If you read casually about international football, you’ll quickly pick up the idea that the English Football Association is notable chiefly for xenophobia and backwardness. Ignoring the growth of football abroad, it limited internationals for the most part to games against the home nations, and didn’t enter the World Cup until 1930. The bare facts conceal an awful lot of context.
The blazers and the old school ties did manage one thing, however: they and the Football League, another set of tweed suits, built a national game from scratch, with structures that have survived, even thrived, for the best part of a century.
I’m building towards writing something relatively lengthy about Herbert Chapman, and some things that have emerged in that process show just how hard that was, and how it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
During the FA’s first 30 years, the amateur game went from being virtually all there was and the elite, to a situation in which professional clubs held the upper hand, although amateur players were still among the country’s best. The growth of professionalism seems to have had a negative impact on the game’s reach. In the 1860s, the best teams – perhaps drawn from alumni of schools and universities – came from anywhere in the country, and were amateur. By the early 1890s, the best teams were professional, and from the north of England. No teams south of Birmingham played in the Football League at all until Arsenal’s arrival in 1893/4.
Then something curious happens. In season 1920-21, the Third Division is created, and for its first season comprises southern clubs plus Grimsby Town. All of the elected clubs are still up and running today – although Merthyr are no longer in the Football League. Some of these southern clubs come from major cities, but all of those save for Reading are ports. The mining and manufacturing centres that throng Divisions One and Two are absent.
Browsing up and down the Third Division in its first year, you see that 13 of the 22 clubs would at some point grace the top division. One team, Portsmouth, would win the Championship itself, twice, and the FA Cup. There are two other future FA Cup winners present, and four other future finalists.
The following season, the Third Division was expanded and divided. A Third Division (North) was created. A browse up and down the first Third Division (North) table reveals a different kind of story.
None of the teams in that first Third Division (North) have ever featured in the top division, let alone won the thing. None of them have ever appeared in an FA Cup Final. (Or a League Cup final, for that matter). Seven of the twenty aren’t league clubs anymore – and that’s not counting Accrington Stanley, whose modern edition isn’t strictly speaking the same club. Another Three (North) pioneer, Stockport, narrowly avoided relegation from the league last year: other teams in this list have come and gone more than once.
It’s safe to say that by 1920 every decent northern side was already a member of the Football League. Since then, only Wigan Athletic have emerged as a new football force from the north of England.
The essential point is this. Football in England was a regional game almost until the time of the first FIFA World Cup. While the rest of the world was using the World Cup and the Olympics as political, nationalistic tools, England was just putting the finishing touches to the national structures that would keep the game stable for the next 75 years. They might not have been working to spread the game abroad – although British coaches certainly were – but they were working, very successfully, to spread the game across the country at home. (In the amateur years, they’d done much to encourage the game in Scotland, Wales and Ireland too).
How much of a start is England considered to have over Continental Europe in this respect? Twenty years? Thirty years? Stable equivalents of the Football League (which has survived two world wars, and, of course, one world cup) appeared in Austria in 1974-5; in Holland in c. 1954 (and arguably not until the late 1960s); in Germany in 1963/4 (but a second professional division had to wait until the 1970s); in France in 1932-3, creditably; in Italy since 1929 (more realistically 1949); in Spain since 1929 (more realistically, post-Civil War: the first La Liga consisted of only ten clubs). England’s fifty years of four professional divisions remains unrivalled: none of the countries named boast more than two professional divisions.
The irony, as ever, is in the contrast between a relatively thriving domestic game and the lack of international success. In some respects, the love of the game in England, which keeps such a huge league structure alive and well, reflects the direction in which our seriousness about it all goes. What’s most important to us is that the football happens at all, and winning is secondary. It’s still a game.. it’s the game that’s more important than life or death, not winning. Football in England is part of the furniture in a unique way: it’s comfortable furniture, not Louis Quinze, and if it doesn’t dazzle our foreign neighbours, then we’ll feel abashed for a while.. but we’ll never throw it out.