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:
- Cemented the top of the game so that the clubs who were dominant by 1914 are, by and large, still dominant now.
- Expel amateurs of all classes from the home international sides by 1914
- 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.