Out of mill towns and factories, our heroes came forth

THE RECENT death of Nobby Stiles underlined that notable players from football’s golden age are passing away at a rapid rate. It rekindled a romantic moment in the history of the game, when a diminutive, toothless and short-sighted character won the World Cup. Such occasions are increasingly rare today.

Little Nobby’s involvement in English football’s finest moment and his life after his playing days is a reminder football wasn’t invented with the Premier League, pay-per-view TV or Russian oligarchs, it grew out of the factories, mills and cobbled streets. I have a notion, when life returns to some form of “normal”, to visit places like Darwen, Nelson, Gainsborough, Glossop, Worksop and others. It may be a little deluded to think I could get some flavour of where and how football grew in these towns, but I’d like to give it a go, maybe catch sight of a mill chimney or two. Although the recent drama, The English Game, seemed a little too much Downton Abbey with a ball, the class struggle that characterised the early development of football was captured.

Today, football has become the property of glitzy metropolitan clubs. The prospect of a small or medium-sized provincial outfit winning the league is now quite unlikely. Indeed, there is something of a correlation between population and football success. Clubs from large cities have more potential for economic growth and building mass supporter engagement. Of course, there are exceptions, but given football’s traditional demographic – working class, male, white – the big cities were always more likely to fuel success. 

Before football became a free market, almost any club, with good management and a few decent players, could take a stab at winning the major prizes. Go right back to the start of the Football League and Preston North End. Today, Preston is a town of 120,000 people, comparable to when they won the league in 1889. Back in the late 19thcentury, Preston drafted in a batch of Scots to build their team and adopted a professional approach and tactical awareness that made them too strong for the opposition.

At the time, nearby Manchester had experienced extraordinary growth during the industrial revolution and its population was close to 700,000. Preston’s moment in the sun, little did they know it, was only going to be short-lived. Like many clubs in the Lancashire area, the growth of Manchester and the rise of United, in particular, cast them into the shadows.

English professional football’s early decades were dominated by the industrial north and midlands, hence clubs like Newcastle and Aston Villa enjoyed their most fruitful and influential eras. It was during this period that football started to define its audience. The emphasis shifted in the 1930s and coincided with the rise of Arsenal. London’s ascendancy – the city had not won a single championship until 1931 – came at a time when the north of England was severely hit by the great depression. 

Scroll forward to the post-war years and big names started to win championships. There were exceptions, such as Tottenham in 1951 and 1961, Chelsea in 1955, Burnley in 1960 and Ipswich Town in 1962. but essentially, the balance of power tipped in the direction of Manchester and Merseyside. By the time Nobby Stiles et al won the World Cup, the two cities had secured four consecutive championships and three of the previous four FA Cups.

Of the teams that pulled-off surprise title wins, the most eye-catching were Portsmouth’s back-to-back achievement of 1949 and 1950, Burnley’s 1960 triumph and Ipswich Town’s 1962 win.

It would not be until 1972 that a team from outside the large cities, Derby County, won the title again and that was largely because of Brian Clough, who built a team that combined function with form thanks to astute transfer market activity. Clough repeated the trick at Nottingham Forest in 1978 with pretty much the same format. Both of these cities had populations of under 300,000 but they were still bigger than Burnley (73,000) and Ipswich (133,000).

Increasingly, though, the growth of the Premier League polarised English football to such an extent that the possibility of similar outstanding feats now seems very remote. Although Aston Villa had a resurgence in 1981, winning the league title and then the European Cup, even Birmingham, England’s second city, struggles to create a winning formula on a sustained basis.

Money can bring temporary success as Blackburn Rovers found in 1995, who benefitted from the cash of long-time supporter Jack Walker. Rovers won the title and sunk back to where they had come from in a relatively short cycle. The Leicester story of 2016 was astonishing, people had forgotten that clubs from outside of London, Liverpool and Manchester can actually win trophies. The sprinkling of stardust may no longer be available in Darwen, Nelson and Gainsborough, but it may be worth remembering where the roots of the game we all love can be traced back to and how past heroes like Nobby Stiles generally emerged from the humblest of backgrounds.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends Magazine, reproduced with permission.

Photo: PA Images

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