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Friday, 25 May 2012

“…Skims Down the Wing like a Bird in Flight, Such are his Ease and Grace and Skill; and at the Right Moment – Thud! and the Ball has Whizzed into the Net, a Splendid and Most Excellent Goal:” Or: London Football in 1903:

To honour the fact that Chelsea have recently become the first team from the capital to win the European Cup, I thought it pertinent to mark the occasion with a football-based bit of history. I must admit, this article is not quite Victorian, having been written in 1902.
It comes from a three-part anthology entitled ‘Living London’ edited by George R Sims. If you’re unfamiliar with Sims, here is an article I wrote about him a couple of Christmases ago, to celebrate his poem ‘In the Workhouse, Christmas Day’

If you have an interest in London history, ‘Living London’ is well worth seeking out, and, in fact, I have used it as a source on here before, on this this article article about pawnbroking.

The following article is entitled ‘Football London’ and was written by Henry Leach:

In Battersea Park
There is one section of London's vast population which doesn't care a jot for football, another which goes simply mad over   it, and there is every reason to believe that the latter is increasing considerably. And these two sections, be it remembered, are not merely and respectively the old and the young. Whilst there are ragged urchins kicking paper balls in back alleys in Fulham and Whitechapel, there are top-hatted, frockcoated gentlemen with grey beards, who sorrow over the passing of sixty winters, but who yet on this same afternoon are kicking the boards in front of them on the stand at Queen's Club, so high and so uncontrollable is their excitement as they watch the fortunes of a great match. Only in the brief half-time interval, when the players are being refreshed, is the nervous strain the least bit slackened.  A football ground, after all, is one of the   best places in the World for the observation of raw human nature.

There have been many eras of London football, and of such stern stuff is the London football enthusiast made that for a period of adversity, extending over nearly two decades, he could still keep his mind steadfastly fixed on one great purpose and work unceasingly for its accomplishment. So in 1901, when Tottenham Hotspur won the English Cup, the equality of London with the rest of the football world – not to say its superiority – was re-established.
Football in London rouses itself from its summer's sleep less readily than it does in the   provinces, where they keep a vigil on the last night of August that they may the earlier kick the ball when September dawns. In London we are not so precipitous, and we recognise the right of King Cricket to prolong his life for a few more days if he may. Nevertheless, when the autumn comes, football is in the air, and the great professional clubs lose no time in the commencement of their business. Even in August, when the sun is hot o'erhead, and when, according to football law, no matches shall be played under pain of the most grievous penalties – yes, even in this warm, mellow month, if you come with me down to Woolwich or to Tottenham I could show you crowds some thousand s strong.  And these would be criticising, praising and condemning, hoping and despairing, but all of them yelling, as they watch the first practice games of the season in which old and new players are weighed in the balance and accepted or rejected for the League team as the case may be. This is a time for nervous excitement   for all concerned, and indeed in this respect there is only one other period which may be properly likened unto this one upon the threshold of the season's campaign.  And that other one is eight months in advance, in the last days of March and the beginning of  April, when the proven  stalwarts of the season close together for the final bout in which the honours at last are the laurels of absolute and undisputed championship.

It seems to me that few modern pastimes can so conjure up in one's mind a vision of the games of old as this practice football, when the qualities of the players are being tested, and when every mind is on the strain as to how the best possible team shall be selected. Every individual of the crowd round the rails has an interest in the result. Either he pays his half-guinea for a season ticket, or his admission money every Saturday, and if the team is not to his liking he will want to know the reason why. Nominally the committee is the arbiter and it actually makes the choice of men; but no committee of a professional club in the metropolitan area or anywhere else would dare to neglect the force of public opinion to any substantial extent. You see, it takes some   thousands a year to run these professional clubs, and those thousands have to come from the men who are shouting round the green.
And so it happens that when Sandy McTavish, the new forward, who has come all the way from Motherwell, Dumbarton, or the Vale of Leven for four pounds a week, strips himself and bounds into the ring for practice and for judgment, his feelings on analysis are found to be much the same as those of the gladiator in the glorious days of Rome. Sandy skims down the wing like a bird in flight, such are his ease and grace and skill; and at the right moment – thud! and the ball has whizzed into the net, a splendid and  most excellent  goal. Sandy thus has made his mute appeal. The crowd is appreciative, it, screams its pleasure, the latest Scot is the greatest hero, and – it is thumbs up for Sandy. But what if he fumbled and fell, and, perhaps through sheer nervousness, did nought that was good upon a football field? None would know so well as Sandy that his fate was sealed, and that no mercy awaited him. There are scolds and murmurs of discontent from beyond the touch-line, and most cutting of all, there are derisive cheers. Poor miserable Sandy knows full well that thumbs are down, and a vision of the second team, with a subsequent ignominious transfer to some other club, comes up in his tortured mind. Yes, for the human view of it, for the strenuousness, the excitement, the doubt, and the stirring episodes of London football, give me the practice games in the early days when the law forbids a real foe.
And when the season opens, away bound the professional teams like hounds unleashed, and every camp is stirred with anxious thoughts. There is Tottenham Hotspur, who vindicated the South after the period of darkness. Nowhere is there such enthusiasm as at Tottenham, where the bands play and the spectators roar themselves hoarse when goals are scored, and betake themselves in some numbers to the football hostelries when all is over to fight the battle once again.

It is a football fever of severe form which is abroad at Tottenham. Again, at Plumstead, where the Woolwich Arsenal play – a club of many achievements and more disappointments. The followers of the Reels, as they call them from their crimson shirts, are amongst the most loyal in the land, and Woolwich led the way in the resuscitation of the South. League clubs came to Plumstead when Tottenham was little more than a name.

Over at Millwall is the club of that name, which has likewise had its ups and downs, though they call it by way of pseudonym the Millwall Lion. In the meantime, whilst these great teams, and the others which are associated with them in London professionalism, play the grand football, there are no lesser if younger enthusiasts by the thousand in the streets and on the commons and in the parks, and their grade of show ranges from the paper or the rag ball of first mention in this article to the full paraphernalia of the Number Five leather case and the regulation goal posts and net. And don't think this is not the most earnest football.  If you do, stroll upon some Saturday in the winter time into Battersea and Regent's Park, and there you will see the youngsters striving for the honours of victory and for the points of their minor Leagues. The London County Council makes provision for no fewer than eight thousand of these football matches in its parks in a single season. And at our London public schools great homage is paid to King Football under widely varying conditions. At one institution – St. Paul's Cathedral Choir School – it is even played on the roof, as the illustration shows.

 And then there are two other continuous 
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features of London football that I must note. The one is the great and noble element of amateurism which must always flourish. Go to Queen's Club, Kensington, one of the finest football arenas in the world, and there you will see a struggle between the great Corinthians – the most athletic gentlemen in London – and, very likely, one of the strongest League teams from the country. There is certain to be a very big crowd, which is second to none in enthusiasm, but there is this difference between the Queen's Club Corinthian congregation and most others, that it  is a trifle more cosmopolitan, a trifle less fanatical, that it breathes a little more of the spirit of amateurism and the ‘Varsities. 
And up at another great amateur headquarters, Tufnell Park, you should see a game between the renowned Casuals and the London Caledonians or "Caleys." That is the game to warm the blood of a football follower. And at that historic spot which is known as the "Spotted Dog," you will find the great Clapton team disport themselves. These   representatives of amateurism are indeed great in their past, great in their traditions, even if they are not great in the eyes of the Leagues.
The other notable and enduring feature of London football is its Rugby section. It has a story all its own, and the Rugby enthusiast never could see anything in the “socker” game. It is admitted that “rugger” is a cult, a superior cult, and though it has its followers by thousands in London, it is not the game of the people as is that played under the rival code of laws. Yet London has always held a glorious place in the Rugby football world, and the public schools and the 'Varsities supply such a constant infusion of good new blood, so that when the fame of Richmond and Blackheath fade away, we shall    be listening for the crack of Rugby doom.
And so the eight months' season with its League games, its cup-ties, its 'Varsity matches, rolls along, we round the Christmas corner with its football comicalities, and we come in due course to the greatest day of all the football year, when the final tie in  the English Cup competition is fought out at the Crystal Palace.

It cannot be an exaggeration to say that it is one of the sights of the London year when   over 100,000 screaming people are standing upon the slopes of Sydenham, and with quickened pulses watching the progress of the struggle. How the railway companies get them all there from the city is a mystery, and it is another, though a lesser one, as  to how quite half that crowd has travelled up from the country towns and cities in the  small hours of the morning. On his arrival, the country Cup-tie visitor, whether he comes from Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, or  any other of the great centres, lets  all London know of the fact, so much is he badged and bedecked in the colours of his favourites.
At night, when the greatest battle has been won and lost, he swarms over the West End with his pockets full of the many football editions, and a death card of the losing   team in proper black-bordered “In Memoriam” style tucked away in his pockets as a memento. In both these paper goods is a great trade done. Football journalism is a profession in itself, with all its own editors, specialists, and reporters.
The Cup day passes, and now the season nears its end. For still a week or two it holds up its tired, nodding head; but at last there comes the first morning of May, and all is over. And even the football Londoner is not sorry for that.

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