Why was football so popular 100 years ago?

Back in 1909 football crowds in the First Division were highly variable – a bit like the Scottish Premier League 100 years later.

Chelsea and Manchester United could get crowds of up to 60,000 or even more.  Bristol City, Bury and Preston NE would often be around the 6,000 mark.

But crowds were variable not just between grounds but even at the same ground.  FA Cup games always got higher crowds, as did local derbies, and a high reputation of the opposition.

Clubs that got 40,000 one week might go down to 15,000 at the next home match – not least because almost everyone stood in the open.  These supporters might be tough, but torrential rain and the cold could have an effect.

The selling of tickets in advance was unknown.  You turned up, paid your money, and tried for a decent position.   Closing the gates because the crowd was full was also hardly known.

But why football?

Football in England is first described in the 12th century.  From the 13th century onwards it was so popular that it was regularly banned by government and local councils either because it distracted young men from practicing archery (and getting ready for war) or because it was deemed unseemly or immoral, or just plain dangerous.  It was in fact the first mass sport.

So when the rush of popularity arrived at the end of the 19th century it was not for a new concept.  Football was already the national sport.

What made football take off at this time however was industrialisation.  By the 19th century we had railways which could transport people all over the country, the ability to build giant (if often unsafe) stadia, and the habit of allowing working men saturday afternoon off work in the factories.

With greater communication it was possible to agree a set of rules of which the 1870 version would be recognisable to us today (although including some oddities such as the legality of the goalkeeper handling anywhere in his own half).

Women’s football.

So everything was set for football to be the sport of the working man.  And indeed it was not just men’s football but women’s football too which was popular.   The first women’s international was played in 1895 and by 1909 women’s football rivalled men’s in terms of crowds.

The fact that this early history of women’s history has been forgotten is largely due to the hard work of the FA who banned the women’s game from all grounds of men’s clubs associated with the FA in December 1921, effectively giving the women nowhere to play.    Overnight they destroyed a national sport.

But there is one more fact that we should recognise.  In addition to the fact that football had been around for 9 centuries, and in addition to the fact that industrialisation had made it possible for the rules to be unified and teams to travel across the country playing each other, there was one other factor that made football so popular.

There was not much else to do.

Urban housing was small, and often crowded with numerous children and two or three generations living together.   And there was not much entertainment for the working man.

The cinema had started and silent movies were popular.   Cinemas (obviously one screen affairs) showed one film for a week, with the newsreel being introduced in 1910.   The gramophone had been introduced as had the 78rpm record, but the number of records available was still modest.  There were the music halls too, but these were evening affairs which tended towards a middle class audience.

But basically the hobby for the non-working man and the woman who had no children to look after, was being out on the streets every night.  What we think of as a friday and saturday night issue of large crowds of younger people out and about, was a seven night a week affair, all the way through the year.   It was known as the monkey parade, and it was huge.

What we now know as a pub was known then as “the public” – and the public house was just that.  In some streets every fifth or sixth building might be a public house, and they fuelled the monkey parade.

There was of course hardly any traffic in the streets (a few motor cars but mostly horse drawn transport), and so the people took over the streets.

In such a world which lacked the comforts of home and much in the way of home entertainment, football was a welcome relief.  It became part of life.

The game that was born 1000 years ago had grown and grown and had responded to the arrival of the industrial age.

You can read about football in 1910 in more detail in MAKING THE ARSENAL – the novelisation of the most momentous of years for Arsenal.  It takes the form of a diary of a Fleet Street journalist.  You can read more about the book and order a copy on www.emiratesstadium.info or buy it through Amazon.co.uk

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