We’ve already discussed here that football crowds in Edwardian England were the biggest concentrated peaceful gatherings of human beings permitted by authority since ancient times, that football went around the world faster than rock and roll would later do, and that the game as we know it is a phenomenon of urban industrialization.
But its novelty and originality are hard to illustrate, especially when you have modern football culture as a backdrop laughing at all those funny black and white men in their baggy shorts and moustaches. Simpler days when life was slower and respect for tradition elders leaving their doors unlocked loved their mum etc., and isn’t it nostalgic about all the fan violence of the seventies.
So here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine a boy born into a family of agricultural labourers in north Wales in 1820. If he lives a long life – let’s say 90 years – here is what he’ll have seen:
- the coming of railways
- the invention of the telegraph
- the invention of the iron steamship
- the invention of the telephone
- the invention of the typewriter
- the invention of the motorcar
- the creation of the modern industrial city
- the invention of flight, both aeroplane and airship
- the invention of the machine gun, smokeless rifle, dynamite, gelignite etc
- the invention of radio
- the invention of photography, both still and moving picture film
- the creation of the modern Post Office
- the creation of the modern civil service
- the creation of the modern welfare state
- the invention of modern paper from pulp
- the invention of the fax machine
I am forty this year, and my life has seen the computerization of industry, the arrival of the internet, and…
..and that’s about it. Offices of 1968 are entirely familiar to modern eyes, as are shop interiors and transport options.
By the time our 90-year old child of the land dies, horse buses have gone from London streets and 70,000 people can get into Old Trafford without Parliament panicking or calling out troops.
He’d have lived through a time of genuine change and tumult, cultural overhaul and population movement, and seen that window of time in which Britain was where the future took place.
Football is part of this – remember that the first floodlit match took place in Sheffield in 1878, and throughout that first growth period of the game, the northern cities were, quite straightforwardly, the cutting edge. How fast it all was, too – league football was an accepted part of national life within 20 years of the FA Cup’s shambolic first season.
And when the northern cities lost that edge with the coming of World War One, so did football. The growth sports of the interwar years were speedway, athletics and sitting about in cinemas. The football flywheel spun on, generating Highbury and other, less famous stadium extensions. But after about 1930, nothing significant would change again until the coming of Sky and the Premiership. (You could, of course, argue that the ending of the maximum wage was “significant” but it didn’t change the look or the balance of the game until television money made that possible, and that had to wait until the 1990s).
One possible way to look at it is to say that the game between 1870 and 1990 was the product of an industrial, urban culture, but that the game since 1990 has different roots, leading to a different feel and look to it altogether.
In other words, it ceased to be Billy Wright’s game, and became John Barnes’s.
The great miracle of the game, of course, is that it illustrates how new cities, of unprecedented size, populated by people wrenched by economics from their centuries-unchanging rural fastnesses, could, within almost no time at all, generate their own culture, ways of doing things, and organize themselves on their own scale peacefully.
All of that was up and running by 1890. And over by 1990. The old days, the working class, the terraced houses and pubs and football and chip shops, lasted barely three generations. Of those three, one arrived, and one left; only the middle generation spent a lifetime in it.
If Lowry had blinked, he’d have missed it.