Joseph Frederick (“Billy”) Heath; the man who scored the very first penalty

By Tony Attwood

Joseph Frederick Heath, named in some places as “Billy” and once as “Joe” played ten league games for Arsenal and scored five goals.  A remarkable achievement, and one that sent me scuttling around trying to find out more about this player.

And wouldn’t you know it, there was something very special to find – he scored the very first penalty kick in the football league in 1891 and was one of the elite and select group who were called upon to play for Arsenal when the club needed to play a Cup game and a League game on the same day.

But let’s start with the penalty.

Now that he scored the first penalty kick in 1891 in itself might seem strange since the first football league season was 1888/9, so we might ask how come there were no penalties until that point?

But the fact was that the rules in the early game, especially in relation to goalkeepers and the area around the goal, were quite different from now – with the keeper able to handle the ball all the way up to the half way line and the notion of “foul” much less clear than they were even 20 years later.

Events which to us today would look more like rugby than football were commonplace in and around the goal mouth, and thus penalties would have been meaningless, since the match was pretty much a free for all at such points.

Various people are cited as original exponents of the idea of the penalty around 1879 and 1880 and it is impossible to work out who was the first proponent, but it is clear that the International Football Association Board (which at the time was the FAs of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and which indeed still exists, although with the addition of four Fifa delegates) approved the notion on 2 June 1891.

The 1891/2 season kicked off on Saturday 5 September, with a couple of games being played the following monday, and another full round on Saturday 12 September.  65 goals were scored in the 15 games – an average of 4.33 goals a game.  But none of these were penalties.

Then on Monday 14 September Wolverhampton were awarded a penalty in their home game with Accrington.  The kick was taken by “Billy” Heath, who scored.  Wolverhampton won the game 5-0 and the result took them up to third in the table, although they later slipped back and finished the season in sixth.

Hayes in his book on Arsenal players has Heath born in Bristol in 1869 (no one seems to have the date), and then has him playing for Walsall Town Swifts, Wednesdbury Old Athletic, Wolverhampton, and finally Woolwich Arsenal in the 1893/4 season.  I suspect he was a man who moved south for the work, rather than a player that Arsenal recruited.

Arsenal FC tell us that he was coach of the reserve team, but that doesn’t 100% accord with his actual playing career at this time at the start.  I suspect he became reserve team coach a little later.

Heath didn’t play in Arsenal’s first game in the League – the 2-2 draw away to Newcastle on 2 September, but he did take over the number 9 shirt for the second match on 9 September.  Although Arsenal lost that game, Heath kept his place, and it was clearly a good decision because he scored a hattrick against Walsall Town Swifts on 11 September – Arsenal’s first ever hattrick.

He then kept his place for a further four games, scoring one more goal.  After a break he had a couple more games in December and January but without scoring.  He did however get two goals in the 12-0 cup win against Ashford in October.

In 1894/5 he played just two games – once as centre forward in the first match of the season and once as centre half in January, scoring once in that first game.

According to  Heath was then sold to Gravesend United two years later but rejoined the Club, primarily as a reserve player in 1896, and left three years later.  Arsenal Fact File has him as an Arsenal player in 1893/4 and 1894/5 and then again in 1896/7, during which he played one FA Cup match – the game against Leyton on 12 December.

Now this was itself an interesting game as on this day the FA demanded Arsenal play this FA Cup fourth qualifying round match, and the League insisted Arsenal play Loughborough.  Heath was one of five players whose only first team match (either league or cup) of the season was the Leyton match.  Indeed only one of the four ever played for Arsenal again – Duff – and he played just one game.

The first team lost 8-0 to Loughborough, while the reserves were winning their Cup tie.

So this is what we have

Years Team Lge games Goals
1891/92 Wolverhampton Wanderers 8 4
1893/95 Woolwich Arsenal 10 5
Gravesend United

And so that is that – after this we have nothing about Joseph Heath, known as Billy.  I wonder if he actually ever appreciated his place in history.  Sadly I suspect not, but it would be wonderful if we could find members of his family, and through them a little more of his life.

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