Football and Social Class

Why was football a working class sport in the United Kingdom? Why has it stayed that way?

Yes, stayed that way. Middle class interest in football has become respectable since 1966, and especially since 1990. But have you noticed how sidelong, how bashful, that interest is? Even Nick Hornby, middle class fan par excellence, studs Fever Pitch with references to attempts to join in with the working class approach to football – denying that he lives in Maidenhead, choosing terraces over seating, moving house to be close to Highbury with dreams of joining all of his neighbours in a fortnightly procession to the match. That’s not all about class, of course – so much of it is simply wanting to be part of something important, finding an identity, discovering what kind of person he was going to be.

Add to that middle class journalists building up JT as some kind of traditional figure for England to turn to. He’s presented as a kind of working class platonic ideal: straight talking, honest, dare I add not especially bright? and a fighter. The real John Terry is very much a modern man and, acknowledgedly a good captain, good in his own way. The press doesn’t care if an athlete, or a swimmer, or a tennis player, or a rugby player, conforms to some kind of social stereotype. Only in football is this important, and now it’s the middle classes who are keeping it all going. I watch a lot of football in a lot of nice middle class pubs, and I can tell you – although you know already – that when the “footie” (giveaway phrase) is on, everyone democratizes themselves. Or thinks that they do: it’s done in that matey Radio 5 manner that’s neither one thing nor another.

In an earlier post and subsequent discussion, we looked at the impact of professionalism in football. After 1883, when Blackburn Olympic became the first professional winners of the FA Cup, wages in football compared favourably with blue collar earnings generally, making football an attractive choice for men with sufficient talent. Even after 1904, when wages were capped (they’d remain controlled until 1961) it was half a century before blue collar wages really started to compete with football and make potential players think twice.

But football wages were small beer next to the kind of life fees in the professions were capable of providing. Nor did they eclipse lower middle class white collar wages. In such circumstances, professional football was unlikely to attract many men who could achieve a better standard of living elsewhere. Only since 1961 have men like Steve Coppell and John McGovern and Martin O’Neill begun to choose the game over the professional white collar career that otherwise awaited them.

Football is and always has been a mass spectator sport, and attendances grew steadily from the 1880s, reaching a peak in the years immediately after the Second World War. Where no cap on wages exists in mass spectator sports, the way is open for a player to earn in proportion to his ability to command an audience. In 1927, Dixie Dean of Everton and England was introduced to Babe Ruth, the baseball star. Dean had scored 60 league goals that year, surely the record in perpetuity now, and Ruth, synchronising splendidly, made 60 home runs, which was thought for decades to be unbeatable. Ruth asked Dean how much he was being paid, and Dean told him, laughing. (Babe Ruth had heard of Dean – from across the atlantic – and the meeting was at his behest, a testimonial to Dean’s popularity and draw). Had the maximum wage not been imposed, it’s likely that the sheer amount of money players would have become capable of earning would have extended the game’s appeal further “up” the social scale.

If not all the way.

Football experienced social exile, if you can count a game of the working classes, most of the population, as being in exile. Other sports chose schism instead, in differing ways.

Rugby: game splits between professionalism (Rugby League shared the same kind of social and mental space in the twentieth century as top level football) and amateur, and effectively between north and south. Why didn’t rugby union’s ability to draw a substantial crowd draw it to professionalism?

Athletics: remained staunchly amateur until comparatively recently. Low crowds and low earning potential outside Olympic tournaments. Post War improvements to state education gradually erodes the public school/university dominance. (Street football is easier and safer than street javelin or hammer, and more children can participate). Nineteenth century professional athletics was of a far higher standard than the amateur equivalent, and was kept separate, before dying away altogether. Schism, then, from a vanished corpse.

Cricket: rural game, echoing rural society’s command structure. Originally, cricket’s money was all in gambling – when the game was cleansed of this during Victoria’s reign, cricket’s low crowds meant that it could remain partly amateur for a great deal longer: the role of captain kept a place in most teams for an amateur. But the first England teams to tour Australia in the 1870s and 1880s were entirely professional, so the survival of amateurs in top cricket remains moot. Schism, then, but schism at the ground – separate changing rooms for professionals and amateurs, etc.

Tennis: Wimbledon Centre Court, the biggest court in Britain, seats 13,000 spectators. There is no mass turnstile audience for tennis in this country. Tennis is a hard game to work up from scratch – a football pitch is simpler to maintain than a grass court, and keeps up to 30 people busy. It would require substantial intervention to force tennis beyond its moneyed boundaries, and there’s little real demand that it do so. Not schism, but structural exile.

What about boxing? Or horse racing?

4 Replies to “Football and Social Class”

  1. “Amateur” status keeps out the riff raff. Chariots of fire might be somewhat didactic on this but it illustrates the point well.

    Boxing is the ultimate professional sport. It’s no surprise that the first black world champion was a boxer. The second was Major Taylor a track cycling sprinter. Cycling is without doubt the second placed ultimate professional sport. Like boxing, it’s tough and although the wages were poor, expenses plus a bike from your sponsor on average, a living could be made from prizes and it beat working on the farm or in a factory or mine. Also the fact that oiks could do it on the road, impeding the progess of the Mr Toad, lead to it being made illegal in Britain until Percy Stallard forced the issue 1942. There’s your class conflict! The channel aside, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t have had a Belgian level of cycle sport in this country, except for snobbery.

    Finally: Not news to you I’m sure, Nouveau Football Fan

  2. “The press doesn’t care if an athlete, or a swimmer, or a tennis player, or a rugby player, conforms to some kind of social stereotype. Only in football is this important”


  3. Cycling! I knew I’d forgotten a sport. Thanks Mark – it’s a real gap in my knowledge.

    Beckham is a perfect example of the point I’m making, I think – so much of the constant grief the man gets comes from his refusal to dress like and behave like and look like the conventional idea of the footballer. And I think it was one of the reasons he was made the paschal lamb by McClaren. On the grounds of performance alone, there is no way Beckham should have been the midfielder who found his England career ended after the World Cup.

  4. Beckham is a chav, simple as, albeit a chav who dresses expensively. He lost his place in the England team because it was finally realised that he wasn’t up to it at the highest level, and hadn’t been for a few years. Real Madrid have noticed this now as well. You can’t afford to play top class football walking round taking a few free kicks and corners. You probably can in Major League Soccer.

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