(Thanks to Patrick Sullivan for this great look back at the first Chattanooga vs. Atlanta match. Portions of this article were written by me in this post from September 30, 2015)
On Saturday, February 11, 2017 Atlanta United will play its first ever game against Chattanooga FC at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga. The friendly match will take place almost 105 years after the first soccer game was played between two sides representing Atlanta and Chattanooga on the afternoon of February 22, 1912.
“A hard fight has been waged in Atlanta for soccer football and now that victory is in sight all interested should stick to the club and be right on the job when the trip to Chattanooga is made.” - Atlanta Journal, February 19, 1912
Organized soccer got its start in metropolitan Atlanta in 1908 when a team from Atlanta and another composed of granite quarry workers in the nearby town of Lithonia began to schedule regular games over the late fall and early winter months. Labor unrest in Lithonia appears to have stalled play in 1909 and 1910; however, the game was revived in November 1911 under the leadership of Joe Hall and two Northern Irish brothers, John and Thomas “Pat” Harland. Following a series of intra-squad matches and a game versus a team of soldiers with the 17th Infantry Regiment at Fort McPherson on Christmas Day, the Atlanta Constitution reported in early January 1912 that local interest in soccer was on the rise and the Atlanta Soccer Football Club (ASFC) claimed a membership of almost 70 players and supporters.
As word began to spread about Atlanta’s growing interest in soccer, other southern cities took notice. A group from Chattanooga, Tennessee, headed by Archibald S. McLundie, a Scottish-born mechanical engineer, was the first to issue a challenge to the local club to play in the South’s first "inter-city soccer football" match. Atlanta received similar challenges from prospective clubs in New Orleans and the North Georgia marble quarry town of Nelson. More concrete plans were made for home and away games versus a team of college students attending the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in March 1912, while clubs hailing from Mobile and Jacksonville were also mentioned as potential opponents.
ASFC officials scheduled an away match with Chattanooga on Thursday, February 22nd, George Washington’s Birthday, and Saturday scrimmages were held at Piedmont Park to determine the strongest roster in the weeks leading up to the game. While the weekday contest and resulting loss of work was problematic for many Atlanta players, Tom Harland promised in the sports pages of the Atlanta Journal that the selected side would be “a husky and speedy aggregation” and he praised the generosity of the Chattanooga group, which offered to pay a portion of the visitors’ travel costs. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Constitution reported that Chattanooga had improbably managed to recruit the Yale football star, Ted Coy, as part of their lineup.
On the eve of the Chattanooga match, the Atlanta club finally named their starters in the local papers:
Leon A. Despland, Goal; William “Billy” Jackson, Right full back; William “Billy” C. Kelly, Left full back and Team Captain; Alexander Harvey, Right half back; Arthur McClaughry "Streak" Wilson, Center half back; Alexander McWatt, Left half back; William T. Jones, Inside right; Thomas “Pat” Harland, Outside right; Richard “Dick” Jones, Center; John Harland, Outside left; and Alex Strachan, Jr., Inside left; with Alberic P. Jette and Edward L. Worrell functioning as reserves.
Managed by Joe Hall, the team was a combination of the traditional Atlanta and Lithonia sides and was primarily composed of the more experienced Irish, Scottish, and Welsh players:
“The Atlanta players have been working hard all winter and are in good shape for a grueling game. They all know the game, many having played it in England, and teamwork will be in evidence” - Atlanta Journal, February 21, 1912.
The club and a “large delegation of soccer loving” supporters traveled to Chattanooga via the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis (NC&StL) Railway and departed from Union Station in downtown Atlanta on the morning of the match. The game that afternoon went better than many expected. With a “large crowd in attendance,” but no Ted Coy to be found, the visitors battered the local starting eleven, winning 4-0. Tom Harland scored once for Atlanta, while Richard Jones of Lithonia had a hat trick. According to the Atlanta Constitution’s account:
"Atlanta's soccer eleven romped away with the first inter-city game every played in the south here today, defeating the Chattanoogans by four goals to none. The Crackers featured a center attack, and, with J.R. Jones [sic] as the chief strength, and with Strachan and Wilson doing the lion's share of getting the ball down the field, bombarded the home team's goal for the greater part of both halves.” - Atlanta Constitution, February 23, 1912
The post-game description in the Atlanta Journal [most likely supplied by Tom Harland] was more dismissive of the levels of effort and skill displayed by the Chattanooga side:
“The great team work of the visiting team wrought havoc with the Tennessee outfit and the scoring of the four goals was easy…After Atlanta got the ball and started so well the Chattanooga team seemed to quit and from then until the end there was nothing to it but Atlanta.” - Atlanta Journal, February 23, 1912
A planned return match versus Chattanooga never materialized and the ASFC played out the remainder of the 1911-1912 campaign with away and home victories against Coach “Iron Mike” Donahue’s young Auburn squad. On March 2, Atlanta defeated Auburn 2-1 away in the “first game of association football played by a southern college” according to the Atlanta Constitution. The return match was played at Piedmont Park one week later and Atlanta won once again.
The members of the ASFC were so committed to growing the game that they came out of their own pockets to help pay for Auburn’s visit after they did not earn enough revenue on ticket sales.
On March 23rd, the Atlantans celebrated their undefeated inaugural season with a "banquet and smoker" at Folsom’s Hotel on Marietta Street, confident they had “put the game on a firm basis in this city and…destined to make it a southern winter sport.”