Football: When Arthur Conan Doyle played for Portsmouth

Portsmouth FC is not the kind of club that captures the attention of millions and millions of fans, but like other cities across the nation, Portsmouth has its own enthralling sporting stories, legends and of course, footballers.

And one of these stories is that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the literary maestro behind the famous, Sherlock Holmes, who supposedly as the first goalkeeper for Portsmouth FC.

Arthur Conan Doyle poses for a picture

We all know of Sherlock Holmes, and many Holmes fans’ will even know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the first two Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, in Portsmouth while he was setting up his medical practice there. Sherlock Holmes, of course, became an instant success, and years after Doyle’s death, a global phenomenon, with the advent of theatre and television, including spin-offs and numerous actors playing the titular role along with that of Holmes’ trusted sidekick, Dr Watson.

Doyle was a man of many talents, and when he wasn’t writing books, which included many more than his most famous character or practicing as a physician, he was a very passionate athlete with a large sporting career that spanned across several sports. During his 9-year long amateur cricket career, he even managed to play 10 first-class cricket matches for the famous Marylebone Cricket Club and once took the wicket of the legendary, W.G. Grace.

Not to mention being a part of the famous, but ridiculously-titled and self-proclaimed ‘terrible’ amateur cricket team, the Allahakbarries, alongside the likes of J.R. Kipling, H.G. Wells and J.M. Barrie, amongst several other famous authors of the era.

Contrary to popular belief though, the team that the legendary author played for was not a direct precursor to the modern iteration of the club either.

He was also an amateur boxer. In fact, in an interview with the Daily Mail in 1911, Doyle went on to defend the sport of boxing while there were questions around its safety and legality. And when he wasn’t partaking in these sports, he was also an avid golfer, and once entered the English Amateur Billiard Championships.

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One of his more popular sporting stories goes something along the lines of, playing for Portsmouth as a goalkeeper, under the pseudonym, A. C. Smith.

Soon after moving to Portsmouth in 1882, Doyle joined the Portsmouth Association Football Club (AFC), which was founded in 1883. At the time, professional football was at its earliest roots, and Portsmouth AFC was an amateur football club where the game was played for fun and honours, rather than money or compensation. This, of course, means that Arthur Conan Doyle did not play the game for Portsmouth FC, not the modern version of the club that we know today, anyway.

The Portsmouth FC that we know of today, didn’t quite come into existence until much later. Portsmouth AFC was in fact, disbanded in 1896 and it wasn’t until 1898 that the modern football club came into existence.

Contrary to popular belief though, the team that the legendary author played for was not a direct precursor to the modern iteration of the club either.

Arthur Conan Doyle
An older Doyle looks into the camera for his self-portrait

Instead, it was the Royal Artillery (Portsmouth) FC, a popular, but amateur army team based in Portsmouth that was first nicknamed Pompey.  While the team was active for over 5 years, it too disbanded in 1901 and it was in this team that Portsmouth’s actual first goalkeeper, Irish International, Matt Reilly, played for over 5 years (with future stints at Tottenham in the Southern League, as well).

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In the latter years of the Royal Artillery, a parallel club sprung up, known as the Portsmouth Football and Athletic Company Limited, the first of its kind in the Southern city. Set up by entrepreneurs for the purpose of growing and commercialising football in their town. Eventually, this became what we know as Portsmouth Football Club today.

Coming back to Doyle’s team though, it has been speculated that the founder of Portsmouth AFC, A. E. Cogswell, was influential in convincing one of the main founders of Portsmouth Football and Athletic Company Limited, A.E. Cogswell to set up a new football club.

And the former team is at times considered to be an indirect predecessor and a part of the grassroots that led to the formation of what we know of as Portsmouth FC today.

However, to say that Doyle was the first goalkeeper to play for Portsmouth, is, unfortunately, a myth, but that does not mean that he was not an incredible individual with a multitude and plethora of talents.

Credit where it is due, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was without a doubt one of the first goalkeepers to play organised football with a club in Portsmouth, just not the one we have come to know and love today.

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