Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love: The First Professional Footballers, Part 1

Whilst looking for something to watch on Netflix recently, The English Game kept popping up as a recommended programme to watch. From the trailer, it’s clear to see that this period drama of a different sort is based on the class struggles that dominated the early years of football, or soccer to you American readers, as a standardised game in the late nineteenth century. Anyone who knows me will know I hate sports of any kind really. I was the despair of my P.E. teacher at school, who I remember asking my mum if there was any sort of physical activity I liked at all. Still, football has seemed to surround me a little bit lately, whether I like it or not.

I’m currently an archives assistant on a coal mining project at my county’s local archives, which focuses on the health and welfare provided for miners by their employers. Sport, especially football, was a large part of this. Many local mining teams produced top players, who went on to play for well-known professional football clubs, and they even had their own leagues too. For me, the part that interested me was the social and class aspects surrounding the game. That reason, as well as The English Game being written by Julian Fellows, the writer of one of my favourite period dramas, Downton Abbey, was what persuaded me to watch. Little did I realise the research rabbit hole this would lead me down and the discovery of the interesting lives of Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, the Scottish players shown in the series, who are seen as the game’s first professional players. As both their stories are worth exploring in detail, I thought it would be best to do a post on each of them.

Netflix’s The English Game (2020)

Football has been around for centuries. Prior to the establishment of the Cambridge Rules written in 1848, football didn’t have a set of standard rules throughout the country. It varied depending on location and was more similar to what we now call Rugby. Ashbourne in Derbyshire, not far from where I live, still plays this form of the game once a year and is known as Shrovetide Football. The whole town plays in a giant scrum and it all looks very messy. The English Football Association (FA), created in 1863, made teams use the rules created in 1848, but it heavily relied on upper class teams from universities and private schools, who made up the board for it. The Scottish Football Association followed ten years later in 1873. It was in this environment that Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love began playing football from the mid-1870s.

Fergus Suter was born in Glasgow in 1857 as the son of an Irish stonemason who had moved to Scotland in search of work. Just like his father, Fergus went into the stonemason trade and became a stonemason’s apprentice.[1] Partick, the area of Glasgow he grew up in, was known for it’s football club, although initially this was a different team than Partick Thistle who play now. Suter, as well as Jimmy, were two of the first players for the team after its formation in 1876, as many working-class men played for football clubs in their spare time. Fergus’ brother, Edward, also played for Partick. However, Fergus left in the autumn of 1878 and moved to Darwen in Lancashire, following in the footsteps of his teammate Jimmy Love. Andy Mitchell who has done extensive research into the lives of both players suggests that Suter left due to financial worries when Partick stonemasons went on strike about pay.[2]

Fergus Suter, Blackburn Rovers full-back, from 1880 to 1889, The Cottontown Digitisation Project, Wikimedia Commons

It may sound strange now to think that players moved so far away from their home teams before the game had become professional, but the Scottish players, particularly those who played for Partick were sought after by the Lancashire teams. The Scottish players were much more experimental with their game strategies, opting for combination playing involving all members of the team, rather than the rather messy one preferred by the English teams.[3] The introduction of this new way of playing soon became more popular and helped to raise standards as a whole. The Scottish players brought to Lancashire by the football clubs were found jobs in workplaces that would allow time for training and playing the game and would ensure travel expenses and compensation for lost earnings.[4] This was perfectly acceptable behaviour as this allowed the game to continue to be amateur as by the rules. However, Suter admitted in a press interview given in 1902, that he and some of the other players, were being paid to play, not a regular amount, but £10 (around £660 in today’s money) when necessary.[5] At that time, the payments were considerably more than the average earnings of either unskilled or skilled labourers.[6] It’s no wonder that Suter very quickly gave up his job as a stonemason and solely relied upon the money he was earning from football. This made him the first official professional player in footballing history.

In February 1879, the Darwen team showed how far they had come, hoping to make the toffs of football and the FA. take working-class teams seriously. They played the Old Etonians, one of the main teams at the time, who’s players made up the board of the FA. itself. At half time the Old Etonians were winning 5-1, but by the end of the match, it was a 5-5 draw. In those days, extra time wasn’t a given and it had to be decided before a match or it would have to be replayed if a draw was the final result. The first rematch was a 2-2 draw, and the Old Etonians only just won the third match, going on to win the FA Cup for that season. Darwen had made history for being the first northern team to get to the quarter finals of the FA Cup.[7]

Despite the success Fergus had with Darwen, he moved on to play for Blackburn, another Lancashire team. Blackburn had bribed Suter with £100, around £6,600 in today’s money to make the move.[8] Family legend has also speculated that Suter made the move because of fathering an illegitimate child.[9] Whatever the reason, he went on to win the FA Cup with them three times and stayed with the team for nearly a decade until he retired in 1888. Following his retirement, he remained in Blackburn, but by then working as a publican, until just prior to his death in 1916.[10]

The Blackburn Rovers Team for the 1884-85 and 1885-86 Seasons, Wikimedia Commons

Fergus Suter is now well remembered as the first professional player in the football game. He was part of a team of innovators that helped create the game that is known around the world today. However, that is not the end of his story. Following the release of The English Game, his grave in Blackburn Old Cemetery has been restored, with the work finishing just last month. Blackburn Rovers have helped for the restoration of the original headstone and a new memorial stone has been placed on it to show his contribution to football.[11]

More on Jimmy Love will be coming up in part two, who has an even more interesting, though tragic story to tell. In the meantime, if you would like to know more about Jimmy, Fergus and Partick, I would thoroughly recommend Andy Mitchell’s blog on Scottish Sport, where most of this information is referenced from. He was a research consultant on The English Game. He has also written books on the subject, including one about Arthur Kinnaird, another character in the English Game, who went on to be a President of the FA.


[1] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter, the First Professional Footballers’, Scottish Sport History, https://www.scottishsporthistory.com/sports-history-news-and-blog/from-partick-with-love-the-story-of-jimmy-love-and-fergie-suter-the-first-professional-footballers

[2] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[3] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter,’

[4] Huggins, M., The Victorians and Sport (London: Hambledon and London, 2004), p. 131.

[5] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[6] Huggins, M., The Victorians and Sport, p. 131.

[7] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[8] Huggins, M., The Victorians and Sport, p. 131.

[9] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[10] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[11] Blackburn Rovers, ‘Magical’ Memorial as Rovers Celebrate Suter’s Memorable Milestone, https://www.rovers.co.uk/news/2021/april/magical-memorial-as-rovers-celebrate-suters-memorable-milestone/

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