Football and the First World War in South Wales

It is unimaginable that people could look on at a game of football and forget themselves in the ecstasy of a winning goal at the moment when their comrades, maybe brothers, are making gallant and stupendous efforts at the front, even sacrificing their lives for the life of the nation.

Letter to South Wales Daily News, 3 September 1914

In August 1914, war broke out in Europe, driving Britain into a patriotic frenzy. WVery quickly, all rugby matches in England and Wales were suspended to help the nation to concentrate on the push for victory.  There was no similar official suspension in junior and amateur soccer but, with so many players joining up, many competitions were abandoned anyway. By December 1914, 1,217 players affiliated to the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA had enlisted and nearly a hundred clubs had disbanded.  At the end of the season, there were just seventy affiliated clubs still active, 325 fewer than the previous year

The press looked to professional soccer’s authorities to follow rugby’s moral lead but, fearing financial losses and expecting it all to be over by Christmas, the FA and Football League decided to play on.  The FAW followed suit with its president claiming that to interfere with football would be nothing short of ‘panic legislation’.  He argued that soccer fulfilled a large place in the organized life of the nation and that its discontinuation would only produce undesirable results.  Although many professional players had already enlisted, and some of the smaller professional teams disbanded, those clubs that did play on faced a battle of their own.

The government and the War Office may have supported the continuation of professional soccer but elements of the public and press saw things rather differently. The first two months of war saw letters and editorials in south Wales and national newspapers denouncing the playing of soccer during a time of crisis.  It was felt that since footballers were fit young men looked up to by much of the public, they should be setting an example by enlisting.  Some critics believed that playing and watching the game were not necessarily wrong if the players and spectators were too young or too old to enlist.  They accepted that sport had a role in relieving public tension and anxiety. However, the more extreme antagonists felt that the whole concept of spectatorism was wrong in a time of war and the sight of thousands of young and able men enjoying themselves at matches during wartime sickened them.

5 Sep 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 5 September 1914.

19 September 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 19 September 1914.

The south Wales press printed lists and pictures of famous, and not so famous, rugby players who had joined up, thus indirectly criticising professional soccer.  The decision of Swansea Town’s directors to contest the military’s decision to requisition the Vetch Field was subtly criticised after one member of the board suggested that the War Office could have the ground if it took over the club’s liabilities.  The implication that the club and the game were putting their own finances before the nation’s needs was made clear by the press article then moving on to look at new recruits from the town’s rugby fraternity.

In an effort to make a stand against the continuation of soccer, the South Wales Argus announced that it would not report any football news for the duration of the war. The South Wales Daily News also chose not to print match reports in the first few weeks of the 1914-15 season but, as attendances showed that the public were still interested in professional soccer, the paper slowly increased the coverage it gave to the game.

Other papers also reversed their stance and made it clear that sport was acceptable during the war.

9 january 1915

Sporting News reports on Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, 9 Jan. 1915

Despite the allegations that professional soccer was unpatriotic, the game was helping the war effort.  Grounds were made available to the military for drill or training at any time other than Saturday afternoons, most clubs gave their players rifle practice, and some even paid them in advance for the 1914-15 season to allow them to enlist.  On occasion, soldiers were let into matches half-price in an effort to show that the game was doing its bit, while spectators regularly found themselves the target of enlistment campaigns. The 7,000 spectators at a Welsh League match between Swansea Town and Llanelly in 1914, a third of whom were eligible for service according to a self-righteous reporter, were addressed by six different speakers, including the mayor and club chairman, on the virtues of enlistment.

blackburn-1915
Recruitment advertisement from Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers FA Cup match programme 1915 (Swans100 archive)

The immediate impact of such appeals was limited in south Wales.  The Times used the fact that only six recruits came forward after appeals at a Cardiff City match as an example of the selfishness of the game and its followers.  However, as the club pointed out, hundreds of its supporters had enlisted, while the majority of the rest were involved in the coal and rail industries, integral parts of the war effort.

Nationally, soccer gave the state easy access to large numbers of potential recruits from working-class communities and thus became an important vehicle in the recruitment campaign. The wartime hostility towards soccer in England was not widespread and actually represented the resentment of exponents of amateurism at the usurpation of the game by professionalism and the working classes.

In south Wales, antipathy towards soccer was even less common and given disproportionately large publicity by a patriotic press.

Restrictions on rail travel and a ban on mid-week games played havoc with fixture lists and soccer found it harder and harder, in both financial and practical terms, to continue.  In November 1914, the FA estimated that, on average, attendances had fallen by approximately fifty per cent.  Cardiff City’s average in the Southern League dropped from approximately 11,700 to around 9,300. Other clubs, like Mardy AFC of the Southern League, already operating on tight budgets, suffered critical declines in their gates and closed before 1914 was out. The soccer authorities’ restrictions on players’ wages caused further tensions within clubs.  Cardiff City players threatened to go on strike in 1915 over the issue of their benefits.

By the end of the 1914-15 season, it was clear that the war was going to be a long affair and the FA decided to suspend league and cup programmes.  Falling attendances and practical problems had achieved what the anti-soccer agitators could not. A new makeshift league involving Cardiff City, Newport County and teams from south-west England lasted just a season because of low gates and rail restrictions.  Cardiff City’s average attendance during the season was a meagre 1,700.

24 July 1915

Sporting News, 24 July 1915

1916 saw the introduction of conscription and the call up of most of the eligible professional players who had not enlisted voluntarily.  Junior leagues did continue throughout the war, offering light relief from the hardships of the home and overseas fronts, but professional clubs spent the rest of the war playing the occasional friendly with teams of amateurs and guest professionals. Without the regular income of popular matches, the expense of paying rent and ground maintenance proved difficult.  Cardiff City, Merthyr Town and Swansea Town survived the war but few other clubs were so fortunate.  Yet the real loss was the 35,000 to 40,000 Welshmen killed in the war, among them a host of amateur, professional and international players.

For those who returned, the war was a watershed in their personal lives.  Fred Keenor of Cardiff City served alongside other professional players in the 17th Middlesex (Footballers’) Battalion and a leg wound threatened to end his footballing career before it had really started.  In later years, he mostly refused to speak of his experiences on the Western Front.  As his son put it, ‘Dad blotted it out. He had lost too many friends. He often said that he was one of the lucky ones who came back’. On being demobbed, the ‘land fit for heroes’ was no more immediately apparent to Keenor than it was to most other returning soldiers.  He found work in a gasworks and on a milk round before rejoining Cardiff City when professional football resumed in 1919 amidst much excitement.

Adapated from Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

Advertisements

John Charles and Welsh football

An old article I wrote for Soccer History.

John Charles was one of a generation of immense talent to emerge from the schools of Swansea from the end of the 1930s to the early 1950s.  Most notably, Trevor Ford, Cliff Jones, Ivor and Len Allchurch, Jack Kelsey and John’s brother Mel all went on to become international stars. In the early 1950s Swansea schoolboys won the English schools shield three times. The guidance of local teachers did much to foster this culture of footballing excellence but another local institution, Swansea Town, never benefited from it in the way that it might have.

Charles was lost to his hometown club when Leeds United ‘stole’ him (and several others) from the Swansea Town groundstaff in 1948, after a scout had spotted him playing on a public park. Charles was yet to turn sixteen and was thus technically a free agent, despite an understanding that he and other boys on the groundstaff would sign professional terms for Swansea.  The FA subsequently changed the regulations on player registration to avoid any repetition.

Embed from Getty Images

It was thus on the international rather than domestic stage that Charles contributed to Welsh football. He made his international debut in 1950 against Northern Ireland in the home championship.  As in club football, his international career was at both centre-half and centre-forward.  He helped give Wales an international profile in the game; the secretary of the Italian league remarked in 1961 that ‘Wales should give Charles a medal. He has put it on the map. Nobody in Italy knew where or who it was before’.  Charles won 38 caps for Wales, scoring 15 goals.  It would have been far more had Juventus been happy to release him every time he was called up.  Charles recalled, ‘If they [Juventus] were playing just before or just after an international I would have to stay behind.  It broke my heart.’

Embed from Getty Images

After Wales qualified for the 1958 World Cup his manager and teammates were unclear about whether Charles would be able to participate or not. When the Welsh party left for Sweden Charles was not amongst them.  Juventus, with whom Charles had just won the Italian league, had finally agreed to release him but he was still waiting for clearance from the Italian Football Federation.  Charles himself had not thought that Wales would qualify and thus never thought a problem would arise. When he eventually made it to Sweden he was unexpected and arrived at an airport not knowing where the Welsh team were staying. Charles played in Wales’s three group matches, scoring once.  In the subsequent play off against Hungry he was kicked out of the match and injury prevented him turning out against Brazil in the quarterfinal. Without their star player, Wales lost 1-0 to a Pele goal.

Embed from Getty Images

His desire to play regular international football contributed to his signing for Leeds United in 1961. After he quickly returned to Roma he insisted on a clause in his contract allowing him to play for Wales.  Charles finally played for a Welsh club when he joined Cardiff City from AS Roma in 1963.  By then he had lost some pace and played mostly in defence.

In 1966 he moved on to join Hereford United as player-manager before returning to Wales to become manager of Merthyr Town in 1971 and then becoming assistant manager at Swansea in 1973 after a brief spell in Canada. Charles stayed at Swansea for three years before moving to Leeds to run a pub.  He was never a success in management, be it in football or business; perhaps his temperament was too genial.  But this did not sully the memories of those who had met him or seen him play.  With his greatest playing achievements taking place on the continent in an age before widespread television coverage, Charles was never as revered in Wales or the UK as he was in Italy. Nonetheless, he surely remains the greatest footballer ever to emerge from this small nation.

Martin Johnes is the author of: Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

A Supporters’ History of the South Wales Derby

1912In 1912, Swansea Town played its first ever professional match, a Southern League game against Cardiff City. Although 12,000 people attended the 1-1 draw, it was a match that drew very little attention in the wider world. Professional football was still in its infancy and new clubs were being set up across the UK.  There was no guarantee that any of them would last. 

But last they did and, after the Great War, football’s popularity in south Wales soared.  Cardiff and Swansea both joined the Football League and Cardiff quickly rose to its first division, becoming one of the most famous clubs in Britain.  Its elevation meant derbies were not common but 1929 saw Cardiff slip out of the first division, bringing the first Football League match between the two clubs. Special trains and buses were put on to the game from across south Wales. Such was the interest that Merthyr Town even rearranged a match to avoid a clash.

The game mattered to Swansea more. In 1925, the Swansea chairman had suggested that a league match between the two clubs might help decide the ‘vexed question’ of the capital of Wales.  Although it was not until 1955 that Cardiff was officially declared the capital, Swansea still felt in the shadow of its larger neighbour, especially since Cardiff was a city and Swansea was not.  Moreover, there was some feeling that Cardiff’s claim to capital status was unfair because the city was more anglicized than Swansea. Football matches between the two clubs thus offered the Swans the opportunity to prove their equality with their larger neighbour.

Cardiff’s lesser interest in the derby was illustrated by a 1925 fifth-round Welsh Cup match between the two.  Feeling the league and its imminent FA Cup final more important, Cardiff City appeared to deliberately play badly, indulging in, according to one Swansea newspaper, ‘childish methods’ and ‘pompous swank’.  Despite winning 4-0, Swansea Town had missed out on an opportunity to secure a meaningful victory over its rival and its supporters felt insulted.

The proximity of the two clubs did, however, mean attendances at the derby were very high. In 1949, there were 60,855 at NinianPark for a Division 2 match between the two teams, a record for the derby that will probably never be broken. Fans remember the derbies of the 1940s and 50s as having a friendly atmosphere. There was certainly banter between the unsegregated supporters but nothing worse.  Indeed, both sets of fans were happy to see the other do well, bound by a common south Walian identity.

Some supporters, particularly those who lived somewhere between Cardiff and Swansea, were also willing to pay to see whichever of the two clubs had the most attractive fixtures or was playing the best football. In 1952, the Swansea Town manager asked the league if home games could be scheduled when first-division Cardiff City were playing away. He feared Swans fans would prefer watching the better standard of football forty miles away.

A hint of a more bitter rivalry emerged in 1960, when Cardiff, angry at the scheduling of the match, fielded a reserve side for a Welsh Cup fixture between the two teams. This brought a 350 guinea fine and a rebuke from the Football Association of Wales, who told the capital’s club to show the competition more respect. Swansea’s directors were also insulted by their Cardiff counterparts refusing to join them in the boardroom. It was a bad tempered match that saw three players sent off.

Football crowds were in decline by this time. Standing on a cold terrace was less appealing than watching television, doing DIY or taking the family out for a spin, all pursuits enabled by the new post-war working-class affluence. Many family men thus stopped going to matches.  Crowds grew younger and began to take on the characteristics of the modern youth culture that emerged in the 1950s. With their confidence and opportunities boosted by rising wages and near full employment, boys and men in their teens and early twenties travelled to away matches in large numbers, adopted fashions that made them stand out, drank more than earlier generations and acted more aggressively. The result was that fighting, swearing and obscene chanting all became relatively common at football matches in the 1960s and the sport gave young men a fun outlet for proving their masculinity.

Alongside these changes, patterns of regional support declined. This was a reaction to the rise of the televised game and more affordable travel, which both contributed to the biggest clubs drawing more and more supporters from outside their traditional catchment areas. For younger supporters who stayed with their local teams, there appears to have been resentment about people following other teams and regional rivalries began to replace regional identities.

The relationship between the two sets of fans thus changed and many began wanting their local rivals to lose. By 1969, this had spilled over into the first crowd trouble at the south Wales derby. In a two-leg Welsh Cup final, Cardiff fans vandalised a train on their return home and then, at the second leg at Ninian Park, they attacked two coaches carrying Swansea fans, smashing windows and denting the sides.

There was no league derby between the two sides between 1965 and 1980 and that held back the derby from becoming too embroiled in the growing football hooligan culture.  But the 1980 derby inevitably saw trouble and two weeks later fans clashed again after a bizarre decision to hold an FA Cup replay between Swansea and Crystal Palace at Ninian Park. There was considerable fighting on the terraces between Swansea supporters and Cardiff fans who had either turned up to see the match or perhaps just to enjoy a scuffle. The low point came outside the ground when a Swansea fan was stabbed to death in a fight with Palace supporters.

It was the 1980s that really saw the tensions intensify. Football hooliganism was peaking everywhere in Britain and south Wales was no different. Cardiff fans, however, had a new reason to dislike their neighbours down the M4.  In 1981, Swansea were promoted to the first division and their manager was John Toshack, a former Cardiff City cult hero. This created not just jealousy but a feeling that the natural order of things had been turned upside down. In a derby in Swansea’s promotion season, their fans threw bricks at cars and houses. At the 1982 Welsh Cup final, it was golf balls that were exchanged between the two fans and a policeman was hospitalized by a dart.

As both clubs fell on hard times, the extent of the rivalry became something of a badge of honour. Some fans looked at it as something that put their teams on the map. They might not be able to compete with the big boys on the pitch but south Wales had a derby to rival anywhere. It was gaining its own legends and language too. Swansea fans became ‘Gypos’, in reference to the perceived poverty of Wales’s second city. Cardiff fans were greeted by breast-stroking players and supporters who sang ‘swimaway, swimaway’, a reference to a group of teenage Cardiff fans being chased into the sea at a 1988 derby.

8595085620_5db2425114_z

The climax of trouble came at the 1993 ‘Battle of Ninian Park’. Swansea fans ripped up seats and hurled them at rival fans, which prompted a pitch invasion. Mounted police and dogs had to clear the pitch and control the situation. The game was delayed by forty minutes, eight fans were hospitalized and nine were arrested.

It was a turning point. CardiffCity chairman Rick Wright announced ‘If we allow these savages to enter our stadia and take their money, we cannot hold anyone else responsible for the scenes of carnage they create. It is all too easy for Cardiff to blame Swansea, for Swansea to blame Cardiff, for Cardiff and Swansea to blame the police. But the responsibility lies with the clubs.’

The result of the new determination to do something was the banning of away fans from the fixture. But the damage had been done and the next time the two clubs met in 1994, just 3,711 turned up to the Vetch. For many supporters, the derby had become something to avoid rather than get excited about.

Although hooliganism was a problem at most clubs, and Welsh fans were certainly playing up to the expectations of the time, there were some unique factors to the south Wales derby. In Swansea, there was some feeling that the BBC was too Cardiff-centric and that the club’s rise up through the divisions had not been given adequate coverage. Accusations of a Welsh media bias towards the capital grew and extended from the BBC to HTV Wales and the Western Mail. The size, extent and placing of coverage were all carefully scrutinized and Swansea fans could be quick to take offence at both real and imagined inequalities.

The regeneration of Cardiff Bay in the 1990s, funded by millions of pounds of central government money, threw another source of resentment into the mix. There was little surprise when the National Assembly was located in the capital but there was bitterness over how Swansea had been given the impression that it could win a farce of a competition over where to locate the new home of Welsh democracy.

Things did get better. Hooliganism went out of fashion. Policing and stewarding became better organised and managed. Both clubs got new all-seater stadiums that were closely monitored by CCTV. It was easier to identify troublemakers but people were also simply less likely to cause problems if they were sitting down.  When away fans returned to the fixture in 1997, they were herded in and out of the ground in police-escorted convoys. There was little opportunity to get anywhere near a rival fan, although that did not stop some vandalism of their rivals’ stadium or a few minor skirmishes with police.

Of course, not all fans have shared in the hatred. There were many on both sides who saw it as a bit childish or who were quite happy to see a fellow Welsh team doing well. Many Swansea fans have certainly welcomed Cardiff’s promotion to Premier League because it was an opportunity to have a derby again. There is even at least one person who has season tickets for both clubs.

Saturday’s derby will be a long way removed from the first match between the two clubs in 1912. The audience will be global and the atmosphere far more hostile.  No doubt there will be some songs sung and gestures made that would shock the supporter of a hundred years ago and will confuse the modern foreign audiences watching.  But, however much local pride is at stake, one thing hasn’t changed. You do not get more points for beating your neighbour than you do for beating any other team in the division. In that sense at least, even if in no other, it’s just another game.

Two voices of reason from football’s past

A letter from a Cardiff City fan to the South Wales Echo (3 Dec. 1927) that the club’s present ownership would do well to think about.

“The true position with the City at the moment has nothing to do with the players but concerns the management, and I’m afraid that unless they consider a little more of the wishes of the supporters they will kill the bird that lays the golden egg.  If the directors would mingle with the crowd, instead of being perched like tin gods in their reserved stands, they would find that what I say is true.”

A letter to the South Wales Echo (23 Feb. 1922) that the owners of all clubs would do well to think about.

“If the City is to maintain the good feeling of its supporters, it would be wise to give all classes an opportunity to see the match, because, after all, the working man is the backbone and stay of the club. It is a pity that the directors should confuse and misconstrue sport for greed, and remember the story of the magical goose.  If the directors cater only for the rich they will find that class deserting them in times of trouble.”

I Am The Secret Footballer review

I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting the Lid on the Beautiful Game (2012)

This is both a gripping and a deeply frustrating book.

In terms of its aim of lifting the lid on the hidden world of football it’s very good and better probably than every Premier League autobiography. It’s far most honest and open than is the case with almost everything else written from within football. There’s much here on the shenanigans, the money, the mindset of players, their relationships with people outside football and about the playing of the game itself. Every fan will learn something from it.

But, in terms of trying to understand the secret footballer himself, the book is deeply frustrating. It’s not so much the fact that he’s anonymous but that so much of the detail is left out.

He talks a lot about money and about figures but at the same time is vague enough that you don’t really understand whether he’s very rich from his investments or broke from his tax bill (or both). Understanding the trajectory and nature of his career is impossible because he, understandably, doesn’t give too much away in order to protect his anonymity. This means understanding quite where he’s coming from is very difficult, as is understanding why he suffers from depression.

Indeed, building up some sympathy for the writer is almost impossible. He comes over as rather arrogant but I guess that’s inevitable with any highly-paid, high-profile elite athlete. He seems to see himself as both an insider and an outsider within football culture but how that affects his relationship with his teammates is never as explicit as it might have been. His wife is virtually absent from the book, despite the talk about the impact of home life on performances. You get the sense that while he might not want fans to know who he is, his identity within the game isn’t a secret. For all the discussion of his wages and his depression, he’s holding back.

This is shame because there was the potential here for the best book ever written about football. The writer is clearly intelligent, reflective and insightful. He could have written a very open autobiography that told us about his personality, his life, his career and the game itself. That was never going to happen though because he’s still playing and wants to stay in the game.

What he’s given us is very good but it leaves the reader with as many questions as answers. He’s just had to leave too much out in order to protect his identity and, presumably, his reputation within the game.

Why a football TeamGB is a threat to the independence of the ‘home nations’

To have an official national football team, a country has to be a member of FIFA, football’s world governing body. Membership of FIFA is not permanent. A vote by three-quarters of members can expel any FIFA member.

Article 10.1 of the FIFA statutes states:

Any Association which is responsible for organising and supervising football in its country may become a Member of FIFA. In this context, the expression “country” shall refer to an independent state recognised by the international community.

England, Scotland , Northern Ireland and Wales do not meet this criteria but do have their special position as seperate members enshrined in their own article (10.5).

FIFA also recignizes that nationhood may not be straightforward and article 10.6 states ‘An Association in a region which has not yet gained independence may, with the authorisation of the Association in the country on which it is dependent, also apply for admission to FIFA.’  Note the ‘yet’, an assumption that independence will come.

Thus the position is that the British associations having separate membership is an acknowledged contradiction to FIFA’s membership rules but one that is explicitly protected in its own statutes.

So, do the 2012 Olympics threaten that? It can’t be pretended that the Olympics are nothing to do with FIFA.  Olympic matches are regarded by FIFA as official internationals (because this means it can charge a financial levy). Can the UK say it is four nations in one FIFA competition but one in another? Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, has said yes. He has repeated his belief that Olympic participation does not undermine the UK position. But Blatter is also a man prone to change his mind, something evident by his conversion to goal-line technology after a long entrenched hostility.

Moreover, in 2008 Blatter said:

If you start to put together a combined team for the Olympic Games, the question will automatically come up that there are four different associations so how can they play in one team. If this is the case then why the hell do they have four associations and four votes and their own vice-presidency? This will put into question all the privileges that the British associations have been given by the Congress in 1946.

Blatter is 76 years old and will not be around forever. His successor will probably want to make big changes at FIFA, to lessen the taint of scandal and corruption that hangs over its highest levels.

FIFA is also a democracy. A president may offer guidance but ultimately it’s down to what individual members think. As Blatter himself has said in a different context: ‘FIFA must not be reduced to the smallest common denominator: its President … FIFA is ultimately nothing but the expression of the will of its more than 208 Member Associations’.

The fiasco of the recent England World Cup bid illustrates that British football is not exactly held in wide regard amongst those members. Admiring the Premier League is one thing. Understanding why the British get special treatment is another.

BBC Wales have recently pointed to the trend being for more countries in FIFA not less, while Stuart Pearce has claimed that no one is calling for the return of a single Yugoslavian team. That last argument is silly because Yugoslavia no longer exists, but the UK does. The trend for more FIFA members has been because the number of independent nations has grown in the last 30 years. Of course, if Scotland votes for independence then the whole parameters of this issue will change. But the key issue is not the politics of statehood but of football.

There is historical evidence that the UK’s special position has been questioned before. For example:

  • In 1972 the Uruguay FA withdrew a proposal to end the home nations’ independence after the 4 UK associations agreed to pay FIFA a levy from the home championship (as all other nations have to from their internationals). That year the Secretary of the SFA noted ‘there was no doubt that the South American Confederation wished to remove the independence of the Four British Associations’.
  • In 1992 British delegates at the International Football Association Board were told by FIFA delegates that if they voted against the introduction of the backpass rule it would jeopardise their separate status. The FAW’s sense that its position was under threat was already so strong that it created the League of Wales in 1992 to ensure it could not just be seen as a region of English football.

The FAW were particularly shocked at the threats that surrounded the backpass rule because they had always believed they had European support for their position. Four British nations after all cemented the European domination of the world game but the break up of the old Communist bloc significantly increased the number of European members. Suddenly, Europe had less need of British votes at FIFA.

The European domination of world football is clear in the places allocated for the 2010 World Cup:

Number of countries seeking qualification Number of places allocated
Europe 53 13
Africa 53 6
Asia 43 4
Central & N America 35 3
Oceania 11 1
South America 10 5

Morever, Africa only got 6 places instead of its normal 5 because South Africa qualified automatically as hosts.

The executive of FIFA appears to think this is not an issue in which democracy should prevail. Blatter said in 2011: ‘All of the Fifa member countries have equal voting rights, but when it comes to the World Cup, which is the only income of Fifa, our executive committee agrees that those confederations that have the best football should have more representatives.’

Television money and sponsor reasons aside, the key moral argument in support of the status quo is that this is about the quality of football and FIFA rankings do support the notion that the bulk of the best teams are in Europe. But it is difficult for the rest of the world to accept European domination for reasons of  ‘quality’. There is more than a whiff of an old-fashioned western sense of superiority here, a sense that the rest of the world resents. Even in Australasia there is resentment that their continent isn’t even guaranteed at least one place.

It’s within this context of resentment about the nature of power within FIFA that the British nations’ special position can come under the spotlight. This is likely because the British privileges extend beyond just having four members.

The FIFA executive is made up of a president, 8 vice presidents and 15 members. Of these vice presidents Britain gets one, Europe gets another two and the rest of the world get five between them. The distribution of members is also skewed towards Europe.

The only justification for the UK having the same number of vice presidents as the whole of Africa is history. When football was reorganized after the Second World War, FIFA was desperate to bring in the UK nations, the inventors of the game, to legitimize its own position and buttress the organization’s financial future. The cost was giving the British a disproportionate influence.

That extends beyond the FIFA executive. The International Football Association Board is the body that sets the actual rules of the game of football. There are eight votes on this board: FIFA have 4 and the UK associations have one each. In other words, the British associations have as much say in the rules of football as the rest of the world put together.

A stranglehold on the game’s rules and a permanent vice-presidency on an executive that does not distribute the spoils of football’s centrepiece fairly mean that the British position is of interest to the rest of the world. It has a direct impact on the governance of world football and a symbolic importance. Paul Darby, a historian of African football, has noted:

The individual membership of each of the British associations, which affords them full voting rights at FIFA Congress, has been a particular source of discontent with the African football confederation. Indeed, on many occasions the membership status of the British authorities has been heavily criticised as evidence of global inequality within world football and has been cited as constituting just one manifestation of European bias and privilege within the game’s institutional and administrative structures.

Just because there isn’t currently a campaign to get rid of the UK’s four teams does not mean there won’t be in the future. And when it happens, people will point to the precedent of the 2012 Olympics.  If TeamGB competes again, as some pundits, players and the manager hope, the danger of the issue coming back will be all the greater.

There is little sentiment for tradition and history in football and it is only tradition and history that allows the four UK nations to have their own national teams.  Moreover, as long as the British nations have a disproportionate say in the power of world football then there will be those that resent the fact that the UK has four teams.

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).

Cardiff City’s 1938 voodoo doll

In April 1938, Cardiff City, playing well at home but with only two away wins all season, were looking like blowing promotion from the Third Division South yet again. All the usual excuses were trotted out but then one fan found the answer. He sent a doll to the local paper, claiming it was the “bogey” that had been harming City’s away form. The sports reporter did his duty and took the doll along to the club. The manager, seeing his chance to exorcise some of the blame from his shoulders, got all the players to line up and, as suggested by the evil doll’s captor, stuck pins in it before the local press photographer. However it was all to little avail as City still failed to win any of their remaining away games that season.

Football’s changed (but it still rains)

It was apt that it was raining at Swansea v Spurs yesterday. It meant not just an added zip to the ball but an atmosphere more reminiscent of the Vetch than the Liberty Stadium. The pitch was muddy, the singing was loud and the play was hurtling.

For me at least, the Liberty can often be rather lacking in something.  Perhaps it’s the sitting down. Perhaps it’s the dispersal of the noisier fans around the East stand.  Perhaps it’s because I’m in the upper tier, where the view of the game is excellent but the players are too far away to see the grimaces on their faces or hear the thud as they kick the ball. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been games and moments when the Liberty has rocked, and yesterday was one of them, but a typical league game there just doesn’t hold the atmosphere of the North Bank at the Vetch.

The North Bank was special. You were close enough to play to feel on top of the players, to feel that you were part of the action rather than watching it. The crowd’s repertoire may have been cruder and even quieter than the Liberty in full voice but it was funnier and less predictable. Songs and chants seem to be invented on the spot. You also got to stand up and move around. When the Swans surged forward, the crowd moved towards the pitch in anticipation.  When the ball flew over the bar, it stepped back in frustration.

Some of this was simply so you could see properly, and it was all less comfortable than sitting in a seat with perfect sight lines, but it’s easier to shout and sing when you’re standing.  You just don’t feel as self-conscious. It was more fun too, even when it was cold and the rain was blowing in your face.  Maybe it’s a trick of the memory but it did seem to rain a lot at the Vetch.

The change isn’t just the stadium. The Liberty has hosted a Swansea team that plays beautiful passing football, a style that has taken them to the Premier League. In my time there, the Vetch was a lower division ground and that meant the football was usually rough, tough and crude. That shaped the atmosphere.

The change is in me too. I’m older and less excitable.  I now have a family and a more consuming job so football isn’t the focus of the week that it was when I was younger and less tied down.  Sometimes my mind wanders during a game to other things in my life.  Sometimes going to a match causes domestics. Perhaps now I’m older I’d be less impressed by the Vetch.

Others certainly prefer the change. Crowds have grown steadily since the move to the Liberty, and that isn’t just down to the rise through the divisions. Early responses to a project recording fans’ memories for the club’s centenary in 2012 show that while people have an affection for the Vetch many prefer the comfort and experience of the Liberty.  It’s easy to be nostalgic for the Vetch’s atmosphere; it’s much harder to be nostalgic for its toilets, its aggression, its occasional racism.

The bigger and more diverse crowds at the Liberty are a clear indication that more has been gained than has been lost but a few more nights of end-to-end muddy football in the swirling rain wouldn’t go amiss.  And even in a modern new stadium the rain still blows into the stands. Yesterday there were stewards with rolls of tissue paper to dry the seats. You wouldn’t have got that at the Vetch.