Voice of the Pop Side: The Sheffield County Cup
As it’s getting close to Christmas we thought we’d offer you a treat by sharing one of the recent articles from our print fanzine online. In Issue 61 the Godfather of Doncaster Rovers fanzine writing and respected Voice of the Pop Side John Coyle turned his attention to the Sheffield & Hallamshire County Cup, and Rovers’ involvement in the now defunct competition.
I started supporting Doncaster Rovers in the autumn of 1969, not long after we won the Division Four Championship under Lawrie McMenemy. The years that followed were hardly trophy-laden and for a long time I had to admit that Rovers had lifted only one cup during my tenure as a fan. That came on 7th May 1976, when Rovers beat Sheffield United 2-1 at Bramall Lane to win the County Cup. That trophy, not to be confused with the Senior Challenge Cup for which Rovers competed in during their Conference years (and won it twice), is now a relic of a bygone era, but it provided some memorable local derbies in an era where the football calendar seemed at least to be less crowded than it is today.
The Sheffield & Hallamshire Football Association County Cup, to give it its full title, was conceived at a meeting of the S&H FA in August 1920. It followed the example of similar competitions being run in Lancashire and the West Riding in which the ‘senior clubs’ from the county were invited to play. By ‘senior clubs’ they meant those in the Football League – Sheffield United, Wednesday, Barnsley and one of the Football League’s recent additions, Rotherham County. The aim was to raise funds for the Association. Four teams meant two semi-finals and a final, the original plan being that the games be played in May, at the conclusion of the regular football season. In May 1921, having squeezed past Barnsley in a replayed semi-final, Sheffield United beat their neighbours at Hillsborough in front of 20,000 people to become the first winners of the County Cup. The competition was all completed within a week, and the County FA must have thought they were onto a winner.
In 1923, the Sheffield FA’s ‘senior clubs’ increased to five when Rovers were elected to Division Three North of the Football League. However, the newcomers were not invited to participate in the County Cup and when they applied to join the party in 1925 they were rebuffed. A year later Rovers were accepted, but they were forced to play a preliminary round against Rotherham (now United) who must have been equally delighted by their treatment! The Rovers’ first County Cup game took place at Millmoor on 27th September 1926 and although Tom Keetley put the visitors in front they ended up losing by the odd goal in three. Rovers had little joy in these early years, and when Rotherham were excluded in 1930-31 due to an administrative error, Rovers were seen off at Oakwell in the semi-final.
By 1932 the County FA decided that the competition needed shaking up, as attendances were falling, especially for games that did not pit the two Sheffield sides together. It was resolved that Wednesday and United alone would compete for the County Cup, with the other clubs relegated to an Invitation Cup. Rovers and Barnsley were ‘invited’ and after a 2-2 draw at Belle Vue, Barnsley won the replay at Oakwell to be the only winners of the Invitation Cup. The 1932-33 ‘final’ at Bramall Lane, won by United, had drawn a disappointing crowd, so the Sheffield FA reverted to a five-team format and now adopted an open draw for the preliminary round.
The new format suited Rovers and in 1934 they reached the final for the first time, losing 3-0 to Wednesday at Hillsborough after a thrilling replay victory over Sheffield United. The crowd of 4,832 that saw goals by Ronnie Dodd and Stan Burton give Rovers a 2-1 extra time win over the Blades was higher than that for the final. Two years later Rovers won the Cup for the first time. Having beaten Barnsley 3-0 in the semi-final at Belle Vue in November 1935, they won the final at the same venue in May 1936, overcoming Sheffield United 2-1 with both goals coming from Reg Baines. In May 1938 Rovers won the cup for the second time, Mick Killouhry’s goal being enough to overcome Barnsley at Belle Vue.
The County Cup enjoyed something of a revival during and after World War Two. During the latter it was played over two legs, games sometimes doubling up as Regional League fixtures. Rovers won the Cup in 1940-41, beating Rotherham 3-2. The post-war boom saw the County Cup’s largest attendance, 49,980 witnessing an all-Sheffield semi final in 1948-49. However, attendances soon tailed away again. When Rovers won the Cup for the fourth time in May 1956, only 3.048 saw them spank Sheffield United 4-0 in the Final at Belle Vue (Ronnie Walker (2), Johnny Mooney and Alick Jeffrey were the scorers). Falling gates and other football competitions (from 1960 the Football League Cup was introduced) meant that for three seasons the Cup was not contested and from 1963 Sheffield Wednesday agreed to pay an annual fee to the S&H FA rather than competing in the Cup.
The competition was clearly in decline, but it still had its moments. Not least in 1965 when in a replayed semi-final at Belle Vue Rovers were trailing 0-2 to Rotherham with a few minutes left. Keith Ripley, normally a defender, was sent forward and scored twice to send the game into extra time. He then completed a hat-trick from the penalty spot to win the tie. Over 11,000 turned up a week later for the final, but Rovers lost 0-4 to Sheffield United. In the 1967-68 competition Rovers reached the final which was held over until the following season and in October 1968 Roger Barrett’s goal gave them a 1-0 win over Barnsley. Rovers’ skipper Stuart Robertson was handed a Cup, but it was the Senior Challenge Cup as the County Cup had gone missing! It was eventually found but Rovers were not to receive it again until May 1976 when two goals from Peter Kitchen secured victory over a Sheffield United side just relegated from the First Division.
The County Cup continued to be played until the early 1990s, although increasingly teams chose to pay a fee to the Association rather than participate. For 1985-86 Rovers and Rotherham elected to play rather than pay and the ‘Final’ was played as a curtain-raiser to the following season, Rovers winning 1-0 via a Neil Woods goal. That was Rovers last success in the competition, though they did have the honour of participating in the last-ever final at Oakwell in May 1993. Despite a spirited showing, Rovers lost 3-2 to their higher-division opponents, meaning that Barnsley remain ‘holders’ of the County Cup.
While it is unlikely that the County Cup will ever be revived in its old form, such is the proliferation of other competitions, it is worth noting that in the pre-season period this year Rovers met Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham. With a little co-ordination it might be possible to set up a pre-season’“mini-league’ involving all five local Football League clubs and reintroduce the Cup. It might give the pre-season game the edge they sometimes lack and increase public interest. For the record, Rovers won the County Cup seven times, including the wartime win in 1940-41, some way behind Sheffield United’s 21 triumphs. It would be nice to be given another chance to catch the Blades up – assuming the County FA can find the trophy, that is.
*The Sheffield & Hallamshire FA County Cup by Andrew Kirkham (SoccerData, 2011, ISBN 978-1-905891-49-8)
This article first appeared in Issue 61 of popular STAND (December 2012). There are still some copies of that issue remaining, so if you’d like to get your hands on a copy see our Back Issues page.