Football grows in young soil and greenfield sites. England’s ancient cities – Norwich, Bath, Durham, Chester, Canterbury, Westminster, Gloucester, Hereford, Lincoln, Oxford, Cambridge, Lancaster, Salisbury, Chichester, York, Ripon, Shrewsbury and the rest – aren’t football hotbeds and never have been. Football was an emergent phenomenon of industrialization. It still grows in relatively new places today – Yeading, for instance, which barely existed in its own right until after the Second World War.
But it isn’t always the case. Herbert Chapman – elder brother to the unfortunate Harry “Chapman of the Wednesday” – was born in 1878 just outside Sheffield. The Steel City had been known for its cutlery as long ago as Chaucer’s day, and had been sufficiently prominent to suffer a trade recession owing to the Napoleonic Wars. Sheffield was a fully formed entity long before Manchester or Middlesbrough.
By the time Chapman appeared on the scene, football was flourishing in the Sheffield area like nowhere else. Properly established amateur clubs had been in existence for more than twenty years; the Sheffield Football Association had been on the scene for a decade, and as Chapman bawled in his mother’s arms, it was in the process of merging its own football rules with those of the better-known Football Association. Sheffield even boasted professional players – James Lang, dubiously employed by Sheffield Wednesday, came south from Scotland in 1876.
Sheffield football wasn’t the confection of pub, church and factory sides that would get Lancashire’s game going. Instead, it was transplanted onto cricketing rootstock. Bramall Lane, the oldest sporting arena of its kind in the world, started off as a cricket ground. Sheffield Wednesday began as a cricket club. So did Sheffield F.C., and Sheffield United were formed in order to play organised football at Bramall Lane and provide the ground with a winter income.
In the 1870s, Sheffield was the Silicon Valley of the game. It was the place where everything was happening and developing. In 1878, it pioneered floodlit football, almost eighty years before it became routine practice. It was very much a middle class affair (Sheffield’s Clegg brothers, who were the leading lights of local sport at this time, went on to become Mayor of Sheffield and Chairman of the Football Association respectively), a contrast to the working class conservatism that would dominate the game from the 1880s onward. Herbert Chapman educated himself into the middle classes and married a school teacher: he’d be the last Sheffield man to truly shape the game, and the last Englishman to do so until Simon Clifford.
It was in Sheffield, too, that the great schism in Association Football between professional and amateur codes didn’t happen.
Although the Sheffield Football Association was dedicated to the amateur status of the game – still its position today, as the Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA – its decision to permit its clubs to join the Football Association (which permitted professionalism after 1885) was crucial. Had it gone the other way, it still possessed the weight and pull to split football down the middle. A Rugby Union/Rugby League scenario would have been on the cards, but ten years earlier.
Instead the structure and unity of the game survived. Although professionalism took over the major competitions after 1885, amateur clubs and amateur players remained within the same playing structure. Bernard Joy, for example, joined Arsenal as an amateur player a year after Chapman’s eventual death, and played for the full England side a year after that.
It takes twenty years to make a player. A lot can change in twenty years in football, even today, but 1878-1899 takes us from the Royal Engineers to the opening of Ibrox. Street kickabouts hadn’t changed, but everything else had. By the time Chapman was nineteen and training to be a mining engineer (in his late twenties, he still described himself as a “Colliery Manager” by trade), the top clubs were Aston Villa of Birmingham and Sunderland. And Chapman’s first proper club weren’t based in Sheffield, or even in Yorkshire. In 1897, he signed for Stalybridge Rovers, of the Lancashire League.