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James (Jimmy) Ashcroft is a player of enormous importance in the history of Arsenal as a club – a player who would adorn the outside of the Emirates Stadium if they took into account players from the Woolwich era.
He played for Woolwich Arsenal for eight seasons from 1900 – 1908 in goal, making 303 appearances of which 273 were in the league. He was the first goalkeeper to play for us in the first division, the first Arsenal player to play for England (he won three caps), the first Woolwich Arsenal player to get over 300 games, and the first player to play eight consecutive seasons getting over 30 league games a season. Having joined the team he played 154 consecutive matches, (something only exceeded once – see below). He was also in the two cup semi-finals that Woolwich Arsenal played.
Jimmy was born in Liverpool, on 12 September 1878 and is listed as playing for Wilbyn’s United, Garston Copperworks, Everton and Gravesend United, before reaching Woolwich Arsenal. He is also recorded as being an amateur for Everton, and so presumably was an amateur for the clubs listed before that. What took him to Gravesend is not clear, but Gravesend is only 18 miles from Woolwich and so he was probably talent-spotted at that club – or noticed when Arsenal played Gravesend.
Gravesend were not as obscure a club as we might think today, and they did win the Kent Senior Cup in 1898 and were in the first division of the Southern League in 1899/1900 (alongside Tottenham Hotspur).
Having transferred to Arsenal, Jimmy missed the first two games of the season, before playing against Burton Swifts on 15 September 1900 and then did not miss a single match for four years – something that has only been beaten once – by Tom Parker in the 1930s.
From this first game on he only let in 26 goals in 34 games that season, including 17 clean sheets and six consecutive games without conceding a goal (a club record, that was not equalled until 1998 – by Alex Manninger.. In 1903/4 he let in 22 goals in 34 game with 20 clean sheets.
In May 1908, Ashcroft signed for Blackburn Rovers for whom he played 114 games, before moving on to Tranmere Rovers at the end of the 1911/12 season. He continued to play there until the outbreak of the first world war, when he retired from football. He died on this day in 1943 aged 64 – a man whose contribution to the early Arsenal should most certainly be better remembered than it is.
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