One bright Saturday afternoon in February 1911, the Preston North End team arrived at the Boleyn Ground in East London for an FA Cup tie against West Ham United. As the players left their hansom cabs, they were approached by a tall, destitute man who was, in the parlance of the day, “soliciting alms”, or begging for money. The Preston team was much changed from its Victorian heyday, but every player would have recognised this man, despite his reduced circumstances. He was the original ‘Prince of Goalkeepers’, who had kept goal in a manner approaching perfection for the peerless Preston ‘Invincibles’. He was one of football’s first and most famous professionals, and his name was Jimmy Trainer.

On the same afternoon, across the Channel in northern France, Racing Club de Roubaix beat Stade Roubaisien by five goals to one to move clear at the top of the Nord league. Roubaix was a small club with big ambitions and had recruited as a manager one of the best-known names in football. He was a broad-chested Englishman with a big moustache and bald pate. He had come to France because he had bold ideas about how players should be coached that were not acknowledged at home. Another Preston Invincible, he was regarded as “the finest forward that ever played the association game”. He was a great friend of Jimmy Trainer and his name was Johnny Goodall.

Jimmy and Johnny were both born in 1863, the year that the Football Association was formed and the Rules of the Game were formulated. Jimmy was Welsh and Johnny was English – although Johnny was raised in Scotland, and had a broad Scottish accent. As amateur footballers, they earned their livings through manual labour. Jimmy was employed at a coach works and Johnny at an iron works. Both were big, quiet men, with modest hobbies outside of football. Jimmy played bowls and Johnny bred canaries. Both enjoyed a game of billiards.

They met at Great Lever, the Bolton club that thrived in the amateur era before the legalisation of professionalism and the formation of the Football League. Jimmy and Johnny were among the first players to benefit from professionalism and among the first to make a career out of football. As pioneers in the world of professional football, they had no established career path to follow. They would share success together at Preston and play against each other for their countries at the peaks of their careers. But as they got older and their playing days tailed away, the two men’s careers would diverge.

Jimmy Trainer was born in Wrexham in January 1863. The son of a master baker, he played football for the original Wrexham club, where he wore a distinctive black jersey with a skull and crossbones motif on it. Initially an outfielder, Jimmy’s 5’11” height (six inches taller than the average at the time) led to him being persuaded to go in goal. He kept a clean sheet in the 1883 Welsh Cup Final, as Wrexham beat Druids. In the same year he played in two exhibition matches for Wrexham against Great Lever and was praised for his “really grand defence of the Welsh fortress”. A week after the second match, Great Lever’s goalkeeper suffered a bad injury and they needed a replacement. “Send for your man from Wrexham,” one of Lever committee members was recorded as saying. “Him with the black jersey and skull and crossbones.”

Professionalism was still outlawed in 1883, but top players were often paid “boot money” – illicit bonuses tucked into their boots after a game. And players could be enticed to switch allegiances from one club to another with the offer of a well-paid and undemanding job at a local firm, with time off to train and play. Great Lever promised Jimmy a suitably cushy job paying a generous 30 shillings a week. He accepted and moved to Lever but, after several months, the job failed to materialise. It was suggested that Jimmy would have to move back to Wrexham, but Lever were reluctant to lose their new star goalkeeper. “Hang it,” said a committee member. “We have one gentleman in the team. Let’s keep him.” So, without any pretence of outside employment, Jimmy became one of football’s first blatant professionals.

Johnny Goodall was born five months after Jimmy, in June 1863. His father was a military man who moved around the country. Johnny was born in central London but raised in Kilmarnock. His Scottish upbringing and accent would lead to him being known as “the first Scot to play for England”. (Johnny’s footballing younger brother, Archie, was born in Belfast and played for Ireland.) Johnny learnt to play football with bare feet and a rubber ball. “Nearly all Scotch players learnt their football in that way,” he later recalled. “It was rough training, I grant you, but it was wonderfully effective.”

As a teenager he played for Kilmarnock Burns and Kilmarnock Athletic. Teams of the era typically played with five forwards, and Johnny was equally comfortable at inside-right, inside-left or in the centre. He played for Athletic in two Scottish Cup semi-finals and also in exhibition matches against English Cup winners Blackburn Olympic.

It was an exhibition match between Kilmarnock Athletic and Great Lever, in December 1883, that first brought Jimmy and Johnny together. Jimmy made several saves, being regarded as “too sharp” for the “Scotch forwards”. But, after Jimmy pushed away a fierce shot, Johnny nipped onto the rebound and scored. Athletic went on to win 3-1. Within a month, Johnny had moved to join Jimmy at Lever, again with the promise of suitable employment.

At Great Lever, Jimmy and Johnny became, in Jimmy’s words, “bosom friends”. Jimmy recalled one particular incident involving himself, Johnny and a new recruit named Sammy Wright, whom he described as “quite a green youth”. Returning late at night from an away match at Notts County, the three men became stranded at the train station in Manchester, having missed the last connection to Bolton. “We repaired to the waiting room to pass the night, but it was so cold and cheerless that I suggested we should go for a cup of coffee,” recalled Jimmy. “Johnny agreed, but Sammy was too tired, and said he would stay and look after the bags.”

Jimmy and Johnny went for their coffee (or perhaps something stronger), then decided it would be a good idea to walk the 11 miles or so home to Bolton. It wasn’t until they’d walked for three or four miles that they remembered Sammy. They’d gone too far to turn back, so continued their journey home. Meanwhile an impatient Sammy, lugging three large bags, wandered the empty streets looking for them. At the time, Manchester Police were on the lookout for a “dynamite fiend” who had been terrorising the city. “Sammy was arrested and taken to taken to a police station, where the bags were thoroughly searched for bombs,” said Jimmy. “He was dreadfully frightened and wouldn’t speak to Johnny or myself for weeks.”

In September 1884, Jimmy and Johnny, both now 21, played for Great Lever against the newly-formed Derby County club in their first-ever match. Jimmy kept a clean sheet and Johnny scored a hat-trick as Lever won 6-0. Two months later, Lever went to Derby for a return match. Jimmy kept another clean sheet and Johnny scored another hat-trick, and Lever won 3-0. They went on to face stronger opposition and secured a 1-1 draw against Preston, with Johnny scoring Lever’s goal. In May 1885, Johnny scored against local rivals Bolton Wanderers and although Lever lost that game, Jimmy and Johnny had clearly impressed. Wanderers wanted both of them.

During the summer of 1885, the rumbling debate over professionalism finally came to a head. Preston had been booted out of the FA Cup for paying their players, in contravention of FA rules. But illicit payments were increasingly prevalent and the power and popularity of big clubs like Preston and Bolton could no longer be ignored. The FA secretary CW Alcock had proposed the legalisation of professionalism in early 1884, arguing that it was impossible for football to continue “on strictly amateur lines”, but an agreement wasn’t reached until July 1885. Freed from restrictions, the biggest clubs began to make overt moves to sign the best players.

Within days of the legalisation of professionalism, Wanderers had approached Jimmy and offered him £2 or 40s a week – 10s more than he was getting at Lever. “Such an inducement, together with the fact that the Wanderers had a far greater name than Great Lever, naturally appealed to a youth,” he recalled. Lever countered by offering him 45s a week to stay. But Wanderers responded with an offer of 50s – which Jimmy accepted. A Lever official immediately wrote to their rivals, cancelling their upcoming fixtures and saying “all sorts of unpleasant things about the Wanderers”.

Johnny, meanwhile, was back in Kilmarnock on holiday and was considered to be out of reach. But Wanderers representatives managed to track him down and asked him to return with them on the next train to Bolton. “I was not particularly keen about it,” recalled Johnny, “but I was eventually persuaded to make the journey.” However, as soon as he arrived in Bolton he was intercepted by another party. “Before I knew where I was, I was hustled into a cab,” Johnny recalled. “I was kidnapped!”

The “kidnapper” was Billy Sudell, the secretary-manager of Preston. Sudell was the owner of a lucrative cotton mill and was able to offer terms that Bolton couldn’t match. Johnny agreed to sign for Preston for a wage even higher than Jimmy’s – £3 or 60s a week. “There was tremendous uproar in Bolton when the news leaked out,” recalled new Wanderers signing Jimmy. “The public were wild. The committee, in their distraction, turned to me.” Wanderers asked Jimmy to go to Preston and persuade Johnny to change his mind. Johnny, though, could not be persuaded. “Preston held out the best inducements,” he said, “so I stayed there.”

After a year apart, Jimmy and Johnny were reunited in the summer of 1886. Jimmy was unhappy with some backroom changes at Wanderers, so he responded to an offer from Billy Sudell and joined Johnny at Preston. Jimmy expected to be paid at least the 50s a week he’d had at Bolton. “To my surprise, only £2 [40s] was handed over to me at the end of my first week,” said Jimmy. He went to Sudell and asked for an increase of 10s, “and got it so easily that I wished I had asked for more”. “It was not long before I had another 10s put on, making £3,” he recalled. Now Jimmy and Johnny, both 24 years old, were earning more than twice as much as the average working man.

Preston reached the FA Cup Final for the first time in 1888, with Johnny scoring twice in the semi-final, but Jimmy was ineligible to play in the competition. FA residency rules required players to have lived within six miles of their club’s home ground for two years before they could participate. Jimmy’s recent move from Bolton ruled him out. Even without their goalkeeper, Preston were expected to beat opponents West Brom. But, in a huge shock, Preston lost 2-1, with the winning goal coming from a hopeful cross that swerved in the wind over the head of the deputy keeper Dr Bob Mills-Roberts. “I know I could hardly realise that we were beaten,” said Johnny, “and most of the other fellows in our team were in the same plight.”

It was a rare defeat for Preston, who had developed a habit of steamrolling their opposition. In one match, against Strathmore in Dundee in 1887, Preston won 16-2 and Johnny scored nine goals – a triple hat-trick. Later that year, when Preston famously beat Hyde 26-0 in the FA Cup, in what remains the biggest-ever win in English competitive football, Johnny only scored one goal – the 26th. (He might have scored more, but had dropped out of the front-line to half-back to cover for an injured team mate.) “It really seemed as if the only time they touched the ball was when they kicked off,” said Johnny. “If the goalkeeper had not been in great form we would have had 50.”

Both Jimmy and Johnny were now internationals, playing in the British Home Championships. Johnny scored ten goals for England in his first ten games. He captained his country on a couple of occasions, too. Jimmy had a tougher job, as Wales were routinely thrashed by England and Scotland and he was competing for his international place with the Preston reserve Mills-Roberts. But Jimmy did establish himself as Wales’s first-choice keeper and played international football for more than a decade.

The 1888-89 inaugural Football League season was a high point of both men’s careers. Johnny began the season in “capital condition”, despite having spent the summer battling a potentially fatal bout of smallpox. With both Jimmy and Johnny in the side, Preston won their first league match, against Burnley, 5-2. Johnny scored against Wolves in the next match, then scored a hat-trick in the return fixture a month later. The following week he scored another hat-trick, against Notts County. Overall, Johnny scored 20 goals in 21 league games and Jimmy kept 13 clean sheets in 20 games. By the end of the season, the Invincibles were 11 points ahead of their closest challengers Aston Villa, having won 18, drawn 4 and lost none.

Once again, Jimmy was ineligible to play in the FA Cup, and, once again, Preston reached the final. With Mills-Roberts in impressive form, Preston avoided conceding a goal through the entire competition and beat Wolves 3-0 in the final. Preston had won the double and Johnny received two medals. Jimmy could only claim the League. The lack of an FA Cup medal would trouble him throughout his career. But Jimmy was undoubtedly a much-valued member of the Invincibles team. Johnny said Jimmy was “the best man in that position I ever saw”. “We used to know that if we got a goal or two he would do the rest,” he said. At the same time, Jimmy said of Johnny: “Goodall was at the top of the tree. He had no equal.”

Surprisingly, though, Jimmy and Johnny would never play together again. At the end of the ‘Invincibles’ season, Johnny left Preston for Derby County. Derby had struggled in the first League season. They’d finished third from bottom and had to apply for re-election. So why would Johnny leave the Invincibles for Derby? “They gave me a local hostelry,” he said, “and that was the inducement.” (The fact that his brother, Archie, was at Derby must also have played a part.) Johnny was set up as landlord of the Plough Inn, which one reporter regarded as “a Klondike” due to its popularity with thirsty Derby fans.

Back in Preston, Jimmy also became a pub landlord. Newspaper adverts announced that “Jim Trainer (North End goalkeeper) begs to inform his friends and supporters that he has taken possession of the Lamb Hotel (opposite the House of Correction), where he will be glad to meet them at their earliest convenience.” In taking a pub to secure an income beyond their playing careers, Jimmy and Johnny were setting a precedent that would be followed by generations of footballers.

On the pitch, Jimmy’s Preston won the League again in 1889-90, but then slipped away from the top of the table. Johnny’s Derby improved through the 1890s, largely due to the emergence of the phenomenal goalscorer Steve Bloomer. Johnny – eleven years his senior – helped develop Bloomer’s talent, offering him guidance on and off the pitch. “I think I can claim that he profited a little from my coaching,” said Johnny, “although of course he was always a natural player.” Johnny, it would transpire, was a natural coach.

In 1895, Johnny and Jimmy were photographed for Famous Footballers, a prestigious set of player portraits issued as collectable poster cards. Both wore buttoned-up international jerseys, Johnny’s with the three lions crest and Jimmy’s with the Welsh dragon. The accompanying text described Johnny as “very dangerous in front of goal” and said Jimmy had “certainly few, if any, superiors”. The photographs helped to immortalise Jimmy and Johnny as two of the greatest footballers of the Victorian era. But the best days of their playing careers were coming to an end.

The fading nature of Jimmy’s star was well illustrated in 1899, when he participated in a bizarre penalty shoot-out arranged by the Sanger and Sons travelling circus. The headline in the Lancashire Evening Post explained it all: “Football Extraordinary: North End’s Custodian Plays an Elephant.” Jimmy’s opponent was a five-tonne Asian elephant named Palm, who filled the entire goal-frame, and blocked every one of Jimmy’s penalties. Jimmy saved all but one of the elephant’s kicks, although he recalled that the force of them almost broke his arm. The decisive goal came after Palm tricked him with a feint. Jimmy “had not expected to find the cunning of the real footballer in an elephant”. He lost the contest, but was awarded a prize of a small silver cup.

Johnny, meanwhile, was also seeking alternative challenges. Something of a sporting polymath, he had been a first-class cricketer, playing twice for Derbyshire, and he found time for golf, curling and pigeon-shooting. He also played baseball, in a Derby team captained by Steve Bloomer. “I am prepared to take on any man, at my own account, at a dozen games, each to nominate half a dozen,” he told Athletic News. Johnny had also become a qualified Football League linesman. “When he develops into a League referee,” wrote one reporter, “what a treat it will be to see him officiate should he prove as capable in the judging department as he was in the competitive.”

As Jimmy and Johnny’s trailblazing playing careers were running down, a new generation of professional footballers were enjoying the increasing spoils of the game. By the turn of the century, the weekly wage for top players had soared to as much as £7 plus bonuses and the FA and Football League were on the verge of implementing a maximum wage rule. In an interview with the Lancashire Evening Post, Johnny stated his view that £3 a week was “enough for any man”. “I told him of a recent case in which a player drew £500 for one season,” wrote the interviewer. “Something suggesting incredulity was stamped on his countenance, as he sadly remarked, ‘I was born too soon.’”

By 1900 Johnny had lost his place in the Derby first team and it was reported that he would “likely be employed instructing the young in the way they should go”. He had already written one of the game’s first coaching manuals, Association Football, in 1899. (“Learn to stop the ball dead. Keep the ball on the ground. Pass with the side of the foot,” he wrote.) An offer of employment was not immediately forthcoming, with football resistant to the idea that the game could be taught. But Johnny placed a newspaper notice announcing that he was “open for engagement” with a League club and, in 1901, he joined Second Division Glossop as the Edwardian equivalent of a player-manager. It was reported that he had not only been commissioned to train those under him, but “also to cast his net wherever he will be likely to haul in good players”.

At Preston, Jimmy was also using his experience to seek out new players. On one occasion, after spotting a young goalkeeper, he was reported to have remarked, “He’s got lovely hands. He could hold a peck of oats in either of them and not spill a grain!” Jimmy was no longer Preston’s first-choice keeper and he was having troubles away from the game. He was accused in newspaper reports of running an illegal bookmaking operation from his pub – which he denied. He gave up the pub shortly afterwards. Then Jimmy was involved in a scandalous court case, having been charged with “wife desertion”. He was found guilty and ordered to pay his wife 20s a week. During the court case it was revealed that the couple had 10 children to support. With no pub and a dwindling playing career, Jimmy had a pressing need for money.

A few months later, in the winter of 1905, Jimmy became involved in a scheme to create Britain’s first indoor football league, at London’s Olympia arena. The plan was to recruit famous players and have them play on a carpet of green coconut matting – “the biggest carpet ever made”. Attracted by a £4-a-week wage, Jimmy moved to London. Unfortunately, the scheme ran into trouble with the FA, who refused to sanction it. The league folded after little more than a fortnight, with its organiser facing bankruptcy and its promoter describing the whole affair as “a fiasco”. It seems unlikely that Jimmy was paid for his endeavours and he received a one-year ban from the FA for his troubles. Jimmy remained in London and proposed a new scheme involving Football League clubs playing baseball, but it came to nothing.

Johnny, meanwhile, had moved from Glossop to Watford, who had just been relegated from the First Division of the highly-competitive Southern League. “I had the by no means easy task of getting together a team that would regain them their lost position,” he said. “I may mention that the team I got together went up without losing a single engagement.” But Johnny was frustrated by English training methods, which, he told the Athletic News, were “all wrong”. Johnny was a strong advocate of ball practice, at a time when training was focused on running and strength-building.

In 1910, Johnny took the pioneering decision to go to Roubaix, where his methods were better received. The French players, he said, were “very apt pupils, although a trifle excited”. In moving abroad to coach, he set an example that would be followed by such influential figures as Jimmy Hogan, Fred Pentland and Johnny’s Derby protégé Steve Bloomer. After two years in France, Johnny returned to Britain to manage Mardy in South Wales. Although he was now approaching 50, he was still playing, leading his team by example on the field.

Jimmy, meanwhile, was living in poverty. He had been in London for almost a decade, and had resorted to begging for money from visiting clubs. “Any football team which visited London, when he was experiencing the seamy side of life, used to expect him as a caller,” said the Athletic News. It was reported that Jimmy had sold his “English medal”, likely his Football League medal from 1888-89 – the only top-level award he had ever won. In August 1915, it was announced that Jimmy had died, due to tuberculosis. He was 52 years old.

“Among the lights of North End there were none more luminous than James Trainer,” wrote Perseus (John Brierley) in the Lancashire Evening Post. “He was so magnificent that I shall not even trouble to dwell upon the wonderful prowess he displayed. Everyone knows him as the ‘Prince of Goalkeepers’ – the master of his craft, with the best-known name in the long roll of talented custodians. If we want to illustrate the perfection of goalkeeping we still revert to Trainer.”

Johnny lived out the rest of his life in Watford, initially working as a groundsman, then running a bird and seed shop, surrounded by his canaries. He died at his home in 1942, aged 78. The passage of time meant his obituaries were short and few, even in Preston and Derby. But the best sportswriter of his generation had captured Johnny’s importance. “Goodall was quiet as an old sheep, but such a player,” wrote Tityrus (Jimmy Catton) in the Athletic News. “[He is] agreed on all hands to have been one of the greatest players the association game has known.”