Educated Men,the Edwardian Footballer and the Old Boy Spin Brigade

Peter Watts’s recent visit to Whitgift showed a football returning by inches to being a true national game, involving, like cricket and racing, everyone regardless of income and background (the bulk of the 2005 Ashes winners were state-educated incidentally).

What it wasn’t, and couldn’t have been, was a comment on the level of intelligence within football.

It’s probable that the spread of intelligence levels of every kind in football matches the spread of intelligence in society in general. At the same time, it’s fair to say that there’s a perception that British football could “show more intelligence”. The traditional attitude that “Only a horse can become a jockey” is troubling not just because the likes of Wenger, Ericksson and Mourinho prove it wrong, but because it contains within itself the seeds of its own stupidity. British clubs, it says, end up managed by Bottom.

The best British managers, of course, are up there with the Wengers. You might even describe a golden age stretching from Matt Busby through Shankly, Revie, Taylor and Clough until you get to David Moyes of our own era. When you start looking for footballing unintelligence, it melts away, loses you in the back streets, the alleys and the courts..

My theory has been that football is where the English, with all their Nobel Prizes and world-changing invention and colossal literacy, go to to be stupid. However clever we are, we aren’t going to show it in football. It’s different for the Scots and Irish, and probably the Welsh too.

What to make of John Cameron’s take on the issue then, in the Penny Illustrated Paper of September 26th 1908?

There was a time when the player was not an educated man, as he is today. He is very often a gentleman by instinct and nature, and particularly a good sportsman. You have a man like Fleming, the Swindon centre-forward. He is saving up his money to become a clergyman; Alex Glen, the old Southampton and Tottenham player, saves all the money he can to prepare for the medical profession; while Charlie O’Hagan, the Irish international captain, gave up a good position in the Civil Service in order to play the game.

Cameron’s was a small sample, but similar tales emerge from Herbert Chapman’s squad at Huddersfield 15 years later.

Let’s not forget that universal secondary education was a post-War phenomenon. My great aunt Violet failed a grammar school scholarship at the age of 12 owing to nerves and indigestion on the day. She spent her next fifty years sewing for what became Debenhams, and hated it. In retirement, she lived in a terraced house that shared a wall with a sewing factory, and spent the rest of her days listening to the Singers murmuring at her through the Bedfordshire brick.

Likewise, Alfred Williams, author, poet and folksong archivist, found himself unable to escape hard labour at Swindon works until his health got too bad for him to continue.

If free education wasn’t available to those who had the ability to take every advantage of it, then you had to find another way.  Cameron’s terse, typically judgemental paragraph shows how that surplus income that football provided could go into education and retraining. If you had your wits about you, and could set yourself career targets, and were lucky with your club and  injuries, it could be done. You had the money and the spare time. Football was a window of opportunity.

Edwardian football presented a few smart men with fresh opportunities of its own. John Cameron managed Spurs, although – as I’ll be writing about in a little while – what that meant in 1900 was different to what Aidy Boothroyd does now. You could try journalism. Cameron had his eye on that almost from the beginning. In May 1902, “Banshee” of the PIP, Cameron’s future employer, records:

Late on Monday I received a telegram from Mr John Cameron stating that he had signed on Houston, of the Heart of Midlothian, as centre-forward for the ‘Spurs. The new man is not a whit inferior to Sandy Brown, and the ‘Spurs will be as strong as ever.

So did Herbert Chapman, whose Daily Mirror columns were collected in book form after his premature death in 1934. Cameron, by now writing for the PIP, took a proprietorial interest in Chapman, who’d played for him at Tottenham in his last years at the club:

They (Northampton Town, Chapman’s first club as manager, here winning in 1908) thoroughly deserve the position they have got, for their supporters are always to the fore, no matter how the side is doing. To Manager Chapman, one of my Old Boy Spin Brigade, the honours are largely due.

But on the whole, football did not and does not offer a lifetime’s career path to British players – which applies as much to the women’s game as to the men’s. Nor is there any great feeling that it ought to. So, like the armed forces, football continues to spit its children out in the end to sink or swim.

Perhaps this is where the public schools, who can afford to be career-orientated, come in. Can they create a viable lifetime career model for professional sport that works for everyone who goes into it, from whatever background? Or will they mimic the FA, who have largely ignored the problem for the last 120 years?

6 Replies to “Educated Men,the Edwardian Footballer and the Old Boy Spin Brigade”

  1. Fleming, English-born but with a suspiciously Scottish surname.
    Alex Glen, Scot.
    Charlie O’Hagan, the Irish international. Hm.
    Actually, at both football and rugby the fact that Scotland had for a century or more a not-bad record against England, though outnumbered nearly 10-fold in soccer players and (I guess) about 50-fold in Rugby players, pretty much demands woefully inept management and captaincy from England. (I still treasure the memory of Carling’s dreadful captaincy throwing away the Triple Crown at Murrayfield.) The sudden advance of English rugby compared to Scottish has coincided with professionalism. Nevertheless, the strange, recent collapse of standards in Scottish football (both codes ) is a mystery and disappointment to me. Hey ho.

  2. Fleming a Scottish surname? It’s Walloon, surely?

    One way of looking at the England-Scotland numbers problem is to ask why mere population size doesn’t enable Russia to build more and better cars than Germany or Japan. Sir Clive Woodward’s memoirs are of an English rugby setup that was all about playing and having fun: it was his Scottish mentor at Loughborough, Jim Greenwood, who opened his eyes to the possibilities for improvement. I’d argue that Scotland has a different attitude, rolled out all the way across society, towards the possession of, and above all, the display of, intelligence. That goes back to the educational reforms of the late seventeenth century in Scotland, and the influence is still being felt.

  3. The one thing it can’t be is Walloon, James! But yes, it’s Scottish, coming from one of the Kings (David I?) importing Flemings to his new-fangled burghs.

    As for your substantive point, it’s just a kinder, gentler, deeper re-phrasing of mine, I suspect.

  4. For what it’s worth, in the ELO rankings, Scotland each decade from 1910 have gone from


    1910s – 5th
    1920s – 4th
    1930s – 7th
    1940s – 7th
    1950s – below 12th (only shows 12)
    1960s -12th
    1970s – 14th
    1980s – 17th
    1990s – below 20th
    2000s – below 20th
    Today – 20th!!

    I don’t know how good we think these are especially in the early part of the decade when there weren’t many international games (England look too low). I imagine that slow decline though is probably in line with the spread of football and money around the world?

    It’s be more interesting to see an annual run of data [which costs a lot of money, although they suggest they will be supplying something for 10 euros/month from early next year].

  5. It would be interesting to see the full run. My personal feeling is that England and Scotland took turns at no. 1 probably until as late as 1930. Any rating that puts Scotland 5th in the ’10s simply puts the statistical technique into question. There were no continental or South American teams capable of matching either England or Scotland until at least 1928 (and how I’d have loved to see a full England or Scotland side take on the ’28 Uruguayans – THAT would have been my match of the century.

    Come the 1950s, the question with both England and Scotland wasn’t the depth of talent, but the scandalous way it was deployed. What on earth were the Scots thinking, not going to the World Cup in 1950? What kind of deranged anti-English bigot would cease spitting into their own food long enough to pull that one? Likewise England v Hungary in 53 and 54: rather unrealistic to say that England had been overtaken when such obviously bad team selections are made, and the ’56-58 England, with a Busby Babes spine, would have given the Magyars very much the run for their money. But by that stage, the chance was gone – as was, after Munich, the chance of that England side to show itself against the best. Pity: they’d been steamrolling everything in sight for two years, and might well have won the whole thing eight years before Hurst’s hat-trick. It would have been no more than Winterbottom deserved, too.

  6. Re Dearieme’s conundrum.

    What I’ve found remarkable about English rugby teams since I’ve been watching them is their tactical rigidity. This may also be true of the football teams – I’ve certainly got that impression but I don’t know as much about the round ball game or watch it as much to state it for sure.

    Anyway, the England rugby team tends to be coached to play to a particular plan and when things don’t turn out well they’re usually unable to adapt. One exception was the 2003 World Cup-winning rugby team that had an unusually high number of on-field decision makers.

    However, no more. I recall Steve Borthwick being interviewed after a losing game last season: when asked what was going on in the front row he said he wasn’t sure and would have to study the video. By which time it would be too late of course. Did he not think to ask his props and hooker? Try to work things out? No, it was probably beyond his brief. And this is the captain of the national team? Bizarre.

    The Scots teams have usually been much more tactically adaptive. Or canny, as they say. However, the recent almost total lack of decent players north of the border has made extra canniness an irrelevant asset.

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