Pye in the sky: Wisbech Town mark 50th anniversary of the first professional football match to be played on a Sunday
- Credit: Archant
Fenland Park was a mess. Before becoming a building site it was overgrown; the former home of Wisbech Town Football Club was not so much weedy as a jungle.
For those who visited over the years - players and, sadly on occasion, supporters - it could be a hostile place. For home fans, it was what made it great. Today, it is neither.
But when, eventually the housing estate is complete, under the semi-detached homes will be a place where history was made. Not just any old history, but a precursor to one of football’s greatest changes.
On March 19, 1967, Fenland Park hosted the first professional football match to be played on a Sunday when Wisbech played Dunstable Town in a Southern League fixture.
It seems unthinkable today that such an event would be so significant, but 1967 Britain was a very different place. The only thing you could buy on a Sunday was a newspaper: supermarkets weren’t invented, let alone open for business. If you played football it was Sunday league, a tradition like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. But not professional.
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It was a player by the name of Jesse Pye, ex-England and Wolverhampton, who had moved to Wisbech in the late 50s, who set the ball rolling.
He had been the club’s manager and was concerned at falling gates. He was of the belief that the ‘Continental Sunday’ was needed, although, ironically, he quit his job before the match was played.
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The FA gave their blessing to the game on January 18, but there were considerable hurdles: the Lord’s Day Observance Society were less than happy and Alderman EN Rigg appeared on television to condemn the planned fixture.
“Should this experiment be successful then it might snowball throughout the country,” he said.
A former vice-chairman, Walter Hunter-Rowe, accused the club of being tactless and not consulting shareholders.
The then chairman Les Bullen said: “Many of the club’s church-going supporters are dismayed that Wisbech should be willing guinea pigs for the advancement of Sunday professional soccer, but they are expected to register their protest only silently, by staying away from the match.”
The club could not charge an entrance fee so had 1,500 programmes printed, selling them for three shillings rather than the usual sixpence. Sadly, Wisbech were a let-down on the day, losing 2-1.
An excerpt from the official report sent to the FA, Southern League, Cambs FA and other interested parties said: “The official attendance figure was 1,379, and this should be compared with the 16 league home matches previously played this season, which showed an average attendance figure of 674 per match (908 being the highest and 501 the lowest figures during this period).”
Not surprisingly, the match attracted national attention - local and national media were there as well as senior officers of the local police as official observers.
Club officials were approached by an Inspector of Police on the Monday following the match requesting details of the club’s organisation and staff “for the stated purpose of a report which had been requested from them by an higher authority”. Names and addresses of programme sellers were also requested.
The club itself reported a number of conclusions:
1. That the attendance figure proves there is a substantial section of the community prepared to attend Sunday football matches.
2. That while one match is not conclusive evidence it does appear that matches played on Sundays would attract larger attendances than at weekday matches.
3. That to obtain a fair assessment of the relative attendance figures the club would need to play a selection of matches on Sundays throughout a full season giving comparative attendance figures where additional factors such as mid-winter weather conditions, local counter-attractions, senior football matches in nearby Peterborough and King’s Lynn and morning or afternoon matches could be introduced into the experiment.
4. That due regard would have to be given to the wishes and opinions of all members of the club staff and that attendance figures alone should not be the sole criterion on which to make a decision to adopt Sunday matches as regular practice.
It seems remarkable in 2017 that a football match could create such a furore, but perhaps we are simply so accustomed to 24/7 football that the notion of a Sunday game is simply and readily accepted, without comment.
In half a century the game of football has changed out of sight. And PE13 3QN can claim to have helped it on its way.
Gordon Smith has been involved with Wisbech Town since the 1960s and has clear recollections of the historic match.
“Entrance to the ground was by purchasing a programme for the game, instead of costing 6d (2½p) the charge was three shillings (15p) although two persons demanded to be let in – and they were!
“It was an overcast, grey day, not cold, thankfully, so as there was a great deal of interest in conversations in the local public houses in the previous days, a good gate was expected.
“Three of us met up at The Bell, Walsoken at noon. Those days you had to be early to get your name on the dartboard as to get a game!
“Closing time was 2p.m. so we decided to make our way to Fenland Park where we were met by a chap from the Lord’s Day Observance Society – walking backwards regaling us with threats of damnation and hell-fire.
“We all laughed – no derogatory comments made to him – the only riposte came when he stated we would all go to hell was “We’re there already, ol’ mate – we watch this lot every week!”
Even he had to smile at that and turned away to confront further visitors to the ground.”
• This feature originally ran in issue four of The Pink’un (www.pinkun.com), which is available to buy in newsagents today.