Football Clubs With Spiritual Origins

Here’s an interesting review of a book I’m going to have to buy, Thank God For Football! by Peter Lupson, on the churchly origins of eleven major clubs, Aston Villa, Barnsley, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Everton,Fulham, Manchester City, Queens Park Rangers, Southampton, Swindon Town and Tottenham Hotspur.

One of the most moving stories is that of the “father and founder” of Spurs, John Ripsher, the bible class teacher at All Hallows Church. He served the club as president for its first 11 years, stepping down in 1894 with Spurs, still amateur, playing in the Southern Alliance League at their own ground at Northumberland Park – the early days on the Tottenham Marshes had been rough. The last the club heard of Ripsher was in the early 1900s, when he had moved to Dover and gone blind. Lupson, dedicated in his research of these men, tracked down what happened: Ripsher had lost his health, could no longer work and in January 1906 was admitted to the Union Road workhouse where he died the following year. Lupson tramped to the Dover cemetery to find Ripsher’s unmarked, overgrown pauper’s plot, a shocking spot to contemplate the man’s contribution to Spurs.

At least Spurs have a fitness coach now.

Lupson’s quest was to rediscover football’s Christian roots and the men, such as John Henry Cardwell, the founder of Fulham, who gave their lives to promoting the sport as a civilising force amid grime and squalor. His book does not greatly explore what followed: how the game so quickly grew into a raw, passionate spectator sport, competition led to players being paid and then rich local men, often brewers, arrived, sensing a commercial opportunity, and backed the clubs. In the 1890s most clubs changed from members’ associations into limited companies, although Lupson does not mention the FA rules that sought to restrict shareholders’ ability to make money from them. One by one, the book notes, the clubs dropped the churches from their names and ploughed on for Football League fame and glory.

Clubs had a wide variety of origins, and a day at Colindale will rid most people of the idea that there was ever a time when football wasn’t financially compromised, in a state of conflict between directors and players, liable to cause local unrest and disorder, or dominated by the wealthiest clubs.

The research led Lupson to mixed thoughts about today’s Premiership juggernaut. “I do believe the clubs’ relentless pursuit of profit is a betrayal of the founding spirit, which was about recreation and fellowship for the poor. It is a major betrayal that the clubs have priced out poorer and younger people from watching their games.

“But I also see the top clubs running genuine community programmes, working with disadvantaged people, and I sense a desire within people at the clubs to understand where they’ve come from and be true to those roots. There is an undercurrent of supporters wanting their clubs back and, although it might seem terribly naive, I see a possibility that clubs will rediscover that founding ethos, the spiritual dimension which is at the heart of sport.”

The “relentless pursuit of profit” we are told we see today isn’t a patch on 1890-1914, but that’s for another day and another post. As for the desire for football to know more about where it’s coming from, I wholly concur. Lupson’s book is a very welcome step in that direction.

ADDENDUM: I simply can’t leave this without giving you the first comment on the Guardian’s review, left by someone whose parents called them TheGlobalArtofSoccer:

Brillant article. Many similar points are made in a new book by Richard Witzig, The Global Art of Soccer/Football. Football has always been a poor man’s game, as opposed to cricket, rugby, polo, or hunting foxes. As such, football was charged with teaching these men (and women) the nuances of society, and often did it well. Just ask the Nobel prize winning author, Albert Camus.

I will, next time I see him.