John Marsh was born in 1842 in a village called Thurlstone, which is very close to Penistone. His parents were Thomas Marsh, a stone mason, and Elizabeth Marsh. John was baptised by the Reverend Samuel Sunderland at St John the Baptist church in Penistone and educated by Sunderland who was the Headmaster of Penistone Grammar School. Like most young boys in the area John became very adept at the game of football that Sunderland had introduced when he arrived in Penistone as a young Curate in 1829.
The 1861 census shows him lodging with John Rogers at 14 Charles Street in the Parish of St Peter’s in Sheffield. The company owned by Rogers, John Rogers and Sons, employed his son, also called John and three apprentice engravers which included John Marsh. The two young men both aged 18 at the time of the census, would form a strong bond of friendship with sport as a unifying feature.
John Rogers became one of Sheffield’s finest cricketers and accomplished sports reporter, whilst John Marsh became a cornerstone of Sheffield Football and captain of the Sheffield Association representative side. Both young men would go onto found the Wednesday Football Club in 1867, later to become the Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.
Marsh could well have been in Sheffield in the late 1850s. John Ness Dransfield writing in his book, the History of Penistone, claims that Marsh was the second Sheffield Club captain after John Charles Shaw, and before Creswick took on the role in 1860/61. Marsh was certainly known by John Charles as the 1861 census shows Thirza Moorhouse acting as housekeeper for Shaw who was John Marsh’s aunt.
John Marsh did not play in any of the inter-club games between Sheffield and Hallam in the early 1860s. By the time Marsh is in Charles Street in 1861, centrally located within Sheffield, other clubs had established themselves: Pitsmoor, Norton, Norfolk and York. Unfortunately, reports on matches give little detail, particularly regarding the players. It is possible that Marsh turned out for any of these teams however, the first three of those named clubs were created from existing cricket clubs and Marsh certainly played cricket. He had no doubt been pushed in that direction by the cricket loving John Rogers, a member of the Wednesday Club. There were reports of a John Marsh playing cricket for this club and at one time winning an award, at the annual club dinner, for his exploits in the field.
In 1862, another club was created from an existing cricket outfit, the Mackenzie Football Club. It was for this club that John Marsh turned out for during the world’s oldest adult knock-out football competition, the Youdan Trophy, competed for by 12 Sheffield clubs in 1867. The Mackenzie club got through to the semi-finals losing to the eventual winners, the Hallam club by 4 rouges. MacKenzie narrowly missed victory when a shot rebounded off the Hallam keeper and the chance was lost. What was not lost on the spectators at Bramall Lane that day was the praise given in the press regarding the most outstanding player of the match, John Marsh.
It was probably this tournament that established Marsh’s footballing ability among his peers. Recognised as one Sheffield’s top players and buoyed by this fact encouraged the Wednesday Cricket club to establish their own football club after the tournament. It could be argued that because of his football success, Marsh was pivotal in the founding of the football section. He became the Wednesday Football Club’s first captain and secretary and remained central to the club’s success for the first seven seasons. Jason Dickinson, Sheffield Wednesday Club historian, describes Marsh’s involvement as ‘arguably the most important individual of the club’s fledgling years.’
Marsh led the team to victory during their first season in another knock-out tournament. This was the Cromwell Cup, competed for by the 4 Sheffield clubs regarded as junior clubs, that is, being no more than 2 years since formation. Again, Marsh was praised in the press as the outstanding player of the tournament.
The 1871-72 season has been described as football’s watershed year, a time when the FA Cup was launched, and international football came into being. The Wanderers had won the FA Cup with a team full of England players. John Marsh was to play against no less than 9 of that FA Cup winning team. In April 1871, John Marsh married Emily Esther Hemery and in December saw the first of the regular Sheffield-London fixtures.
Charles Alcock had decided to bring to Sheffield a side of his choosing to play against a side of Sheffield clubs using home rules at Bramall Lane. The Sheffield side had been selected by ballot by the Association Committee and could be viewed as a truly representative team of Sheffield footballing ability. John Marsh was voted as captain in recognition of his ability and organisational command. Sheffield won 3-1 and Marsh once again given the credit for leading his team to victory. On receiving the captaincy for the inaugural game in 1871, Marsh maintained this position throughout the next 4 years, playing his final game against London in 1874.
John Marsh played against the leading players of the day who would go on to become established international representatives. He played against and with recognised international players on numerous occasions. In one particular game played at Bramall Lane in 1873, resulting in an 8-2 victory for Sheffield, the match contained 13 players who would go on to claim their international colours. Both teams dined that night at the Adelphi Hotel where John Marsh was toasted as the Victorious captain.
In 1874, the Sheffield Football Association established fixtures with Glasgow. The first game taking place at Bramall Lane with Marsh once again captain of the Sheffield side which contained Jack Hunter, a future England international and FA Cup winner. The Glasgow side contained no less than 10 international players, including Harry McNeil the world’s first footballer to reach 10 international caps. The game was played using home rules and resulted in a 2-2 draw, described as one of the finest displays of football ever witnessed. It could be argued that Marsh would not have disgraced himself on the international field as he continued to take the praise against such opposition.
‘Several desperate sallies were now made by the Glasgow players, but Marsh always showed them an unflinching front, went in fearlessly and returned the ball frequently when danger threatened. Probably he never played in better form.’
In 1874, after the death of his sister Susannah, John announced at the Wednesday AGM that he was stepping down from his roles as captain and secretary, so he could run the family pub, The Crystal Palace, in Thurlstone. Immediately upon his arrival back at his home village, John established a football team called Thurlstone Cystal Palace FC and affiliated it with the Sheffield Association. John played a final game for Sheffield in 1875 against Glasgow at the West of Scotland Cricket Ground at Partick, but not as captain. Sheffield lost the game 2-0 but it was witnessed by 10,000 spectators. Regarded as the largest crowd to yet witness a game. John Marsh retired to Thurlstone.
The Cystal Palace team played regular fixtures against Sheffield opposition. One such game in 1876, against Fir Vale resulted in John Marsh sustaining a broken arm. The injury proved to be very serious and would not set or heal properly. The inability to recover from this injury combined with a slump in the pub trade caused John Marsh to lapse into depression. He would not have found things easy dealing with unruly customers. In the February of 1880 the business situation was so dire that his trading as a publican went into liquidation and John Marsh was declared bankrupt. Coping with deteriorating health and possible depression caused by his business failure proved too much and John Marsh was dead a month later aged 37. Such was his standing in the footballing world, his death was reported nationally. He is buried in the church yard at St John the Baptist Church Penistone.
John Marsh was one of the greats of early Sheffield football. He experienced the game from its early beginnings and rule structure through to the establishing of international football and finally the amalgamation of rules in 1877. His was an incredible journey throughout that period, playing at the highest level and undoubtedly good enough to grace the international field. The establishing of The Crystal Palace team in Thurlstone left not only a legacy of club football but brought the Association game into the area. Football in general and Sheffield and Penistone in particular, owe a big debt of gratitude to John Marsh.
(Photo below) Sheffield Association Representative team 1874. The team here played against London at the Oval on 3rd January 1874 John Marsh almost certainly holding the ball. From the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News March 14th, 1874.
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