Arbroath 36 Bon Accord 0: The story behind British football’s biggest thrashing

Words by Matthew Crist Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 24, 2018

There can be few games as remarkable as Arbroath’s annihilation of Bon Accord in the First Round of the Scottish Cup on September 12, 1885. Yet despite being the subject of quiz questions and pub debates the length and breadth of the country for well over a century the heaviest defeat in the history of British football is still shrouded in mystery.

The 36-0 scoreline that day resembled more of a cricket score than a football result and perhaps it’s not surprising that rumours have since done the rounds that the doomed Bon Accord side was actually made up of players from the nearby Orion Cricket Club rather than footballers, just one of many muddled myths, falsehoods and fallacies which surround one of the most famous matches in history.

The story goes that the Scottish FA mistakenly sent an invite to enter the competition to Orion Cricket Club instead of Orion FC and after receiving this unexpected call-up, the cricketers decided to accept the request, changing their name in the process. However, the fact that Orion FC was not formed until October 1885, a month after Bon Accord’s mammoth defeat, somewhat disproves this myth.

What we do know, however, is that the fixture turned out to be one of the most one-sided encounters in the history of the game as the rather more established Arbroath outfit lined-up against a bunch of working lads plucked from across the North East of Scotland in a mismatch of epic proportions which would drive even the most sentimental supporter to question the romance of the cup.

On entering the Scottish Cup the newly formed Bon Accord were given the chance to pit their wits against some of the games bigger names, setting up a classic David versus Goliath clash when they were drawn with the recently turned professional Arbroath who, having been formed some eight years earlier, were one of the oldest clubs in the league.

Part of the Forfarshire Football Association since 1883, Arbroath were the cup specialists of the day who had claimed the scalp of Glasgow Rangers the previous season only for the result to be overturned when Rangers claimed the pitch was too small and in the resulting replay Arbroath were hammered 8-1.

The sense of injustice felt by Arbroath meant that the task facing lowly Bon Accord was now even more daunting, a prospect not helped by the fact that this ramshackle outfit were grossly unprepared for their first foray into the big time.

Reports from the time claim that Bon Accord arrived for the biggest game in their short existence with no form of official playing kit, let alone footwear, and their recognised goalkeeper didn’t even show up for the game at all.

And to make matters worse, it wasn’t just the goalkeeper who hadn’t shown up: Bon Accord began the match with only nine men before apparently plucking two spectators from the crowd to make-up the numbers with defender Andrew Lornie, a gas fitter by trade, reluctantly taking his place between the sticks.

The game kicked-off on a dreary and dank Angus day, but the pitch at Arboath’s Gayfield Park held up well despite the persistent showers and the surface certainly couldn’t be blamed for the spectacular thrashing which was about to take place.

The main instigator of Bon Accord’s epic downfall was a man who had only just joined Arbroath from local rivals Strathmore, an 18-year-old winger by the name of John “Jocky” Petrie, who lined up at the top of a 2-2-6 formation; a bizarrely attacking line-up but one very much of the time when the best form of defence was seen as attack.

Petrie wasted no time in putting a side with no real footballing experience of note to the sword with two quick goals in the early moments of the game as the home side, in their traditional maroon shirts, set about ending the game as a contest as quickly as possible. Further strikes quickly followed to add to Petrie’s early brace, before the rampant striker completed a first-half hat-trick when he beat the beleaguered stand-in ‘keeper once more.

The outfielder who had been unfortunate enough to have been thrust into goal must have been cursing his luck while his opposing number down the other end of the field enjoyed a relatively trouble-free afternoon.

Accounts from the time claim that Jim Milne kept himself busy by chatting to supporters behind the goal and even retreating under their umbrellas to avoid the frequent showers which were almost as regular as the goals raining down at the other end.

The half-time whistle eventually came to Bon Accord’s rescue but not before they were 15-0 down, and if the somewhat shell-shocked visitors thought their hosts might go easy on them in the second period they were in for a nasty surprise as the next 45 minutes was almost a carbon copy of what had gone before.

Five more goals were scored in the 15 minutes following the break and unwilling to show any remorse, another 16 followed for Arbroath as Petrie completed an astonishing afternoon with 13 strikes to his name, a single-game international football record which was eventually equalled in 2001 by Australian Archie Thompson in a match against American Samoa which the Socceroos won 31-0.

By the hour mark Arbroath were averaging a goal every three minutes only to increase the intensity in the final half hour as they managed to find the net at an astonishing rate of every two minutes. When Bon Accord did register their first shot on target Arbroath defender Bill Collie came to the rescue of ‘keeper Milne to clear the ball off the line.

If the game had taken place today no doubt the losing manager would have “looked for positives” in the defeat and perhaps the only crumb of comfort for Bon Accord was that it could, and probably should, have been much worse but for the referee.

Arbroath actually scored 43 goals only for Dave Stormont to rule-out seven of them for being offside, even though he later claimed that they were probably perfectly good strikes: “My only regret was that I chalked off seven goals,” he would later claim. “For while they may have looked doubtful from an offside point of view, so quickly did the Maroons carry the ball from midfield, and so close and rapid was their passing, that it was very doubtful whether they could be offside.”

Incredibly, that very day – just 20 miles away – Dundee-based Harp thrashed Aberdeen Rovers 35-0, also in the Scottish Cup. And things could have been so different but for the referee once again who initially recorded the result as being 37-0, only for Harp’s secretary to challenge the validity of the result and insist that two extra goals had been recorded. The referee duly obliged and after acknowledging the difficulty when it came to keeping track of the onslaught, later corrected the score.

As Bon Accord trudged back north, only to be seen in the Scottish Cup twice more in their history, Arbroath’s scoring exploits didn’t end there. They went on to beat local rivals Forfar Athletic 9-1 in the Second Round of the Scottish Cup and then thrashed Dundee East End 7-1 before eventually being eliminated by Hibernian in a rather more closely-fought 5-3 thriller.

Even so, Arbroath’s 36-0 win over Bon Accord in September 1885 has gone down in folklore as the heaviest defeat in any competitive game despite a number of equally freakish results which have taken place since.

In October 2002, Malagasy club AS Adema beat SO l’Emyrne 149-0 in the national championship; however, SOE intentionally scored 149 own goals as a protest to a previous refereeing decision somewhat putting the validity of the scoreline in doubt. Meanwhile, in December 2000, Romanian side Carpati Mirsa beat Avintul Dirlos 41–0 only for the result not to be ratified due to the fact it was not in a professional competition.

So, for now at least, Arbroath 36 Bon Accord 0, remains the result which still resonates with any side, professional or otherwise, who has had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a similarly sound thrashing and a game that football aficionados will no doubt still be talking about in decades to come.

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