Article first published in issue 9 of The Football Pink
One of the greatest things about football is that no one can claim to own it, though many have tried. All you need to play some form of the game is the ability to stay upright and a loose object to kick. It is probably as old as language or music.
It was certainly played in Britain in a relatively organised fashion throughout the Middle Ages by all classes. Then in Victorian times there was a step change in the evolution of the game: what was clearly a widespread, “folk” or children’s game in the early part of the century started to be codified in several places at once. Several things led to this.
One was the increase in demand for education both in the public school system and for the masses. One of the dilemmas for the advocates of “muscular Christianity” was what to do to keep adolescent boys from their vices and in particular the scourge of “self-pollution,” something which seems to have worried our forefathers inordinately. Vigorous outdoor sport was seen as a means of teaching discipline, morality (through a sense of fair play), and of tiring boys out physically so that when they went to bed they would sleep. (For a more detailed exposition of these ideas see David Winner’s Those Feet, 2005.) When the 1870 Education Act made education universal, sport was taken up within Board schools as a means of improving the health of the working classes, who were causing employers concern because unhealthy slum living (and unhealthy acts) were creating physically incapable workers for their mills.
A second factor was the increase in leisure time created by improved standards of living. The middle classes had enough time for regular pastimes and the working classes could afford to take time off to watch if not play – unofficially through traditions like honouring “Saint Monday” in Sheffield (unapproved absences from work on Mondays) or through the eventual right, obtained through the 1850 Factories Act, to Saturday afternoons off work, which slowly displaced the Monday habit.
Improved mobility through the railways meant that teams not from the same district or institution could play each other – and how would they do that if they had different rules?
Also a natural Victorian British desire to impose order undoubtedly came into play.
The fact that different codes sprang up was one of the seeds of a later class struggle sown in the early modern game. The public schools in the south of England and Cambridge University played their own versions of football and naturally, given their desire for order, imposed rules. These men were the country’s elite and laid claim the game as of birth-right. “The game of football, as originally played at the Wall at Eton, was the author of every sort and condition of football now played throughout the United Kingdom,” wrote someone in The Etonian in 1884. This myth that football was handed down from the public schools persisted and infected the game. (There is an ongoing, somewhat esoteric debate in academic circles as to who can claim the birthright of the modern game – the public schools or ordinary people (for example: Adrian Harvey: Football: the First Hundred Years, The Untold Story, 2005, and Graham Curry and Eric Dunning: Association Football: A Study in Figurational Sociology, 2015).
History is the account written by the powerful, whereas the working class footballers of the time let their boots do the talking, the fans doing theirs in the pubs afterwards. As a result their voices are few and far between. The football played on village greens, and that in the streets and backyards by generations of children would not have been written about. There are some accounts of matches outside of the public schools, often the newsworthy ones at holiday times and the traditional Shrove Tuesday games. (For example, it was worthy of note in Derby in 1848, because of attempts to ban it and the locals ignoring their betters: the military were called and the Riot Act read.) In this sense the public schools can only be said to have codified the popular game.
You also cannot ignore the fact that the first strong footballing sub-culture took off in Sheffield following the establishment of the Sheffield club of 1857. This club also drew up rules not long after those in the public schools. Sheffield Club was set up by young men from Sheffield’s higher classes: largely ex-pupils of Sheffield’s best school, the Collegiate (now King Edward VII comprehensive school), who drew on their experiences of versions of the game, probably those they grew up with in the district, as well as drawing on what they knew of the public school games.
The Football Association was founded in 1863 largely as an association of a handful of London clubs that set out to draw up an agreed set of rules. They were not uniquely ex-public school men so felt no strong bond of allegiance to any one set of rules. Also the Sheffield Club appeared to have sent observers to inaugural meetings. There was communication between Sheffield and London, and they played against each other. The strength of the Sheffield game was certainly a key influence over the FA in those early years, as was an increasingly critical mass of footballers in London (but neither were playing according to the nascent FA rules). In 1877 a single set of rules for the game was finally agreed, a synthesis of the Sheffield rules and that grew out of Cambridge and the public school versions.
There remained, though, this tension: that the game meant different things to different classes. This increased as the game took off and got worse as football finances became important: money was needed to run clubs, buy kit, develop grounds etc. Spectators with leisure time were willing to pay to watch, but, to continue to draw in spectators, there was competition to attract the best players. The issue of professionalism came to the fore.
The “old boys” clubs saw paying players as dirtying their sport – contaminating their moral purity. Beardshaw of the Sheffield Club said that “Professionalism in football is an evil, and as such should be suppressed” – little more than rank snobbery (though later he had live with it as a Sheffield United committee member).
Some of the attitudes of the higher classes are best revealed by looking at early fiction: literature being almost exclusively their domain at the time. I recently published a collection called Historical Football Stories taken in part from an earlier collection written at the end of Victorian era. I believe these to be the oldest football stories in existence. Fiction can provide better insights into some aspects of life than factual accounts, particularly emotional life. The curse of professionalism is a recurrent obsession in these stories. For example, in An International Proxy we read: “He was an amateur to his finger-tips. The association of money with sport was abhorrent to him. He was an opponent of the League system because it drew an invidious distinction between “League matches” and “friendly matches” — as if they were not all friendly!” Then in A Matter of Luck: “ ‘I like you Jack,’ he said, ‘and Nell loves you, but I can’t give my lass to one who makes his play his work. If you wish to win her you must give up soccer… ’ ”
Amateurs saw money as distorting the game in other ways. When penalties were introduced in 1891, it was claimed to be an effect of professionalism — of those who had not “imbibed the sporting spirit of the game at school” (i.e. public school). The famous amateur C B Fry said “It is a standing insult to sportsmen to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to trip, hack, and push their opponents and to behave like cads of the most unscrupulous kind.”
|Jack Kelly: ' yankee oik'|
The Amateur Rowing Association, custodians of a sport even harder for oiks to break in to, kept a tighter hold: their rules excluded, not only anyone in receipt of payment for rowing, but also anyone who had been by trade or employment a “mechanic, artisan, or labourer or engaged in any menial duty.” Even up to 1920 rowing banned Olympic gold medallist Jack Kelly from Henley because he had once earned money as a bricklayer.
The middle and upper classes did not like their loosening grip on power in the domain of football any more than they did in the political one.
The rugby version of the early game had split away following the codification by the FA over an argument over the legality of “tripping and hacking.” The association game could have split again in 1884/5 over professionalism. The “old boys” at the FA initially tried to resist, Canute-like, and threw Preston out of the Cup for fielding professionals – this nearly led to a breakaway “British Football Association,” but to everyone’s credit they drew back from the brink. Instead the FA tried to regulate professionalism by placing additional restrictions on the ability of professionals to participate in competitions, for example, based on two years residence within six miles of the ground, and banning them from any football administration role. The professionals were to be treated like servants to their club committee masters. There was one rule for amateurs, one for professionals. For example, when England faced Ireland in Belfast in 1888, the amateurs Lindley and Walters refused either to travel on the same boat or stay in the same hotel as the professionals.
The response of the gentleman-players was to largely reject football and seek refuge in the unsullied game of rugby, and an ultimately failed attempt to set up a rival Amateur FA. Another response was the setting up of the Corinthians in 1883 – to try to uphold the ideals of amateurism. It was in truth “sham amateurism” – they demanded and obtained financial guarantees to play friendly matches, didn’t publish balance sheets, and handed out lavish expenses to playing members who were believed to earn more than professionals, in addition to their independent means. They competed for a while because they had learnt and practised the game through school and Oxbridge, were better fed, housed and protected by medical advice. Professionals soon overtook them, but nevertheless, the FA continued to give them a bye to the third round of the FA Cup as late as the 1930s.
The other side of the story, that of the working class footballer is rare for the reasons previously stated. One exception was Ernest Needham of Sheffield United and England – one of the few working class men whose voice was heard: he wrote a book in 1901, simply entitled, Association Football. He strongly defended the right to earn a living from the game: “Would that all could play for love, and be the perfect gentleman on and off the field, as so many of my amateur friends are.” He talked of: “the advantage to the style of the game, and the necessity for paying those who devote themselves to its improvement. I might claim for payment of players all the arguments in favour of the payment of Members of Parliament. To play the game scientifically a man must bring to it a mind free from fear of personal or family difficulty in case of disablement or retirement and only substantial pay will guarantee this.” (Needham earned about £5 per week at that time, just over twice the pay of an ordinary working man — which gives you an idea what he meant by substantial.)
Another obsession of the middle classes comes through in Historical Football Stories – that of gambling. The Victorian amateurs often raised this demon in arguments against professionalism. The middle classes were in fear of the depraved lower classes, their lack of morality, and this leading to riotous behaviour and a threat to order and security of property. Sport was encouraged as a way of counteracting vice. So to see money as the motivator was anathema — and then to see large riotous crowds assembling and betting on the outcome was abhorrent. Needham dismisses this. He says: “We hear a lot of talk about betting at football matches. Some people given over strongly to romancing have likened the game to the racecourse — with bookmakers and all their paraphernalia. Such highly spiced tales are nonsense. Betting there is, but it is done more or less secretly; and once let the delinquents come within the clutches of the officials of any club, let alone the police, and I will vouchsafe a bad quarter of an hour for them. Any sane person who attends matches knows that betting is not allowed openly and it is only so asserted by those who decry the pastime.”
Another aspect of the early game shown by Historical Football Stories is its physicality. Early football was far more brutal and dangerous than the modern game. By the late 1890s, ten years into the League structuring of the game, the rules were largely as they are now, partly in response to an understanding that the game needed to improve its safety record. Hacking, tripping, jumping at a player and charging from behind were not allowed. The main differences in risk were probably down to factors such as interpretation by referees, equipment and condition of pitches: matches were almost never abandoned unless fog was so dense that neither the spectators nor, more to the point, referees could see whether the ball had gone in the net. Frozen pitches, mud, hale, snow etc, were not reasons to call games off.
The physicality of the game provided different responses in Victorian society. They upheld virtues of manliness and codified aggression that sport provided — as can be seen in the stories by players continuing despite broken bones. This is as common a theme as that of bribery in these stories. A player playing on with a broken collar bone was something to be admired — and this was not just a fictional device. In those days substitutes were not allowed, so there are frequent accounts in contemporary match reports of bloody and broken players playing on. (Can modern players who roll about in agony at the slightest touch please take note?) The physicality of the game was, however, something that provoked feelings of horror amongst some in society; particularly the idea of working class men being violent — how could you possibly trust them to be aggressive with chivalry, like a gentleman?
There are arguments that these class prejudices continue to afflict British football right through to the modern era. This amateur belief that talent is inherent, and that learning of skills from an early age, techniques, and all the myriad of minor improvements that go towards building success (diet, kinetics etc.) are somehow akin to cheating or an excuse for insufficient pluck, and best left to “Johnny Foreigner.” An approach that has clearly worked well…
David Winner, Those Feet, 2005
Richard Sanders, Beastly Fury, 2009
Adrian Harvey, Football The First Hundred Years, 2005
Graham Curry and Eric Dunning, Association Football: A Study in Figurational Sociology, 2015
Ernest Needham, Association Football, 1901
Frederick Wall, 50 Years of Football, 1884-1934, 1934
JAH Catton, The Story of Association Football, 1926
Percy M Young, Football in Sheffield, 1981
Percy M Young, A History of British Football, 1973
James Walvin, The People’s Game, 1994
Graham Curry, Football Spectatorship in mid-to-late Victorian Sheffield, Soccer and Society, Vol 8, No.2/3 2007Steven Kay, ed., Historical Football Stories, 2015