Modern Football was born in the 19th century

modern football

The birth of modern football in England

Modern football was born in the second half the 19th century. The first seed was scattered in 1850 with an extension of the Factory Acts, the Compromise Act. Among other things it introduced the end of work at 2 pm on Saturdays. This gave factory workers free time for the first time.

Football was a sport that cost relatively little money and some factory owners supported the sporting activities of their workers, provided equipment and sometimes paid for trips to away games. A win-win situation, because this way the owners were sure that their workers did not spend their free time lazing around with excessive alcohol consumption and the soccer-loving workers had an alternative – also for miners and their physically and mentally exhausting work underground. There were also many works clubs at the time, some of which still exist today, such as the Dial Square munitions factory (Arsenal FC), the Thames Iron Works (West Ham) or the Newton Heath LYR Company (Manchester United).

Pub owners also contributed to the commercialisation of football. They took advantage of their visitors’ interest in competitions and the results of the local club. They therefore offered a results service for those who were unable to attend the games. The results were transmitted by telegraph and pinned to the wall by a piece of paper. The publication of the results also aroused the curiosity of pub visitors not previously interested in football, thus further increasing interest in the sport.

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Modern football is a catchphrase. A buzzword that has predominantly negative connotations in times of staggering 50+1, increasing commercialisation, fragmented matchdays etc. But was football old before? Antique? Not at all, of course. From an etymological point of view, modern means nothing other than “fashionable/after today’s fashion”. Synonyms are adjectives such as current, new, contemporary and thus also mean progressive and something that has just become popular (“modo”).

Seen in this light, the question of modern football is about the phase in which football was popular with the masses of the population and not just a few nerds and in which the original form was further developed.

Modern football and commercialisation

Unlike people from the upper class, football did not serve the workers as a healthy lifestyle and to learn fair play, because they could not become gentlemen. It served them as a conviviality and a challenge. Thus, the social basis of football changed – from the former private pupils from the upper and middle classes to workers, from a mere game to a paid job. In addition to a healthy lifestyle, many wanted to be rewarded for their efforts during their already scarce free time. And club owners, often with a view to enhancing their own reputation, also rewarded good footballers. This increased the ambitions of many active players. This was further fuelled by the prospect of becoming a local hero in the event of victory – a social recognition that the workers could not otherwise receive. The proverbial English harshness was a reflection of the social background of the football players from the working class.

Although it was officially forbidden to pay footballers financially, clubs circumvented this regulation and either offered payment in kind and movables or undemanding work for the same wage in the factory or paid wages per game. The term professional has been used in England since the 1850s, shortly after the Compromise Act. However, the term “amateur” has only existed in England since the 1880s; it was used by gentlemen to distinguish themselves from the paid football sport, which they called “shamateurism”. For some gentlemen there was a veritable apocalyptic mood as a result of “americanisation”, which supposedly led to the stupefaction and brutalisation of big-city people. Or they stigmatized paid football as a cancer that destroys sport from within. Gentlemen in the FAs tried to stigmatize the underhanded pay by disqualifications and suspensions of players and clubs. But all moralising did not stop the course of events.

A question of progressiveness?

The line between professional and amateur football was not a line between the South (amateurs) and the North (professionals), as Lowerson and Koller mentioned. It was also not a border between the richer (upper and middle classes) and the working class. The division was made by the middle class and thus also by club committees and football players; namely between those from the middle class who committed themselves to the gentleman ideals and those who invested in the sources of income of the emerging mass sport, for example as bookmakers, construction and transport companies, beverage producers or managers of the sporting goods industry. But the division into North and South tends to be correct, even if not as rigid. After all, in Lancashire, in the north-east of England, the more or less concealed payment of wages was widespread. It was not only English workers who were paid for playing football, but above all Scottish footballers who deliberately left their home country to become paid footballers in England, knowing that professional football was banned in England (in Scotland professional football was allowed later than in England). But they also quickly found employment, as their playing finesse was well known. So it happened that more and more Scottish football players had to stay in England by chance (who believes it…) because they missed the train home… Charles Edward Sutcliffe, J. A. Brierley and F. Howarth, who published a review on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Football League with “The Story of the Football League 1888-1938”, summarized this phase in their introduction as follows:

“The first real development follows the appearance in Lancashire – often under mysterious circumstances – of Scottish players who had strayed over the Border or been surreptitiously spirited across, and by others who had conveniently ‘missed the train back’ home after coming down with Scottish clubs to visit English clubs. The precise reasons which gave rise to this invasion do not matter a great deal to-day. What it is important to remember is that these were the days of amateurism, and that the influx of so many Scotsmen under suspicious circumstances led to a crisis which had far-reaching consequences.”

This far-reaching consequence was called the Football League. For after Preston North End was excluded from the FA Cup in 1884 because their pay and recruitment of players became public, 40 clubs such as Lancashire, Aston Villa, Walsall Swifts and Sunderland protested and announced that they would withdraw from the now national FA and create a British Football Association in which professional football was permitted.

The spiral of modern football begins to turn

Previously, Secretary Alcock recognised that the development of professional football was unstoppable and tried to control it by legalising it. In July 1885, professional football was permitted, albeit initially with a salary cap and other conditions: Players had to be registered with the FA, either born within a radius of six miles of the venue or had to have lived there for at least two years and were not allowed to play for more than one club during a season – except by special permission from the FA. The FA justified its change of opinion by referring to footballers’ wages as “irrelevant consideration”, i.e. by virtually excluding football matches from reality. According to the FA, betting matches are part of a game sphere protected by the rules of irrelevance and therefore amateur football could exist alongside professional football. Many gentlemen, however, turned away from this sport with the legalisation of professional football.

In 1888, the English professional league, the Football League (FL), was founded, which initially consisted mainly of clubs from Northern England. The FL was a success story from the very beginning. The first season with 22 games was attended by a total of around 602,000 spectators (approx. 2488 spectators per game), ten years later there were already over five million (approx. 8651 spectators per game). In 1892, the FL Second Division was founded, in which clubs that were not as successful as the FL clubs could compete. The increased interest in football was also due to the routine that went along with the league games, because it increased quality – and also the expenses for ever better players. For example, in 1893 Middlesborough Ironopolis acquired an entirely new team within three days to finally match the hated Huddersfield and Preston rivals. Alcock’s goal, the control of professional football, had failed.

In 1890 the FA set a maximum salary of ten pounds per month (equivalent to about 500 pounds today), but just three years later star players were usually paid between 50 and 75 pounds per month. These were in the strong minority, however, as the average salary of professional footballers this year was three pounds/month in winter (i.e. during the FL season) and two pounds/month in summer (outside the FL season). In addition, there were winner bonuses of a maximum of two pounds per game won. Salaries were generally non-negotiable and were based on the player’s success. Only star players had a say.

This text is a synthesis of my article written in German for 120 minutes. You can read it here. The link is currently not available due to a server migration. Sorry!