Using local newspapers to research the history of football

A slightly revised version of an article first published in Soccer History magazine in 2005.

Newspapers represent one of the most accessible and informative sources in sports history. Back issues of the local press are available from local libraries and football was covered from its organised beginnings. There were 170 provincial daily newspapers and approximately 100 evening ones at the turn of the twentieth century and all covered sport.  The local and national press did not just report football, it played an important role in promoting it too and was thus an integral agent behind the game’s development.  While trawling through the back issues of newspapers can be long and laborious task, it will be a fruitful, indeed required, activity for any historian of the game.

Most main local libraries hold back issues of newspapers published in that area.  For conservation reasons, these have normally been transferred to microfilms and thus it is usually advisable to book a microfilm reader in advance of a visit. Some microfilm readers can produce printouts but these are usually more expensive than photocopies and of variable quality. 

For those seeking to consult papers from more than one locality a visit to the British Newspaper Library is advised.  This is located on Colindale Avenue in north Londonand holds backcopies of all local and national newspapers and most periodicals, including sporting ones.  Proof of identity is required for those without a British Library reader’s ticket.  A search on the catalogue using football as a key word produces lists 257 titles. Whilst there, those interested in football from the 1880s until the 1930s should consult Athletic News, a sporting paper which gave unrivalled and extensive coverage of the professional game at all levels and enjoyed very close links with the football clubs and authorities. By 1919, it was selling 170,000 copies a week. The Athletic News is also available at Manchester Central Library, which has an extensive collection of local and national newspapers.

Very few local  national newspapers are indexed for the period before the 1990s and thus locating information is dependent on the reader knowing the precise or approximate date of the event on which information is sought.  Nonetheless, a random dip into the press from any season invariably produces something of interest or use.

Digitization is opening up new opportunities. The British Library have digitized 49 local newspapers, although most runs end around 1900. They are searchable by keywords and this is invaluable for tracking the emergence and spread of football in periods before newspapers began systematically reporting on the game.

The actual information that can be derived from newspapers depends on the period being studied.  In essence, the later the period the more information there is likely to be on the game.  During the late nineteenth century, local newspapers largely limited their reporting of football to reports and previews of local matches and club meetings.  Reports were not on a sportspage but mixed in with the rest of the news and thus require careful spotting by the historian.  Critical comment, speculation and gossip were overlooked, by and large, in favour of a reporting of the facts.  However, incidents such as violent play or crowd trouble inevitably drew condemnatory remarks. The late nineteenth century also saw the beginning of the football specials in the larger towns and cities. The ‘pinks’, as they were often known, were evening papers published on a Saturday giving results, match reports and various sporting articles. These papers were produced very quickly, some being on sale by 6.00 pm on a Saturday, and thus the detail within the match reports is limited, with most of the copy being written before the game was actually over.

By the twentieth century the extent of football coverage invariably increases in daily local and regional newspapers to include more general news on local teams and brief mentions of important national events such as the FA Cup final.  However, it was between the wars that local newspapers’ coverage of football increased and diversified significantly into something that modern readers would recognise.  By the 1930s, it was normal for daily local papers to have not only match reports on even local amateur and schoolboy games but also gossip and news from this world of junior football too.  For the senior clubs there were now action photographs, human interest stories, hints of scandal and rumours from inside clubs and interviews with players and managers.  This extended beyond concentrating on local clubs with newspapers buying in syndicated interviews with famous players of the day. There were also national form guides and tips, prompted by the rapid growth in popularity of the pools.  Reports and articles were increasingly written in ‘snappier’ styles, with shorter sentences and more colourful descriptions. Many local newspapers also began to publish letters from fans commenting on everything from last week’s performance to the cost of admission and the policies of directors. Weekly local newspapers inevitably contained much less football coverage but they too adopted of some of these new approaches.

The stimulus for change in the local papers came from developments in the national press. National popular newspapers were selling more and aggressively marketing themselves to a working-class audience with door-to-door salesmen promising free gifts in return for subscriptions. Although football played only a minor role in the ‘quality’ nationals until the 1960s, sports reporting in the popular nationals was becoming more ‘gossipy’ and sensationalised in order to win and sustain increased readerships in this more competitive market.  The local daily press had little option but to follow such approaches if it was to retain readers.  Indeed, many local newspapers actually used sport to win distinguish themselves from the nationals.  The nationals inevitably focussed on the first division in general rather than any specific team.  A local newspaper in contrast could offer the extensive coverage of local clubs that local readers sought.

Reporters were well placed to offer extensive coverage of local clubs through their position in local football culture. Directors used the press as their official voice for everything from the announcements of signings, to denials of rumours and the thanking of supporters.  Sometimes this would be through a letter to the paper but, more commonly, it was done by asking a reporter to write a story.  It was these connections between club directors and newspapers that made the press a component of the local football culture rather than just a reporter of it.  Thus, for example, in times of financial crisis, the local newspaper took the lead in promoting fund raising and stressing the gravity of the situation and supporters’ duty to help. 

Yet the close relationship reporters enjoyed with clubs also put them in a difficult position.  They relied on access to clubs for information, which made it difficult for them to print critical stories for fear of endangering that relationship. Fans thus often accused reporters of being in the pocket of clubs, while many articles frustratingly hint that the reporter knows more than the club will allow him to write.  For the historian this means that explanations or defences of clubs’ actions need to be read and interpreted with caution. Nonetheless, fans had their own opinions, watched games themselves and sometimes even met and knew players. They were not willing to tolerate justification of obviously poor results and performances.  Reporters thus had to strike a balance, one that depended on their own inclinations and relationship with supporters and the local club.  As a reporter inCardiffcomplained, ‘If I criticise players fearlessly I am told I am undermining their confidence, if I praise them I am told by the public I am an agent of the club.’ 

This cartoon illustrates the complexities of utilising the local press.  It offers a clear opinion on the financial difficulties of MerthyrTown, that the club’s problems were rooted in a lack of support from the local population.  But was this interpretation a common one? Is the newspaper reporting what local people thought or telling them what to think?  To understand and interpret a source, it must be placed within context.  The cartoon makes no reference to the rampant unemployment plaguing Merthyr and the rest of the south Walescoalfield at this time.  Other sources from this time, including the South Wales Echo who published thus cartoon, placed the blame for the club’s demise firmly at the feet of the economic depression. Thus was the cartoon a deliberate attempt to sting local people into supporting the team?

Supporters would not read or interpret the press in simple or singular ways.  Some would believe anything in print, others nothing and most somewhere inbetween.  The media may not tell people what to think but it does set the framework within which people think; it contributes to what they think about.  People may not have agreed that Merthyr Town was dying because of a lack of local support but this cartoon would have raise the possibility of that interpretation and given them an agenda against which to offer their own analysis.  Thus the historian must not take newspaper sources at face value but the value of those sources is increased because they were key components in creating and fashioning the local football culture. The public’s perception of the game was as much shaped by reading newspapers as it was by their own experiences. 

Thus in utilising the local press successfully the historian will benefit from reading as many issues as possible rather than just dipping in and out.  This should allow the reader to develop a more considered understanding of events in a club’s history, and, by not just reading the sport pages, the social, political and economic contexts in which they took place.  More sustained reading of a newspaper also allows a familiarity with the approach and style of individual reporters, although it is also worth realising that the pseudonyms that reporters usually employed could be shared, if only temporarily. The leading correspondents of mass newspapers, although retaining their noms de plume, gradually became personalities in their own right.  They liked to think of themselves as experts on the game and thus advised players and directors in their columns.  It is useful for the historian to try to compare the approach of different newspapers’ reporters to single issues at clubs, although this is normally only possible in larger cities where there could be more than one local newspaper.

Thus the rewards of newspaper research for the football historian are vast and increased by the key role the press played within football culture. Just as so many supporters relied on newspapers for news of their favourite team so too must the historian. Details of the issues behind key events, such as the dismissal of a manager, may often be frustratingly limited, but newspapers are frequently the only available source.  The historian may end up involved in speculating on such events but this is no different to dealing with more mundane reports, where what is actually written is not necessarily a guide to how supporters interpreted goings-on or what actually happened. The historian’s craft is learning to interpret rather than just report the past.

 Sources and further reading

  • Richard Cox, Dave Russell and Wray Vamplew (eds), The Encyclopedia of British Football (Frank Cass, 2002).
  • Nicholas Fishwick, English Football and Society, 1910-50 (Manchester University Press, 1989), ch. 5.
  • Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society, South Wales 1900-39 (University ofWales Press, 2002).
  • Stephen F. Kelly, Back Page Football: A Century of Newspaper Coverage (Queen Anne Press, 1988).
  • Tony Mason ‘All the Winners and the Half Times …’, The Sports Historian, 13 (May 1993), 3-13.
  • Dave Russell, Football and the English: A Social History of Association in England, 1863-1995 (Carnegie, 1997).
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Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

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