of the professional era arrived at the beginning of the 1908/09 season in the form of a West-Country derby against Bristol Rovers.

Captained by Bob Watson, the Grecians ran out in their green-and-white strips to the enthusiastic roar of the seven to eight thousand strong crowd, who were packed along the newly established banks of the ground.

The opening of the match was well contested, with the action moving back and forth between the two areas. Then, in the 15th minute White swung the ball into the centre of the Bristol box for Watson to head in the first goal of the professional era.

Despite the bright start, City then found themselves on the end of a finishing lesson from their regional counterparts, with Handley, Roberts and Peplow making the score 3-1 at half time.

In the second half City again started brightly and pulled one back just three minutes in when Parnell met a cross from the left to hammer home his first good chance of the match from close range.

After this the ‘excitement became intense, and the game progressed to the accompaniment of an almost continuous roar of cheering’, with the crowd persistently chanting ‘make it a draw City’, as the home side continually stormed the Bristol goal with wave after wave of attacking football.

With time running out, and legs tiring, Watson picked up the ball on the grandstand side, and beat four men before passing it to Bell who slid the ball across the face of the goal. The crowd held their breath as the ball evaded the Rovers keeper, Cartlidge, and erupted into the loudest cheers of the afternoon as Parnell nipped in to tap it home and earn City their first point as a professional football club.

Final Score: 3-3

Exeter City: Fletcher; Craig, Bulcock; Ambler, Johnson, Tiernhay; Parnell, Watson, Drain, Bell, White.

Bristol Rovers: Cartlidge; Ovens, Appleby; Handley, Strang, Higgins; Darque, Roberts, Corbett, Gerrish, Peplow.

Man of the match: Fred Parnell

Attendance: 7,000+

Written by: Will Barrett


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