Category Archives: Primary Sources

Edwardian Football Tactics: Reality and Survival

The tragedy of the 100+ Mitchell and Kenyon films is in their length, or lack of it. Getting a real idea of what an Edwardian soccer match was like from any one of them or all of them is next to impossible. This example, Newcastle United v Liverpool at St James’s Park in 1901, is about the best of the bunch.

I suppose one of the best teams there has ever been was that claimed by Newcastle United for ten years or so before the War and that part which so many of them have since played in the game indicates that they were intellectually above the average. Herbert Chapman 1934

Chapman believed in clever players, and thought that War and what followed it was driving them out:

Football today lacks the personalities of twenty or thirty years ago. This, I think, is true of all games, and the reason for it is a fine psychological study. The life which we live is so different: the pace, the excitement, and the sensationalism which we crave are new factors which have had a disturbing influence. They have upset the old balance mentally as well as physically, and they have made football different to play as well as to watch. And they have set up new values. The change has, in fact, been so violent that I do not think the past, the players and the game, can fairly be compared with the present.

There are echoes there of 21st century jeremiads about Facebook, and one would like to have heard Billy Meredith (who played in the First Division from the time of Victoria right up until 1925) on the subject.

Certainly Chapman and his fellow veterans thought that things were getting worse. If they were right, that has interesting implications for the debate about when England and Scotland were caught by the rest of the footballing world. England and Scotland were caught in two phases – in playing potential, they lost their outright lead by 1928, but their psychological advantage endured for another twenty years, preserved in part by the Second War. But Chapman has England in retreat while the others catch up:

It is sometimes said that, if the old players were to come back, they would show up the limitations of today. But there is no coming back. I know how boldly and confidently the old-timers speak of their prowess, and how they are inclined to belittle present players. To support their arguments they point to the difficulty of the selectors in trying to build up a stable international side. England teams come and go. From one season to another they can scarcely be recognised. They have, unfortunately, to be altered from match to match. Men good one day fail the next. They do not even play consistently in their club form. This is one tell-tale piece of evidence of how football has changed.

For such a great man, Chapman is frustrating on specifics. This is the man who, along with Buchan, pioneered the use of the third back in 1925, the last significant footballing innovation by an Englishman until the advent of Simon Clifford, but this is as close as he comes to telling us what the game was once like:

I am not prepared to depreciate the men of today, being fully conscious of the many matters which have added to their difficulties. Competition has heightened enormously, and it is no longer possible for men or teams to play as they like. Thirty years ago, men went out with the fullest licence to display their arts and crafts. To-day they have to make their contribution to a system. Individuality has had to be subordinated to teamwork. Players have to take part in many more matches and the strain on their physical resources has greatly increased.

Licence, artistry, creativity and the Old Days: I’ve heard the tale told of the 1950s in the 1970s, of the 1960s in the 1980s, and, heaven help us, of the 1970s ever since.

But Chapman’s not the only guilty party here. Other Edwardian bosses wrote about the game without any real hint as to the tactics they employed – if any. John Cameron played for Queens Park, Everton and Spurs before managing at White Hart Lane in the early Edwardian period. His account of football management, written in 1905, uses a word most of the writers of the day bandied about undefined – combination:

Even if he succeeds in obtaining a team of stars – every player an acknowledged master – it does not follow that the combination as a whole will be successful. A team that appears invincible upon paper has an exasperating way of disappointing expectations. And when this is the case, the manager has to sally forth again in quest of fresh talent.

Cameron talks purely in terms of his first team – nowhere in his (by his own admission truncated) essay does he think in terms of a squad as such, despite most clubs of the day keeping 20+ professional players on their books at any one time. Nor does he indicate that his first team might be directed in different ways for different opponents or phases of play.

R.S. McColl, the Edwardian Scottish international who went on to found the eponymous chain of newsagents, was a little more helpful, if pedantically so, writing in 1913:

It is so much of a truism nowadays that combination in football – as in many other things – pays best, that it appears almost superfluous to urge its importance.

Successful combination, Bob explained, described the

team whose advantages of physique, head, and experience dovetail best.

What about tactics?

Too rigid a system of play, in which all the moves are known, will not do. There must be flexibility; endless variety and versatility, constant surprises for the other side. System must be inspired by art and innate genius for and love of the game.

McColl establishes for us, then, that creativity was a strong value in the play of top Edwardian teams (and you can see him in the film above). It’s creativity within a system. But what system? Once again, we have no word. Either there was no system as we would understand it, or he assumed that we would know what it was.

Kenneth Hunt, who was an ordained priest, was one of the last amateurs and Oxford men to win an FA Cup – scoring a “wonder goal” in the process for Wolverhampton Wanderers at Crystal Palace in 1908. He’d play twice for England in 1911, keeping his amateur status throughout.

Writing in the same year as McColl, Hunt at once said more than anyone else about the actual tactics of Edwardian soccer and also hinted at something eternal at the heart of the game’s soul: reading him, I wonder to what extent tactics have ever changed at all:

..there are two generally prevailing styles of forward play, which we will here describe as the “three inside,” and the “wing to wing” game. Which is the more dangerous style of play it is difficult to say; each has its own advocates, and personally, I unhesitatingly plump for the “wing to wing” method of attack. In this style of play the wing-forwards lie as wide as possible on the touch-lines, ever on the look-out for those swinging passes, which they know their insides will give them at the first opportunity. The whole danger of this method lies in its suddenness. For myself, I prefer to see the centre-forward slightly in advance of his two insides, and the wing-forward considerably in front of the centre.
The plan of attack is then something as follows: Should the centre-forward receive the ball he swings it well out to one of his outsides, but in such a way that the wing-forward has to run ahead to receive it. In the meantime, the three inside men are all making tracks as hard as they can go for their opponents’ goal, and so are probably in time to reach the centre as it comes skimming across.
In the other style of play, most of the attack is carried on by the three inside men, and the outsiders are only used as a last resort. This kind of game is prettier to watch, but my experiences as a half-back tell me that it is much easier to checkmate thatn the more open style of play, which is far more likely to flurry the opposing defence.

To which some Arsenal fans will say yea.. and Alf Ramsey’s shade nay.. and Chelsea fans both, remembering Mourinho’s Chelsea team of Duff and Robben and the team that followed after.

But what matters is that you can picture what those two approaches would have looked like, and, with that in mind, it’s possible to watch that Newcastle-Liverpool clip again with a more enlightened eye.

The choice between going via the wings or down the middle took place in the context of an evolved 2-3-5, according to J.C. Gow, who – writing in 1913 once again – put the formation into historical context:

The whole plan of Soccer at its best is based on perfect combination and clear understanding between the members of the eleven. (Ed: as everyone keeps saying). Both as regards attack and defence does this statement hold true. There have been many changes made in the last forty years, both with respect to the number of players in various departments and as to their duties. But I believe, if you went into the matter closely, you would find that in every case each change made has been entered on with the view to strengthening the combination of the eleven as a whole, rather than with the idea of making it possible for this or that man to score individually. You may recall that in past years there used to be only one back and one half-back. This disposition of the forces was altered as time went on so as to afford finer combination and strength, until today, by having a team arranged in the shape of five forwards, three halves, two backs and a goalie, we have probably got as effective and powerful a combination for Soccer as can possibly be used or suggested.

Note that sense at the end there of arrival, of satiation: football, in Gow’s eyes, had reached a tactical end of the road, and now all that remained was to fit the best set of players to the (found) best tactical layout. Edwardians didn’t discuss tactics because they were at the end of four decades of fast, decisive, and above all, player-led, change. That change had led them to a final solution as they saw it to the football tactics problem.

In Edwardian football, therefore, formation and tactics were more or less the same thing, leaving a choice between attack down the middle or attack from the side. The players themselves had worked this out, almost by accident, by unconscious evolution: there is something redolant of Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Johnson about this process.

After 1919, Chapman’s “heightened competition” would take the matter out of the players’ hands and – in effect – place it into his hands and Charles Buchan’s.

It is still a shame that we don’t have fifteen minutes of Chapman’s favourites, Edwardian Newcastle, filmed from height, instead of the two or three minutes shot from one point on the ground. Perhaps, to get a true feel for what that lost side were like to watch, we need to look elsewhere.

As Jonathan Wilson has made clear, not every country switched to the third back game in 1925. The South Americans persisted with 2-3-5 into the 1950s, and its perhaps to them that we must turn to find us the ghosts of Edwardian Newcastle. Fortunately, film of Uruguayan and Brazilian football of the 1920s was done well. It won’t be a direct equivalent, but this was the generation of players who learned the game at the hands of the first British coaches to travel abroad. It might be closer than we think. Remember; 2-3-5, freedom, and artistry:

Uruguay here are using the same kit, the same ball, the same rules as the British teams, but are doing so uninterrupted by World War One and the burden of a 38 game league season. Would a 1920s Newcastle have been like this, absent Sarajevo? Chapman might have liked to think so.

There’s one other thing to say about Edwardian 2-3-5. As we’ve noted, it emerged from the pure experience of players, finding how the game evolved just through their interaction with it on the pitch over 40 years. That alone would indicate that there might be something inevitable about the formation, something that still exists down there buried beneath the modern game. Perhaps 2-3-5 has a way of emerging uninvited, an example of what bad poets call a palimpsest. Watch Italy attack in 2006 and see how their front line behaves, and remember what Kenneth Hunt said so long ago: there is wing play, and there is the three men through the centre…


Smog, Matchdays and Camping on the Eve of War

Late 19th Century Widnes

We end the year in darkness. Or on a dark topic, at any rate.

In Glasgow and Edinburgh, 1909 began with the outbreak of “smog” – the sticky, intrusive and often lethal combination of coalsmoke and fog – that led not only to the coining of the term, but to an estimated 1,000 deaths.

The deaths themselves were hidden, elusive tragedies: The Scotsman notes only that the unusual weather had closed ports and railways, stopped ferries and hindered work in the docks. But the reports go on day after day.

Des Voeux, who actually came up with the word “smog”, spent a lifetime campaigning for clean air. Two years later, in London, he wrote to the Times after a particularly bad Sunday:

How long – oh, how long! – will the people of London continue to endure the murkiness and gloom of its winter months, the fogs that turn daylight into a darkness worse than night, and the dirt which penetrates into all houses and covers the rooms with a film of sticky filth which only arduous and continuous labour can remove?

What he says next casts light, surely, on what must have been a constant, now hidden, factor in the life of football clubs in the period. Imagine as you read that he is discussing Saturday, not Sunday, and that kick-off is at 3:

As I write (at 2pm) we are in complete darkness, the whole house lighted artificially, the daylight being absolutely blotted out by a black cloud overhead, produced, not by a threatening storm, but by the smoke that has been formed from the fires that have cooked the Sunday luncheons or dinners of 6,000,000 million people.

The tone of the protester rings the same from age to age:

At 8 o’clock this morning the air of St James’s Park was clear, by 9 darkness was coming on, and by 1 o’clock it was nearly complete. Sunday fog and darkness are always an hour later than week-day fog, thereby indicating their origin from the domestic hearth.

What this implies is, of course, that a football ground to the east of central London would stand every chance, in the right (wrong) conditions of being blacked-out long before the game was underway. But there are few reports of matches being abandoned because of fog in these circumstances. That can only mean that men were made to play in conditions that were dangerous for their health.

Given that we have records of men like Thomas Bradshaw who, having contracted tuberculosis, played on for his club until shortly before his Christmas Day 1899 death so that he could feed his family, this is no surprise.The same fate overtook Herbert Chapman’s England international brother, Harry.

Players had little choice, or at least were driven by a self-sacrificial zeitgeist to forgo what choice they had. Contractually, they had to play or forfeit their income. The physical courage this required was matched, in black-and-white fashion, by the financial corruption and profit-taking typical of club owners before the First World War (I don’t mean that clubs were, horror of horrors, privately owned, but that good business practice was even more of a stranger to the game in this period than it became thereafter).

Others, not much better paid, but unencumbered by a carry-on-regardless culture, found their own solutions to the smoke. Arthur Clark was a schoolmaster in Manchester in 1913. Robert Roberts, who was a slum child in Salford at the time, remembers queuing for coke beside the hot walls of a plant, smoke (not steam) billowing down over the line of women and children, filling their lungs and covering their clothes with soot. Clark lived as far out as he could, but even so:

Early in March I had given notice (to his landlady); I had endured influenza twice in two months and was utterly weary of a Manchester suburb with its damp and its early spring fog. So I decided to live for a few months under canvas. Of course, my friends told me I should die, but a kindly colleague helped me to collect my outfit, and on March 16 I started my camp in a little village some sixteen miles south of the city..

It didn’t go well, at least not at first:

It certainly was cold. For days we woke up in the grey morning to find the water in the buckets at the tent door frozen. We had to get up before six o’clock if we were to get our breakfast, clean up the tent, cycle sixteen miles (the last four over badly-paved streets), and turn up bright and early for nine o’clock prayers.

It still beats turning out on a Saturday with TB.

But getting back again at night was worse. Five hours of steady teaching is tiring, the journey back to camp was uphill, and the usual south-west anti-trade made all the hills seem stiffer. And when we arrived it was to find a cold, damp, unlit tent with a door that flapped mournfully in the wind.

Things improved in the summer, which was a good one, as was the summer following until it was interrupted by the outbreak of war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cutting-Edge Tech: Getting the Edwardian Football Paper Out

The Football Star offices, Fleet Street, Christmas 1905:

There is a silence in the office still as death. The seconds are ticking off, the minutes are creeping past, and men stand with telephones to their ear, and others are hanging over the “tape” machines which send out results. The nervous strain is almost unbearable.

It’s a late kick-off that’s causing the bother, of course:

It is considered a calamity if, for some reason or other, an important game has been delayed for five minutes. The paper may be on all the machines, and the printer waiting for the fateful word “Go”. We may be waiting for a Cup tie between Aston Villa and Sunderland. The paper cannot go to press without it.

Absolutely not, because you can’t keep the world waiting:

The publicity-room and far out into the street is filled with a vast crowd of young men called “runners,” cyclists, men with Star carts, cabs, and motors. Several policemen are called in to see fair play, but no crowd could be noisier and better behaved at the same time. The papers come up from the printers hot from the machine on never-ending lifts. These lifts, with “arms” about a yard apart, never stop. The publisher and his assistants are busy seizing the papers as they come up, and throwing them over the counter in huge lots straight into the arms of cartmen and others who have handed in their orders earlier in the day.

And this being London, the race is on:

In the provinces it is the custom of the inhabitants to walk into town on Saturday night, and therefore it is quite easy to serve them with newspapers. In London it is just the reverse. Everyone practically lives in the suburbs, and the City of London on Saturday night is like a palace of the dead The people have therefore to be chased by bicycles, motors and light vans to their various haunts.

By bicycle, then:

An ordinary bicycle carries 30 quires, weighing about 80lb of paper. (The cyclist) dashes through slippery streets, amongst the traffic at break-neck speed, and he rarely meets with an injury. Their cleverness in avoiding collisions is marvellous. Some of them ride from 10 to 15 miles with their load, and they usually arrive far in front of the lots that go by train.

The train presents its own problems:

In another room are a score of expert packers making up huge parcels for the various railway stations. There are over 300 railway stations in London.

And yet the possibilities it presents to the 1905 football paper are remarkable:

It is possible for instance, to print the Football Star, pack it, send it by van to Paddington Station – five miles off – book the parcel, and send it to Reading, 40 miles distant, all within an hour. By this means the Football Star is sometimes selling on the streets of Reading as soon as the football paper which is published in the town of Reading. The paper is being despatched simultaneously to thousands of separate centres.

By ’05, the chances are that the paper would have raced to Reading behind one of Churchward’s  2-6-2 tank locomotives, brand new then but the standard for fast suburban travel out of Paddington until the days of the Beatles.

London football papers in ’05 sought to hit the stands as soon after 4.30 pm as was physically possible. It meant that they lacked the depth of reporting possible for their Glasgow rivals, which, although acknowledged to be the best of their kind, wouldn’t appear until half past six:

If a stranger were to come into a newspaper office while a football edition is going to press, he would think he had struck a regular inferno. Imagine a room not much larger than an ordinary dining-room fitted up with about twenty telephones less than a yard apart, with no partition between, and the men’s elbows touching. In the same room are several type machines belonging to rival News Agencies, all ticking out brief reports of matches, half-time scores, and results.  The telephone bells are ringing constantly..

For a new sport, new tech: the telephone – as old then as the IBM PC is now. Ticker-tape machines. Motor vans, less than ten years after their invention. Modern bicycles – less than twenty years old and running on equally youthful pneumatic tyres.

Life hadn’t always been so easy. Telegraphing results was over. And not just the telegraph:

One or two of the Glasgow papers used to employ pigeons, and a few country papers do so still, but the pigeon is a slow, clumsy, and uncertain messenger. Practically all the up-to-date newspapers now use the telephone for local reports.

The nearest football ground of importance(to Fleet Street) is the Crystal Palace, some six miles from Fleet Street, where the papers are printed. The football grounds vary from six miles to twelve miles distant from the newspaper offices. Distance is not now a matter of such importance as it was a few years ago – before the telephone came on the scene. At one time cyclists had to ride hard with the copy from places like Plumstead, Brentford and Park Royal, through the traffic of London – distances of from ten to twelve miles – and even in those days the paper was printed within a few minutes of the present hours of publishing.

But telephoning cost money:

For the London matches the telephone is laid on from the ground direct to the office. This means a dozen private telephones which are only used for football matches. The rental of these private lines in London alone will amount to something like £200 per annum.

At the time of writing, Christmas 1905, there is one football ground in the London district that does not possess a telephone. Would it be believed that the football papers of London have been trying to get the Post Office to erect a telephone on this particular ground for the past two years, and they have persistently refused on the ground that they have not a telephone exchange in the district! How is this for government enterprise! It is a remarkable fact that though there is no telephone on this ground, the Football Star gets its matches telephoned all the same! I dare not at present say how it is done.

Nor dare I.

The other crucial item was the linotype machine, itself also, like the bikes and cars and phones and tickers and Mitchell-Kenyon movie cameras and fast emulsion film and autochromes and indeed like League football, less than twenty years old. The elbow-to-elbow clerks would take down telephoned reports from the grounds, which would be linotyped into seven-column 12,000 word pages. These would be corrected, then “made up”. Then the plates for actual printing would be cast in the foundry. Next on the list:

the printing machines to be ‘clothed,’ that is to say, fitted with the cylindrical plates of molten matter..

Twenty plates would be fitted, then the fateful word “Go”….

Within an hour of the first results coming in, the paper was on the bikes, carts, motors and trains.

They weren’t really gentler, simpler times.

(All quotations taken, with minor editing, from Gibson and Pickford’s “Association Football and the Men Who Made It” Vol II p. 24 passim. Gibson owned the Football Star).

Agents in Edwardian Football

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. This is from the Penny Illustrated Paper of Saturday, May 24th 1902:

There appear to be plenty of agents prowling around to discover whom they can find to add to the already big stock of Welsh players who are assisting Northern Union clubs. Not only Wales, but the West of England clubs are to be poached upon by the emissaries of the Lancashire section of the Northern Union, and it is said that high prices are to be offered to certain well-known men.

Northern Union later became Rugby League.

This isn’t quite the same thing, of course, as the modern player’s agent: what the PIP is moaning about is theft by professional clubs of amateur players.

That it went on, however, does undermine the traditional idea of professionalization happening in order to allow working class men to play. Rather, it happened to facilitate the profits of clubs in the industrial north west who would pay for the players who were names enough to fill their new stadia.

Association Football in particular has always been an overwhelmingly amateur sport. Most clubs, and most players, do it, and did it, for fun, from whatever social class they come or came. Professionalization didn’t open the game up to the working classes. It didn’t even open up the top levels of competition to them: amateur working class sides from Lancashire were catching up with the alumni clubs that had dominated the 1860s and 1870s by 1885, and would have overtaken them in number and quality of play regardless of the decision that year to permit the payment of players.

Professionalization did three principle things:

  1. Cemented the top of the game so that the clubs who were dominant by 1914 are, by and large, still dominant now.
  2. Expel amateurs of all classes from the home international sides by 1914
  3. Ghettoize the national game in the working class.

That last point is more complicated. There have always been children of white collar professionals playing in the Football League and Premiership – Peter Crouch is the best modern example. Nor has the private education sector abandoned the round ball game.

1908 Olympic Football: The First World Cup

Before the FIFA World Cup of 1930, the Olympic Games football tournament represented the first organized attempt to stage a world championship. Even as early as 1908, that’s precisely what it was, featuring the United Kingdom, France, Holland, Sweden and Denmark. Only the withdrawal of Hungary and Bohemia before the tournament started prevent 1908 from boasting a full house of serious footballing nations of the time.

British football was familiar with continental opposition, and British coaches worked in Europe, but the Olympic experience was a contrast to the usual experience of the British, the only country to play their sport on a genuinely global scale. One way to interpret the four home Associations’ suspicion of the nascent FIFA is to remember that to join what was then a Europe-only organization was to seriously narrow your horizons.

John Cameron treated the whole Olympic exercise with a kind of tired wariness:

The Olympic games are over, and have, I think, come to an end to the great relief of everybody.

I take it we won’t have to watch out for his shade, then, come 2012. They didn’t have to in 1948, or if they did, the reports have been lost..

His report of the tournament is made in that over-wordy, stylised, comma-pocked style of the Edwardian sports journalist. It makes for heavy going. So there’s a kind of satisfaction when his predictions for the future of the European game go horribly awry:

France sent two teams, and one of these met Denmark on Monday; but the result only served to demonstrate that our French friends are never likely to do much at our winter game. (..) What struck one about the French side was that they were too polite, and too fond of smoking the eternal cigarette. They puffed away right up to the start of the match, and in the interval had another smoke, finishing up the day by repeating the practice. How different with our sides! Why, when I had an important match on, I did not smoke for a day or two before or a day after; but our friends do not believe in this. It was impossible from their two displays to believe that the game will ever make much headway in France. (Ed: more on JC and smoking here).

Cameron prefers a more wholesome, manly sort of fellow:

Mr Charles Williams, who trained Denmark, is not only a very able tutor, but he has also had the advantage of very wide and varied experience. Last year he was the goalkeeper for Brentford, but before that he had been at Norwich, Woolwich, Tottenham and Manchester City. He is one of the few players who can take the platform, and also write a very readable article for the Press. He has lectured to referees, is a good wicket-keeper, a total abstainer, and a member of the YMCA.

(When “Charlie” Williams – the first keeper to score from open play with a Shilton-esque long punt at Roker Park – signed for Spurs, it was at the behest of the Spurs manager, one John Cameron).

If the only version of football history you’d had was the good old days of loyal players version, that string of clubs run up by Williams might come as a surprise. It shouldn’t. Professional careers were often short in the period – seven years was a good run, and contracts ran for a year at a time. The other British coach at the Olympics, Holland’s Edgar Chadwick, had that kind of life:

He was born at Blackburn nearly forty years ago, made a great name with the Rovers, and improved on it when he joined Everton, in whose ranks he was when he began his international career. He then came South, and joined the “Saints,” and was a very great favourite at Southampton. After, he went to Liverpool. As an inside-left he was one of the grandest players that ever stepped on the field to do battle for England.

That’s to understate matters. Chadwick played for both Blackburn teams, Everton, Burnley, Saints, Liverpool, Blackpool, Glossop and Darwen. The move to Southampton is the interesting one here, because it coincides with the Football League’s imposition of a maximum wage. Chadwick followed the money.

Even then, Saints were a club with a ceiling on their growth. The board looked towards London, and heard the brass calling. When Chelsea was founded in 1905, it stole the Dell’s chairman, manager and a number of players. Chelsea’s first captain was John Cameron too, but not our one. Chelsea’s was an Alf Ramsey lookalike whose prose style was eerily similar to his namesake’s.

At the turn of the century, the Football League was considered as a Northern, not a national, league – and creation of a “national” league was the subject of some debate. Cameron favoured a split between North (Football League), South (Southern League, including Southampton) and London (for whom he favoured a separate division). The Southern League, able to pay players above Football League rates, became a real competitor for a brief period, which saw Southampton reach an FA Cup Final, and Tottenham, led by one John Cameron, actually win the trophy outright. Sheffield United were the afterthoughts on both occasions.

It didn’t last: the Southern League soon had its own maximum wage, and football sealed itself off from middle class involvement for the rest of the century. Only now, in the form of Frank Lampard, do we see the best kind of public school man bringing proper values back and leading the line for the old country.

Cameron was right about the Dutch, in the end, but not for more than half a century. Dutch football remained in a kind of amateur doldrums right through to the emergence of Cruyff and Ajax. Nevertheless, Cameron saw something in the 1908 Dutch – was it anything like what would come all those years later?

What, however, surprised everybody, was the excellent form shown by the Dutchmen against the United Kingdom, and it came as a distinct surprise. During the first half it looked a very open matter. The visitors had a splendid goalkeeper, and a very good half-back division, and had the Holland side been as good in front of goal as in the mid-field they would probably have won… It must be remembered that for forty minutes the Dutchmen kept out their opponents, and this in itself was an excellent performance. Hague, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, and Delft have all excellent clubs, and there appears to be a very bright future in store for the game.

He liked the Swedes, too, but that would be a different story. Sweden showed well at all of the early Olympic tournaments, and came 4th in the 1938 World Cup in Italy. For a country of their size, they have an excellent international record and a string of genuinely memorable players. Nonetheless, the UK stuffed Sweden in 1908 in what is still a record result – 12-1. But then this happened:

One of the most delightful episodes of the week was the way in which, after their defeat, the Swedes turned round and gave three hearty cheers for the English side, who appeared quite taken by surprise, and responded in a very half-hearted manner. But all through the week the attendances have been so bad that it was almost like looking for the needle in a haystack to find out where the people were.

It’s at that point that Cameron, a Scot, stops referring to the “United Kingdom” and reverts to his native “English”!

The English they were – the 1908 winners were the England Amateur side playing as “Great Britain” (not as Cameron’s “United Kingdom”). Something there for a Scot, or a Welshman, or at the time an Irishman, to resent. “England” – calling themselves England this time – retained the trophy in 1912. They haven’t shut up about it since.

(Cameron fans may like to know that the full text of his book Association Football and How to Play It can be read online by clicking the link. His weekly column for the Penny Illustrated Press can be read via the British Library’s British Newspapers archive – it’s free material. He is also responsible for large chunks of the entertaining, groundbreaking but headache-inducingly badly written Association Football and the Men Who Made It, (1905) which is now really only found in national libraries.)

Edwardian Refereeing: “avoid Scandal and Injustice”

There has been no better time to watch pre-1960s football than now. Most of the FA Cup Finals are available, in full, on DVD, and one of these (1957) is the only complete game I know of to show the Busby Babes in full flow. The 50s finals accord with every cliche about the good old days: stoppages are brief, foul play unusual, cheating entirely absent, fans mix on the terraces, and no one argues with the referee.

That’s with the exception of Bill Foulkes, who reacts to Peter McParland’s tackle on Roy Wood by spending the rest of the game (83 minutes’ worth) trying to knock the Irishman’s head off.

But by the 1950s, the FA Cup Final had become the FA Cup Final. In 1908, football culture was in the last stages of gestation, and many of what are now seen as traditional attitudes had yet to form. Although 1908 was the 20th season of league football, and some of the early heroes were well into late middle age, much that you would expect to take for granted was still up for grabs.

The attitude towards referees was just one of those things. After World War One, British referees would travel the world, in demand for their moral strength, sense of justice and incorruptibility. Snow formed on their upper slopes in the heat of Brazil and the different sort of heat to be found in Hungary (where Jimmy Hogan once saw a fan shoot the ball with a revolver in order to end a game his team were set to lose).

John Cameron, writing before World War One, couldn’t see the snow for the trees:

A resurrection has taken place in the Southern League and the circles it influences. Last week, the representative of Swindon drew attention to the fact that the reports as to the incompetency of referees during the current season was very unsatisfactory indeed, that the present mode of selection calls for alteration, and that mutual agreement should make the choice in future. This, however, was not then agreed upon, because it is well known that referees tout in a most obsequious and objectionable way for jobs, and the lengths to which some of these sponge on directors and secretaries would astound the general public if the revelation were once made.

The present system, at any rate, partially stops this sort of thing; but I have always been in favour of neutral authority appointing these men in order to avoid scandal and injustice.

For “secretaries”, by the way, you can read “managers”: the usual title was “secretary-manager”. By 1908 Herbert Chapman was one of these Southern League gentlemen so determined to root out incompetence and corruption in the refereeing world.

Although Cameron’s words are harsh, it’s worth remembering how much money, relatively speaking, was sloshing around football in 1908, money that stiff regulation regarding pay and conditions made hard to access in any legal manner. There are no known instances where referees, amateurs into our own time, bent the rules to lay hands on any of it (the players did, locked as they were into contracts worthy of slaves – see the Manchester City scandal of 1905 for the best example) but Cameron hints at something. I wonder what?