1. Sport is stitched into the English social DNA
2. The organisation of sport
3. International Sport
4. Cricket – the first modern game
5. Football – the world game
6. The amateur and the professional
7. The importance of sport
8. Why was England in the sporting vanguard?
9. English sport is a mirror of English society
10. The political dimension
1. Sport is stitched into the English social DNA
“We [the Coca Cola Championship] are the fourth best supported division in Europe with nearly 10 million fans last season, after the Premiership [12.88 million], Bundesliga [11.57 million] and La Liga [10.92]. We are ahead of Seria A.” Lord Mahwinny, Chairman of the Football League – Daily Telegraph 28 7 2005.
The English have a most tremendous sporting culture. By that I do not mean that England is always winning everything at the national level – although they do far better than is generally realised – but rather that the interest in sport is exceptionally deep and wide. As the quote from Mahwinny shows, not only is the top division of English football(the Premiership) the most watched in Europe, the second division (the Coca Cola Championship) attracts more spectators than all but two of the top divisions in Europe, beating even the top division of that supposed bastion of football Italy.
The colossal support for football in England is all the more extraordinary because the country has so many other sports seriously competing for spectators, arguably more than any other country because England competes at a serious level in almost all the major international sports – basketball, handball, volleyball and and alpine sports are the exceptions. This all round sporting participation resulted in England in the early 1990s coming within touching distance of becoming world champions in football, rugby and cricket. In 1990 England lost in the semi-finals on penalties to Germany in the football World Cup; in 1991 they lost the final of the Rugby World Cup and in 1992 they lost in the final the Cricket World Cup. No other country, not even Australia, could have shown as strongly in all three sports. The intense English interest in sport at club level is carried through to the national sides. England’s rugby, cricket and football teams have immense support wherever they go, whether it be the amazingly loyal England football supporters or cricket’s Barmy Army, the special quality of their support is recognised by foreigners: “German fans want to be like the English fans. They want to be 100 per cent for their team, for their land.” (German supporter at World Cup 2006 – Daily Telegraph 6 7 2006)
This wonderful English attachment to sport is not so strange when it is remembered that most important international sports were either created by the English or the English had a large hand in establishing them as international sports. In addition, other important sports are plausibly derived from English games, most notably American and Australian Rules football from rugby, baseball from rounders and basketball from netball. In fact, all the major team games in their modern forms originated in Anglo-Saxon countries: cricket, football, rugby union, rugby league, American football, Australian rules, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, hockey. Even the modern Olympic games were inspired by the Englishman Dr William Penny Brookes’ “Olympic Games” at Much Wenlock in Shropshire which he founded in 1850.
A visit to the Wenlock gave the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, his idea for reviving the Olympic Games in Athens. Brookes was a tireless advocate of such a revival himself and only died in 1894 shortly before the first modern Olympic games was held in 1896. On the 100th anniversary of his death, the then president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch laid a wreath on Brookes’ grave with the words “I come to pay homage and tribute to Dr Brooks, who really was the founder of the modern Olympic games.” (Bridgnorth Information). It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the English invented modern spectator sport.
Of the games directly created, to the one game which deserves the title of a world sport – football – the English may add cricket, rugby (both codes), snooker, hockey, lawn tennis, badminton, squash, table tennis and snooker, Those who yawn at the likes of hockey, table tennis and squash should reflect on the fact that sports vary greatly in popularity from country to country. Hockey is the Indian Subcontinent’s second game: squash, badminton and table tennis are to the fore throughout Asia, while snooker is rapidly growing in popularity in the Far East.
2. The organisation of sport
The difference between sports before the modern era and those in the modern era is that the pre-modern sports were not organised or standardised. In pre-modern times sports lacked both a standard set of rules and governing bodies to enforce the common rules. The English changed all that and they began the process very early, most notably in cricket where a governing body, the MCC, and a generally accepted set of rules (known as laws) were established before the end of the 18th century. Some of major sports where England had the first national association and established the first generally accepted set of rules are:
Association Football – Football Association formed in 1863, FA established the laws of the game
Cricket – First published Laws 1744, MCC formed 1787
Hockey – 1883 standard set of rules published by Wimbledon Club,
Hockey Association founded 1886
Lawn Tennis – Wimbledon championships established 1877 with first set of rules resembling the game as it is now
Rugby Union – 1871 The Rugby Union formed and the first laws published
The dominance of England as a creator and organiser of sports is further illustrated by the existence of iconic sporting venues such as Lords (cricket), Wembley (football), Twickenham (Rugby Union) and Wimbledon (tennis), all of which have a resonance that stretches far beyond England.
3. International Sport
Anyone who wonders why the four home nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), are allowed to play as separate teams in major sports such as football and rugby even though they are not independent countries need wonder no longer. The answer is that the four home nations were the four original international players in these sports.
The Rugby Union arranged the first international rugby match between England and Scotland in 1871, while the first football international between England and Scotland kicked off in 1872.
Further afield cricket led the way. The first international cricket tour was in 1859 when a team of Englishmen toured North America. Further tours took place to Australia in the 1860s and 1870s. What was later recognised as the first cricket Test match was played between England an Australia in Australia 1877. The first Test match in England was played between England and Australia in 1880 at the Oval.
Of course it was not only formal efforts which spread English sports. Everywhere the English went they took their games with them. In the time of the Empire and Britain’s dominance as an economic and political power this meant almost the entire world. Most of the world was eager to adopt at least some English sports. Indeed, of the many cultural things England have exported, sports have a good claim to be the most eagerly received. The games which England invented did not need to be forced upon others. The opposite was often the case. Within the Empire complaints were not frequently made by the native populations that they were excluded from participation in games such as football and cricket.
4. Cricket – the first modern game
Cricket was the first team game to be a great spectator sport, indeed one might argue that it was the first great spectator game of any sort as opposed to a sport such as horse-racing, running, boxing or the more disreputable pursuits of cock and dog fighting and bear baiting.
Cricket might also reasonably claim to have inaugurated the idea of international sport with the first cricket tour to North America in 1859 – see above.
The game is very old. It can be dated certainly from the 16th century, but as a pursuit it is reasonable to assume it was much older – before the age of printing little was recorded about any subject. There are some intriguing references in old manuscripts which may refer to cricket, for example, an entry in the wardrobe accounts of Edward I in 1300 which records a payment for the Kings sons playing at “Creag” (H S Altham p20 A History of Cricket Vol I).
The game probably became more than simply a rustic or boys’ pursuit towards the end of the 17th century. The gentry took it up – George III’s father, Frederick, was a very keen player and actually died from an abscess caused by being hit by a cricket ball – and teams were raised by great aristocrats such as the Duke of Dorset, Such men effectively created the first cricketing professionals by employing the best players on their estates, ostensibly to do other jobs, but primarily to ensure they played cricket for a particular team. Partly because of this and partly because the game grew out of a still overwhelmingly rural England with its much closer relationship between the classes than later existed, English cricket was always a socially inclusive game, with dukes literally rubbing shoulders with ploughmen.
The game was early organised. Sides representing counties such as Kent, Hampshire and Sussex were competing with each other by the first half of the 18th century. Teams called All-England, England or the Rest of England were also got up to play either a strong county or, in the second half of the century, the Hambledon Club, a club based in a tiny Hampshire village. Hambledon were surprising modern in their thinking, having built the 18th century equivalent of the team coach – a great pantechnicon – to transport the team and its followers to away matches.
During its first century or so as a spectator sport cricket was bedevilled by betting. Important matches were played for very large purses, sometimes more than a thousand pounds, a fortune in the 18th century. Even more insidious was individual betting on results or the performances of individual players within the game – the nature of cricket absolutely lends itself to the latter. But although the game was always under suspicion of foul play, much as horse racing is today, betting must have increased interest in the game.
With the coming of the railways cricket moved into the modern professional era with the formation of the All-England Eleven and its imitators such as the United South of England Eleven. These touring professional sides took cricket around England and laid the foundation for the modern county game. During the same period the county clubs as we know them today began to be formally established, with Surrey dating from 1845. By the 1870s the work of the travelling professional sides was done and county cricket became the mainstay of English cricket.
H.S.Altham entitled a chapter in his History of Cricket somewhat blasphemously as the Coming of W.G.Grace. This was not hyperbole. In the high Victorian age two people were known as the GOM (Grand Old Man). The first was Gladstone, the second was Grace. It is a moot point who was the better known. It is no moot point who was the greater celebrity: W.G. won hands down.
Grace was the first great popular games playing hero. His first class career lasted an amazing 43 years (1865-1908). He made his first class debut at the age of 15. His Test career began in 1880 with a score of 152. He played his last Test at the age of 50 in 1899. At the age of 47 (1995) he scored a thousand runs in May, the first man to do so (only five other men have ever managed it).
About the only two organisational things seen in modern team sport which cricket did not invent are cup competitions and leagues – the honour for doing so rests with football, although an unofficial county championship existed before the formation of the Football League.
5. Football – the world game
Football is the nearest there is to a world game. There are easy reasons for this. At its most basic football is a game which requires the most rudimentary of equipment, a ball. Its rules are simple compared with those of other games such as rugby or cricket. But it is more than that. Football is also the game which arguably best combines pure athleticism with the felicity of human thought and movement to which we give too often the bone-achingly dull description “hand/eye coordination.”
Football was in a state of flux until the middle of the nineteenth century. Various forms existed. Some codes allowed kicking only, others handling. There were disputes over whether hacking and gouging were allowed. In 1863 the Football Association was created and stopped the confusion. It was the first national sporting association which was purely that. The MCC in practice directed English cricket and was responsible for the laws of the game, but they were first and foremost, a private club, as was the Jockey Club. The FA was the first formally constituted sporting body created to explicitly to direct an entire sport.
No sport has had such a rapid rise to popularity. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century it went from a poorly organised game, to something which was recognisable as the game we know today. Famous clubs of today were formed by Public School Old Boys, vicars, boys clubs, public houses, in the work place and by cricket clubs. The first international game took place between England and Scotland in 1872. The world’s first cup competition, the FA Cup, was born in 1872.
In 1888 the world’s first sporting league was formed, the Football League. International matches involving countries other than England were being played well before the First World War and football was an Olympic sport from early on in the modern Olympiad’s history. Not least, football’s world governing body, FIFA, was founded as early as 1904 (with no encouragement from England it has to be said).
By 1900 the top teams had become overwhelmingly professional and club owners were often drawn from the ranks of local businessmen. The game had become much more of a business than any other sport.
6. The amateur and the professional
Top class sport is now so tied to money that it may seem quaint to his generation that for all of the nineteenth century and much of twentieth century the amateur played a major role in many of the more popular sports. This was due to the fact that most major sports originated in England, where the spirit of amateurism was very strong, and these became spread across the globe when Britain had the only world empire worthy of the name and was also the most industrial advanced and economically powerful state in the world. Other nations who took up the games had a natural inclination to imitate the English way in sport, because of where the games originated and because of England’s prominent position in the world.
There was also a strong class element. This was a time when class and status was still very much an issue throughout Europe and those parts of the world which were within the British Empire. Nor was the United States immune to the lure of class. As the amateur was associated with being a gentleman and a professional classed as a working man, it suited the better-off to support the distinction. It also provided in some games, especially cricket, the means by which, in even a very socially stratified society, people of very different social status could play together.
But there was more to it than that. The English elite of the 19th century was in thrall to an idealised version of the ancient world and from this came the prime amateur ideals of doing something praiseworthy for its own sake and behaving honourably in the observance of not only the laws but the spirit of a game.
Football, cricket and golf had professionals from their early days as public spectacles, but even within games those the amateur had a long run. Other major sports such as athletics, tennis and rugby union remained in theory at least amateur until well into the latter half of the twentieth century, although shamateurism, the paying of amateurs illicitly through devices such as inflated expenses or salaries for non-sporting jobs which were never actually performed, tainted most major sports. But even though this dishonesty went on there were still many genuine amateurs in top class sport until quite recent times.
It is also true that the shamateurs were paid minute sums compared with the vast amounts many openly professional sportsmen get today. The amateur had a prominent playing role partly because it was the upper and middle classes who developed and ran modern sport. Even the archetypal working class game, Association football, had at its foundations the public schools and innumerable worthies from the gentry and mercantile classes who founded many of the clubs which are now household names. The true amateur was also cheap because at worst he drew only expenses (shamateurs were a different kettle of fish, often being considerably more expensive to employ than an official pro).
But there was more to amateurism in top class sport than simple class dominance and cheapness. The middle and upper classes brought with them a rather noble ethos. Being an amateur was more than just being a person who played without being paid. Games were seen having a moral purpose in the building of character. Team sports taught the individual to subordinate their own interests to that of the group, while individual competition forced a boy to confront their personal responsibility. Playing for its own sake was something pure, untainted by the crudity of commercialism.
That the amateur ethos was always battling with the vagaries of human nature, which in many people invariably seeks to gain advantage unfairly, is neither here nor there. The important thing is the existence of the ideal. Like most noble ideals it was followed to some degree and behaviour during play was as a general rule rather more sporting than it is in a purely professional game. Moreover, even where a sport became at a fairly early stage overwhelmingly professional on the playing side, as was the case of football, the existence of people with the amateur spirit administering and controlling the game meant their mentality was reflected in the way professionals behaved – a pro who did otherwise would risk the end of his career. This was important because the behaviour of everyone who plays or watches a sport is influenced by the behaviour of those at the top.
The true amateur was also thought to bring a spirt of adventure to top class sport because he was not weighed down by the thought that he must perform if his employment in the sport was to continue. This was one of the most powerful arguments cited in support of the amateur captain in county cricket. It had a certain force to it.
I regret the virtual extinction of the amateur in the popular top level sports. In my ideal world all sport would be amateur. There is something constricting about all-professional sport. Players do have to consider the next contract. They do have to consider their performance if they wish to move to a bigger club or take part in international sport. The talented sportsman who is not a professional is simply excluded. Such a person may simply not be able to gain a professional opportunity or he may simply not want to be a full time professional sportsman. Either way he is lost to the top level of his sport. Cricket in particular has suffered from the abolition of the amateur/professional distinction, with few if any players who are not contracted to a county club having any chance to play for the county.
Professional sport has too much of the closed shop about it to be healthy. Attached to amateur ideal was that of the “allrounder”. For the gentleman the ideal was the scholar athlete, an ideal approached most famously by the Victorian Charles Burgess Fry, who won a classics scholarship to Oxford, set the world long jump record whilst there, obtained Blues for cricket, football, rugby and athletics and went on to play cricket and football for England. But there was also a professional niche as a sporting allrounder. Many famous footballers played cricket professionally and many famous cricketers, football, perhaps most notably Denis Comptom who played cricket for Middlesex and England while spending his winters from cricket tours speeding down the left wing for Arsenal. Sadly, the extension of the football season to ten months of the year has killed the professional footballer/cricketer. Phil Neal who batted for Worcestershire and played left back for Lincoln City in the 1970s and 1980s was the last of the breed.
7. The importance of sport
Those who say “it’s only sport” should stand back and reflect on the amount of time, effort and money which is spent throughout the world on sport. Women may be generally less enthusiastic, but sports obviously speak to a deep seated desire within men.
Man is a tribal animal. If he were not it would matter not a jot whether one team won or another, unless money was on the result. But manifestly men do care and care passionately when no material advantage is to be gained or lost by the result. In fact, the relationship between a football fan and his club is probably the most enduring of his life, for it commonly begins in childhood and ends only with death.
The outpouring of joy when a goal is scored dwarfs any other public expression of positive feeling today. Those who imagine that a football club is merely a business and that selling football is no different from selling baked beans fail to understand the game and the fan.
Team sports are war games, a war game in fact as well where men meet in a form of direct physical confrontation which is a pretty good substitute for tribal war, war fought hand to hand with sword and shield and spear. Sport is war without the weapons. That is its primary glamour, that is its excitement.
Sporting heroes are heroes in the literal sense. Watch even a powerful man in the presence of his sporting hero and the powerful man will almost certainly be unconsciously deferring to the sportsman.
But sport has much more to it than tribalism. It is a constant in a changing world. It is a source of aesthetic delight. It speaks to the whole range of human emotions.
8. Why was England in the sporting vanguard?
Why did England invent so many games and show such an appetite for them as players, spectators and administrators that modern sport became possible?
Industrialisation undoubtedly provided the opportunity for modern spectator sports by moving England early from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban society. Large agglomerations of people provide the audience for sport. The growing wealth of the country from industrialisation provided the money to support professional sport. But that does not explain why it happened in England when it did not in occur in other non-Anglo-Saxon industrialising nations, which either showed less interest in sport or adopted and followed English sports rather than making their own indigenous sports serious spectator sports. There had to be something special in the English character and society which provided the impetus to take the opportunity when it was offered.
The answer I suspect is that the English have always been a sporting people, whether it be pre-modern games of football and cricket, archery, dog fighting and so on. The love of the chase remains to this day in fox hunting. Athletic pursuits were widely admired before the modern era, especially by the educated Englishman brought up on the classics with their frequent descriptions of physical prowess. Long before the much Wenlock “Olympic Games”, Robert Dover of Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire held his “Cotswold Olimpick Games” – the games were first held in 1612 – which included sledgehammer throwing, horse racing and wrestling.
But the fact the English have always had an abnormal love of sport begs the question of why. It is probably simply an expression of the general English love of liberty and the practical realisation of that love in a society which until recent times has not oppressed the English man and woman with much state intrusion into their lives. (Sadly, recent governments, most notably that of Blair, have seriously changed the traditional free nature of English society). Over the centuries the English became habituated to the idea that the individual counts, that a free-born Englishman, however humble, had a dignity and worth simply as an individual.
This mentality is important because participation in a sport requires freedom from oppressive elite who frown upon public gatherings and societies with a dominant ideology which considers the ordinary man as next to nothing at best and a threat to public order at worst. English society has not been free of such qualities but it has probably suffered much less severely from them than any other nation.
As for why England has been so successful in exporting its sports, it cannot simply be the consequence of the British Empire and Britain’s economic and political dominance. Sports are demonstrably not easily transferrable from one society and another. Other European nations had empires and their colonies did not take up French sports. The United States for all their economic and cultural dominance have failed largely to export their two most important native sports, baseball and American football. Basketball and ice hockey have enjoyed more popularity but nothing approaching the popularity of football. Australian Rules football, wildly popular in Australia, remains an essentially domestic pursuit. Ditto Gaelic games such as hurling in Ireland. Cricket and football gained a hold abroad and maintained it because they are inherently good and satisfying games, the former immensely technical to play yet simple in its basic idea, the latter the simplest and cheapest game to play – two sweaters down on the ground for a goal and a ball and you have a game.
9. English sport is a mirror of English society
Sport holds up a mirror to any society. Sadly, much of English sport today shares the ills of English society at large. Due to the actions of the British elite professional team sport in England has been heavily infiltrated by foreign players just as the country has a whole has been left open to de facto foreign colonisation.
Cricket was the first to fall prey to the disease. In 1969 the qualification rules for foreign players appearing in county cricket were effectively thrown away. Before 1969 any foreign player had to qualify by two years residence in the county: after 1969 they could be specially registered without any qualifying period.
Since 1969 there have been various attempts to stem the number foreign players. Official overseas players – those not qualified to play for England by any route – have been at various times restricted to two per county side, then one per side before reverting back to two per side. As of 2012 its is back to one per side in County Championship matches.
In the past few years the number of foreign players in county cricket has been greatly expanded by a ruling that any EU state national must be allowed to play in county cricket whether England qualified or not – this has resulted in many Australians and South Africans claiming EU state passports of one sort or another. The final breach in the sporting emigration wall has been the granting of the same rights possessed by EU state passport holders to people from countries which have treaties with the EU that allow them certain trading rights.
This loosening of immigration rules applies to all other sports, many of which are even more vulnerable to invasion than cricket because cricket is not played seriously on the continent. Football and rugby are played within the EU and both games in England have been substantially colonised by continentals. The situation with football has become especially serious with well over half the places in Premiership sides being filled by players not qualified for England.
Following England’s exit from the 2006 World Cup the ex-England manager Graham Taylor voiced his fears that England might never again win the World Cup simply because of the lack of opportunity being given to English players (BBC R5 Victoria Derbyshire 7 7 2006).
The other side of the foreign infiltration coin is the widespread employment of those who are not unequivocally English in English national teams. These people fall into two camps: (1) those who came to England as adults and (2) ethnic minority players either born and raised in England or at least largely raised here. Their employment by England has been generally a failure, both in terms of their individual performances and in the performance of their respective England teams.
Take the two major English team sports cricket and football. Of the players who played any substantial amount of cricket for England only one (Robin Smith) has managed a Test batting average of 40 and only two of the bowlers (Andy Caddick and Dean Headley)has ended witgh a Test bowling average of less than 30.
As for football, the only players in the immigrant/ethnic minority category to show themselves to be of true international standard are probably Paul Ince and Des Walker. It is difficult to see the sporting justification for the repeated and extensive selection of players such as Mark Ramprakash (lowest every batting average – 27 – for a front line England batsman who has played my than 40 Tests) or John Barnes (79 England caps and a man who rarely if ever reproduced his club form for England). Perhaps the answer lies in political correctness, a desire on the part of selectors to guard themselves against accusations of racism or simply an ideological commitment to multiculturalism. Here is Stephen Wagg writing in Catalyst, the CRE’s new propaganda magazine funded by the taxpayer: “…it is important that this team [the England cricket side] speaks for a multi-ethnic England.” (Racism and the English cricket party – Catalyst June 2006).
There is also the attitude of the players to consider. Some of those who have played for England have been blunt about their attitude towards turning out for the side. Here is ex-England captain Nasser Hussain interviewed by Rob Steen:
‘If anyone asks about my nationality, I’m proud to say ‘Indian’, but I’ve never given any thought to playing for India. In cricketing terms I’m English.’ Daily Telegraph 11 8 1989
Or take the black Jamaican England footballer John Barnes in his autobiography:
“I am fortunate my England career is now complete so I don’t have to sound patriotic any more.” (P69)
“I feel more Jamaican than English because I’m black. A lot of black people born in England feel more Jamaican than English because they are not accepted in the land of their birth on account of their colour, (P 71)
Clearly such mentalities exclude any emotional commitment to doing well for the sake of English pride. The most they could have been playing for was their own ambition. As the editor of Wisden Matthew Engel put it:
“It cannot be irrelevant to England’s long term failures that so many of their recent Test players were either born overseas and/or spent their formative years as citizens of other countries. In the heat of Test cricket, there is a difference between a cohesive team with a common goal, and a coalition of individuals whose major ambitions are for themselves…There is a vast difference between wanting to play Test cricket and wanting to play Test cricket for England.” (Editor’s notes 1995 Wisden).
In the 1990s an England cricket eleven was routinely comprised of something like five white Englishmen, two Southern Africans, a New Zealander and three West Indians. The idea that their captain could appeal to their patriotism as a team of Englishmen is risible. Nor is it clear how any English man or woman could have seen it as their national side.
10. The political dimension
Because of their function as lightening rods of national feeling that the existence of England sides are so hated and feared by our elite. The erstwhile and now deceased Labour Sports minister, Tony Banks, persistently puffed the idea of a British football team, something that is indubitably not wanted by any of the four home FAs or the vastmajority of fans.
The political dimension goes beyond the English national sides. Sporting crowds generally and football crowds in particular are a source of concern to our liberal elite because they provide the one opportunity where large numbers of the white working class can gather together with any regularity without having to gain the permission of the police.
In these politically correct times sporting crowds in England for the major sports are also disturbingly white for the liberal bigot elite. Vast amounts of time and money have been devoted to making crowds “more representative”, happily with precious little success.
Finally, there is the general contempt which the British elite have developed for the white working class. In English sport this contempt tends to be focused on the football fan. Margaret Thatcher more than any other individual fostered the contempt when she routinely painted English football supporters as hooligans and enthusiastically promoted the exclusion of English football clubs after the Heysel stadium tragedy at the 1985 European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus.
Sport has a particular importance to England at present because sporting sides are the only source of national focus the English have. The English are denied a parliament, they are betrayed by their political elite who shudder at the idea of English nationalism, they are constantly insulted by the national media, but the national sides continue. These sporting institutions permit the English to articulate their feelings as a tribe. Even English men and women without any interest in sport should support them for that reason if no other.