Agents in Edwardian Football

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. This is from the Penny Illustrated Paper of Saturday, May 24th 1902:

There appear to be plenty of agents prowling around to discover whom they can find to add to the already big stock of Welsh players who are assisting Northern Union clubs. Not only Wales, but the West of England clubs are to be poached upon by the emissaries of the Lancashire section of the Northern Union, and it is said that high prices are to be offered to certain well-known men.

Northern Union later became Rugby League.

This isn’t quite the same thing, of course, as the modern player’s agent: what the PIP is moaning about is theft by professional clubs of amateur players.

That it went on, however, does undermine the traditional idea of professionalization happening in order to allow working class men to play. Rather, it happened to facilitate the profits of clubs in the industrial north west who would pay for the players who were names enough to fill their new stadia.

Association Football in particular has always been an overwhelmingly amateur sport. Most clubs, and most players, do it, and did it, for fun, from whatever social class they come or came. Professionalization didn’t open the game up to the working classes. It didn’t even open up the top levels of competition to them: amateur working class sides from Lancashire were catching up with the alumni clubs that had dominated the 1860s and 1870s by 1885, and would have overtaken them in number and quality of play regardless of the decision that year to permit the payment of players.

Professionalization did three principle things:

  1. Cemented the top of the game so that the clubs who were dominant by 1914 are, by and large, still dominant now.
  2. Expel amateurs of all classes from the home international sides by 1914
  3. Ghettoize the national game in the working class.

That last point is more complicated. There have always been children of white collar professionals playing in the Football League and Premiership – Peter Crouch is the best modern example. Nor has the private education sector abandoned the round ball game.


4 Replies to “Agents in Edwardian Football”

  1. Peter – you’re right, and you’ve just sold a copy.

    Somewhere in my files I’ve a plot outline for an unserious novel in which the public schools wrest back power in football and set about winning the World Cup in their own way. Shady characters behind Downside School buy out Newcastle United. And rebuild the club on Glyndebourne lines..

  2. Yes- particularly the point about 1914. I’m a Leeds fan as you know James and part of the story of Leeds is that as soon as we look like being successful somebody does something stupid- financial irregularities in the 20s cost us Herbert Chapman, the appointment of Brian Clough and the later surrender of the board by selling players and not replacing them under Jimmy Armfield and even the Ridsdale years are all examples of that. I do think though that one of the interesting points the Leeds story brings out and the research from the Times is how much the management of the club by boards matters. In a sense we are seeing board members now being transferred- see Trevor Birch Chelsea to Leeds and Peter Kenyon Man United to Chelsea- but what actually matters is the way that the club is constructed. You can have a good team and still be stuffed by bad finances. In a way the most successful managers are either managers backed by good chairmen or maybe chairmen like Martin Edwards who just don’t make the key mistakes- or people like Wenger who become chairman managers. I wonder if that is the next trend in football- that the new breed of managers will be required to understand the cash impact of what they do as well as its football impact.

    In that sense as in so many others Wenger may be a visionary in the English game…

  3. Or at least by small finances, which one might argue was Leeds’ real problem under Ridsdale. Revie is alleged to have taken the England job in part to avoid having to face the fact that rebuilding his Elland Road side was impossible. His Leeds were in many respects the last survivors of the maximum wage days.

    Kuper and Szymanski are very amusing on club finances – one of their laugh out loud chapters.

    I wonder if the accounts for Leeds City – those whose disappearance led to Chapman’s lifelong ban – still exist in an attic somewhere?

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