How marvellous it is that the roots of English football are finally being truly appreciated. A new book, “Goal-Post”, an anthology of Victorian football writing, has opened the door on a whole new genre of study in the game.
It’s a subject I have long been fascinated by. Back in the early 1980s, I spent many hours researching the early game at the British Newspaper Library which was then in Colindale, North London. For a few years, I pored over sepia newspapers, often crumbling at the edges, and uncovered a lot of the game’s infant years. I published a book on Chelsea FC’s early years, making public, for the first time, the facts and figures from the period 1905-15. It sold like wildfire.
For so long, the game’s origins have been overlooked. Unlike cricket, which wallows in its past, celebrating it each year in that homage to obsession, Wisden, football was not good at documenting its history. In the late 1970s, an entrepreneurial character named Ray Spiller started a group called “The Association of Football Statisticians”. Spiller, who always knew how to spin a good yarn and sell something he believed in, formed an organization that became pretty influential.
He brought together the kind of eccentrics that would enthuse over attendances, half-time scores, line-ups and goal-times. He was ahead of his [goal] time, was Spiller and over a decade or so, the work of the AFS spawned hundreds of books, and in many ways, changed the way football was recorded in the national press. Football statisticians were allowed to come out of the fact-laden closet.
The British press was way behind its continental peers. It was hard to find a paper with a team line-up in the 1970s, unless you bought the News of the World or People. From the mid-1980s, this all started to change, and Spiller and his advocacy was, in no small way, responsible.
Football statistics also became the subject of many mainstream books, such as those published by Breedon, a Derbyshire-based outfit. Spiller’s AFS published a Rothman’s Yearbook equivalent for the Football League Years from 1888-89 up to the start of football’s own Wisden in 1970.
In recent years, with the AFS existing only in name – and no longer a forum for debate and frank exchange of anorak fact collecting – and the heavy emphasis on the Premier League and all things financial, days of yore are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. That’s why it was so good to hear of the launch of Goal-Post.
What the book reveals is that the game has always attracted controversy, even in its gas-lit, hansom cab days. As the compiler of the book, Paul Brown, says, this tome contains tales of overpaid players, cheating, violence, legal battles and general bad behavior. No change there, then. Here are just some of the topics covered: CW Alcock on football tactics; Interviews with England captains Tinsley Lindley and GO Smith; Montague Shearman’s history of football; Frank Brettell and the making of Tottenham Hotspur; The first international football match, Scotland vs England; David Drummond Bone on football in Scotland; The Newton Heath libel scandal; Calcio, or football in Italy by Helen Zimmern; Football by electric light; The 1888 FA Cup Final, West Bromwich Albion vs Preston North End; Henry Leach on life as a travelling football reporter; and much more.
Don’t think for one moment that football was not covered by the media in those far-off days. Newspapers like The Athletic News and The Sportsman consisted of vast pages of small print, kick-by-kick reports of scrimmages (scrambles), custodians (goalkeepers) and daisy-cutters (low shots). Football by gaslight…play up, the Royal Engineers!