Watching the Edwardians: Football Film and Football’s Infancy

One of television’s highlights for me in 2004 was the BBC series “The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon“. Mitchell and Kenyon were film makers in the early years of the twentieth century, and what looks to be their entire archive of footage has been rediscovered in amazingly good condition. It’s fasinating stuff. Imagine all of those old sepia pictures of relatives so long dead they are difficult to name, come to life on the screen in front of you. At first viewing, once the initial shock of the moving picture has worn off, what strikes you is how cheerful everyone looks compared with similar scenes on our streets today. Then, little by little, the poverty begins to push for your attention – and you notice the careworn faces, the torn clothing, the unhealthily thin figures, the smoke and dirt. But not all the films prompt thoughts about how far we’ve come – because Mitchell and Kenyon also took their cameras to football matches, and that’s interesting in an entirely different way. The Bfi DVD, Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon, contains a few of the better football films in full – their archive contains dozens more. (If that whets your appetite, there’s footage from Olympic football matches and early Home Internationals on the DVD The History of Football, which is also warmly recommended).

Now it has to be said that the Mitchell and Kenyon films are not Match of the Day. For one thing, they are very short – film stock of the day was expensive, and the rolls lasted only minutes apiece. So we are given snippets of action, which largely fail to give any narrative, any sense of the course of the match. For another, film cameras were heavy and hard to manouvre. So most of the films are taken from only one viewpoint (modern football coverage uses ten or more viewpoints) and that at ground level, denying the viewer the kind of overview we’ve become used to from cameras perched high in the stands. I don’t suppose I have to add that there’s no commentary or other sound.

All of this makes it hard to find answers to the kind of question you’re likely to want to ask when watching Edwardian football. I’m assuming that most people are like me in that respect – when confronted with Sheffield United v Bury 1901, we’re not all that worried about it being a bore-draw; its very existence is enough. What I want to know is, what were the skill levels prevalent in the early years of the Football League? What were the tactics? How were the pitches, and the balls? Did the rules back then make big differences to the play? How fit were the players? What were the grounds like, who were the fans, and how did they behave?

And it’s hard to forget when watching that at the time the films were made, the game was new. The League was all of twelve years old; the FA Cup was in its 38th year. Football in the UK was not, as it is now, heavy with history and tradition. A lot else behind the scenes was new, too – the miles of Victorian terracing that still dominate our cities today were 20-30 years old then, like Milton Keynes is now. The car had been invented 4-5 years previously, the railways were half a century old or less (like motorways now). The telephone was 30, the record player 20. Radio didn’t exist as we know it today, although the principles were understood. The football grounds in the films are usually either the same ones as are used today, or have only recently been abandoned for new stadia – in the films, they are brand spanking new. The fans aren’t going to football because it’s working class tradition, or because their parents took them as children, or because some drama like 1990’s World Cup semi-final turned them on to the game. They are the ones who made it all a tradition – they are the first fans.

Training methods of the era are laughed at now – books on the football of the period love to pick on things like West Bromwich Albion’s “training walks”. All I would say is, on the evidence of the Mitchell and Kenyon films, the players of the day were plenty fit enough. But it’s not the willowy, Coe-Ovett fitness of a Thierry Henry or a Ronaldinho. It’s Rooney they remind you of, stocky and heavily muscled. None of the players look particularly tall. And they can run – the snatches of play we are left with are quick, competitive and physical. It looks as if it might be fun to watch in a lower-division derby kind of way.

Skill levels are harder to fathom. (The footage in the History of Football is better for this). There are some fine, subtle touches on the ball, and skill on the ground, but plenty of ball in the air, too, in that familiar middle-of-the-pitch-mixer fashion too familiar from poor quality games today. Some kind of tactical structure can be detected – it’s not just everyone chasing after the ball. We know from various biographies of the players and coaches of the day two significant things: that ball skill for its own sake wasn’t especially valued, something that pushed coaches who did value it into jobs with teams in e.g. Austria and Germany, and that certain skills now familiar, like the body swerve, had only just been thought of. And it’s possible to hazard a guess that the game was just too new for the traditional source of skilful players – children playing football in the street – to have really gotten underway, so wasn’t feeding through into e.g. the David Jacks, Dixie Deans and Alex James’s of the interwar era. But there’s little you can say purely on the basis of the Mitchell and Kenyon films. Until 1924, the offside law required more defenders behind the ball than it does today, and it’s thought by some that this called for more skill and cunning in unlocking defences – and certainly, newspaper reports of matches in the season 1924-5 complain that the new, lighter offside law was handing the advantage to long-ball tactics and “lumping it up to the big man”. The more things change, the more they stay the same, but you can’t really tell from the films.

The pitches themselves look rough. This isn’t just because it’s football. If you look at photographs of cricket squares of the period, or the greens of golf courses in the Harry Vardon period, you’ll see little evidence of sort of quality we take for granted in such things today. Weeds, bare patches, unevenness is the rule, not the exception. And it does seem to make a difference – the ball bobbles unpredictably on the ground, the bounce is uneven, and the pitch markings are often obscured by mud. Traditionally, the English favoured a dribbling game, the Scots a passing one; by the time Mitchell and Kenyon were active, the Scottish model was winning through, but I can imagine it having being difficult to pass the ball accurately at times.

The grounds themselves look familiar – with less cover for the fans, and almost universal standing terraces, but not otherwise very different. Some of the fencing protecting the pitch is surprisingly fan-hostile – three-pronged metal affairs of the kind they use around warehouses today feature, for example. Not that there weren’t reasons for having it there: –

“a section of the supporters varied the proceedings by engaging in a free fight.. (M)atters were assuming serious proportions among the crowd and policemen blew their whistles noisily. Then was seen the spectacle of a football match in progress and three stalwart constables racing across the ground. The unruly folks who had leaped the barriers scuttled. But one less active than the rest was captured and he went back over the palings in a very sudden if undignified manner, the constable acting as assistant, while the crowd cheered..” (Aston Villa v Notts County, October 1900, from the Birmingham Daily Mail).

Various modern-sounding forms of crowd trouble were a feature of the early game – although things were quieter in the Edwardian decade than in the 1880s and 1890s, and they were to become quieter still after the Great War.

The crowds themselves in the films are overwhelmingly male, but not universally working class. Well-dressed clerks and businessmen mix with men who have obviously just arrived from pit or factory. Practically everybody smokes, hanging what must have been great blue clouds over the stands. Because there is no camera trained on the crowd when a goal is scored – and the films rarely capture a goal in any case – there’s no evidence for what happens on the terraces in terms of celebration, crowds heaving back and forth and so on. Because the films are in black and white, it’s hard to tell if anyone is wearing their club’s colours – it wouldn’t be a club shirt, then, of course, and in any case this was a period in which club colours were yet to be fixed in stone by tradition. The Mitchell and Kenyon film of Manchester United playing away at Burnley shows them in the first season of red and white kit – the year before, they were known as “Newton Heath” and played in green and gold (colours revived for an away strip in the Cantona-Hughes era).

Anyone interested in seeing these films for themselves would be best advised to start with the BBC video, Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon. This gives you the genuine pleasure of listening to a really well-informed Sheffield United supporter’s comments as he’s shown Sheffield v Bury; in addition to knowing his history (he recognises several 1901 players and puts them into context) he’s plainly a warm and decent human being. Electric Edwardians shows the films in full, but the commentary – by Dr Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive – is from the point of view of a professional film historian and is just a lot less immediate. Football On Trial by Murphy, Williams and Dunning, contains a fascinating chapter on pre-1914 football violence. The History of Football contains lots of excellent early footage – the early Olympic Games matches, the early Home Internationals, and the first World Cups (1930, in Uruguay, is particularly worth watching). This last is a great launching point for thoughts about England’s changing standing in the world game, and I hope to write about that at greater length at some point.

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