Herbert Chapman became become Northampton Town’s secretary-manager in 1907, ending his playing career just as the development of football in Britain took on a second wind. The number of clubs administered by the Football Association went from 50 in 1871 to 10,000 in 1905, and five million fans passed through the nation’s football turnstiles in season 1905-6 (a figure exceeded by the total attendances of the Premiership’s top 6 or 7 clubs in season 2006-7).
Second wind took two forms: new clubs (Chelsea, Leeds City) and bigger grounds, the real emergence of the modern football stadium as it would exist in the UK until the late 1990s. The first of these was probably Everton’s Goodison Park, which was opened in 1892 and which boasted tall covered stands on three sides (the steep banking on the fourth was partially covered in 1895). In 1894, Goodison hosted the FA Cup Final, attracting 37,000 spectators without actually reaching capacity. Notts County beat Bolton Wanderers 4-1.
In the case of grounds, it was most often a case of redevelopment. Blackburn Rovers would spend £26,000 on redevelopment between 1905 and 1908, including a new stand (Nuttall Street) which held almost 14,000 supporters, 4,000 of them seated. Preston’s Town End stand was smaller, holding 6,000. But new stadia – Stamford Bridge being the classic example – were being built, as part of the risky all-or-bust strategy some new clubs engaged in. It was still a time when a top-class club could be built from the ground up, instantly, and, once built, jemmied into the Football League by way of election (and, no doubt, bribes and blackmail: Chelsea played their first ever season in Division Two).
Advertising at grounds was already a big feature – including pitch-side advertising hoardings of the kind players would still be falling over in the 1990s. This meant that there were people present who were worth advertising to: after 1890, Football League clubs enforced a minimum entrance fee of 6d, excluding the poorest members of society in favour of middle and upper-working class spectators. Economic growth after 1900 may have begun to deepen the game’s appeal as a spectacle, but for the first years of Chapman’s career, football was only truly popular as a game to play, not as one to watch.
Early football films aren’t very useful when it comes to assessing what kind of game football was like in 1897-1907. The lighting was bad, the angles wrong, film too short – football wouldn’t look good on film until well after World War II. But there are some features which stand out. There’s the fear of catching the ball on the part of goalkeepers, no doubt because the rules then allowed them to be charged. Other aspects of the game are physical, too, in a way that wouldn’t be driven out until the 1990s – players are kicked, shoved, sometimes gouged. Players appeal to referees and linesmen for decisions, but officials aren’t mobbed (some were attacked by crowds in this period, and rescue from the police force was occasionally necessary). Goal celebrations were muted, as they would remain until the World Cup.
In short, we can see that football was changing and growing quickly during Chapman’s youth, with no indication of how long this would go on for or how far it would go. King George V became the first monarch to attend a Cup Final in 1914 – but after that, the British game freezes in its tracks for fifty years. What unfreezing has happened since has been reluctant, and it’s been Scots, Yorkshiremen or Europeans who’ve held the blowtorch.
There’s one significant development in the game that hasn’t been mentioned thus far, but that’s because it took the form of an idea that occurred to very few at the time, only one of whom stayed in England to put it into practice.