Two halves with a single purpose

Football’s billionaire owners and millionaire players would do well to remember that the sport grew out of a need to improve the health of the disadvantaged, foster community cohesion and to alleviate poverty. Nick Reeves offers a guide to the social roots of the modern professional game

On the line
Modern professional football is far removed from the grass roots but the history of the game is the story of social and environmental campaigning

The Emirates Stadium
The modern game's view of football

Into touch
The founding spirit of association football


If you thought that the beautiful game was just about football, think again. The game of two halves is also a game of two goals: sport for all and social cohesion.

In today’s era of super-rich owners and celebrity players the roots of football have largely been forgotten but those who founded the game had a high purpose. Sadly, this has evaporated over time and if one looks at the websites of the big clubs one finds only passing reference to those who founded them and why. This is a shame because the English game’s ragged, inspirational, late-Victorian origins should be better known, celebrated and emulated. Football had always been a means to an end: a way of improving the lives of the poor and a source of hope. Its founding principles were citizenship and community, principles that the rapid development and rise of the sport as a global business has air-brushed from our national psyche and our culture. While many of the big modern clubs do run community schemes, these are a far cry from those that existed over a hundred years ago. The communities ‘owned’ the clubs that they founded and they engaged in a much wider range of activities that included environmental improvement, healthcare and the alleviation of poverty. This was nineteenth-century industrial Britain when football provided a much-needed antidote to the decay of slum towns and unhealthy lifestyles.

As every school child knows, the industrial revolution led to untold economic wealth, a British empire and rapid social change. This was a time of great strides in engineering and science, the meteoric rise of the middle classes and a period in which wealthy industrialists assumed the levers of political power. It is all too easy to get dewy-eyed about our industrial past; we must not forget that this was wealth sweated on the backs of an urbanised working class, many of whom lived and worked in abject poverty and squalor in terrible environments. This was also the age of Britain’s shame: the workhouse and child labour.

Terrible housing and poor sanitation caused disease, misery and high infant mortality. Successive cholera epidemics in most of our big towns and worsening living conditions demanded that something be done to improve the lot of working people. The established church and other faith groups stepped in and football supporters today may only be vaguely aware that many of our top football clubs were formed as church teams. Clubs like Birmingham City, Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester City, Barnsley and Tottenham Hotspur were founded by Christian men and women who believed that sport offered the physical exercise necessary to improve the health of young boys and men who spent their days in mindless toil. They offered nourishing human values too: teamwork, friendship, citizenship and self-reliance, values that are barely recognisable in today’s professional game where cash and celebrity reign, and where scandal after scandal has blighted its image.

Football in the late 1800s was a prime mover for better living conditions and community cohesion. It inspired ordinary men and women to take matters in to their own hands and gave them the confidence to improve their local environments by improving their living conditions. Sports pitches, public parks and open spaces sprung up in every industrial town; football clubs helped to make life more tolerable. However, despite the improvements, let’s not forget that the streets around the churches were still the filthy, violent, exploited and disease-ridden terraces of industrial England. In Manchester it is said that “the workers were shovelled in to the eastern districts because the wind blew the smog that way” and Friedrich Engels, in his iconic description of the condition of the working classes in Manchester, wrote despairingly of “the revolting character of this hell upon earth”.

The sport has its real heroes but who has ever heard of Anna Connell? Anna deserves our recognition and admiration. She was the 25 year-old daughter of the rector of St Mark’s church in Gorton who, against all odds, insisted on founding in 1880 the football club which became Manchester City. Gorton was a hell-hole, thrown up to accommodate rural and immigrant workers arriving as factory fodder and cheap labour for the enrichment of others. They lived in houses crammed together with more regard for the saving of ground rent than for the comfort of their inhabitants. With no proper sanitation (two outside toilets for every 250 people) or access to clean water, cholera and typhoid were rife. Soup kitchens were a common necessity as people survived on starvation-level rations. Anna Connell argued and fought for the improvement of the quality of people’s lives through the vehicle of football, playing fields and healthier living. She gave local people a purpose and created a great football club besides.

Forget for a moment Fulham’s present day middle-class leafy desirability. In 1883 it was full of the labouring poor working on the railway and existing in dirt and squalor. It was the rector of St Andrew's Church who established the football club we know today and did much to rid the area of poverty and give the community a sense of hope and purpose. Even Southampton, which had been green fields by the seaside until the docks opened in 1842, was, by the time St Mary’s Church established a young men’s association and football club in 1885, full of terrible slums riddled with crime, prostitution and drunkenness. The rector was Basil Wilberforce, grandson of William Wilberforce, who led the movement to abolish slavery. Basil established wholesome recreational activities at St Mary’s, including rowing, cricket and a night school; there were also soup kitchens for the starving. This was cutting-edge stuff that the Southampton FC plc of today celebrated by naming the club’s new stadium after the church that spawned it.

In the ‘industrial workshop of England’ Birmingham City FC began life as Small Heath Alliance in 1875 and was formed by worshippers at Holy Church, Bordesley Green “to relieve the poverty and dreadful working conditions of the factory workers”. They began with a cricket team but such was the need and demand for healthy outdoor pursuits that they created the football club too. 

Those who founded the great English football clubs gave their lives to promoting football as a civilising force amid grime, crime, pollution and poverty. People like Anna Connell in Manchester, Henry Cardwell in Fulham and Basil Wilberforce in Southampton. They and the values they espoused deserve to be remembered and celebrated. It is a shame that their legacy has been lost and squandered. The game soon became a raw spectator sport, competition led to players being paid and rich men, sensing profit and celebrity, backed the clubs. By the early 1900s most clubs converted from non-profit-making associations to limited companies. One by one the clubs dropped the churches and the community leaders and set their sights on fame, money and glory. While some may see this as progress, I regard it as sad and an opportunity lost.

One of the saddest stories to emerge at this time was the case of John Ripsher. Peter Lupson tells Ripsher’s story in his book, Thank God for Football, and he tells the tale of a genuine unsung hero. Ripsher was a bible class teacher who was also a founding father and president (for eleven years) of Tottenham Hotspur. He eventually stood down and the club lost contact with him. Blindness and failing health meant that he could no longer work and he ended up in the infamous Union Road workhouse in Dover, where he died in poverty in 1906 and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Ripsher gave his life to Tottenham Hotspur in its most difficult formative years and he gave hope to the poor of the local community. It is a sad reflection on the club he once led that he should end up in the kind of poverty from which he lifted so many during his lifetime.

Football’s relentless, and ultimately unsustainable, pursuit of profit is a betrayal of its founding spirit and of those who established it. Football was about fellowship for the poor, for community care, for the alleviation of poverty and for a better  environment for all. The present corrupt state of the game, with its celebrity culture and the money-men, has created an undercurrent of supporters wanting their clubs back and, although it might seem romantic, I sense that there is a possibility that clubs may well rediscover their original ethos and purpose, the spiritual dimension that should be at the heart of all sport.  After all, poverty and social exclusion are still with us. There’s still a job to be done and football is ideally placed to do what’s right.

Some big clubs, like Manchester City and Arsenal, are signing up to sustainability and to corporate social responsibility but for a model of how this works in practice they can do no better than look back to their roots and to those who created the clubs in the first place.  

Nick Reeves is executive director of CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, and a regular contributor to The Leisure Review. Cut him and he bleeds Birmingham City.



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