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'Birmingham Is Soccer Crazy': A look back at the first time Atlanta played soccer in the Magic City

February 7, 2020

On Saturday, February 8, Birmingham Legion FC will host Atlanta United FC in a preseason friendly at BBVA Field.  The exhibition game will take place just over 107 years after the first, inter-city soccer match of record between sides representing Atlanta and Birmingham that was played before a sizable crowd at historic Rickwood Field, on the afternoon of February 1, 1913.


(Source: Birmingham Age-Herald, February 1, 1913)


The poor, rural, and underpopulated states in the American South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries presented challenging conditions for the early adoption of organized soccer. While the sport was able to find some purchase in larger or more commercially vibrant cities, such as New Orleans (1895) and Atlanta (1908), the region generally lacked the urban, industrialized economies and Northern European immigrant communities that primarily contributed to the profusion of amateur and semi-professional soccer leagues in the Northeast and Midwest (Times Picayune October 22, 1895:7; Atlanta Constitution [AC] September 18, 1908:4). However, north-central Alabama’s industrial Birmingham District was an exception in the Deep South. From the early 1880s through the mid-1930s, Birmingham developed into a true epicenter of early soccer in the South as working-class British and Irish immigrants—along with their first-generation, American-born children—were able to create a robust, local soccer culture sustained by the city’s coal mining and steel manufacturing company towns.


“A Grand Game of Foot-ball”


Birmingham’s booming industrial economy of the late nineteenth century attracted scores of white, foreign-born workers from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales who filled the shortage of skilled labor needed to operate the District’s numerous coal mines, steel rolling mills, iron foundries, and furnaces (McKiven 1995:19-21). As they did elsewhere throughout the nation (and the world), the British newcomers to the “Magic City”  brought association football, or soccer, along with them to be played as a popular leisure activity on holidays and weekends (Goldblatt 2006:86-89). Reports of early soccer games at the Pratt Company coal mines among the British, Irish, and American miners began to appear in the Birmingham papers as early as 1883 (Birmingham Iron Age [BIA] June 21, 1883).  By the 1890s, organized contests between amateur first and second-team sides from the predominantly British immigrant mining towns of Blossburg, Blue Creek, Ensley, and Pratt City had become regular events throughout the Birmingham District (Birmingham Age Herald [BAH] May 4, 1895:3).  The mining communities of Cardiff and Wylam were later added to the mix and a fall-to-spring soccer league was organized around 1897 under the auspices of the Pratt Mines Football and Athletic Association (later renamed the Alabama Football Association League, or AFAL). Industry-sponsored clubs vied for the championship Temple Cup for approximately seven seasons until the AFAL folded in 1902. Organized league play in Birmingham would fall into a dormant period over the next decade until a challenge from Atlanta finally roused the District’s soccer supporters from their slumber (Birmingham News [BN] December 17, 1897, December 12, 1902, and January 31, 1913). 


Cardiff Football Club, 1898 Champions of the Alabama Football Association League (Courtesy of Kimberly Arnwine)


“A Successful Invasion of the Southern Territory”


While organized soccer got its first start in Atlanta during the late winter/early spring of 1908, activity quickly ground to a halt due to the city’s shallow player pool and a lack of viable teams in the area (AC November 26, 1911:1). When league play resumed with more stable footing in 1911, Atlanta organizers, under the direction of Irish brothers Thomas (aka “Pat”) and John Harland, set their sights on an ambitious plan to form a soccer league in the South modeled after those in the North and West (AC September 30, 1912:6).  Taking note of the growing regional interest in soccer, Atlanta’s club officials issued challenges to likely opponents in cities across the South in the early winter of 1912, which included: Birmingham; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Pensacola, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; and the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), where students had recently formed an intercollegiate soccer club with the encouragement of the school’s athletic director and football coach, Mike Donohue (Harland 1912:4H).  


It was Birmingham however, that the Georgians believed to have the greatest potential for developing a strong, soccer rivalry in the South, due to the city’s close proximity and large number of British residents, but only as Tom Harland stated,  if “the sporting men over there will get busy and introduce the game” (Harland 1912:4H). The Birmingham press tended to agree but were non-committal in their reply.   As the Birmingham News put it, “A report from Atlanta states that she is figuring on a soccer game with Birmingham—that’s some figuring—but Birmingham is willing to take on almost anything one time at least, and if Atlanta sends a soccer squad to the Magic City, somebody will be found to ‘soc’ with them in all probability” (BN January 2, 1912).


Organizers in Chattanooga and Auburn were among the first to answer Atlanta’s call (an initial confirmation by representatives in New Orleans never came to fruition) and friendlies were quickly scheduled among the clubs to take place over the following months (AJ January 23, 1912).  Atlanta’s plans for a Southern soccer league got off to a promising start on February 22, 1912 when the city’s aggregate “All-Star” team, composed of players from the Atlanta and Lithonia, Georgia clubs, defeated their Chattanooga counterparts, 4-0, at Chamberlain Field in what was billed as the first inter-city soccer match in the Southeast (Chattanooga Times February 23, 1912:7). Subsequent away and home victories over the inexperienced Auburn squad on March 2 and March 10, 1912 received widespread publicity in the southern newspapers, that helped elevate the sport’s regional profile and bolster Atlanta’s status among many observers as the soccer champions of the South  (Montgomery Adviser March 4, 1912:7; AC March 10, 1912:16G). 


Among the longtime British veterans of Birmingham’s soccer scene, Atlanta’s championship claims were open to debate and also served as a call to action. A quote from the “Sports Views and Verse” column in the February 2, 1912 edition of the Birmingham News seemed to capture the local sentiment stating, “Birmingham may have to take up soccer-football in self-defense next season. The game is gaining ground in this country and is making a very successful invasion of the Southern territory.” 


The Birmingham District’s soccer supporters finally gave their reply to the challenge issued by their Georgia neighbors in late October 1912 with the organization of the eight-club Alabama Association Football League (AAFL).  Henry McCrorie, a Scottish-born, mine superintendent, was elected president of the new league, which included former AFAL clubs Blossburg, Cardiff, Ensley, Pratt City, and Wylam, along with new entrants Edgewater, Rock Slope, and Warner.  Each club maintained first and second eleven sides—an indicator of strong local support for soccer in Birmingham—and games for all 16 teams got underway in mid-November 1912 (BN October 29, 1912 and November 25, 1912).


For Atlanta officials, the new AAFL served as another indicator of the sport’s growing popularity in the South and they set about making plans for an inter-city exhibition game between the two leagues (AC November 10, 1912:14).  A January 19, 1913 article in the Birmingham Age-Herald newspaper made reference to ongoing discussions among Birmingham organizers regarding a possible game against Atlanta in the near future.  Reports in the Atlanta Constitution a few days later confirmed the plans and revealed a combined Atlanta and Lithonia All-Star soccer team would travel to Alabama for a friendly to be played on February 1st at Rickwood Field, the home of the Birmingham Barons baseball club.  The Constitution also noted a tentative home game against Birmingham would be arranged at a later date, along with additional home and away games versus the Auburn club (AC January 22, 1913:8 and January 23, 1913:8). 


Postcard image of Rickwood Field, 1910 (Courtesy of Rickwood.com).


“Warm Contests are Expected”


The game against Atlanta was heavily promoted by Birmingham sportswriters in the days leading up to the event.  The Birmingham News advertised it as “the first big soccer football game played in Birmingham in more than twenty years” and a large crowd was expected to attend (Keeling February 1, 1913).  The selected players of the Atlanta All-Star team, league officials, and supporters departed for Birmingham by train on the afternoon of Friday, January 31, 1913.  A reporter for the Constitution described the Atlanta players as feeling fit and “confident of bringing the scalp of the Barons back to this city” (AC January 31, 1913:10).  


That self-confidence would prove to be unfounded. While the Birmingham papers played up Atlanta’s reputation as “the most formidable soccer club in the south [sic],” the current squad bore little resemblance to the team from the previous year that handily defeated Chattanooga and Auburn.  Only four players from the 1912 Atlanta All-Star team were able to make the Birmingham trip: fullback Alexander McWatt; halfback John Harvey; and forwards Billy Jones and Alec Strachan.  Notably absent were brothers Tom and John Harland along with Lithonia’s most prolific goal-scorer, Richard Jones (BAH January 20, 1913; BN February 2, 1913:9).


Upon their arrival in Birmingham on the Friday evening before the match, the visitors were honored by their hosts at a grand banquet held in Ensley City.  The following day, a motorcade transported the Atlanta contingent to Rickwood Field, where a crowd of spectators that included Auburn coach Mike Donahue and a “thousand lusty-lunged Scotchmen, Irishmen, and  Englishmen” had gathered in support of the home side.  Angus R. Brown of Wylam was the match official with John Dalzell of Birmingham and Noble G. Parsonage from Atlanta serving as linemen  (AJ February 9, 1913:H3; Keeling 1913b:9). 


The Birmingham All-Star team was composed of top players picked from the District league’s eight clubs and was outfitted in Wylam’s orange and blue uniforms for the inter-city match. Both teams adhered to their traditional 2-3-5 “pyramid” formations. While post-match reports published in the Birmingham Age Herald and Birmingham News on February 2, 1913 presented inconsistent information regarding some player’s names and positions, research indicates the following individuals likely constituted the correct line-ups: 

Following the kick-off, the contest remained evenly matched for most of the first 35-minutes of play until Birmingham was able to jump out to a 1-0 lead just before half-time when Thomas Scott, the Atlanta goalkeeper, misplayed a hard shot by forward William Drury and allowed the ball to sail through his hands and into the back of the net.  The resolve displayed by Atlanta in the first half of play quickly evaporated in the second as defensive miscues and poor shooting by the forward line began to take their toll  (AJ February 2, 1912:4).  John Rowe scored the second Birmingham goal 10 minutes after play restarted, which stunned the visitors and caused them to bunker in their own defensive third.  Seizing momentum, the hosts engaged in quick combination play that allowed them to dominate the game and add to their existing tally.  Birmingham forward Alexander dribbled through the Atlanta ranks before dumping the ball of to Drury to grab the local side’s third goal of the game and Drury’s second of the day.  William Muir added the fourth and final goal shortly thereafter to seal the score (BAH February 2, 1913:21).


Players William Drury (left) and John Rowe (right) accounted for three of Birmingham's four goals against Atlanta (Source: Birmingham News, February 13, 1913).


“Surprises were the order of the day in Birmingham”


Following the match, members of the Birmingham media crowed about the city’s soccer triumph over their Atlanta rivals.   “Birmingham 4, Atlanta 0, tells of what the Birmingham Soccer Players did to the Atlanta champions at Rickwood Field Saturday afternoon” deadpanned one Birmingham News writer in his recap (Keeling 1913b).  In a separate article during the lead-up to the Birmingham All-Star game versus Auburn on February 15, 1913, another scribe snidely anticipated the upcoming match against the college team would be “an even warmer affair than the recent Atlanta All-Star game, as Donahue’s boys possess more speed and aggressiveness than the Atlanta team” (BN February 9, 1913).


While humbled in their defeat and vowing to settle the score at a later date, Atlanta’s soccer organizers conveyed only warm feelings about their trip to Alabama and the reception they enjoyed in the Magic City.  In an  Atlanta Journal article titled “Birmingham is Soccer Crazy” published on February 9, 1913, the writer praised the skills of the Birmingham players and marveled at the league’s depth and widespread support in the city.  Expressing much more than a twinge of jealousy, the author exclaimed, “the ‘Barons’ are right there with the goods, and soccer flourishes beyond even the most sanguine hopes of any Atlanta enthusiast.”


While no records indicate a proposed rematch between the cities ever took place, the first soccer game between Atlanta and Birmingham proved beneficial for the sport in both cities. Encouraged by their experience in Birmingham, Atlanta organizers redoubled their organizational efforts in the fall of 1913 and established a four-team Atlanta area league (known as the Georgia State Soccer League) as well as an Atlanta grammar school league for white, male children (AC September 28, 1913:7).  In Birmingham meanwhile, officials worked to strengthen the District league in 1914 through the creation of a municipal playground soccer league for the city’s school-age children and introduced in-season tournament play among the clubs’ first teams for ownership of the Ramsay Cup.  Sponsored by local industrialist, Erskine Ramsay, the Ramsay Cup became a coveted trophy among the league clubs that vied for its possession during the 1910s and 1920s (Vance 1914; BN November 3, 1914).  Although Birmingham’s league administrators never entertained greater plans to grow the sport on a regional basis like their colleagues in Atlanta once had, organized soccer generally enjoyed a solid foundation in the city and provided a viable competitive environment for local amateur and semi-professional players through the mid-1930s (BN March 17, 1935).

References Cited


Goldblatt, David
2006    The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer. Riverhead Books, New York.


Harland, Thomas “Pat.” 
1912    “Soccer Here To Stay; Other Cities in Line.” Atlanta Journal, January 21:4H. Atlanta, Georgia.


1913a    “Sport Conversation.” Birmingham News,  February 1. Birmingham, Alabama.
1913b    “Atlanta Soccer Team is Beaten By Birmingham. Birmingham News, February 2. Birmingham, Alabama.


McKiven, Henry M., Jr.  
1995    Iron and Steel: Class, Race, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 1875-1920. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Vance, H.C.
1914    “On The Level.” Birmingham News, January 20. Birmingham, Alabama.


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