The Right Sort of Sportsmen


In comments yesterday, George Szirtes enquired rhetorically about why Bobby Robson was so loved, and he answers his own question magnificently here.

“The right sort of sportsman”, in other words.

Most of the great football clubs of England were founded by firms or by churches to provide godly uplifting activity and entertainment to men in what were supposedly the morally-dangerous surroundings of the urban industrial north. Not so Chelsea, who exploded into life in 1905 with a 150,000 capacity stadium at Stamford Bridge and a place in Division Two. (In fact, commentators in the Chelsea News deplored its arrival – in the space of thirty years, the moral saviour of the industrial masses had revealed its lowering, sensationalist, corrupting side, and now all that was set to poison the good folk of Sands End, Chelsea Reach and Fulham).

But the Chelsea News needn’t have worried. The best kind of chaps were in charge. This from the Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times of September 9th, 1905:

The right sort of sportsmen are connected with its management too. The Earl of Cadogan and Mr. C.B. Fry are the Presidents; and the Directorate include Mr. H. A. Mears and Mr. G. Thomas. Mr. Mears owns the ground, and he is practically superintending its making. He is a keen sportsmen, and he is as well known in racing circles as in connection with football. In Mr. G. Thomas, of Southampton, he has a worthy colleague, for there is no more enthusiastic supporter of the winter pastime than the Sotonian. He is proprietor of the Southampton Club’s ground, accompanies the men to most of their matches, and an international match would not seem itself if he, and Mrs. Thomas, were not among the spectators.

The raffish, Borisian, condescending tone of this unattractive group was completed by the “hon. financial secretary”, Mr. Fred W. Parker, who

is one of our best-known handicappers. He is fond of sport in all its forms, and occupies the position of secretary of the London Athletic Club.

The Penny Illustrated Paper was no great cultural institution itself. Its attitude is telling. In a manner that Alice Miller would recognise immediately, one set of humans – those with position, money and influence, are to have their existence, desires and thinking respected, and the other set – everyone else – don’t exist quite as strongly, aren’t quite as real, and can therefore be treated as an amusing band of performing chimps who don’t matter.  Let’s take the goalie:

W. Foulkes (captain and goalkeeper) comes from Sheffield United. He has kept goal for England. He is the bulkiest football player living, and is such a mountain of flesh between the posts that opposing forwards are said to have complained that they had not sufficient of the goal to shoot at. As a compromise it was suggested that marks should be drawn on Foulkes. If the ball hit him between the marks it was a save, but if outside the shot should count as a goal.

It could be argued that changing attitudes towards football and towards footballers correlate well with the move away, during the twentieth century, from the atrocious relationships that existed between men from different backgrounds in the Edwardian period. Now, they stop the clocks for a Bobby Robson, and rightly. Not so for the Edwardian Robsons. Unless, of course, they were Frys.

Foulkes had ten years to live: cirrhosis of the liver carried him off in 1916. He outlived Cadogan, who paid for Holy Trinity Church in Sloane Street,  by a year.  C.B. Fry suffered a mental breakdown in the 1920s, became first a racist, then a fascist, pulled himself together after the War and died full of honours in 1956.

(Fry had played for Southampton. Chelsea’s first player-manager and one of their first squad forwards were poached from Southampton. Add those three to good old G. Thomas, and you have the makings of a conspiracy..)

1 Reply to “The Right Sort of Sportsmen”

  1. Really it’s bleeding obvious why bobby was loved, because he radiated goodness, and not a self serving sort of goodness done to ingratiate, but because he genuinely was.

    Saying he’s the right sort (which I don’t think that blog was), has all sorts of class and privilege connotations, completely what Bobby wasn’t, he was absolutely unsnobbish, although traditional and patriotic and never going to rock the establishment boat.

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