When the nineteen year old Herbert Chapman signed amateur forms for Stalybridge in 1897, the FA Cup was a quarter of a century old, professional football was twelve years old and the Football League itself nine. Not that Stalybridge had a great deal to do with the likes of Aston Villa, Sunderland or Newcastle. But it’s worth reflecting on those numbers.
Because they make it unlikely that very many men would have had what we now recognise as a football career. The road into and through the game cut into fresh territory. Now, we can look back and say with some certainty that the footballer of the day would play for perhaps ten or fifteen years, then, if amateur, give it up and carry on with their real career, or, if professional, retire to a pub or a shop or penury.
In 1897, this was all still to happen. There were still real questions as to how long football would be around for. In many ways, football at the end of the century resembled a fad, a bubble waiting to burst. New teams were springing up, new leagues being formed and developed, grounds built and expanded, attendances were still climbing. But how long would it all go on for? The initial impetus given the game by the Saturday half-holiday – an empty afternoon for millions that football had been first to fill (most of its rivals in the entertainment stakes were evening fodder – music hall, ballrooms, that sort of thing) – was spent by now, and other rivals were beginning to enter the market.
And what kind of a career would football be anyway? Chapman was a thoroughgoing Methodist, and the question of respectability was real to him. He doesn’t say in any of his remaining writings what kept him amateur for so long, but it doesn’t take much to work it out. He had been an intelligent child – one might even bring in the term intellectual, born at the right time to take advantage of compulsory primary education, and the growth in other educational opportunities at the time. And he was born into a growing industry, coalmining, still to reach its peak in England and with an obvious long term future in front of it. People would always need coal: people would always need colliery engineers, so Chapman’s thinking went, and so he trained.
Chapman was very aware of the different social attitudes towards playing football for fun and exercise (generally approved of, if sometimes regarded as comic) and the professional game itself (regarded as morally suspect, the focal point for anything from minor affray to full-on riot, associated with gin palaces, wasted youth and national decline). In 1897, the long Victorian fight to rescue organized sport from corruption and the bookies was reaching its climax, perhaps best symbolized by the Olympic Games. From some perspectives, professional football was no more than an unfortunate throwback to an unmourned past.
These days, its easy, if lazy, to look on the early days of the professional game with a kindly eye as the weaning of what James Walvin calls “The People’s Game.” Football was the people’s, of course – it could be played anywhere, with minimal equipment, even alone given a suitable brick wall. But the professional game was nothing of the sort. The top clubs were owned by wealthy men, and the “people” had to pay to get in, at prices deliberately chosen to exclude the poorest of society. In 1897, players were yet to be put in their place by maximum wage legislation, but retain-and-transfer had already pulled its deadly collar around their neck. If this was the people’s, then it was a strange ownership indeed, one in which they had no say and no influence other than their presence at the turnstile. For the time being, that presence was all but guaranteed.
It would take something unusual to tempt a man like Chapman, who was determined to educate himself into a position of freedom of choice, to sign his name on a line dotted in such fashion.
Yet he was undecided for years, truly drawn to football, one of the first men whose life could really be said to revolve around the game. He signed for Stalybridge in 1897, and in the next three years played for Rochdale, Grimsby Town, Swindon Town, Sheppey United, and Worksop Town. That’s one club every six months. For the time, it was a staggering peregrination. Chapman would live and play in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Berkshire, Kent and Nottinghamshire. One wonders what a mining engineer found to do in Swindon.
It took him four years to realize the obvious. In 1901, he signed professional forms for Northampton Town of the Southern League. But the travelling didn’t stop just because of that. A year later, he left for Sheffield United, then for Notts County a year after that, then for Northampton again, then Tottenham Hotspur. Whilst in North London, he married a schoolteacher from the village of his birth, and, for him, settled down: he’d remain in London for two entire years.
It’s hard to imagine who, inside or outside of football, would have seen more of the game, in its various stages of development in different parts of the country, than Herbert Chapman in 1897-1905. He’d witnessed what passed for ancient tradition at Sheffield United and Notts County, two of the country’s oldest clubs – which meant that their original players were in early middle age by the time young Herbert swam into view. He’d seen football’s attempts to invade the south, at Northampton, Swindon and Spurs. He’d seen how the game could fail to thrive, even in its red hot youth, at Worksop.
At any rate, only a spell in the armed forces or on the railways would have seen him have a more widely-travelled time of it. Yet, it had not been a success. A qualified engineer, he’d done little of his trade, opting instead for a series of what were effectively footballing Mcjobs. Useful enough as a bustling forward to catch the eye of club scouts, his tendency to put on weight meant that he never remained essential to anyone for long.
Thus it was that when Northampton Town were looking for a new secretary-manager in 1907, Chapman was a long, long way down their list of likely candidates. Northampton, a young and poor club stuck in a strongly rugby town, failed to persuade anyone they might really have wanted to employ. Taking the job would mean yet another move for Chapman, his third to Northampton alone before he turned thirty – and it would mean uprooting his wife from her precariously-maintained teaching job in Edmonton.
It wasn’t a mining job, or a secure job, and Chapman wouldn’t actually be playing. He took up Northampton’s weary, sceptical offer on the basis of something more esoteric than that. He was, as I’ve said, an intelligent, almost intellectual man, and he’d seen something that no one else had noticed, something that made the Northampton post essential to him.
Northampton would quickly discover what that was.