Sports Journalism and the Progression of Football through the Victorian Period
“I must confess that I have myself a strong predilection for football”
When looking for a Victorian novel which can relate to this subject, I came across Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes; this novel is set in a public school and follows the main character, Tom Brown’s progression through the school from joining mid-point through the term.
The Football Match
‘Hold the punt-about!’ ‘To the goals!’ are the cries; and all stray balls are
impounded by the authorities, and the whole mass of boys moves up towards the
two goals, dividing as they go into three bodies. That little band on the left,
consisting of from fifteen to twenty boys, Tom amongst them, who are making for
the goal under the School-house wall, are the School-house boys who are not to
play up, and have to stay in goal. The larger body moving to the island goal are
the School boys in a like predicament. The great mass in the middle are the
players-up, both sides mingled together; they are hanging their jackets (and all
who mean real work), their hats, waistcoats, neck-handkerchiefs, and braces, on
the railings round the small trees; and there they go by twos and threes up to
their respective grounds. There is none of the colour and tastiness of get-up, you
will perceive, which lends such a life to the present game at Rugby, making the
dullest and worst-fought match a pretty sight. Now each house has its own
uniform of cap and jersey, of some lively colour; but at the time we are speaking
of plush caps have not yet come in, or uniforms of any sort, except the Schoolhouse
white trousers, which are abominably cold today. Let us get to work bareheaded,
and girded with our plain leather straps. But we mean business,
Despite this novel focussing mainly around the game of rugby, it can be used to look at sport and the role sport played in Victorian life, especially the school life of boys growing up in this period. Although this novel does show the vast difference between the modern obsession with sport, especially football, compared to during the Victorian period, this novel does highlight the key role that sport plays for a boy at school, much as sport, especially football does today. I drew resemblances continuously whilst reading this novel with the way sport can often create a hierarchy between boys, those who are good at sports at the top and then working its way progressively down.
This extract from Tom Brown’s School Days shows the drastic change in the game of football since this point in the Victorian period, although this book depicts a game described as a football match, it is much more similar to what we would now call rugby. Without an outline of laws for what are two different games, the early Victorian period saw a very violent combination of the two games which is depicted in Thomas Hughes’ novel, the violent nature of the game led to the need for rules and is what led to the development during the Victorian period that saw football become what it is today.
The Victorian period saw the roots of this now world renowned sport really start to develop into the game we know today, aside from the ox-bladder balls, baggy-kneed knickerbockers and outstanding moustaches, the slightly odd world of 19th century football set the basis of the currently most popular sport on the planet. Not only did the Victorian period start bringing a change in the way football was played and affiliated, it also began a drastic change in the way the game was publically followed, with the origins of footballs most popular clubs spouting from this eras. The most drastic change could be seen in the way that football during this period became something people could write about, and consequently, everyone else was given the opportunity to read about the weekend’s football.
A Football Match – Correspondent 1892
‘Goal Post’ provides an anthology put together by Paul Brown collecting some of the best Victorian football writing showing the development of the game, written by those who were there to witness such growth. Looking at a match report from 1982 you can only help but make various stark comparisons with the modern game and writing style, “an important league match is to be played, and there must be quite eight or ten thousand people present”, this is clearly different to the 50,000 average attendance that many Premier League clubs now achieve week in week out not to mention the record Premier League attendance standing at 76,000 at Old Trafford in 2007. This is the most obvious example of the pre-mentioned modern public frenzy that surrounds football that has clearly spouted from the basis that was laid out by the Victorians who introduced the concept of spending their Saturday afternoons following their local club around the country.
One of the main things I noticed when reading several Victorian football reports from ‘Goal Post’, they’re written as stories, written in chronological order, this allows each piece to be read almost as if you were watching the game, seeming to be the key style in Victorian sports reporting. This is very different to the modern form of sports reporting which aims at writing news stories in an inverted pyramid, most important first. It could be seen that this coincides with the development and increased popularity of the sport, with hundreds of game each weekend currently, no one has the time to sit and read the ‘story’ of each game, this could also relate to the modern television coverage of almost any match you want to see, technology was still almost a hundred years away from being able to this in the Victorian period and therefore for anyone wanting to follow the sport, the best they could do was sit and read the long winded write up of each game.
It should be noted that football was originally a game played mainly by working class men, as well as by middle class boys. This is what partially led to the development of the game during the Victorian period, middle class employers began a campaign against sports such as football which left working class men injured and unable to work. This wasn’t quite the case in middle class schools, such as in Tom Browns School Days where the children were free to play as they pleased but increasing concern of parents who often found their children returning home with a number of injuries led to the outlaw of such violent forms of sports and a distinct set of rules being set down. The class difference in people playing these sports is something that you would struggle to find even in the slightest in a modern era, football is commonly seen as everyman’s game and you will find people following and playing football from all walks of life, class completely unrelated.
The increase of popularity in this game can be seen no more than in the sheer increase of people writing about it, the ‘goal post’ anthology showed me how when the game initially became popular and people began to follow the sport during the mid-Victorian period, rarely more than one journalist would follow each team and travel to home and away games providing write-ups of each game for the club and local papers. Sports Journalism is now such a legitimate and competitive career that not only hundreds of journalists will be at each game providing reports and in depth analysis, there is also thousands of amateur journalists writing about each game online and on various other formats.
A key difference should also be noted in what it means to be a football fan in the modern era compared to being a football fan during the Victorian period, as well as what it means to be a footballer now compared to then. Modern football fans see football as a crucial part in their way of life, weekends involve following your team in whatever way possible, whether it be travelling across the country on a cold winters day to sit in the stand and watch your team, or watching them on TV or searching through the internet to find any way possible to watch your teams game. This contrasts massively to a Victorian football fan, even if they did ritually follow a team as people do today, which would be very unlikely, they would have no way to see any coverage of the game and would have relied on the odd report on the game or heard through word of mouth of the teams successes that week. Modern day footballers are celebrities in their own way, earing thousands of pounds a week, this could have only ever been a distant fantasy for a Victorian player who would have spent his week working and then a Saturday afternoon of football would have been his time off, rather than going to work as it is for these modern footballers.
It is quite clear the Victorian period paved the way for what is now a vital part of modern day society and for many people something they see as a way of life, what the Victorians set out as a past-time has now become a very wealthy profession compared to its very humble roots in the mid-Victorian period.
Thomas Hughes (2013). Tom Brown's School Days. London: Harper Press.
Paul Brown (2012). Goal Post: Victorian Football. London: Goal-Post.