Somewhere in a box in a basement in Ladysmith sits the Challenge Cup. It’s unloved, unpolished and forgotten. But it wasn’t always that way.
Some 120 years ago, that handsome piece of silver was the most coveted prize in all of British Columbia soccer.
“That trophy, I feel, should be in the Nanaimo Sports Hall of Fame where people can see it, because of the history behind it,” said Robert Janning, author of Westcoast Reign: The British Columbia Soccer Championships 1892-1905.
The history, it turns out, all started in Nanaimo.
It was the Nanaimo Rangers soccer team that commissioned the Challenge Cup and presented it to the B.C. Football Association on the condition that the provincial championship match be contested in Nanaimo every year.
And it was the Rangers who won the cup that first year, defeating the Northfield Athletics 3-2 in the first-ever B.C. final on June 4, 1892 at what is now Robins Park.
Nanaimo versus Northfield, in Nanaimo, for the first provincial soccer championship. It’s a fascinating piece of sports trivia, and it’s just one chapter of the history detailed in Westcoast Reign.
The 170-page hardcover is both encyclopedia and storybook, pieced together over years of research. The author, who lives in Vancouver, had a lifelong passion for soccer and wondered about its origins in the province. Library books and internet searches couldn’t tell him much.
“I realized quickly that if I were to satisfy my curiosity, it would be up to me to launch a fact-finding mission,” Janning said.
Looking over microfiche and bound editions of newspapers, he collected scores, statistics and anecdotes that trace soccer history at the turn of the century.
“Page by page, when … you’re going through these old newspapers and you’re getting the ink on your fingers, it feels like you’re travelling in time back to that period,” Janning said.
It was a different era, then, to be sure.
In the month leading up to that historic Nanaimo-Northfield final, the Rangers defeated the Nanaimo YMCA Alphas 1-0 in one semifinal.
The other semifinal was one for the ages.
On March 26, 1892, the visitors from New Westminster made it to Robins Park, but not without a trace of seasickness, Janning relates.
“On top of the fact that they encountered some rough weather during their crossing of the Gulf of Georgia, the captain of their vessel, the SS Dunsmuir, had sportingly engaged in a race with a colleague,” he writes.
Still, the visitors tied Northfield 2-2 and in those days, draws were replayed. In the rematch on the mainland three weeks later, New West won 4-0, but a yardstick confirmed that one crossbar was 10 centimetres higher than the other, and in fact, both goals were larger than regulation size. The Nanaimo-based B.C. Football Association ruled that yet another replay take place, but Westminster chose to default.
“The decision of the association … should be engraved on a lump of coal and sent to the provincial museum,” wrote one New Westminster journalist at the time.
Of course, Nanaimo teams didn’t always have to count on crooked goalposts to win. Janning goes on to detail how the Rangers won two more B.C. titles in 1893 and 1895, how the Wellington Rovers won back-to-back B.C. titles in 1898-99, and how Snuneymuxw standouts Harry Manson and James Wilks were the first aboriginal players to compete in provincial championships when they were recruited to the Nanaimo Thistles in 1897-98.
As for the Challenge Cup, it eventually became the Upper Island championship and a Ladysmith team was the last club to capture the trophy before it was decommissioned. An executive there hung onto the silverware and it ended up where family heirlooms sometimes end up.
“Nanaimo went to these extremes to keep the cup here,” Janning said. “That it’s in a basement in a box in Ladysmith now, it’s kind of a shame.”
The trophy might be forgotten, but Westcoast Reign ensures those turn-of-the-century matches are not. It’s a chance to cheer the ghosts of Nanaimo’s soccer pitches, one more time.
FOOT NOTES … To purchase the book, please click here. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org … Janning will read from Westcoast Reign on May 17 at 6 p.m. at Nanaimo Harbourfront Library.