John Cameron and the History of English Football

(WARNING: this is quite long)

I’d been casting about for months for an image that might effectively sum up the history of English football. A face, a stadium, perhaps a team lineup or training session. Perhaps a German airport, snowbound. It was a search for a picture that would say the most in the least time about 150 years of the sport. Not easy.

My mind kept closing in on one image in particular, but I rejected it as too clever, too knowing, and too beside itself for its own good. They’ll never guess this – the slogan of everyone who has tried too hard to impress. But the image kept coming back and refining itself.

It’s of a middle-aged man in tweeds, riding alone in a railway compartment. Red-faced, probably; hat in the rack above his head, stick leant beside his knees. He’s not smoking right now, but smells of tobacco, that catch-all deodorant of the Victorian age. It’s a bright day, and he has the window down. Outside, he can see a river widening in a businesslike way as it nears the sea.

Then I see him striding into town, the port town of Ayr. If we were there with him, we’d notice what for him is just background: the long-forgotton but utterly distinctive taste of coal smoke, and the whiff of untreated sewage. In the streets, boys play, some of whom don’t have shoes. He won’t ever know how quaint and strange this scene is to us, because like us he experiences himself living at the very cutting edge of time, at the end of history. The countless thousands of miniscule changes that convert his time into ours have not yet begun.

There are photographs of Victorian Ayr, of course. A large number of them are sepia. That alone banishes them from any sense of our common era – sepia photos are automatically old and subject to that mockery owed by the future to the past. (They are old because sepia worked: it was supposed to add fade-protection to otherwise shortlived images). When they were first taken and processed, they emerged as monochrome images depicting their full colour world. Of that world, only that tiny photographic slice of life was black and white. Now, of course, almost everything that survives of that world is black and white. The insignificant slice has become all that’s left, and it’s as though it always was everything. For people of my generation, born in the late sixties, black and white represents everything that happened before we arrived. Colour is everything that’s happened since. Match of the  Day went colour when I was six months old.

Because of that black and white – colour transformation, and because of other things besides, there’s a distancing. I don’t know my traveller’s name, or even if he existed, although I know why he’s in Ayr. But as I’m going to use him as a peg on which to hang some history of football, it’s worth pausing just to consider that, for him, in footballing or in other terms, he isn’t aware of being a “pioneer” or that the game he is involved in (he’s a football man) is going through its early years. To him, this is modern football. If he reflects upon it at all, as he rolls up at the field where Ayr Parkhouse FC play, then football has already done its developing, turning into the brilliant, boisterous late-century fad that it seems to him.

Not that he’s making any money out of it: this man, whose existence I’ve invented, also has an unpaid job that I’ve invented for him. He’s a scout for the world’s most famous and successful football club. He represents the side that has won the most trophies, introduced the best innovations and tactical developments, provided the most internationals and which, as he makes his way on, is taking a self-sacrificial stand to protect the smaller clubs of the game and to protect the game itself from the looming threat of corruption. Our man is a scout for Queens Park in Glasgow, and he’s come to offer membership to a burly twenty-something forward called John Cameron. I dare say he doesn’t know what he’s starting. Nor does Cameron know just what he’s getting into.

Records disappear, and we don’t know when John Cameron joined Queens Park, the most famous team in the world. But it was probably between 1892 and 1894. The Scottish Football League had been formed in 1890, and, because the League was intended to boost the profits of professional clubs by providing regular fixtures, Queens Park, a staunchly amateur side then as now, refused to join.

This wasn’t, as it’s so often painted, a matter of class snobbery. Football history is too lazy when it comes to the issue of professionalism. You know the conventional story, I’m sure. Public school toffs (boo!) who invented the game, codified it and built its institutions, but who despite this are flannelled fools with irritating laughs, don’t like professionalism because it’s working class. But they have to give in. Hurrah for professionalism and working class sport and we’re the masters now and so on and so forth. Nigel Molesworth would put it better.

I wonder whether a fair number of sports historians, especially in the UK, are that kind of historian because they secretly long to be one of the lads. The classic version of events around professionalism owes a lot to this. It’s less history, more of a “dogwhistle” – meaning, “I’m on the side of the people, I’m one of you.” Let’s put that classic account to one side and piece the thing together with John Cameron’s help.

Cameron was a working class man, but also a product of Scottish education, meaning that he was highly literate, free-thinking and independent of mind. He’d probably been out of school for a decade by the time Queens Park came calling, playing as an amateur for Ayr Parkhouse. This implies that his mode of employment, which we don’t know, was sufficient both to make his living and leave him time for sport. Sport clearly meant a great deal to him – as we’ll see later, he was proficient at more than just football – and a move to Queens Park, who were scrupulous in their background checks at this time, meant that he was confident of finding work in Glasgow too. And that playing for Queens Park was worth the disruption and risk all on its own. There would be no money in it for him.

Cameron epitomises the history of English football because he’s a clever, educated man from the West of Scotland, and because his move to Queens Park puts him at the centre of the change from amateur to professional dominance of the top levels of football.

Working class men could, after all, play serious football as amateurs. This approach to the game – moving around from job to job whilst playing for amateur clubs – is played down by historians, but it’s actually far more typical of the life of serious Victorian and Edwardian players than was full-time or part-time professionalism. The vast majority of players in organised teams in organised leagues at this time, and to this day, were and are amateur. In Scotland, so in England: Herbert Chapman’s playing days were peripatetic in the extreme, and he, like Cameron as we will see, only turned professional late in his career.

Professionalism, we are told, comes about through payments to working class players to compensate for work time lost to football. I wonder, not least because of the unlikely picture of benevolent employers letting their workers absond for the sake of the latest big fad. I’m sure that this is part of the story, but not all.

First of all, consider amateurism. There is little evidence that it has anything to do with aristocratic values. The major sports of the first half of the nineteenth century were corrupt affairs, bent out of shape as we would see it by the demands of gambling, gambling being what kept most of them in being at all. Love of fair play and love of the game were deliberate creations in the public schools and churches, and these ideas spread only as a result of a lot of hard work, persistence, determination and argument. One result was the excellent state of late century cricket, which, given the ructions, controversies and financial catastrophes of the preceding fifty years might not have seemed terribly likely at times. Just getting people to play by the rules when there is no tradition of doing so means creating that tradition from scratch, no easy thing. And then, just as amateur football has swept the nation, and the FA Cup is thriving, and international “home nations” football is thriving, and cities like Sheffield and Glasgow and the industrial towns are burgeoning with new clubs and competitions, all of it helping along a general improvement in law and order and public behaviour… just as it’s all going so well, professionalism rears its head again. Money starts changing hands, clubs poach each other’s players, and it all begins to get a little bit ugly with the promise of much worse to come.

Can you see how there might be other reasons beside snobbery for opposing professionalism? John Cameron’s new club, Queens Park, had players from all walks of life, and provided them all with the chance to play the sport at the very top level. But, having no financial goals other than to pay their own expenses, Queens Park were in a position to stand up for newer, smaller clubs and the benefits those clubs brought to members and players, in a way that Rangers and Celtic were not.

To understand the pressure for professionalism, it’s necessary to remember just how remarkable a fad football was at the end of the nineteenth century. Because of the growth of industrial cities, there existed concentrated populations keen for entertainment. Football offered businessmen a new and substantial opportunity. Ring off a field, get two teams together, and charge admission: build it, and they will come. But you need to persuade people to come to your show, not your rival’s from the other side of town, so you need to find out who people will pay to watch and get them in somehow. Offer them a job in your factory, or just give them cash in hand. If your rivals have the upper hand, raise the money somehow and steal their entire team! This fate befell the first professional FA Cup winners, Blackburn Olympic, whose side was “bought” en masse by Blackburn Rovers. Olympic soon vanished from sight.

The more people you can get in to see your games, the more profit you make, so the period 1890 – 1914 sees what is in effect an arms race of stadium building and team building. You have to become the big club in your town before someone else does. Chelsea appear out of nowhere in 1905 complete with Stamford Bridge: their founders took a huge financial risk that they only just got away with – had they not been able to persuade the Football League to give them instant admission, they’d have folded immediately. After 1920 or so, no new “big clubs” appeared: the period of meteoric growth was over. The fast money left football for cinema, motoring and radio.

So early professional football was about getting the best showmen and the best big top before the other guy did. So, for a while, the best players could command a premium for their services. But not for long.

Queens Park were right, in the end, about the threat posed by the Scottish League to small clubs. The years after 1890 were ones of terrible winnowing, even for those clubs who did join. One third of the founder members did not see the decade out. Cambuslang, Cowlairs and Renton had all ceased to exist by 1898.

They were right in another way, too. By remaining amateur and remaining, for the time being, away from the horror and bloodshed of the Scottish Football League, they kept the top level of Scottish football open to all. In England, amateur players were being squeezed out of the national team and out of the clubs. In the Edwardian era, only Vivien Woodward of the hundreds of thousands of amateur players in England made any great international contribution.

In 1896, John Cameron made his debut for Scotland. Alongside him was another Queens Park alumnus, one R.S. McColl. If that sounds like a newsagent to you, it’s because that’s what McColl later became.

Cameron wouldn’t live so long, nor become so rich. Shortly before his cap, he went professional, burning his bridges with Queens Park, and joined Everton.

John Cameron epitomises the history of English football by being one of the many Scottish mercenaries who came to play in England.

Cameron arrived at Everton at a propitious time. What we now call “The Old Lady” – Goodison Park – was reaching completion as the first football stadium to completely enclose its pitch with stands on all sides. And here, in the biggest and most modern arena in the entire world, he made an instant impact as Everton thrashed an excellent Sheffield United team 5-0.

We are now so familiar with the idea of the big football ground that we forget just what was happening in Liverpool first, then in Manchester and Glasgow. It’s thought that the Colliseum in Rome could hold 50,000 people. Within a few short years, Cameron would play a vital and historic match in front of more than twice that number. In our industrial cities, at the end of the nineteenth century, the largest secular, peaceful gatherings in the history of our species would take place. And, only fifty years after the Chartists provoked panic in London with their Kennington Rally, a Cup Final only a few miles from that spot with an equivalent number of attendees would barely raise the authorities’ collective eyebrow. Football was a fad, but it was also a miracle.

And cities that were, in effect, brand new, landmarkless places, suddenly acquired symbols for themselves in the form of the new stadia. Liverpool was Goodison Park and, later, Anfield – and these places would be known the world over. Manchester was Maine Road and Old Trafford. Queens Park had the last laugh over the professional upstarts: Glasgow was Hampden.

Now that stadium building has recommenced, this is happening again. If you had to think of a building in Reading, is the first that comes to mind the Madejski Stadium? Or Bolton, the Reebok? Middlesborough, the Riverside?

Goodison Park was the very first of all these, the first ever: and Everton “acquired” John Cameron to help fill it. In the ten years of professionalism that had already passed, many Scots had “come south”: Cameron was no pioneer in that respect. Hundreds more would follow over the years, and even a short list reads like a greatest hits of the game: Dalglish, Law, Busby, Docherty, Gallacher, even our very own Alex Massie.

Cameron joined Everton just at the moment when the great days for professional footballers were coming to a close. In the previous year, the Football League introduced its registration scheme, by which a player could only turn out for the club he was registered with, regardless of his own future desires and intentions. Henceforth, his club would “own” his right to play League football, and should he leave them, could prevent him, should they wish, from playing for a rival.

The registration scheme was belated recognition of what Queens Park had seen five years before: professionalism left unchecked would make life impossible for smaller clubs. The early years of the Football League had been dominated by the richest clubs, purely and simply, and this was a danger to the stability and the viability of the League itself. Their solution was to turn players into bondsmen. And bondsmen they would remain, right up until the 1960s.

Loyal local players playing loyally for local teams are much admired these days – the Scholeses and the Nevilles and the Carraghers. It’s thought that they hark back to better days when that kind of thing was much more common, and they are seen as a dying breed. But the loyal players of the past – like Tom Finney at Preston – had no choice in the matter. They could not have moved had they wanted to, without their club’s agreement. At the height of his powers, Finney received an offer from an Italian club which would have rendered him free of financial worries for the rest of his life. Preston refused to countenance it. And that’s one of the better stories. Players could be and were left in limbo, registered at a club but with no contract.

Even as late as the 1950s, most football contracts were for the season. Many players would be cast off for the summer, forced to find jobs until the next year’s fixtures came around. The registration scheme meant that, unlike their colleagues in industry, there was nowhere for them to go. So much for the loyal players; so much for the game “before it was ruined by money.” A fine man like Tom Finney deserved better than the peverse combination of fame and feudalism he was dealt, but that was what the best players faced, and the mediocre ones fared far worse.

The registration scheme, the first turn of the key in the lock if you will, came a year before Cameron’s arrival in England. Worse was about to come. John Cameron, as we’ve seen, was able to work and support himself outside football and yet play at the top level. Players, being considered as showmen and entertainers (the idea of the “sportsman” was in its infancy), training and development were at best ad hoc, and there is no evidence to suggest that professional players were decisively fitter than their amateur counterparts. If it wasn’t the football that brought him to Everton, then, it must have been a combination of a big money offer and his own sense of travel and adventure.

The money was next to come under threat. The arms race to build stadia was squeezing clubs’ finances. Clubs which, only a couple of years earlier, were spending their money on players, had now realized just how large football crowds might get before the soccer bubble burst. Bums on seats became a priority over boots on the ground. It was this realization that cleared the way for the registration system, and now the clubs turned their attention to the imposition of a maximum wage.

It was Cameron’s moment to come into his own.

In theory, at least, the registration system made it possible for clubs to lower the wages of their players without losing their services. But because the registration system only covered Football League clubs, it was still open to the disaffected to move to Scottish League clubs or to clubs in the growing Southern League in England. But in 1897, the Scottish League banned this kind of poaching – and within the Football League itself, the lobbying for a £4 maximum wage was gaining ground rapidly.

Most players received less than that, but the elite, including Cameron, were drawing salaries of up to £10 and saw their livelihoods threatened. Cameron, intelligent, confident and literate, was not about to allow that. In February 1898, John Cameron was able to announce that the new Association Footballer’s Union could call upon 250 members. He was Secretary, and with his Everton and Scotland colleague Jack Bell as President, the driving force. Billy Meredith, of Manchester City, was in, as was Jimmy Ross of Preston North End, Tom Bradshaw of Liverpool, and others.

There had been earlier unions, of course – ASLEF was up and running by this date – but the AFU predated both the NUM and the NUR, to say nothing of the General Federation of Trade Unions. It was an early and audacious foundation, formed under acute time pressure and within a highly peripatetic workforce spending a great deal of its time on the railway and the road.

Although the immediate threat was that to existing pay scales, Cameron knew, as Jimmy Hill and George Eastham would know sixty years later, that the “retain and transfer” registration scheme was at the very heart of their problems. He called for negotiations regarding transfers to involve the club and player concerned – not, as was usually the case, merely the two clubs with the player excluded. Bell, meanwhile, promised that the question of pay would be left alone for the time being and that there was no question of a strike.

Cameron did not know how long he had to save the situation. Once a maximum wage was imposed, he knew, that was that – his career’s potential destroyed in the interests of the Everton board. So, when a better offer came his way, he took it.

So did Bell; so did Bradshaw. Bell was replaced as AFU chairman by a Preston player in the twilight of a great career, Bob Holmes. Holmes himself would demonstrate my point about professionalism by “retiring” as a professional in the wake of the collapse of the Union in 1899, yet playing on as an amateur for Preston for another three years. For Holmes, it was twilight. For Cameron, the adventure was only just beginning. In the summer of 1898, he joined Tottenham Hotspur of the Southern League. His successor as Secretary was a schoolteacher.

it was the big money move. And it was a move away from retain-and-transfer, away from the immediate threat of the maximum wage (which came in finally in 1901, remaining in force long enough to snag the likes of Charlton, Greaves, Clough and Haynes).

John Cameron epitomises the history of English football because he was closely and personally involved in the losing battle against constraints on players’ pay and conditions.

It was a step up the social ladder, too. Late Victorian Tottenham was a far cry from the sea of industrial terracing Cameraon had known in Glasgow and Liverpool. He left behind a game that was in the process of ghettoising itself for the sake of money. First professionalism, then the League, then the retain-and-transfer system, then the maximum wage – all were measures to extract as much money from large crowds in large towns and cities as possible. In the process, they robbed the real attraction of the piece – the players – of their just share of the profits. The working class could come and watch. The working class could sign away their freedom and security and play. But the money that was the reason for it all went into other hands. If this was working class sport, then so was Roman gladiatorial combat.

Cameron, meanwhile, found himself well paid and in London, living a few streets away from where A. E. Housman was putting the finishing touches to A Shropshire Lad. His club was young and ambitious:moreover, it soon knew that in Cameron it had more than a star player on its hands. By February of 1899, he had become player-secretary-manager, one of the very first players to make the step up.

The step into management was not the obvious one it seems today. At this stage in the development of the English game, the players were seen as the experts in the art of playing. As we’ve seen in the case of Cameron, there were highly intelligent players with intellectual capacity to go with technical ability, and this would have meant some degree of on-field adaptability and thinking. Herbert Chapman acknowledged as much about Edwardian football, looking back on it from the 1930s, blaming the 1925 change in the offside law for the loss of subtlety and cleverness in the English game. His own Huddersfield team of the 1920s had its little university of writers and preachers. There have been few such since, and most of those are called Blanchflower and Giles, and how many of those are English?

The secretary-manager’s primary task was not to plan tactics but to act as go-between for the board and players. In some cases, the choice of, negotiation for and acquisition of players was also involved. All his other duties could just as well come under the heading of clerk. The idea of an ex-player moving into management needed some actual ex-players to bring it into being, and, as we’ve seen in the case of Bob Holmes, the Football League was barely old enough to be generating ex-players at all.

John Cameron epitomises the history of English football by being one of the very first Scottish ex-player managers in the League, and one of the first ex-player managers of any nationality.

As you might expect by now, Cameron was one of those managers who took a role in choosing players, and, as he continued to play himself, on-field tactics. Had there been tracksuits available to him – at this stage, British athletes still wore dressing gowns, and only US athletes had the actual tracksuits – he might have been called a tracksuit manager.

As it was, he masterminded the first successful comeback by a non-League side against a League side since 1888, scoring against Sunderland in a victorious FA Cup tie.

Cameron’s signings were good ones: Jack Kirwan, briefly his successor at Everton came; so did George Clawley from Stoke. Tom Morris was to become a long-term Spurs stalwart, but was new on the scene when Cameron led the side out for the first ever game at White Hart Lane.

John Cameron epitomises the history of English football by taking a leading role in the top-level game’s arrival in London.

By 1899, the Football League’s position on pay was beginning to endanger its preeminence in England. There was a steady flow of players from the Football League to the Southern League, and the evidence of the FA Cup showed that the southerners, without the benefit (outside the capital) of large industrial populations, were catching up. In 1900, Southampton  reached the FA Cup Final, where they lost to Bury. They had already featured in a semi-final, partly due to the good form of George Clawley in goal.

Another of the former AFU men, Thomas Bradshaw, had also made the trip south to Tottenham, and played alongside Cameron in the victory against Sunderland. Shortly afterwards, he was to illustrate in his own life just what the AFU had been needed for.

Bradshaw joined “Thames Ironworks” – the future West Ham – in the close season of 1898-9. He was injured in a game early in his season, but although he recovered to play again, it was already apparent that tuberculosis had him in its grip.

Bradshaw had mouths to feed at home, and was possessed of powerful, unselfish courage. He played his last game, visibly short of breath and stamina, on the 9th of December. By the time Christmas Day was over, he was dead.

His own tragedy was his family’s too: he would not have been insured, nor would compensation have been due. Professional footballers were well paid for their time, especially in the Southern League, but not enough to make widowhood and being orphaned anything less than a disaster.

Cases like Bradshaw’s would inspire Billy Meredith and his colleagues to rebuild the fight for union rights in the opening years of the twentieth century. Bradshaw’s colleague, Syd King, would write him a sad eulogy in his 1906 “Book of Football,” a year after King had become the first English sportsman to endorse Oxo.

Tuberculosis was far from uncommon as a cause of death amongst footballers – it took Harry Chapman, Herbert’s then more famous brother, before the Great War.

Two years after Bradshaw’s death at 26, Cameron led Spurs to the FA Cup Final, where they met one of the crack sides of the Football League, Sheffield United, and took on the unique challenge posed by William Henry “Fatty” Foulkes.

Over 110,000 supporters attended the Final, held at Crystal Palace, a venue which – unlike Goodison – was not yet enclosed on all sides.

United were deservedly strong favourites, and began well, taking the lead through Fred Priest on 20 minutes. Spurs levelled through Sandy Brown almost immediately, however. The next day’s newspaper told the rest:

When Brown was put through by Cameron to beat Fouike again with a rising shot for Tottenham five minutes after the interval, the predominantly southern crowd went wild. Hats went into the air, handkerchiefs were waved, and spectators daringly perched in the trees around the ground almost fell out of the branches. But the match was far from settled, for within a minute a strange incident changed the face of the match.

A linesman flagged for a corner-kick after Bennett had charged Totten­ham goalkeeper Clawley near the goal-line and the ball had gone behind. The referee then surprised everyone by awarding a goal to Sheffield, on the grounds that the ball had crossed the goal-line as Clawley had attempted to field Lipsham’s shot from the left seconds before Bennett had moved in to charge him. The general opinion was that referee Kings-cott had made a sad error of judgement. He was too far up the field to be able to decide the point, yet he refused to consult with a linesman much nearer to the incident.

Daylight robbery. The replay, at Bolton’s Burnden Park, is here:


Cameron scored in Spurs’ 3-1 win. Tottenham Hotspur under John Cameron remain the only non-League side to win the Cup since the formation of the Football League.

It would fall to other men to lead Spurs into the Football League itself. By then, a player’s union would finally have clawed itself into existence. After 1910, in any case, the Southern League and the Football League came to an agreement which regularised retain-and-transfer across both organisations. Had that not happened, it is interesting to speculate that a post-1918 Southern League might not have taken advantage of depression in the north of England and become the game’s dominant force, with players able to earn their market worth and that outside of the working class bondsman’s ghetto that the Football League had become.

Cameron remained manager after he hung up his boots, but the loss of his place on the field led to the loss of a great deal of his influence. The players he had brought south with him had one by one retired or left, and by 1907 Tom Morris was the last significant member of the Cameron inner circle remaining.

Not for the first time, Cameron made the adventurous choice. He left England, and followed his former playing opponent William Townley to Wilhelmine Germany.

Townley, another smart man frustrated by the restricted ethos of English football, had gone over some four years earlier, and found the water warm. Although football in Germany was somewhat frowned upon, being seen as a socially inferior sport, its fans and enthusiasts had one thing about them that had great appeal. They didn’t think they knew about football, and they wanted to learn.

Cameron took over at Dresdner SC in 1907, by which time Townley was at Karlsruher. They were the first of a series of significant, thinking football men who’d seek disciples abroad before World War One, men who’d shape the whole future of European and ultimately World football. Jimmy Hogan followed them out two years later, closely followed by Jack Kirwan, Jack Reynolds and Fred Pentland. German, Dutch, Spanish and Hungarian football has reason to remember their names.

Football was spreading, but it would be a mistake to see this as a recognisable development at the time. The first modern Olympiad only took place in 1896, and the whole idea of international competition outside of Ashes or Home Championships style fraternal meetings was unfamiliar. Nor had any modern sport escaped the borders of its founding culture. Most existing sports in 1900, apart from the Victorian British inventions, had their equivalent in the ancient world. The idea of taking e.g. football and “developing” it in new countries and for new culture simply did not exist. Even Cameron and co. were merely meeting a demand in a way that paid them well and which they found satisfying.

That demand reflected a situation and created a trend. The situation: the English being alien to the concept of coaching or of football being something that could be learnt or improved upon. The trend: the best English coaches being, in effect, driven out. It took fifty years to work itself out, until 1953 and the Magyars’ huge victory at Wembley. But the English had rode their luck. Had the Austrian team held a more confident view of itself in the 1930s, defeat might have come to London twenty years earlier. The brilliant postwar England team of 46-48 hid the underlying trend for another couple of years. But by 1953, all of the best men knew what had happened. Mercer, Finney, Matthews, all realized that they’d been overtaken and that change would have to come. We’re still waiting for it.

Somewhere out there, perhaps there’s a corner of some foreign Cameron or a Townley waiting to come to visit us.

Cameron enjoyed seven good years amidst the beauty and culture of Dresden. Then came war, and with it, the strange, marvellous, tragic climax of his life.

It took place here.

This, along with some bales of hay tucked away behind, is all that remains of Ruhleben Race Course, in Spandau, Berlin. In 1914, the German Empire rounded up the “enemy aliens” within its borders. A large number of them ended up in a camp at Ruhleben. See an inmate’s sketch of the camp here.Cameron was here, along with a star-studded cast of British footballing names. Steve Bloomer came; so did Fred Pentland.

Pentland and Bloomer can be seen at the extreme left of this Ruhleben team lineup from 1918.

Also present were Fred Spiksley – who’d been coaching in Sweden before Germany – Samuel Wolstenholme, another former international to take the Kaiser’s football shilling, John Brearley – a Cameron signing at Spurs, and Edwin Dutton, whose father introduced football to Berlin.

(Jimmy Hogan was interned in Austria; Jack Reynolds  saw the war out in Holland and passed the time by getting Ajax of Amsterdam off to a good start. His immediate predecessor was another Cameroon, Jack Kirwan, who returned home to fight, before helping Italian football get started in the postwar period).

So, in the unlikeliest of settings, began the four year symposium of almost everything of the best in British football coaching. There has never been such an event or such a group since. Ruhleben left copious records, including inmate newspapers and magazines. Sadly, what isn’t recorded is the conversation between these people. We know they organised teams, cups and league competitions. But what they must have learned from one another there.Whatever it was, in 1918 it left Ruhleben and spread around the world.

After the war, Pentland went on to coach the Spanish side that beat England in 1929, and broke up the Spanish inheritance of Edwardian tactics and formation for something not dissimilar to the Hungarian formaton of the 1950s.

Spiksley went on to coach in Mexico, before returning to Germany.

Steve Bloomer went on to coach successfully in Spain, after pre-war coaching in Germany and the Netherlands.

The first two years of internment seem to have been bearable. 1914-16 account for most of the accounts of football – and of tennis, at which Cameron is alleged to have excelled. Thereafter, things darken. Food is certain to have run short at times, and it’s possible that the huge German losses of 1917 would have lessened sympathy for the prisoners, and wiped memories of their having helped Germany before. Pictures survive of work gangs: a memoir is entitled “Hell Could Not Be Worse.” Another hints at physical mistreatment of inmates.

Whatever went on, Cameron changed direction after the war. A year at home, coaching in Ayr, was followed by a move into writing and journalism. He had form of this already, writing a “souvenir”of Spurs’ entry to the Football League from his new German perspective in 1908. It was a route taken by quite a few players at the time – and there would be others later, notably Len Shackleton, who did so much to get Brian Clough’s managerial career underway.

By comparison with his performance up until 1914, Cameron’s post-War career is quiet, almost silent. You scan the years, expecting him to pop up again, to do something new or unexpected. It doesn’t happen. John Cameron was 46 by the end of the War, and, at that age, even for a fit man, 2-4 years of imprisonment and privation can mean breakdown. He is the only significant football man not to be in Steve Bloomer’s 1918 picture. The reasons why are probably sad ones.

In his career, John Cameron was at the heart of every issue that has marked British football. Except for one: race. That he narrowly missed: the great Walter Tull joined Tottenham Hotspur two years after Cameron’s departure. Tull travelled with Spurs to play Bristol City in his first season. A correspondent relates:

A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate.. Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football whether they be amateur or professional. In point of ability, if not actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.

Tull’s war saw him become the first Black officer to lead white troops into battle – indeed, to become the first British-born black officer ever. Sadly, the end of the war did not come soon enough for him.

Cameron lived until 1935, long enough to see the rise to fame, and the death, of the last innovative English manager, Herbert Chapman. All of the footballing change and growth that Cameron had lived through in his career before 1914 stopped thereafter, apart from Chapman, and I wonder what he would have made of the passivity and stasis of the interwar English game, especially once Arsenal’s great manager was gone. Since 1935, certainly, history has simply repeated itself. Here we are again, a few rich clubs dominant, buying their talent from outside England’s borders, denying the need for coaching, bickering over player’s pay.

We’ve done it all over and over again, but Cameron was there first. And that’s why he’s the Scotsman who epitomises the history of English football. Well, I did say he didn’t have to be English….

4 Replies to “John Cameron and the History of English Football”

  1. 1) Agree with Peter… this deserves to go at least somewhere beyond the blogosphere.

    2) Incidental thought about professionalism, your critique of the emphasis on “class reasoning” reminds me that the most professional of sports, Rugby League (surely born out of the need to pay players? or so the mythology says) was, in my youth actually filled with bricklayers, steelworkers and plasterers, who made their living as tradesmen and moved jobs when they moved clubs. There were payments (as befitting the fact that it was the late 20th century) but there were not “professional sportspeople” in the mould of footballers or top tennis players [just watched Wimbledon!] now. They had whole separate working lives.

    [Tennis players comes to mind also because, like footballers at the top level, tennis is now a sport where all the top talents entered “the system of the game” at about puberty. How different that is to players who worked another job and also how different that makes our relationship with the sport? Knowing that by the age we are adults (18? or so) our chance to be involved has definitively passed.]

    3) I’d love to see your thoughts on the Women’s game. Both the history, you have a better grasp of the commercial side in the early times than many, but also some thread to present times. I was, for my sins, involved in the late 90s in attempts to push the FA into realising some of the potential of women’s football. Alas, we failed to change the institutional inertia. Still, given the massive popularity at some previous historical moments, perhaps there’s an interesting blog to be written?

  2. Fabulous stuff.

    I am with Metatone, in that one of the resonances I felt reading this was with Rugby League. Another part of the mythology is, it seems to me, entirely shaped by class reasoning: that the sports writers all went to “good” schools, and so learnt to play and thus value union not league; while the voice of league, and, let it not be forgotten, “It’s a Knockout”, Eddie Waring simply perpetuated the stereotype of primitive northern clowns, who were then further condemned because they were plasterers and the like in their day jobs.

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