So how different is football from the pre-Great War game? I’ve mentioned before that the paucity and low quality of Edwardian film makes direct comparisons difficult. Contemporary eye witnesses provide some clues, but because relatively few people, even among the sports journalists of the day, travelled to see a wide variety of clubs, their opinions and comparisons can be invidious.
We are already aware of some fairly significant differences:
- Management: The modern idea of the football manager simply didn’t exist in Edwardian England. The “secretary/manager” of the day was a kind of lower-class CEO acting as go-between for players and directors. Directors, secretary/manager and players all would have had some input into signings. Tactics, where these existed, were a matter for the players to work out between themselves – an attitude that still survives in underground form in today’s game.
- Equipment: Although actual kit – shorts, socks and shirts – have changed relatively little since Edwardian days, changing in terms of style and choice of cloth only, boots are quite different. Whether this was an enormous handicap is open to doubt: Pele and Bobby Moore wore similar kit alongside e.g. Russell Osman for the film Escape to Victory, and seemed to cope with it very well. The ball was heavier, and liable to soak up water. A heavy ball might actually be more easy to manage in terms of close control than the modern lighter ball, and it’s interesting that Simon Clifford’s Brazilian Soccer Schools and the game of Futsal both favour heavier balls.
- Rules: The offside law was stronger before 1925: 3 defending players had to be between the attacker and the goal line before the final ball was played. Although this militated against goalscoring, it encouraged clever, thoughtful passing play, something which seems to have degraded in England post-’25.
Here’s a snippet of action from the 1911 FA Cup Final, won by Bradford City over Newcastle United at Crystal Palace in front of a large, class-mixed crowd.
An unidentified Newcastle player sees an opponent preparing to tackle, and brings the ball neatly into the air, retaining control:
Turning his body away from his opponent, he continues – still running full out – but still in full control of the ball, which is now on the floor:
His opponent has been left for dead, and he looks up to see if he can make the pass:
He can, and releases the ball. Play has now moved to a different sector of the pitch, and both player and opponent move to follow:
(Pictures courtesy of Fremantle Media’s outstanding 7-DVD History of Football, which really should be in the possession of anyone reading here regularly.)