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The Rise of the Professional Footballer
Maxwell (based on his article first published in Family History Monthly)
One of the most significant games in the history of English football took place in front of 8000 spectators at Kennington Oval, the home of Surrey County Cricket Club, on 1 April 1883. Blackburn Olympic, a team made up largely of plumbers, sheet-metal workers, spinners and weavers, beat the gentlemen of the Old Etonians to take the FA Cup north for the first time in its eleven-year history.
Although they quickly faded into obscurity, Blackburn Olympic’s victory
marked the final shift in footballing
power from the gentlemen-amateur to the workingman from the industrial
heartlands of the midlands and the north. The
Blackburn team also included players who appeared to earn their living purely
from football: professionals in all but name.
It was this fact that rankled with the amateurs of the south and when
Blackburn Olympic received the Cup it was to ‘somewhat reluctant applause’.
On the other hand ecstatic crowds greeted the team on their return to
Blackburn for what the Blackburn Times called ‘a signal victory of the
plebeian over patrician Englishmen’. Football had its
roots as an organised sport on the playing fields of
Charterhouse, Eton and many of the country’s elite education institutions
including Oxford and Cambridge universities.
The game spread from London and the south of England to the industrial
north and midlands, largely pioneered by public-school men.
Its emergence as the nation’s favourite sport was greatly facilitated
by the introduction of Saturday half-holidays for industrial workers, a real
rise in wages, the rapid growth of towns and cities and cheap public transport
to serve them.
increasingly popularity, football remained, officially at least, an amateur
sport until the mid-1880s. Amateurs
founded the Football Association in 1863, and all-amateur clubs contested the
first FA Cup in 1872. Sides
such as the Wanderers, Old Etonians and Oxford University dominated the era.
A.F. Kinnaird, later Lord Kinnaird, was one of the most brilliant of the
first generation of public-school footballers.
Playing in long white trousers and quartered cap and sporting a superb
flowing red beard, he was a great crowd pleaser: at the 1882 cup final he stood
on his head in front of the stands. Kinnaird
was a notable exponent of ‘hacking’ – the deliberate kicking of an
opponent’s shins – which he, and many early amateur players, considered
crucial to the ‘manly’ character of football.
His mother once told the FA secretary C W Alcock, of her fear that Arthur
would one day return with a broken leg. ‘If
he does, it won’t be his own’, Alcock replied.
By the 1880s football had become an increasingly important
business dominated by professional clubs run as companies, playing on their own
grounds and using paid players and officials who saw the game as a career.
Although a team sport, it was soon apparent that the presence of star
players attracted bigger crowds. Despite
the Football Association’s commitment to amateurism, it was already clear that
what was later dubbed ‘shamateurism’ was rife.
The bigger clubs were enticing away the better players with large
signing-on fees, the offer of a job, or payment in the form of lavish expenses
and by putting money into players’ boots on match days.
Best remembered of these early professionals was Glaswegian stonemason, Fergus Suter, a fullback who played a prominent
role in the great Blackburn Rovers teams of the 1880s.
Suter began his career with Partick Thistle in 1879 but was attracted
south of the Border by Turton Football Club who were prepared to flout the rules
and pay him £3 for playing in a local cup competition.
Within twelve months he was at Lancashire club Darwen along with fellow
Scot James Love, where they were among the first players to find money in their
boots after the game. Darwen
refuted accusations that Suter was a professional, but as the player himself
later put it ‘I would interview the treasurer as occasion arose’.
Suter quickly became a favourite with the supporters but he caused a
major outcry when he moved to local rivals Blackburn Rovers in 1880.
When Suter played against Darwen for the first since his transfer, the
game attracted a crowd of 10,000 and the subsequent disturbances proved so
serious that the referee was forced to abandon the game.
A feature of most successful English teams of the 1880s and
1890s was the number of Scottish players.
The Lancashire clubs in particular
actively recruited in Scotland and the Scottish press carried many
advertisements of jobs available in Blackburn, Burnley and other cotton towns
for men with footballing talent. These
‘Scotch professors’ owed their reputation to their commitment to winning and
their skill at the passing game, rather than the ‘kick and rush’ or
individual dribbling styles favoured in England.
Bolton, Darwen, and Preston included many Scottish players, and
the first Liverpool of 1892, did not contain a single English player, quickly
becoming known as the ‘team of the macs’.
In 1882 the Association reaffirmed its commitment to an amateur game, with payments strictly limited to out-of-pocket expenses. Accrington were thrown out of the FA after being found guilty of paying one of their players, and Preston were disqualified from the FA Cup after admitting playing players. Nevertheless, it was obvious that most clubs were prepared to pay their better players and for a time it seemed that football would split along the same geographical lines as rugby and form two separate leagues. Matters came to a head in October 1884, when a number of northern clubs banded together with a view to setting up a professional football league. In July 1885 FA succumbed to the inevitable and legalised professionalism. Appropriately the FA cup final that year featured Queens Park, the last amateur team to play in football’s most glamorous occasion.
After 1885, the
number of professional footballers in England and Wales rose rapidly.
In 1891 the Football League had 448 registered players, most of whom were
part-time or full-time professionals.
The Scots, on the other hand, remained steadfastly opposed to the
introduction of professionalism until 1893. The most vocal opponents to its
introduction were Queen's Park and the Scottish press, who regularly described
footballers who were tempted south as "base mercenaries " or
"traitorous wretches". The larger clubs however were prepared to keep
the better players north of the Border by paying them under the counter.
In 1890 Celtic faced a player-revolt when they enticed some players back
to Scotland by offering them higher wages than they paid the rest of the team.
Rangers too were prepared to spend their ample resources on improving
their team. Officially
only players who had to take days off work to play were allowed `broken time'
payments. It is hardly
surprising that this system was regularly abused.
When Hibs won the Scottish Cup in 1887 their opponents called in a
private detective to investigate rumours of financial irregularities at the
Edinburgh club. He found the club paid one Hibs player, Groves, an apprentice
stonemason, was paid a £1 broken time payment for missing three days at work
despite the fact that he would normally only earn between 7/6d to 10/- a week.
Three years after the founding of the Scottish League in 1890,
professionalism was finally approved in the Scottish game and within 12 months
83 clubs had registered almost 800 professional players.
When professionalism was recognized in England in 1885, the
FA Cup was the central feature of the playing season, with friendlies and local
cup competitions making up the rest. Early
elimination from the FA Challenge Cup, or any of the local cup competitions,
left most teams without a game. Professional
players had to be paid whether or not they were playing and the bigger clubs
needed to ensure a more regular income. It
was the Scot, William McGregor, who championed the idea of a league, based on
the system employed by County Cricket.
It was to be a regular competition in which selected teams would agree to
play each other on set dates, on a home and away basis, promising to field their
strongest team and to give the league fixtures preference over all others.
In total contrast to the FA Cup when it started,
twelve founding members of the Football League in 1888 (Accrington
Stanley, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County,
Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and
Wolverhampton Wanderers) were professional or at least semi-professional
outfits. Another major difference was that they were all from the north
or midlands. It was not until 1893
that the first professional London club – Woolwich Arsenal – joined the
Football not only
offered a few a better standard of living than factory work or mining, they also
had the opportunity to become local and even national heroes.
As early as 1892, one commentator, Charles Edwards, was writing of
the best players that they were in their neighbourhoods ‘the objects of
popular adoration’. He continued ‘They go to the wars in saloon carriages.
Their supporters attend them to the railway station to wish them “God
speed”, and later in the evening meet them on their return, and either cheer
them with affectionate heartiness, or condole with them and solace them with as
much beer as their principles (that is, their trainer) will allow them to
accommodate. They are better known
than the local members of Parliament.’
One of the stars of the Victorian and Edwardian era was
Steve Bloomer a prolific goal scorer, scoring 353 League goals between 1892 and
1914. His family moved from Cradley,
Worcestershire, to Derby when Steve was five years old and he later learned to
play football at elementary school. He
was signed by Derby County, at a wage of 7s 6d per week, after scoring four
goals in one match for their reserves. The
club secretary described him as ‘pale, thin, ghost-like, almost ill-looking’,
and some of the crowd laughed when they first saw him.
Despite his physique, Bloomer had a very modern approach to the game.
The club records show that he had a fiery temper, and on numerous
occasions was admonished by the Derby board of directors for insobriety and
neglect of training.
One of the most colourful characters of the period was
goalkeeper - Billy “Fatty” Foulke. He was 6ft 2ins high and weighed 15 stone
at the age of 19 when he first played for Sheffield United in 1894. In the days when goalies could still be charged into
the net, his weight was an obvious advantage.
Foulke eventually reached an impressive 22 stone, but this didn't stop
him helping United win the League championship, two FA Cup finals and even
securing an England cap. "Fatty” Foulke eventually moved to Chelsea where
he was made captain and adored by the fans. 'I don't mind what they call me’,
he once boasted, ‘as long as they don't call me late for my lunch.'
The star attraction at most grounds during the Edwardian
era was bandy-legged outside-right Billy Meredith.
Once described as ‘the football wonder of all time’, Meredith was
footballs first superstar. With
his trademark toothpick he played for both Manchester clubs in a long career
consisting of 1,584 games (at various levels) during which he scored 470 goals.
This is more remarkable feat given the fact that the FA suspended him on
two occasions over allegations of match fixing and illegal payments.
Meredith was almost 50 when he played his last competitive game for
Manchester City against Newcastle United in an FA Cup semi final.
The coming of the Football League in 1888-9 and the
intensified competition between the elite clubs led to a struggle to obtain the
best players. A direct result was
an increase in players’ earnings. A
writer in the Athletic News Football Annual of 1893 claimed that the
average wage of the professional footballer was £3 per week in winter and £2
per week in summer. Sunderland
players were allegedly receiving £3 per week all the year round by 1893 and Tom
Brandon, the Blackburn Rovers and England international, was taking home £4 per
week in 1896. Bonuses might also be
paid for good performances: Aston
Villa were paying bonuses of up to £2 for away matches in 1895-6, depending on
the strength of the opposition and the importance of the matches, while the
players of Sheffield Wednesday in the 1890s received a bonus which grew by £1
for each round of the FA Cup which they won.
By the end of the nineteenth century the average professional player was
earning about twice the wage of the average skilled worker at the time.
The better players also earned considerable from playing international
matches, and from endorsing products such as Oxo, Bovril, cigarettes and boots.
In a bid to control costs the FA eventually sanctioned a maximum wage of
£4 in 1901 – for many of the star players it meant a cut in wages.
However, the life of
a nineteenth century football professional was not all glamour.
Players suffered from the ‘retain and transfer’ system, which gave
his club virtually complete control over his career.
Once signed, having collected a maximum fee of £10, the player became
the property of the club, and could not be transferred except with the club’s
permission. The player’s only right under this system was
to refuse to go to a team to which he was being transferred, but this could
result in the loss of wages and a bad reputation.
Nevertheless, the transfer system caused considerable controversy.
When Sunderland-born inside-forward Alf Common, was transferred to
Middlesborough for £1000 it caused a popular outcry.
Some members of the Football Association, most notably J.C. Clegg, had
long believed that the practice of ‘buying and selling players is
unsportsmanlike and most objectionable in itself, and ought not to be
entertained by those who desire to see the game played under proper conditions.’
The life of the
professional footballer was one of constant insecurity.
There was the continual threat of injury, fear that his annual contract
would not be renewed, and the knowledge that someone more able would come along
to take his place. The legendry
Billy Meredith was quite cynical about the life of the professional
Every hour of the day he lives in an atmosphere
which reminds him of nothing else but football; and he finishes the week playing
before a great crowd of people, who often expect him to perform more like a
machine than a human being subject to pains, aches, and illnesses, to say
nothing of some ugly wound which the stud of a boot had opened, but which his
pluck and loyalty to his club causes him to forget in his whole-souled desire to
secure a victory for his side.’ The
professional football was away from his family, particularly during the festive
period, required to train. ‘Add
to all this the possible risk of having to stay for weeks in hospital nursing a
broken ankle or a dislocated collar-bone, and it must surely be agreed that the
life of the professional football player is not quite so gilded an occupation as
it might appear.
Their social status
had nevertheless risen, as Meredith noted.
The days were gone, he commented, when hotel proprietors ‘absolutely
refused to allow a football team on their premises’, while in ‘dress,
conduct and general behaviour’ the paid player was well able to take care of
himself. Charles Edwards,
writing in 1892, was convinced that the rapid rise in wages ‘will be a great
temptation for the sons of middle and upper class families to try a career.’ He added, with a touch of relief, ‘Existing professionals
do not describe themselves as gentlemen’.
The status of the
professional football player altered dramatically upon retirement.
Few stayed in the game. . It
quickly became a tradition that footballers acquired shops or pubs.
Pubs were particularly popular because as the Athletic Journal
noted in 1890, ‘A footballer behind the bar is as great an attraction as a
long-legged giant or a fat woman’. However,
for many former players a return to manual labour or destitution beckoned once
they hung up their boots. Arthur Wharton, the first black professional football
player, who kept goal for a number of northern clubs between 1888 and 1902, died
a penniless coal miner. James
Trainor, once a renowned Preston goalkeeper was reduced to begging from the
supporters. Micky Bennett
played for Sheffield United and England, but he was killed in the pit at the age
of 33 having returned to his former occupation after a premature end to his
footballing life. Ted Brayshaw of
Sheffield Wednesday and England died, aged only 44, in Wadsley Bridge Asylum,
the later stages of his life marked by ‘poverty, misery and despair’.
By the end of the nineteenth century football had developed from a sport played by a number of private amateur clubs whose members played for their own amusement, to an increasingly professional business dominated by professional clubs. ‘The great and widespread interest in football is a manifest fact’, declared the great all-round athlete, cricketer and footballer C.B. Fry in 1895. ‘So much so that nowadays it is frequently urged that cricket can no longer be regarded as our “national game” in the true sense of the word. Football it is claimed, has now the first place in the popular heart’. A century later it has retained its place as the nation’s favourite spectator sport, and millions of supporters remain as devoted to their teams and star players as their Victorian and Edwardian ancestors. More than ever many employees will agree with one late nineteenth century critic of football who complained: ‘It’s ruining the country. The young men talk of nothing else. Their intellect all goes into football. They can’t work properly for thinking of it. Never saw such a state of affairs in my life’.