Exactly 130 years ago, a football record was set that will surely never be broken. Tony Dawber visits the ground where it all took place, Gayfield Park, still the home of Arbroath FC, who beat Bon Accord 36-0. There he meets local historian, Fraser Clyne, whose book covers the events of 1885.
Arbroath 36, Bon Accord 0.
It’s the one scoreline every football anorak in the world can rhyme off.
On that fateful day on the east coast of Scotland, way back in 1885, the record for the highest-ever score in a senior game was set.
It’s stood there in the record books for 130 years and will surely never be broken.
But what fewer people know is the full story behind that scoreline, the dramatic setting and the fact, almost unbelievably, that the record was within a whisker of being beaten on the very same afternoon a few miles down the same windswept coast.
First, though, let’s debunk a myth that has grown over the events of September 12, 1885 at Gayfield Park, where Arbroath FC play their Scottish League games to this very day.
It has been whispered the decades that the team on the end of the 36-0 battering was actually a cricket club from Aberdeen. They had been sent a Scottish Cup entry by mistake, turned up out of politeness but shown no mercy by their opponents from down the coast.
The story gained credence when a 1983 newspaper article backed this claim with documentary evidence.
But local journalist and Arbroath FC historian Fraser Clyne conducted meticulous research for his book ‘The Aberdeen Men Can’t Play Football: The History of Football in Aberdeen 1881-1903’. He found that the Orion Cricket Club, supposed recipient of the entry, were formed one month after the fateful cup tie.
In addition, Scottish FA rules at the time stated that all players needed to be registered a month beforehand to be eligible to play. Orion could not possibly have received an entry invitation as they had no registered players.
And finally, Clyne uncovered evidence that Bon Accord FC had been in existence in Aberdeen at the time and even played a number of warm-up friendlies to prepare for their big day at Arbroath.
So, as it was clearly a bona fide team who took to the field at Gayfield Park that day, how Bon Accord manage to perform so catastrophically?
One point to note is that football fever had spread northwards up Scotland in the 1880s. While established in Arbroath, it was still in its infancy 55 miles up the coast in Aberdeen. Bon Accord were a raw side, newly formed.
These rank outsiders had also agreed to switch the tie to Arbroath whose ground was more able to cope with the expected crowd.
So the stage was set, and what a stage it was.
Though still the same ground where Arbroath play today, the pitch in those days, according to Clyne, was at a 45-degree angle to its current position.
It’s an awesome setting. Gayfield Park is the nearest senior ground to the sea anywhere in Europe. It sits right on the shoreline, the high-tide mark just five yards from the perimeter wall with spray from the North Sea breakers often soaking the hardy faithful.
And there would have been some spray that Saturday, so stormy a German ship foundered after being driven onto rocks a few miles down the coast.
How much the conditions played a part is open to debate but the hapless Aberdonians were quite simply blown away in more ways than one. Arbroath FC, nicknamed ‘The Red Lichties’ after the red light that guided boats into the nearby harbour, featured the fresh-faced 17-year-old John ‘Jocky’ Petrie. He bagged 13 goals as his home-town team ran riot.
According to a local newspaper report, Arbroath keeper James Milne Jnr did not touch the ball for the entire game, spending most of it sheltering under an umbrella.
And in a heartbreaking twist for Bon Accord, they did have one late breakaway in which a goalbound shot beat Milne. It looked certain to provide a tiny scrap of consolation – only for defender Bill Collie to clear it off the line.
What the journey back up to Aberdeen would have been like for Bon Accord that dark and windy evening one can only guess. But, as Arbroath sat back to celebrate their world-record win, one final turn of events emerged.
Word came through that just 15 miles away, another Scottish Cup tie had, incredibly, ended 35-0.
Long defunct Dundee Harp were the ones administering the thrashing on this occasion, their opponents Bon Accord’s city rivals Aberdeen Rovers.
Indeed, there is even a rather fanciful story that the referee made the final score in this game 37-0, but acceded to the Harp secretary’s calculation of 35-0.
No doubt the official was certain his team had still bagged a world-record score, and you can only wonder what his reaction as when the telegram advising the score from Gayfield Park came through.
These days Arbroath ply their trade in the lower reaches of the Scottish League but retain an immense pride in the events of this cup tie a full 130 years ago. The main hospitality lounge at Gayfield Park rejoices in the name of the ‘36-0 Bar’ its walls are adorned with memorabilia from that and other past triumphs.
As for Bon Accord, they are long defunct despite a brief revival in a different form in the 1960s.
But to their immense credit, their original incarnation did make a recovery of sorts after that horrific drubbing.
They lost just 4-0 in their next game and then beat neighbours Orion 2-0 and went on to win three more of the remaining six games they played that season.
Perhaps that’s what former Crystal Palace boss Iain Dowie had in mind when he first coined that excruciating modern footballing term ‘bouncebackability’.
Grateful thanks to Fraser Clyne for his assistance in the writing of this piece.
Fraser’s books ‘The Aberdeen Men Can’t Play Football: The History of Football in Aberdeen, 1881-1903,’ and ‘An Arbroath FC Miscellany’ are available via Amazon or by contacting him direct at email@example.com.