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?