Sport Changing Over Time

One of the questions I ask here regularly is, how much has football really changed over time? How did the players from e.g. the Edwardian era compare with those from the 1960s and those from today? It’s hard to know. What little film remains from the 1901-1910 period was made for entertainment, not record, and treats football as jolly good slapstick fun: the crowd are filmed quite as much as the play. (I found out yesterday that the only really sizable Edwardian football film archive, Mitchell and Kenyon’s, toured the country in June. I missed it. Bah. Luckily for me, if perhaps not for you if you are a regular reader, a DVD of all that is due for release in ’07).

Eyewitnesses of that early period (well, one: but that one WAS Herbert Chapman) talk about a loss of subtlety and skill following the Great War, a trend that accelerated in England following the change in the offside law in 1925. It does seem to have been an English trend, perhaps a British one. What film I’ve seen of European football between the Wars (Mitropa Cup games, some internationals) show a game almost indistinguishable from the first Real Madrid era of the late 1950s.

One clue as to whether, and how much, football can have changed is to look at other sports. Some of them have remained almost unaffected over the course of a century. Take boxing. What follows is a world heavyweight title bout from 1901. The main difference from modern equivalents is the superior mobility of the 1901 fighters, and the additional upper bodyweight of the moderns:


Here’s more of that Jefferies/Rohlin fight. Lower picture quality, but more scenes from the ringside. It’s all fairly familiar:

Cricket is a different case in point. An older game by far than football, nonetheless it underwent serious rule-changes during the nineteenth century. For instance, for the first half of the nineteenth century, it was illegal to raise the bowling arm above the shoulder. I’ve seen film of a demonstration of a bowling action by an Edwardian cricketer which shows the enduring influence of the round-the-shoulder action, and a peculiar sight it is too to modern eyes. But by the end of the war, cricket was quite obviously the modern game we see today:

It’s interesting that the question you so often hear in football – would yesterday’s greats be greats today – asked about cricketers. There’s no need. It’s the same game. When Bradman said that Tendulkar batted like him, it was intended as a statement of literal fact.

As for rugby.. this is fascinating all on its own, and watch out for the lineout early on..

4 Replies to “Sport Changing Over Time”

  1. I actually think that would make a very good book, and if you want help researching and writing it I’ll offer my services.

    In cricket, I was unaware of the type of bowler known as the ‘lob’ bowler. Wisden’s dictionary of cricket says that this was not a specialist skill until the mid-19th century, when other forms of underarm bowling were obscolete (and since 2000, against the rules unless agreed in advance). “The baffling flight of a well bowled lob could pose serious problems of timing for the batsmen, and even if he managed to make contact with the ball he was still not out of danger, for the lob-bowlers great aim was to bowl balls that were difficult to score off unless hit in the air”. “Lobsters” survived 50 years longer than other underarm bowlers, with George Simpsom-Heyward taking 23 wickets for the MCC (ie England) against South Africa in 1910-1911. However by the 1910s they were dying out as batsmen found the best way to cope with them was to smack it around, and they proved too expensive, with the last first-class lobster Trever Maloney in 1921.

  2. ‘Sports’ such as darts seen quite major improvements over the years. These are the average scores in the final of winner/loser since 1980, with the BDO to 1993 and the PDC to 1994

    However to what degree that reflects better darts, or more likely Phil Taylor’s influence, or better all-round play I’m not sure. I think Phil Taylor has dragged them all up. The large fall in 1993 is the last of the BDO game, I think by then the PDC players had already gone over. However the BDO does now score nearly as highly, though again that’s got a lot to do with one player.

  3. Great blog. I wonder as well which sport has the most awareness of its history going back. I hear cricket averages always raised. I’ve even heard Wally Hammond spoken of in commentary but despite the fact I watch far more football I don’t hear historical allusions past the 1960s made often.

  4. Cricket and horseracing are the oldest sports with consistent records still significant today (can we agree that chess is in a slightly different category?). The first recorded county match was between Kent and Surrey in 1709, whilst the first Newmarket Gold Cup predates the English Civil War.

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