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date: 25 February 2021

The makers of association footballfree

  • Tony Mason

Association Football and the Men who Made It was published in four sumptuous volumes in 1905–6. It is now a very collectable item which you would do well to buy for less than £500. The authors, Alfred Gibson and William Pickford, were two football insiders who celebrated the game which others had labelled a mania but they recognized as one of the wonders of modern times. The book was dedicated 'to all who loved the game' and was intended as 'a monument for the men who have made it'. It was a celebration of all football, the recreational as well as the spectacular, amateurs and professionals, those who looked on and those who played. By 1906 football, like the cinematograph and the motor car, was part of the fabric of modern life. How had it reached this state so quickly?

Arthur Fitzgerald Kinnaird, eleventh Lord Kinnaird of Inchture and third Baron Kinnaird of Rossie (1847–1923)

by Bassano, c. 1905

The game kicks off

Football in various guises had been around for a long time. But in the early decades of the nineteenth century it had essentially been a local affair with little if any formal organization. A set of rules was produced in 1848 by some Cambridge University students, but football in the public schools was predominantly played according to local codes. In 1863 a group of young men from London's professional classes held a series of meetings to agree a single code. In this they failed, though they did establish the Football Association (FA). Local rules persisted, and many games were played in a mixture of what would later be known as association football and rugby football. Even in the 1870s contemporaries would have found it hard to predict which, if either, would become the predominant game. In some ways it was the sheer persistence of a few young men, who not only played association football but organized, wrote about, and promoted it, that produced the phenomenon chronicled by Gibson and Pickford. Of these one of the most important was Charles Alcock.

An old Harrovian, Alcock had been elected to the FA's committee in 1866 and became its secretary in 1870, a position he held for twenty-five years. He suggested a knock-out competition, the FA cup, for member clubs: it began in 1871. This was the first of four important moments which reflected how interest in football was growing and indicated what future direction it might take. In 1871 the FA comprised just fifteen clubs, of which only two were located north of Hertfordshire. The competition's early years were dominated by teams from the social élites such as the Wanderers, Oxford University, and the Royal Engineers, for whom the army officer and railway inspector Francis Marindin was a notable player. In 1873 the kick-off for the final was brought forward to 11 a.m. so that players and crowd could watch the varsity boat race in the afternoon. However, football's traditional association with an élite was changing. The establishment of the FA cup led to similar knock-out competitions by which football was grafted on to older local and urban rivalries, especially in the midlands, Lancashire, and the west of Scotland. Interest in this new pastime spread not only to the industrial and commercial middle classes but to skilled workers and clerks who were then benefiting from rising real wages and Saturday afternoons off.

A second important moment occurred in 1879 when a team of mill workers from Darwen in Lancashire was drawn against the Old Etonians in the FA cup. It took three matches to decide the tie, the first a 5–5 draw after the old boys had led 5–0 shortly after half-time. FA rules stated that all matches from the quarter-finals onwards should be played at the Oval in London.

Robert Crompton (1879–1941)

by unknown engraver, 1908

© Copyright The British Museum

The Lancashire club's expenses were largely met by public subscription, including £5 from their opponents. Arthur Fitzgerald Kinnaird, son of the tenth Lord Kinnaird of Inchture, played in all three matches. Only on the football field or in one of the London settlements was such a meeting of the classes possible. Significantly the Darwen team also included two migrant Scottish players, Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter, whose technical ability earned them the nickname of the Scotch Professors, and who were almost certainly among the game's earliest professionals.

The professional question was even more pertinent by a third date, 1883, when Blackburn Olympic beat the Old Etonians in the FA cup final. Like Darwen, Olympic was a team of working men who had been taken for a week of special training before the semi-final and final, paid for by the club's chairman. It was widely suggested that many players were now devoting all of their time to the new trade of football. A fourth and final turning point was therefore quick to follow. Traditionally football was a recreation, a game played for pleasure and sociability. Some northern clubs found guilty of paying their players were thrown out of the FA cup. When a group of them met in Manchester in 1884, thirty-six threatened to leave the FA and form their own British Football Association. In part this was a skirmish in the class war. But it was also a conflict within the sport-loving middle class between former public school and non-public school players, as well as between north and south, and London and the provinces. The Manchester meeting led to Alcock's inspired compromise. As secretary of Surrey County Cricket Club, as well as the FA, Alcock was used to dealing with professionals. The agreement reached in 1885 allowed for a limited form of professionalism but under strict controls.

The rise of the Football League

It was the game's competitive element that persuaded most spectators to pay to watch football. Cup ties had an edge which friendlies could rarely emulate. It was a short step from paying the players to constructing a competition that would involve them in more regular competitive fixtures than the random and occasional cup ties. In March 1888 William McGregor of Aston Villa wrote to what he considered the eleven most important football clubs to suggest a regular programme of home and away fixtures. These twelve teams formed the Football League, which began its first season in September 1888. Initially the league was far from national, with the original twelve clubs drawn from only five counties. But it grew, gradually and intermittently, adding a second division in 1892 and admitting its first southern clubs, Woolwich Arsenal and Luton, in 1893 and 1897 respectively. The league did not become truly national until the mid-1920s when—under the supervision of the former referee Charles Sutcliffe—it grew to eighty-eight teams in four divisions.

Alexander Wilson James (1901–1953)

by James Jarché, 1934

© reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1906, when Gibson and Pickford published their book, the Football League was still a small organization run from an office in Preston, Lancashire. Even so it was increasingly responsible, along with the FA, for administering what was quickly becoming the national sport. The football grounds of professional clubs became a familiar part of the urban townscape; spectacular examples included the Spion Kop terrace (1906) at Liverpool's Anfield Road which, with standing room for 20,000 spectators, took the ground's capacity to 32,000. Five million spectators filled Football League grounds in 1905–6, rising to almost nine million in 1913–14, when average attendances at first division matches stood at 23,000. These spectators saw the first generation of football stars: Stephen Bloomer of Derby County; Alfred Common, the first £1000 player; the Sunderland and Arsenal forward Charles Buchan; Robert Crompton of Blackburn Rovers, holder of a then record forty-one England caps (1902–14); the goalkeeper ‘Silent’ Sam Hardy of Aston Villa; Billy Meredith of Manchester City and United; United's centre-half Charlie Roberts; and Colin Veitch, Newcastle United's captain and an early exponent of the half-time team talk. Most were young working-class men who had discovered their talent for football in elementary school.

An international game

The British invented modern football but they were unable to keep it to themselves—even though they often showed signs of wishing that they could. In formal terms there was an insularity about the leading organizations of the English game, as was clear from their early relationship with what became the sport's world governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). FIFA was formed in 1904 and the English FA joined in the following year. An Englishman was even elected president, but no attempt was made to strengthen the connection. Relations worsened after the First World War when the British refused to play against the former enemy countries of Germany, Austria, and Hungary. They were persuaded to return in 1924 but left four years later because they did not accept FIFA's definition of amateurism. They did not return until 1946 when Stanley Rous, a former international referee and the FA's secretary from 1934, negotiated re-entry.

If official footballing relations were uneasy, the informal relationship with overseas teams was very different. British teams, players, and coaches regularly travelled abroad in the early twentieth century. Many southern amateur clubs, for example, went on short tours, usually over the Easter holiday and in early summer. The most famous example was the Corinthians, a team of former public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates, including the schoolmaster Gilbert Smith, who as standard-bearers of the amateur tradition refused to enter the vulgar competition for cups and leagues. The Corinthians played in South Africa in 1897, 1903, and 1907; Canada and the USA in 1906, 1911, and 1924; and Brazil in 1910, 1913, and 1914. One of the leading teams in São Paulo is named after them. They also went often to Europe, as did other amateur teams like Islington Corinthians and Middlesex Wanderers—sometimes called Middle-class Wanderers by their foreign hosts. Professional teams also toured regularly and British coaches were much in demand, especially before the 1950s. Jimmy Hogan, for example, left Bolton Wanderers for the Netherlands in 1911 and spent most of the next twenty-five years abroad, helping with the preparation of the great Austrian national team of the early thirties. Other managers, among them the legendary Arsenal coach Herbert Chapman, remained in Britain but gained widespread recognition in Europe. Referees such as Arthur Ellis—the official for the famously ill-tempered world cup tie between Brazil and Hungary in 1954—were also in demand overseas.

British teams and the world cup

Edris Albert Hapgood (1908–1973)

by Fred Daniels, 1939

© Estate of Frederick William Daniels; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Between about 1885 and 1914 the British were masters of the football universe. But there were many overseas teams who wanted to and often did learn very quickly, stamping their own culture and style on the game. England had won the first two Olympic football tournaments in 1908 and 1912 but this achievement was never repeated and the team's inter-war performances were mixed. Despite a famous victory against the world champions, Italy, in 1934 the full England side also suffered a number of defeats by foreign teams. Defeats by Scotland were nothing new but this period also saw one of the most notable: England's 5–1 loss in 1928 to the ‘Wembley wizards’, who included Preston's Alex James and Rangers' Alan Lauder Morton.

Sir Stanley Matthews (1915–2000)

by unknown photographer, 1956

It had been FIFA's long-declared aim to stage an international championship or ‘world cup’. The competition was first held in 1930 in Uruguay, partly because the team had won the two previous Olympic championships and partly because the Uruguayan government included the tournament in its independence celebrations and paid the expenses. They and others almost begged the English to participate but the FA rather haughtily refused, as it did in 1934 and 1938. The vice-president of the Football League thought the home international competition 'a far better world championship than the one to be staged in Rome' in 1934.

The FA's secretary, Frederick Wall, was a little more generous in admitting that Italy's victory in 1934 had not been easy. Wall's reluctance to allow England to play abroad had more to do with concern over the manipulation of international sport for political ends. By contrast football in England was not for the purposes of 'playing in a foreign country and gaining a victory. Football in dear old England is merely a sporting entertainment'. In the 1930s British football was run by elderly Victorians who were puzzled by the modern world, while progressives like Stanley Rous and Herbert Chapman were not listened to. Of course, how England or Scotland would have fared in the first three world cups cannot be known. Victory would certainly have been hard to come by. It is unfortunate that a generation of fine players—the Englishmen Eddie Hapgood, Dixie Dean, Tommy Lawton, Raich Carter, and Stan Cullis, and the Scots Jimmy McGrory and Hughie Gallagher (1903–1957)—were not able to test themselves in this most competitive arena.

The modernization of British football remained a slow process after the Second World War. The countries who had invented the game fared poorly in the world cups of 1950, 1954, 1958, and 1962 in spite of some fine individual footballers: the Swansea forward and Welsh international Ivor Allchurch, Middlesborough's Wilf Mannion, the Northern Ireland midfielder Danny Blanchflower, the 'wizard of dribble' Stanley Matthews, Newcastle's Jackie Milburn, Stanley Mortensen of Blackpool, and Billy Wright, the first player to earn 100 caps for England. In Walter Winterbottom the English also had a new manager eager to reform outdated coaching practices. Undoubtedly Winterbottom's England team was hindered in 1958 and 1962 by the death of, among others, Manchester United's Roger Byrne and Duncan Edwards in the Munich air disaster of February 1958 [see under Busby Babes].

Robert Frederick Chelsea Moore (1941–1993)

by Bippa Pool, 1966 [centre, holding the trophy after England won the world cup]

Getty Images – Bippa Pool

It was not until the structure and management of the team were changed that, playing at home, and not without controversy, England won the world cup in 1966. The team was managed by Winterbottom's successor, Alf Ramsey, and captained by the West Ham centre-back Bobby Moore, whose image, along with Kenneth Wolstenholme's commentary, came to define this post-war highlight of the national game. However, well before this, press and television commentators had begun to link defeats in international football with the decline of Britain as a great power. Even the FA News, reflecting on that famous moment in 1966, echoed this theme when pointing out that the players who had made the victory possible had 'worked hard and made many sacrifices'. They had set an example 'of devotion and loyalty to the country which many others would do well to follow'. In this the FA echoed the familiar refrain of patriotism and respectability, qualities which Alfred Gibson and William Pickford had assured readers were those of the professional footballer.

It is tempting to wonder what Gibson and Pickford would have made of 1966 or indeed this summer's tournament when England takes to the field for the 2006 world cup. Today football is the principal global sport: in the 2006 world championship finals are thirty-two teams from countries as diverse as Angola, the Korean Republic, Saudi Arabia, and the Ukraine. A century ago Gibson and Pickard hardly noticed football outside these islands.

Likenesses

National Portrait Gallery, London
Hulton|Archive, Getty Images, London
British Museum, London