Football History: Conventional and Unconventional Timelines and Themes

Academic historians who specialise in a given period will know that keeping research within accepted chronological bounds can prevent worthwhile perspectives and insights coming to light. The French Revolution looks very different as the tail-end of the eighteenth century than as the opening to the “long” nineteenth century 1789-1914. It’s the sheer quantity of primary source material that keeps academic research cooped up like this – it’s going to take you the whole of your career to scratch even the surface of any period subsequent to the Conquest, and that’s only taking written evidence into account.

That’s why history undergraduates will keep coming across the same things on their 3-year long march across the last 1500 years. They’ll know from A-levels that the rise of the middle class was a nineteenth century phenomenon, so it might be a little disturbing to find the middle class also rising in the England of the Civil War; there they are again, rising in Medici Florence; and again during the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. The Renaissance of what? and so on. There are journal articles and books now talking about the “rise and fall” of the middle class, and of course, one sees ruins everywhere.

This problem is behind contemporary academic attempts to “open up” the conventional chronological study paths – during my degree, I was encouraged to engage in what was crudely entitled “comparative history”, taking peasant revolts, for instance, from different centuries and different countries and trying to learn something from the differences and similarities they had. And it would be fair to say that the old chronological divisions were being broken up – my mentor, Gerald Harriss, took 1360-1461 as his (approximate) opening and closing dates for his volume in the New Oxford History of England. All this has freshened “old” ideas of the way our history has developed. (Before I move on, I’d better nod also at womens’ history, the history of minorities, the influence of anthropology and so forth, all of which have had a similar effect. And, just to say, I’m talking about history in the universities. History as taught in schools is another subject and probably one for a different kind of blog).

This hasn’t really happened to football. I wonder what we’d come up with if it did?

The conventional view of football history goes something like this: football starts as a violent rural pasttime used to mark feasts and saints days. The ruling classes would like to ban it, but it only goes into decline as a result of the industrial revolution and the population transfer into the new cities. At that point, football is tamed and taken up by failing public schools in the hope that it will make them less violent and divert boys’ attention away from.. various rules are tabulated at this time. School alumni want to keep playing, so create their own teams in adult life. The Football Association is formed to keep it all under some kind of control. At this stage, football is a game for the gentle classes, so a huge sigh of relief all round from the Hunter Davies’ of this world when it gets taken up by “real” working-class people in the industrial north. Professionalism, arriving in the early 1880s, is another one in the eye for the toffs, and by 1888 and the formation of the Football League, it’s a game for the ordinary working man. Unfortunately, the snobs and toffs still run things, so England turns its back on the game abroad and takes no interest in international football until we swagger up to the 1950 World Cup expecting to walk away with the trophy. The rest is hubris. The Beatles abolish the maximum wage, the boys of ’66 win the World Cup, and then follow (on your fingers, quickly) 41 years of hurt.

Or something like that. Tabulated, we have:

  1. 1065-1850: village football
  2. 1850-1883: public school football, the FA, the FA Cup
  3. 1884-1914: growth of the working-class game; the Football League
  4. 1919-1939: England ignore the World Cup, but are probably still best in the world
  5. 1945-1963: arrogant England are taught a lesson by ***
  6. 1964-1970: England show the rest of the world how it should be done
  7. 1970-1992: Terraces, hooliganism, years of hurt, otherwise known as the golden age of English football
  8. 1992-date: money ruins the game, penalty kicks, Gazza, replica shirts for goalposts

I’m giving my attitude away somewhat here, aren’t I? Nevertheless – I think we can change things around a little and get a different perspective. It’s worth doing. People are prone to look back 100 years and declare “it was a simpler time”. 100 years.. well, between 1870 and 1906, we had the electric lightbulb, the electric telegraph, the telephone, recorded sound, the invention of cinema photography, the invention of mechanical flight, the invention of the motor car, the promulgation of the germ theory of disease, the invention of canning, the invention of the typewriter… our own era is one of stasis and stability by comparison. That’s before we reflect on what the children of 1906 would live to see: two World Wars, communism, the Atomic Bomb, the World Cup Final won on penalties.

What about this?

  1. 1883-1919: Britain adapts Baseball’s league system and takes on a form of professionalism. The multi-division form that had developed by 1919 has survived almost unchanged over the subsequent 90-odd years, has spread as a model around the world. During this period, British coaches take the game to Europe and South America: British referees make good livings abroad; British teams tour Europe every close season as do the various British international sides. Britain, in the form of the Olympics of 1908, host the first proper world championship, and win with an amateur team, repeating the exercise in 1912 in Stockholm. Most of the great British stadia are built during this time. By 1919, almost every well-known British club is already in existence under their current name.
  2. 1919-1954: After the 1914-18 War, the innovatory spirit seems to leave the game. Both FA Cup and Football League keep their form unchanged for almost forty years. Most talented coaches now work abroad where the demand is. Although the British international teams still tour Europe and engage in friendlies with continental opposition, the games are not taken terribly seriously in all cases, and by the 1930s, defeats are occurring. No British clubs enter the Mitropa Cup, the first proper European Cup. Arsenal aside, Britain takes the attitude that the game is in its best and final form.
  3. 1954-1977: Britain responds to the European and South American challenge with some success, taking on sufficient foreign ideas to win a World Cup and, right up to the World Cup in Argentina, provide serious opposition. A series of brilliant, world-class coaches emerge from the mines of Scotland and from north-east England, and this time they stay, bringing about an extraordinary period of British success in European competition.
  4. 1978-1992: The Football League creaks under the combined weight of hooliganism and the declining popularity of football as a spectator sport. Violence, old stadia, and a sense of being left behind characterize the period.
  5. 1992-2004: The Premiership and government legislation transform the top stadia; foreign players arrive en masse, and so do foreign coaches. Attitudes and expectations change: for a while, the English at any rate are keen to learn, something that ends abruptly with England v Portugal at Euro 2004.
  6. 2004-date: “Not much news, I fear. How could there be? I go to the club and get drunk, or read and get drunk, or watch TV and get drunk. Are you still not drinking? You are mad you know.” (Kingsley Amis to Philip Larkin Dec. 1981, for want of anything cheerful to say)

Or, abandoning chronology for a moment, you might see the history of the game in terms of class conflict: why did football cease to be a middle class game, or a game in which the middle classes were apt to play, in England and South America, whereas in Europe it either remained middle class or simply lost any class connotations at all?

For instance, you might construct an argument along the lines that professionalism from 1883 to 1904 (when the maximum wage was introduced) enabled players to receive enough money for their services to make a living, without the game having grown sufficiently in popularity for that living to challenge white collar wages or fees in the professions. Professionalism prevented the middle classes from competing on a level with the northern industrial clubs, whereas in Rugby Union they were on a level and could still, for instance, harbour realistic hopes of playing for England or Scotland or Ireland (Wales being something of a special case where Union is concerned). Had the maximum wage not been imposed, how long would it have been before wages rose to a level that would divert men from a white-collar career path, as was increasingly seen after the George Eastham case? Would the working class professional era have ended in the 1920s? Why didn’t football go the way of cricket – classbound but inclusive? Did those hidebound posh people at the FA and Football League actually do something amazing in holding the game together so well for so long? (Look at what’s happened to league football in Brazil since 1970 – or reflect on the state of some European leagues – and compare).

I wouldn’t encourage it, but you could almost write a psychological history of football, reflecting on the eerie way the puissance of the England national team follows the general state of national morale..

I’ve mentioned “Mitchell and Kenyon” in the context of football history here from time to time. The first part of this clip is a good example of their work: the clip as a whole is more history than football, but might illustrate why I think all this matters:


3 Replies to “Football History: Conventional and Unconventional Timelines and Themes”

  1. About 75% to 80% of the population at this time were working-class. Could the increasing working-classness up to the 1930s not just be that the middle-class element were swamped, so to speak, by the far greater numbers of working-class men playing it?

    That is, it ceased to be a middle-class game, but the middle-classes didn’t cease to play it?

  2. Having learnt all about the maximum wage from Gary Imlach’s book I wonder if it might have even put off some working class would be players too.

    The fact is, as doubtless you know only too well the wage aspect wasn’t even the half of it. Not all players got the maximum wage, they got less if injured or in poor form and relegated to the reserves, go nothing in the summer and, worst of all were bought and sold virtually like slaves. Also the signing on fees were capped at £10. It was different abroad, one guy in the 50s got a, I think, £30,000 fee for signing for an Italian club.

    Aside from a doing something you loved, you could easily be far less well off as a player than as a regular worker. Hence Tom Finney of Finney & Sons plumbers Preston straddled both worlds!

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