Out of the Corner of the Eye

This is supposedly the oldest film of football still in existence. It’s dated 1897, which puts it within a year of film first bursting onto the scene with the Lumiere’s astonishing touring show. Some kind of Match of the Day occurred to someone almost straight away:


It’s supposedly Arsenal – at their first proper ground in Plumstead.

What the cameraman wanted to capture is one thing. What he accidentally picked up in the corner of the frame will forever be more interesting.

Here’s a still from the same film – click to enlarge:


The same people who suggest that it’s Arsenal also suggest that this is a training match. Over to the left, you can see a rudimentary stand of some kind, fenced in what looks like pale new wood. It’s empty – although, behind the goal, you can just make out what look like clumps of spectators, getting their grassy knoll rehearsals in early.

In front of the stand, you can see a small boy, determined to get his kick of the ball – he’s raced into the scene immediately the ball has gone out of play. Having returned the ball, he runs back across, behind the goal, against that picket fence, and seems to grow six inches in the process, at least to my eyes.

Whatever is going on, there are two teams, in proper strips – I’ve caught one of them in the foreground of the still. He’s just left the penalty area, which you can see has yet to gain its ten yard circle (it wouldn’t for many years yet – Herbert Chapman found them in use on continental tours of the 1930s with the very same Arsenal we might be seeing here). Also visible is the peculiar early shape of the “box” – which isn’t really a box at this stage, but something quite different.

There’s no advertising visible anywhere – which is another sign of the newness of the venue, since most grounds quickly covered themselves in messages of some kind or another. (If it is Arsenal, and it is Plumstead, the lack of billboarding is actually mysterious, as they’d been playing Second Division football for 2-3 years by this stage).

This is just seven years later, a match between Newcastle and Liverpool in 1905(thrillingly filmed – a fast and skilful game, inevitably not on Youtube) (click to enlarge):


Those pale boards leaning up against the foot of the stand are advertising hoardings for a company called Newtons. Not terribly glamorous, but there in front of what must be about 20,000 eyes and pockets.

And here are Arsenal again, in 1911 this time:


It’s an interesting comment on the makeup of the football audience of the time that a motor garage has seen fit to buy top billboard space. It’s a comment on the times, too: the first automobiles predate our 1897 film, but only just. So do the first conventional telephones. Like the car, telephone, typewriter and electric light, professional football was a vital part of the development of what would become twentieth century urban industrial society the world over. Of that list, it’s the only one Britain had first, oddly enough.

Newcastle United leave the pitch at the end of the FA Cup Final of 1910 at Crystal Palace. Note the police presence.


A view of the ground from a different perspective explains why:


The ground is open along one side, and – on this evidence – the changing areas were not, as today, under one or other of the stands, but away from the ground altogether. The police were acting as “The Tunnel”.

Such an open and natural ampitheatre seems strange to modern eyes – it looks more suitable for showjumping or polo. All that contrasting stand “architecture”: Archibald Leitch would have shuddered. And it’s a mixed, smart crowd:


Note the fan with his team’s colours in the form of a ribbon tied to his coat. Not a scarf, not a shirt to be seen.

Here’s a quiet moment at the turnstiles before the “White Horse” Final of 1923. Again, not much in the way of fan regalia here – but some images of Bolton fans arriving in London that year betray rosettes and scarves. Decorating oneself to match the team is one football tradition that took a while to get going.


Again, it looks a mixed crowd – not just flat caps, but hats of all shapes and sized bar the good old topper. The top hat’s absence is a shame, really – it’s the one hat one can imagine preventing all kinds of soccer unpleasantness. I’ll leave you with an example: