STOKE CITY have long been considered the second-oldest Football League Club, although uncertainty clouds the actual date of formation.
The story goes that in 1863, former pupils of the Charterhouse School formed a Football Club whilst working as apprentices at the North Staffordshire Railway in Stoke.
However, little evidence exists of any matches taking place, even though at that time some form of soccer may have already existed in the area as the headmaster of Stoke St Peter's School, J. Thomas, was an active sportsman and secretary of the local Victoria Athletic Club.
Five years later a report in The Field magazine of September 1868 made things much clearer. It stated a new Association Football club had been formed in Stoke-on-Trent ...and its founder member was ex-Charterhouse School pupil Henry Almond. So it's possible that football had been played in the area during the previous five years.
In terms of official records, though, the first game played by Almond's team, known as Stoke Ramblers and consisting largely of railway employees, was in October 1868. The historic match, against an EW May XV, ended in a 1-1 draw and was played at the Victoria Cricket Club ground, near to Lonsdale Street and Church Street. Almond, the skipper, scored the first-ever goal by a Stoke player, although he was soon to leave the Club and the area to pursue his career as a civil engineer.
Stoke played four more fixtures in the ensuing months of what effectively became their 1868/69 season and appointed St Peter's head J Thomas as secretary - further strengthening the theory that football may have been played in the area in the previous five years. The first victory was recorded against Newcastle-under-Lyme (2-0) and they also beat Leek (1-0).
Documentary evidence of the early games is scarce, although it is believed Stoke Ramblers suffered their first defeat in December 1870, losing 1-0 to Whitchurch in a match rumoured to have been played with a rugby ball. Shortly afterwards the appendage 'Ramblers' disappeared and the first evidence of Stoke's kit appeared - black and blue jerseys and white knickerbockers.
Press reports of matches became more common from 1871/72. One of the founders of the Staffordshire FA, Tom Slaney, played for the Club from 1871, was honorary secretary from 1874 to 1883 and captain from 1875-82. Stoke continued to play their home fixtures at the Victoria Cricket Ground until 1875, when they moved to nearby Sweetings Field, where crowds of 200-250 flocked to watch games against the likes of Wednesbury Old Boys and West Bromwich Strollers - the top clubs of their era.
Fixtures were still friendlies, but in 1877 the formation of the Staffordshire FA led to the creation of the County Cup. Stoke entered and won their first trophy, beating Talke Rangers in the final 1-0. In an earlier round they recorded what it still the Club's highest-ever victory - a 26-0 defeat of Mow Cop. The County Cup was retained the following season with a 2-1 win over Cobridge and Stoke were unquestionably the area's leading team.
The Club merged with the Stoke Victoria Cricket Club in March 1878 and switched from Sweetings Field to the Athletic Club ground in 1878. This site became known as the Victoria Ground and was the Club's home for the next 119 years. Football's popularity was increasing and centre-forward Teddy Johnson became Stoke's first-ever international, helping England beat Wales 3-2 at Wrexham in 1880.
Fixture-wise the boundaries were extended, although entry into the Birmingham Association Cup in 1881 ended in an 8-0 drubbing by Aston Villa. In 1882/83 Stoke reached the final of the Staffs Senior Cup, beaten 3-2 at home by West Bromwich Albion in front of a crowd of 6,500. Around this time the Club adopted the red-and-white striped shirt which is still the official strip today.
Another landmark was the decision to enter the FA Cup in 1883/84. The competition, started in 1871, was firmly established as the best in Britain and only by entering it would Stoke truly know their status in the game. Unfortunately, it was not an auspicious debut - they went out in the first qualifying round after being beaten 2-1 at home by Manchester and the following season withdrew after being drawn to play against Queen's Park (Scotland), allowing the Glasgow team a walk-over. The cup, though, had taught Stoke a lesson or two. One was that the game was moving forward and was no longer a wholly amateur pastime.
Professionalism was moving in and so in August 1885 the Club took the quantum step of turning professional. The first seven players on the payroll were goalkeeper Philip Birch, full-backs Tommy Clare and Edgar Montford, half-backs Ted Smith and George Shutt and forwards Alf Edge and Bernard Rhodes. Each received the princely sum of a half crown (equivalent to 12p) a game. But even in those days, though the term football agent hadn't even been thought of let alone conceived, it didn't take long for money to become an issue. When Stoke tried to introduce differential pay senior players went on strike. The situation was resolved by giving all the players more money, increasing their match fee to five shillings (25p).
In 1885/86 an FA Cup draw with Crewe Alexandra was followed by a replay defeat and it was not until October 1886 that Stoke enjoyed their first success in the competition. It was worth waiting for, however, as Caernarfon Wanderers were crushed 10-0 at the Victoria Ground. This remains the Club's biggest-ever win in a first-class game, although record books often prefer the 10-3 First Division win over West Bromwich Albion in 1937. The joy was short-lived when Stoke again went out to Crewe in the next round, but in 1887-88 came the first cup 'run'. Qualifying round victories over Burslem Port Vale, The Wanderers, Oswestry and a bye saw the Club in the First Round proper for the first time and a 4-1 defeat by eventual winners West Bromwich Albion. Stoke's involvement in the competition, however, was not without reward.
Clubs had come to realise that spectator interest in friendly fixtures, and indeed the season as a whole, waned once out of the FA Cup. Something else was needed, and the realisation of that plus the hard work of a Scotsman called William McGregor led to arguably the single most important development in the history of English football. In the summer of 1888 the Football League was founded and Stoke, having played a major part in its inception, became one of the 12 original members and a new chapter in the Club's history was about to be written.