‘How Football Began’: a sneak preview

I’m very pleased to announce that my new book How Football Began: A Global History of How The World’s Football Codes Were Born will be published on 1 September by Routledge. The title tells you all you need to know about what’s inside - but if you’d like a flavour of what to expect, here’s a quick rundown of each chapter.

UPDATE! Routledge are now offering a 20% discount on pre-orders of the book. Simply click here and enter the code FLR40 at the checkout. 

1. The Failure of the Football Association

The Football Association was created in 1863 to unite England’s fledging football clubs under a single set of ‘universal rules’. It failed, creating a rulebook that was continually disputed and revised, and alienating many clubs who would go on to form the Rugby Football Union in 1871. Far from marking the start of soccer’s inexorable rise to popularity, the early FA did little to popularise the sport, and would play second fiddle to the RFU for the next two decades.

2. Before the Beginning: Folk Football

Propelling a large ball to a goal with the hand or foot has been a feature of almost every human society. In pre-industrial Britain, football of varying types was played extensively. Yet this was a recreation that was intimately connected to the rhythms and traditions of rural life, and had no substantive continuity with the modern forms of the game that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. It would take the industrial revolution of the Victorian era to give birth to football in its modern guise.

3. The Gentleman’s Game

The first football clubs of the modern era emerged as part of the growing business and recreational networks of young middle-class men who had learnt the game at school, and who sought to bring the spirit of Muscular Christianity - as popularised due to the 1857 publication of Tom Brown’s Schooldays - to their new world of leisure. Like their equivalents such as the East India Club (1849) and the Hurlingham Club (1869), these were exclusive clubs that had no interest in popularising their sport. Nor did they bother too much about the rules of football; for these young gentlemen, the game was the thing.

4. Sheffield: Football Beyond the Metropolis

The emergence of football was not restricted to the metropolis. In Sheffield, and to a lesser extent Nottingham, the strength of local cricket culture provided the basis for the growth of a new football culture that was based on local rivalry, regular competition, and growing media interest in the sport. Although claims that Sheffield was the true birthplace of soccer have come to resemble rugby’s William Webb Ellis myth - indeed, many of Sheffield’s rules were drawn from those of Rugby School - the outlines of modern football culture can first be discerned in Sheffield and Nottingham.

5. The End of the Universal Game

By 1870 it was clear that the FA’s desire for a universal football code for all clubs was not feasible. The growth of rugby football had oustripped soccer all over Britain. In response, the FA’s new secretary, C.W. Alcock, initiated an England versus Scotland match and in 1871 began the FA Cup tournament. Clubs were increasingly forced to make a choice between one or other code. When the rugby clubs responded in 1871 by forming the Rugby Football Union (RFU), football was irrevocably split.

6. From the Classes to the Masses

As the profile of association and rugby football grew due to the popularity of cup competitions, it began to find an audience beyond the world of middle-class young gentlemen. Cup tournaments turned clubs into representatives of local communities. The increased leisure time and spending power of the working classes drew them to football as spectators and players. In major industrial cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Cardiff, football of whatever code soon became the passion of the masses.

7. Glasgow: Football Capital of the Nineteenth Century

Nowhere was the enthusiasm for football so strongly expressed or so intimately wound up with the life of the city as Glasgow. By the early 1880s, the city probably had more players, more clubs and more spectators than anywhere else in Britain. Such was the importance of soccer to Glasgow that by the early 1900s it had three stadia that could hold more than 100, 000 people, just under half of its population. Glasgow would establish the template of the football city that would be replicated in the twentieth century in Barcelona, Milan, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero.

8. The Coming of Professionalism

The burgeoning popularity of association and rugby not only brought spectators flooding in but also saw unprecedented amounts of money come into the game. Increased rivalry for cup success also meant that clubs sought to attract the best players and by the end of the 1870s both soccer and rugby were paying players. Faced with a revolt from its northern clubs, in 1885 the FA legalised professionalism and three years later the leading professionals clubs formed the Football League. But in rugby, the RFU decided that soccer’s experience was not for them and banned all payments to players. It was a fateful decision.

9. Women and Football: Kicking against the Pricks

Modern football in all forms was created as a sport for young men that would guard against effeminacy and homosexuality. Women were not welcome. But women still wanted to play the game. After a series of commercially-driven false starts to women’s soccer in the 1880s, the 1895 Lady Footballers’ side captured the spirit of the ‘New Woman’ movement. But it wasn’t until World War One that women’s football became a mass sport - and its promising beginnings were snuffed out as post-war reaction forced women out of the factories and back into the homes as wives and mothers. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that the women’s liberation movement and the enthusiasm of working-class women once more mode football a viable option for the majority of women.

10. Rugby Football: A House Divided

Soccer’s professionalism and its league system launched it to unimaginable popularity. Rugby lost its early advantage and the RFU’s insistence on the strictest amateurism plunged the sport into civil war. Players were banned and clubs suspended. Clubs in the north, were rugby still rivalled soccer in popularity, argued for ‘broken-time payments’ two be made to working-class players who took time off work to play the game. The RFU rejected the demand decisively and in the summer of 1895 the top clubs in the north decided that enough was enough, and broke away to form the Northern Union.

11. Melbourne: A City and Its Football

Rugby had always seen itself as the game of British imperial nationalism, and thanks to ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ it spread across the English-speaking world. Nowhere was this more true than in Australia and especially in Melbourne. Barely two decades after the city had been founded, young middle-class men in the city had adapted rugby rules to create their own football code, which would become known as Australian Rules. Nowhere else was a code and a city so intertwined. Yet far from being a symbol of Australian separateness, Melbourne football was no less a symbol of Britishness than anywhere else in the British Empire.

12. Australian Rules and the Invention of Football Traditions

All sports have their done creation myths and invented traditions. Most famously, rugby has William Webb Ellis. Australian Rules is a unique laboratory to see how changing ideas about national identity are reflected in narratives about the origins of football. From being a proudly British sport until the end of empire in the 1950s, to imagining that it was derived from Gaelic Football in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, to believing that it originated in Aboriginal ball games in the liberal era of the early twenty-first century, the mythology of Australian Rules highlights how football mirrors the shifting nature of national politics.

13. Ireland: Creating Gaelic Football

While the other football codes prided themselves on being British or, in North America, part of Anglo-Saxon culture, huge numbers of football followers in Ireland rejected Britishness as the enemy of the Irish people. But there was no native football Irish football code that could offer an alternative to soccer or especially rugby. So the founders of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) had to create their own code of football from scratch. Rejecting rugby, they took from different codes but were able to establish Gaelic football because of the GAA’s close links to its local communities and Irish nationalist, religious and cultural networks.

14. Football and Nationalism in Ireland and Beyond

Gaelic football was the only code of football that rejected its identity with the British world. Yet the leaders of the GAA accepted the Muscular Christian framework of sport, substituting Irish nationalism for British nationalism. Its nationalism seemed more overt only because it was cut against the prevailing attitudes of other football codes. In reality, they too were no less nationalist or militaristic than the GAA. All football codes were closely linked to the military and embraced an ideology of racial and national superiority, links that would become stronger and reach their apotheosis in World War One.

15. American Football: The Old Game in the New World

Football in America began as rugby but, as in Australia, Ireland and much of the rugby-playing world, soon broke from what Americans saw as the limitations of the rugby game. The game evolved rapidly, moving to eleven-a-side and abandoning the scrum, yet this was no more an expression of ‘American exceptionalism’ as later historians would claim than the changes to rugby's rules elsewhere. Thanks to the tight control of the Ivy League universities, college football quickly became a mass-spectator, but not a mass-participation, sport.

16. Canadian Football: Between Scrum and Snapback

As a loyal member of the British Empire, Canada embraced football in its rugby form in the 1860s and 1870s. Yet its proximity to the United States exerted constant pressure on its sporting choices. In the 1870s rugby footballers in Ontario anticipated developments in American football by developing a scrum-less form of rugby, but its loyalty to British conceptions of football prevented it from breaking completely with rugby rules. It would not be until the 1900s that Canadian football emerged as a distinct sport in its own right, somewhere mid-way between British rugby and American football, reflecting the political and cultural position of Canada itself.

17. Rugby League Football: From a People’s Game to a Proletarian Sport

Rugby’s 1895 split cleaved the sport along class lines, and the Northern Union, which became the Rugby Football League in 1922, quickly became rooted in the industrial working-class communities of northern England. It changed the rules of the game to make it more attractive, paid its players and created the league and cup competitions that the RFU had opposed. All of these developments had been discussed in rugby before the split, and represented an alternative road for mass-spectator rugby. Yet the hostility of the RFU, which ostracised anyone connected with the league game, and the juggernaut of soccer’s popularity, initially locked the sport into its heartlands.

18. The 1905-06 Football Crisis: North America

By legalising professionalism in 1885, soccer had freed itself from the problems that would plague the other football codes. By the mid-1900s, American and Canadian football has been consumed by controversies over commercialism, professionalism and the violence of the game. The president of the United States intervened and many leading university administrators called for the abolition of football. Top west coast universities switched to rugby. Faced with this existential threat, football reformed its rules to make it safer, which included legalising the forward pass. Yet it did nothing to resolve the issue of money in the sport, and established a system of amateur hypocrisy that still prevails today.

19. The 1905-06 Football Crisis: Rugby

The problems of commercialism and professionalism did not leave rugby after the 1895 split. Wherever rugby was a mass spectator sport, especially in Australia, New Zealand and Wales, the game became engulfed by these problems. When the all-conquering 1905 All Blacks returned home, they became they lightening rod for player discontent, and in 1907 a professional rugby league New Zealand side toured Britain. In Australia, a simmering player revolt came to a head the same year and rugby league quickly gained ascendency. In Wales, rugby league clubs were established in the Welsh rugby heartlands but proved to be short-lived - yet rugby’s global crisis had changed the game forever.

20. Soccer: The Modern Game for the Modern World

Soccer’s embrace of professionalism fundamentally changed the nature of the game. Unlike the rugby codes which still largely retained amateur rules and administration, soccer could now claim to be a meritocratic game, open to any male with the talent to play. This proved to be extremely appealing to the middle-class young men of Europe and South America, who saw soccer as an expression of modernity and universalism. Many rejected their own national traditions of gymnastics to embrace the game, and, keen to promote it regardless of the indifference of the British soccer authorities, would found FIFA in 1904.

21. The Global Game

While British engineers, merchants and educationalists would take soccer around the world, they were not the people who popularised it. Many British expatriate communities abandoned soccer as it became popular among the local population, choosing rugby for its exclusivity, and the driving force behind soccer’s exponential growth in the non-English speaking world became the local middle-classes who sought not only recreation but also a means of expressing a newly-developing national identity. Soccer had become the global game by breaking the link with its British inventors.

Fifty Years Since the Watersplash Final

- - 11 May marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Challenge Cup Final between Leeds and Wakefield Trinity. As the record books show, Leeds won 11-10 but the final is best remembered for Don Fox's missed conversion that would have won the cup for Trinity. On Saturday 12 May Huddersfield University's Heritage Quay and Rugby League Cares, will be hosting a special anniversary event to celebrate the match.

It will feature talks from some of the players from the 1968 final,  the premier of a new BBC documentary about the 1968 Challenge Cup final, and a special performance of They Walked on Water, a play written by Peter Hirst based on the book by former Wakefield MP David Hinchliffe. For more details about the day, click here

Sadly I won't be able to make it but here are my thoughts on a seminal moment in rugby league.

The 1968 Challenge Cup Final will go down in history not only as the Watersplash Final - in many ways it represented the watershed final for our game.

 The great Don Fox and 'that kick'

The great Don Fox and 'that kick'

For Trinity fans this is obvious. The 1960s were the greatest era in the history of the club. Four Wembley appearances in nine years brought the club three challenge cup victories. And another four Championship Finals brought the league championship trophy back to Belle Vue twice. Not to mention three Yorkshire Cup triumphs.Since then, the club has made one further Wembley appearance and won the Yorkshire Cup just once, in the competition’s final year of 1992.

It was also the era of the Golden Generation of Trinity players. Eight Wakefield players went on Great Britain tours in the 1960s, and their names ring down the ages: Fox, Brooke, Turner, Cooper, Poynton, Haigh, Wilkinson and Jones. Trinity - and the game - has seen nothing like them since.

But it was also a Watershed Year for the game as a whole. In the 1967-68 season, attendances increased slightly to a total of 2.1 million people going to league matches. It was the last time for years that crowds rose. After 1968 they fell off a cliff. Six years later they had almost halved to just 1.1. million. 

People feared for the future of the game. Hull KR official Ron Chester was quoted in 1971 as saying that ‘rugby league is not dying, it’s dead’. He was neither the first nor the last to say this, and like all those before and after him, he was would be proved wrong. 

And, of course, during the 1960s the game had become a fixture of the BBC’s Saturday afternoon Grandstand. The Cup Final became part of the BBC’s annual routine of major sports events. And Eddie Waring became a household name throughout Britain because of it.

1968 was to prove the most memorable TV season for the game because of one match - the Challenge Cup Final - for reasons that we all know. It provided perhaps the one memory of the game that non-rugby league sports fans (and even non-sporting members of the public) could recall.

For a long time I personally hated that moment, because I thought the BBC used it to promote a patronising - and even a pitying - attitude to our game. But as I’ve got older, I’ve come to see what I think is the bigger picture. Don missing the conversion was about much more than rugby league, more than even sport itself. 

It was about life. 

Because triumph and tragedy are never far apart. The difference between success and failure is always small. Even the mightiest - and Don was indeed a mighty player - can be laid low by the tiniest error or miscalculation. And who knows what fate will bring us in the next moment?

Nothing captures that better than the last seconds of the 1968 Cup Final. In that one moment, Don was the modern equivalent of a mythical hero of ancient Greece, who had victory snatched away from him by a simple twist of fate. 

And that’s why the 1968 Challenge Cup Final will go down as one the greatest moments of all time, not just in rugby league, but in the whole of world sport.

The Rugby Codebreakers - watch again

If you didn't catch the BBC Wales documentary about Welsh players in rugby league - The Rugby Codebreakers - on Sunday, you can watch it on BBC iPlayer here or here. The presenter Carolyn Hitt, producer Alan Golding and director Tariq Ali did a wonderful job, so if you haven't seen it, drop everything and watch it now!

Welsh Codebreakers in the Inter-War Years

Ahead of BBC Wales' The Rugby Codebreakers, a fascinating and moving documentary about Welsh rugby players who 'went North' to play rugby league, I've reprinted below a piece on Welsh league players in the interwar years taken from my 2006 book Rugby League in 20th Century Britain.

 Gus Risman as captain of the 1946 Lions' Tour

Gus Risman as captain of the 1946 Lions' Tour

In the 1920s and 1930s English rugby league was enriched by scores of Welsh players who journeyed north to receive the rewards their rugby talents deserved. Names like Jim Sullivan and Gus Risman, who both went north from Cardiff as teenagers in the 1920s, light up the rugby league firmament to this day, but there were also numerous lesser talented but equally committed players who made their careers, and often their homes, in the three counties of rugby league.

Indeed, the eminent Welsh historian Gareth Williams has estimated that for every international Welsh rugby union player who switched to rugby league, of which there were sixty-nine,  another twelve uncapped players would follow, and that around nine hundred players moved from South Wales to play rugby league between 1919 and 1939. But the actual figure is less than half of that. An analysis of the minutes of Management Committee of the Northern Rugby Football League, which governed the league competition and authorised the registration of all professional players in the league, shows that 392 players from Wales were registered as professionals with northern clubs in this period.

The largest proportion of these Welsh players moved north before the worst of the economic depression took its toll of the Welsh industrial heartlands in the late 1920s and 1930s. If we exclude the 1919-20 season, when many players were still being demobilised, and the aborted 1939-40 season, the average number of players going north prior to the 1926 General Strike was slightly over twenty-five per season, and only in the 1924-25 season did less than twenty players move. In contrast, an average of just under seventeen players went north each year in the thirteen seasons between the General Strike and the outbreak of war. And in only four of those seasons did twenty players or more join rugby league, still one season less than in the much shorter 1920-1926 period.

Even so, rugby players represented a statistically insignificant proportion of the 430,000 Welsh people who emigrated in the inter-war years. Those without rugby skills did not go to the north of England but to the new engineering and services industries of the midlands and the south east. ‘The accents [of those residents of Slough who turned out to welcome a Hunger March of from Wales in the 1930s] were so thick I thought that we were in Rhondda, with this difference, instead of silent pits, massive factories all lit up were in full go,’ reported a Welsh hunger marcher in 1936. Indeed, one of the reasons given for the creation of professional rugby league clubs in London in the mid-1930s was the hope that they would attract support from Welsh migrants who had recently moved to the south east. 

Although rugby league clubs paid great attention to talent-spotting in Wales - in 1938 St Helens paid their Welsh scout £1/10 shillings per week, plus £1 travelling expenses, £7/10 when a player he signed made fourteen appearances and 5 per cent of any transfer fee - the reality was that Welsh rugby union’s loss of talent was a self-inflicted wound. The vast majority of Welsh players went north because they wanted to earn money for their rugby skills, in the same way that their soccer and cricket-playing compatriots could do. It was the WRU’s amateur ethos and refusal to pay them which forced players to leave Wales. The experience of the young Jim Sullivan was typical and illustrates the problems which amateurism caused:

I was serving my apprenticeship to a boiler-maker, and I seemed to have little prospect of securing another job … the Cardiff club would have done anything to keep me, but when I broached the subject, officials said that I could have been given a job on the ground, but that would have meant me being classed as a professional.

Nor was it only the lack of employment opportunities which influenced players’ decisions. The risk of injury and subsequent hardship, given that rugby union insurance schemes were extremely tightly policed (indeed, many officials saw insurance as tantamount to professionalism), was also powerful incentive to take the money and go north.

Rugby league’s appeal to Welsh rugby union players was simple. It offered them the opportunity to benefit financially from their footballing skills. Many were given jobs on a club’s ground staff or with companies connected to club directors. For others, clubs guaranteed to make up a minimum wage if the job which was found for the player did not pay an adequate sum. Some were given the tenancy of a pub. Most importantly, hardly any were given the type of heavy industrial work they would do in Wales. And at least some Welsh players, such as Neath’s Dai Davies who went north in 1926, saw the union game as a stage from which they could land a league contract. In short, rugby league gave working-class Welsh rugby players the chance to escape from a life spent down the pit, in the steel works or on the dole.

Of course, there were also limited opportunities to receive money or employment in Welsh rugby union. Before going north, Dai Davies was paid a flat rate of £3 per match regardless of the result when he played for Neath in 1926 and many others doubtless received similar payments. And from the late 1920s, the relatively healthier economic fortunes of some English union clubs in the South West meant that it was possible for Welsh players to ‘go South’, and receive a job and perhaps surreptitious payments.

But for the players who ‘went south’, there was a world of a difference between a professional contract in league and the sleight of hand of shamateurism. The covert nature of the payments meant that they were unreliable and unenforceable, unlike those made under a contract, and could not provide any guarantees for the future. Nor could players receive large amounts such as bonuses or signing-on fees, which could lift them out of the daily routine. And, of course, the ever-present threat of denunciation and being banned from the sport underlined the insecurity of the paid rugby union player.

Indeed, the damage which the WRU’s adherence to amateurism did to their own game was exacerbated by the life-time ban it imposed on players who played rugby league. This ruled out the prospect of anyone ever returning to Wales to play rugby union. A number of players who went north found themselves unsuited to the different demands that league placed on them yet could not return to their original game – and of the sixty-nine internationals who switched to league, only twelve reached similar heights in their new sport by playing at Test match level. The WRU’s amateurism forced it to ostracise any player who wished to return to union. 

In the one hundred years between the founding of the Northern Union in 1895 and rugby union’s adoption of professionalism in 1995, the WRU only allowed one player back to play union. Glyn John signed for Leigh as a seventeen-year old in 1949 but after two matches in league decided that he wanted to return to union and repaid his £450 signing-on fee. Because he was under eighteen when he signed for Leigh the WRU decided that the laws against professionalism did not apply to him and welcomed him back into the fold. In 1954 he played twice for Wales, much to the chagrin of the Scottish Rugby Union, whose protests that he was a professional forced the WRU to cave in and end his international career. Such was the way in which the WRU repaid his loyalty.

Although John was unique in being allowed to change his mind, a great number of those who went north never felt the need to reconsider their decision. Many Welshmen made their homes in the northern towns in which they had become stars and symbols of the community. Like many, Trevor Foster, whose career as a player and an official of Bradford was to last more than sixty-five years, was initially chary of succumbing to the blandishments of the league scout, Bradford Northern’s managing director Harry Hornby, in 1938:

Mr Hornby looked at me and said, ‘Are you ready?’ I said ‘I’m not going.’ He went red, white and blue and yellow and tore a strip off me. ‘You’ve brought me all the way from Yorkshire and you’re not going to sign - what’s the big idea?’ I said ‘I want a Welsh cap.’ He said ‘Here. There’s £100, £200, £300, £400. Go and buy six Welsh caps.’
Just at that moment my elder sister, who lived a few doors away, came into the bar [of his parents’ pub]. My mum said to her ‘Trevor’s not going.’ She walked into the dining room where we were talking and she said ‘Mum said you’re not going.’ I said ’No I’m not. I want a Welsh cap.’ She said ‘What if you break your leg next Saturday when you play Penarth?’
I picked up the pen and signed. And the greatest thing I ever did was to turn [professional] and play for Bradford Northern.

Canada joins rugby league... in 1943

The story of rugby league in Canada has reached a new and exciting stage with the success of the Toronto Wolfpack. But as  you can hear in my League Culture podcast, the history of Canadian rugby league stretches back over 80 years.

Below, I've reprinted one of the most important documents of that history, the November 1943 letter to the RFL secretary John Wilson from John MacCarthy, Canadian rugby's leading coach and journalist. You can read more about MacCarthy in Doug Sturrock's comprehensive history of Canadian rugby union, It's a Try - The History of Rugby in Canada.

As could be expected from a committed expansionist such as Wilson (he masterminded the expansion of rugby league to France in the early 1930s), a reply was despatched immediately answering MacCarthy's questions and telling him that the RFL 'desire to assist you to the utmost of our ability' despite being in the midst of World War Two.

MacCarthy was vindicated and league became the leading sport in Nova Scotia in the 1940s, but changes in Canadian society and the inability of the RFL to take advantage of the opportunity across the Atlantic led to it vanishing in the early 1960s. Seventy-five years after this historic letter, let's hope that the game doesn't miss today's opportunity to correct one of rugby league's great missed opportunities.

 Credit: RFL Archives

Credit: RFL Archives