The Swans may have recently been knocked out of the FA Cup at the hands of Blackburn but a hundred years ago the result went the other way. Indeed, Swansea’s 1915 FA cup first-round victory over Blackburn Rovers is one of the great giant killings of all time.
Blackburn Rovers were then Football League champions, had won the FA cup five times, and had five internationals in their side. The Swans, on the other hand, played in the Southern League and were less than three years old.
Professional football’s reputation had been damaged by the game’s decision not to cancel its senior fixtures because of the First World War. Transport problems and longer working hours were hitting attendances too but the clash at the Vetch still managed to attract 16,000 fans, helped by those in uniform being given half-price admission.
The Blackburn team had considerably more experience but the Swans contained the champions and scored in the twentieth minute through a counter attack. The scorer was Benny Beynon, a Swansea RFC player who had only switched to football after rugby cancelled its fixtures because of the war. In 1920, Beynon won an international rugby cap but then signed professional terms with the Swans four days later. The Welsh rugby authorities refused to give him his cap.
Back in 1915, Beynon and his Swansea colleagues enjoyed some second-half luck. Blackburn were awarded a penalty but Billy Bradshaw missed, despite having apparently scored his last 36 attempts. There were no substitutes in this period and injuries left the Swans down to nine men for the last 15 minutes but they hung on for a memorable victory. At the final whistle, the crowd invaded the pitch and the players were mobbed by jubilant fans.
Afterwards, the South Wales Daily Post declared “But for the fact that there is a war on, the Swans’ success would be emblazoned forth to all quarters of the world, and their praises would be loudly sung all over the country. Circumstances demand that we shall not attach as much importance to the game as in normal times, but still, ‘twas a glorious victory.” Another newspaper called the game “A humiliation that staggered the football world”.
Swansea paper, the Cambrian Daily News, was less impressed. It wondered if the young men at the game had thought of the trenches where other fans were standing in the cold ‘facing the perils of the field’. It concluded ‘We cannot bring ourselves to the note of exultation over a football triumph when we remember how nobly our men are playing the greater game’.
Yet Swansea fans who were actually in the forces wrote home to ask for copies of the match report to be forwarded on to them. Some of those in France worried about the game and struggled to find out the score.
Later in the month, a member of the Army Transport Service wrote to the Cambrian Daily News that he wished he had been at home to see the game. However, he said “my King and Country needed me here, so I waited until some chance should come, that I might be able to see the result in some paper.” He signed off his letter hoping that Swansea would be at home in the next round and that he would have a chance of capturing the Kaiser.
As it turned out, the Swans were drawn away to Newcastle United. They secured a 1-1 draw but lost the replay 0-2 at the Vetch. You can read the match programme here.
The cup run was an important part of the process of the process that saw football establish itself in south Wales and overtake rugby as the most popular club sport. But its memory became tinged with sadness. Joe Bullock, the Swans captain against Blackburn joined up 11 months later and in April 1918 he died of head wounds received at the Fourth Battle of Ypres.