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Studying Football in the Classroom

John Simkin

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After the recent discussion about the tackle that broke Eduardo’s leg I thought it might be worth looking at the history of hard players and illegal behaviour on the football pitch. It would make a good source exercise.

First, a note on the sources available for teachers and students who wish to study football in history lessons. One of the best sources available are newspaper accounts of early football matches. However, it has to be remembered that in the 19th century most newspapers did not provide detailed reports on football matches. The best place to look is in local newspapers of the period. The problem with this source is that they were not always objective in their reporting. Little research has been done in this area and it would make a great in-depth project for students who support a particular club.

The first football journalist of importance is James Catton. He began work as an apprentice journalist for the Preston Herald in 1875. He gradual began to concentrate on writing about sport. This included writing about Preston North End, one of the best football teams in England. He eventually convinced the editor that this was a subject that deserved to be taken serious.

Catton was also the leading figure behind the first sports newspaper, The Athletic News. Catton began contributing articles in 1886. For the first time, journalists could write in great detail about football. Later, Catton became the editor of the Athletic News.

In 1925 Catton published a collection of his work entitled The Story of Association Football. This book was recently republished and is available from Amazon.


In his book, Catton explains how he tried to persuade, without success, some of the leading players to write their memoirs. The best account of the early days of football comes from Archie Hunter, who played for Aston Villa between 1878 and 1890, when he suffered a heart-attack while he was playing. He was only 31 years old. Hunter, who had been brought up in Scotland, was along George Ramsay, revolutionized football tactics in England. The two men introduced what was known as the "passing game" (also known as combination play). This was the main style used in Scotland whereas in England most teams relied on what was known as the "dribbling game". This of course reflects the working class origins of the game in Scotland compared to the public-school influenced game in England.

As one historian as pointed out: “This type of sophisticated teamwork had rarely been employed in England. Instead, individuals would try to take the ball as far as they could on their own until stopped by an opponent." It is no coincidence that the first football superstars usually came from regions with strong trade union traditions.

In 1890 Archie Hunter was interviewed for a series of articles for the Birmingham Weekly Mercury about his time as an Aston Villa player. This material was later published as a book, Triumphs of the Football Field. This book was republished in 1997 and is available from Amazon.


One of the reasons that the book is so good is that it is based on interviews. One of the problems of these early “memoirs” is that the players are not very good writers and tend to be fairly bland in their comments.

This is true of Ernest Needham who played for Sheffield United between 1892 and 1909. Although he was from a working-class background he had become an establishment figure by the time he wrote Association Football in 1901. At that time you could only play for England if you were willing to “acknowledge the superiority” of the public-school educated amateurs who dominated the administration of football in the late 19th century. The only reason the selectors started picking professionals was that they were fed up by being beaten by the Scots in international games. Even so, Needham’s book is an important source for historians who want to know what it was like to play professional football in the 19th century.


Another important source of this period is Famous Association Footballers that was published in 1895. The book is made up of a collection of wonderful photographic portraits of the leading players. Each one is accompanied by a brief biography of the player. The book also includes photographs of the leading teams in 1895. This book has also recently been republished and is available from Amazon.

Association Football and the Men Who Made It by Alfred Gibson and William Pickford was published in four volumes in 1905. Gibson (Football Star) and Pickford (Athletic News) were two of the leading football writers of the period. What makes these books so important to the historian is that they recruited football players to write chapters on all areas of the game. For example, volume I includes articles by John Robinson, Steve Bloomer, John Goodall and Ernest Needham.

The books also contain marvellous photographs of the early days of football. This includes full-length portraits and some great action shots of games. These books are extremely rare and individual copies cost well over £100. The cheapest complete set at Abe Books costs £695.

Also in 1905 saw the publication of The Book of Football (republished in 2005). It is a collection of articles written by the leading figures in the game in 1905. This included players, managers, referees and directors.

Sir Frederick Wall, the President of the Football Association between 1895-1934, wrote his memoirs, 50 Years of Football in 1935. It is of course self-serving it does include some interesting comments about football during this period. The book was republished in 2006 and is available from Amazon.

The best account of football before the First World War from the point of view of a player is Charlie Buchan’s A Lifetime in Football. After retiring from football Buchan became the leading football journalist in England.


There are also some outstanding secondary sources on early football. These are usually works of love written by supporters. The best of these are based on primary sources. For example, John Powles’ “Iron in the Blood: Thames Ironworks FC: The Club that Became West Ham United” (2005). The book is based nearly exclusively on reports in the local press. The same is true of Brian Belton’s “Founded on Iron: Thames Ironworks and the Origins of West Ham United” (2003).

Most football teams have local historians who have published books on the early history of their clubs. I have of course only been able to read a small amount of these. However, I would recommend the following: Charles Francis, History of Blackburn Rovers (1925), Tony Onslow, Everton: The Men From the Hill Country (2002), Ray Simpson, Burnley (1999), Dean Hayes, Bolton Wanderers (1999), Roger Hutchinson, Into the Light: Sunderland Football Club (1999), Nick Udall, Sheffield United (2007) and Brendan Murphy, From Sheffield With Love (2007). Peter Lupson has written an interesting account of the role that religion played in the establishment of football clubs called "Thank God for Football!" (2006). Includes chapters on Aston Villa, Barnsley, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Liverpool, Fulham, Manchester City, Queen's Park Rangers, Southampton, Swindon Town and Spurs.

Another interesting book is by Charles Korr, an American historian who did his PhD on the early history of West Ham United. The book is based on the club’s archives and gives an interesting insight into topics such as wage negotiations and transfers.

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Has player discipline got better or worse since 1862?

On 29th December, 1862, Sheffield played Hallam in a football charity game. It was one of the first-ever football games to be recorded in a newspaper. The Sheffield Independent reported: "At one time it appeared that the match would be turned into a general fight. Major Creswick had got the ball away and was struggling against great odds - Mr Shaw and Mr Waterfall (of Hallam). Major Creswick was held by Waterfall and in the struggle Waterfall was accidentally hit by the Major. All parties agreed that the hit was accidental. Waterfall, however, ran at the Major in the most irritable manner, and struck him several times. He also threw off his waistcoat and began to show fight in earnest. Major Creswick, who preserved his temper admirably, did not return a single blow."

The following week a letter appeared in The Sheffield Independent defending the actions of William Waterfall: "The unfair report in your paper of the... football match played on the Bramall Lane ground between the Sheffield and Hallam Football Clubs calls for a hearing from the other side. We have nothing to say about the result - there was no score - but to defend the character and behaviour of our respected player, Mr William Waterfall, by detailing the facts as they occurred between him and Major Creswick. In the early part of the game, Waterfall charged the Major, on which the Major threatened to strike him if he did so again. Later in the game, when all the players were waiting a decision of the umpires, the Major, very unfairly, took the ball from the hands of one of our players and commenced kicking it towards their goal. He was met by Waterfall who charged him and the Major struck Waterfall on the face, which Waterfall immediately returned."

Fights like this on the pitch were not uncommon during this period. The Football Association was established in October, 1863. The aim of the FA was to establish a single unifying code for football. This included an attempt to deal with disputes about rules and infringements during games. On 8th December, 1863, the FA published the Laws of Football. It was now clear that officials were needed to enforce these new laws. It became fairly common for two umpires to be appointed to referee the game - one nominated by each side. These umpires only made decisions when appealed to by the players. Umpires were first mentioned in the laws of the game in 1874.

As the game became more competitive, the number of disputes about the interpretation of the rules became more common. Gradually, a more objective official, the referee, began to take control of games.

Archie Hunter, who joined Aston Villa in 1876, explained how violence sometimes took place during games: "While I shot for goal the ball skimmed the bar and the Aston Unity goalkeeper immediately caught me round the neck, held me fast and seemed about to deliver a tremendous blow at my face. Everybody saw it; but my rival recovered himself in time and afterwards offered the fullest explanation of his action. I am quite convinced that he had no deliberate intention of doing me any personal injury; he simply lost his self-control for a moment and was unable to restrain himself. In football there are many temptations of this sort and it requires a great amount of good heartedness and coolness to refrain from taking advantage of the proximity of an opponent."

One of the first football players to acquire a national reputation was Arthur Kinnaird. The son of the 10th Lord Kinnaird, he played in nine FA Cup finals, winning five of them with Wanderers (1873, 1877 and 1878) and Old Etonians (1879 and 1882). Kinnaird developed a reputation for hard-tackling. In an article about Kinnaird, Hunter Davies argues that: "On the pitch, he was a fierce competitor, not to say violent. He got stuck in - as we say today: he took no prisoners." His mother, Lady Kinnaird, was concerned that the possibility that her son would be seriously injured. On one occasion she told one of her son's teammates that she feared that he would one day arrive home with a broken leg. "Don't worry, my Lady," he replied. "It won't be his own."

Ernest Needham, who played for England and Sheffield United during this period pointed out: "Once broken limbs from kicks, and broken ribs from charges, were quite every-day occurrences, and, to a great extent, men went on the field with their lives in their hands." Needham believed the shoulder-charge was the main cause of violence on the field.

In 1881 the Football Association introduced a law that stated that if a player was "guilty of ungentlemanly behaviour the referee could rule offending players out of play and order them off the ground." If a player was sent off they were usually suspended for a month without pay.

John Lewis was considered to be the best referee during this period. He later wrote that he was the victim of a great deal of hostility: "For myself, I would take no objection to hooting or groaning by the spectators at decisions with which they disagree. The referee should remember that football is a game that warms the blood of player and looker-on alike, and that unless they can give free vent to their delight or anger, as the case may be, the great crowds we now witness will dwindle rapidly away."

In November 1888, during the first season of the Football League the Sporting Chronicle described how the Everton player, Alec Dick "struck another in the back in a piece of ruffianism". The victim of the assault, Albert Moore, the Notts County, inside-right, was not seriously injured. The newspaper went on to report: "One or two of the Everton team played very hard on their opponents, and hoots and groans were frequent during the match. When the teams left the field a rush was made for the Everton men, who had raised the ire of the spectators, and sticks were used. Dick was singled out, and was struck over the head with a heavy stick, the cowardly fellow was dealt the blow inflicting a severe wound on the side of the Everton man's head."

The Sporting Chronicle added: "Our own correspondent adds that Dick played anything but a gentlemanly game, while his language was coarse; but even these defects did not merit such cowardly and condign punishment as was administered at Trent Bridge". As a result of the incident Alec Dick was suspended by the Football League for the rest of the season.

Officials did not allow players to use "foul and offensive" language on the pitch. On 28th April 1894, Billy Bassett, the England and West Bromwich Albion player, was sent off in a match against Millwall. According to the referee he was dismissed for using "unparliamentary language". Bassett was small and fast and took some very heavy tackles from well-built defenders. In this game he retailed with his tongue and as a result was ordered from the pitch.

Vivian Woodward, who played for England, was only slightly built and he was often the target of some very rough tackling. This resulted him in missing a lot of games through injury. After a game against Fulham on 29th October, 1906, when Woodward took a terrible battering, newspapers called for referees and football authorities to do more to protect skillful players against the crude tactics of defenders.

As the journalist, Arthur Haig-Brown, pointed out in 1903: "It is a 1,000 pities that his lack of weight renders him a temptation which the occasionally unscrupulous half-back finds himself unable to resist." James Catton, Britain's top football journalist at the time, claimed: "He had a great contempt for men who engaged in rough play, because he was the fairest fellow who ever put a boot to a ball. Once after a certain Cup-tie he was really wrath about the way that their opponents had treated his team. It was a replayed match in Lancashire. There was a brother amateur on the other side and he apologised to Woodward for the character of the game that his club had played... Much was required to arouse Vivian John Woodward to resentment because his game was all art and no violence."

Vivian Woodward was never tempted to retailate. As Archie Hunter pointed out: "The best players set their faces very sternly against roughness of all kinds, and some of the finest footballers I know are the most generous and good-natured of men on the field. I don't think much advantage is ever gained by bad temper or spiteful play. If one man is rough, another recriminates; and if one side shows bad blood, the other side is sure to have its bad blood stirred up also. You can play to win and play with perfect fairness; that is my experience."

A great deal of rough-play involved the goalkeeper. The shoulder charge remained an important part of the game. This could be used against players even if they did not have the ball. If a goalkeeper caught the ball, he could be barged over the line. As a result, goalkeepers tended to punch the ball a great deal. In 1894 the Football Association introduced a new law which stated that a goalkeeper could only be charged when playing the ball or obstructing an opponent. This new law was not popular with the outfield players. Ernest Needham remarked: "The last part of Rule 10 says, 'The goalkeeper shall not be charged except when he is holding the ball, or obstructing an opponent'; and it is seldom, and not for long, that the custodian is in contact with the ball. It is safe to say that the goalkeeper is the best protected man on the field."

In September, 1898, the South Essex Gazette reported that in a game against Brentford, two West Ham United players, George Gresham and Sam Hay, "bundled the goalkeeper into the net whilst he had the ball in his hands". The goal stood because this action was within the rules at the time.

One man who was unlikely to be barged over the line was William Foulke. A very large man he was nicknamed "Fatty" or "Colossus" by the fans. He once said: "I don't mind what they call me as long as they don't call me late for my lunch." C. B. Fry, the famous cricketer, who also played football for Southampton, remarked: "Foulke is no small part of a mountain. You cannot bundle him."

In a game between Sheffield United and Liverpool in November, 1898, George Allan tried to intimidate Foulke. The Liverpool Post reported that "Allan charged Foulke in the goalmouth, and the big man, losing his temper, seized him by the leg and turned him upside down."

Games involving two teams from the same town or city often resulted in violent play. In the 1899-1900 season, Sheffield Wednesday played Sheffield United in the second-round of the FA Cup. The first match had to be abandoned owing to a snow storm. The second game resulted in a 1-1 draw at Bramwell Lane. The game had been spoilt by a series of illegal tackles so according to the journalist, James Catton, the referee, John Lewis, "... visited the dressing-room of each set of players, and told them they must observe the laws and spirit of sport. He intimated that if any player committed an offence he would send him off the field."

This warning did not have the desired effect and the replay was one of the roughest in history. James Catton later reported: "In spite of this the tie had not been long in progress when a Wednesday man was sent to the dressing-room for jumping on to an opponent. Soon after that The Wednesday's centre-forward had his leg broken, but that was quite an accident. No blame attached to anyone. Another Wednesday player was ordered out of the arena for kicking an opponent... With two men in the pavilion reflecting on the folly of behaving brutally, and another with a broken leg, it is no wonder that The Wednesday lost the tie. Mr. Lewis always said that this was one of the two most difficult matches he ever had to referee. Memories of this kind abide. His task was formidable, and his duty far from enviable. The sequel was the suspension of two Wednesday players."

In the period leading up to the First World War, a wing-half named Kenneth Hunt, developed the reputation of being one of the hardest players in the game. Hunt, who played as an amateur, was ordained as a Church of England vicar in 1909. Charlie Buchan, who played with Hunt in the 1910-11 season pointed out that: "The big, strong cleric was noted for his vigorous charging. He delighted in an honest shoulder charge, delivered with all the might of his powerful frame."

Billy Meredith, who played in an international game against Kenneth Hunt, claimed that "I never ran up against a harder or fitter half-back. It was like running up against a brick wall when he charged you... His positioning was perfect. He seldom allowed you a yard of room in which to work. I'm glad I didn't have to meet him very often." However, Hunt, always played by the rules and was just taking advantage of the rule that allowed players to barge into other players.

Charlie Buchan argues in his autobiography, A Lifetime in Football, that Dick Downs, who played for Barnsley between 1908-1919, was the cause of a decline in player discipline. According to Buchan, Downs introduced the sliding tackle. Although it was completely legal, it increased the amount of physical contact. This influenced the way creative footballers played the game: "In my opinion, this tackle which I first saw introduced by Dicky Downs... has done more than anything else, except the change in the offside law in 1925, to alter the character of the game."

In April 1915 Billy Cook, the Oldham Athletic full-back, was playing in a game against Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park. At the time Oldham was challenging for the First Division title. Middlesbrough quickly took a 3-0 goal lead. The Oldham players believed that the third goal should have been disallowed. They were further annoyed when they had a penalty appeal turned down. Early in the second-half Cook fouled Willie Carr and Middlesbrough scored the penalty to extend their lead to 4-1. Soon afterwards Cook brought down Carr again. The referee decided to send off Cook for persistent fouling. However, Cook refused to leave the field and the referee was forced to abandon the match. As a result, Oldham Athletic was fined £350 and Cook was banned by the Football Association for twelve months.

Frank Barson, a tough-tackling defender, was considered to be the hardest player in the Football League in the 1920s. In August 1922 he was transferred to Manchester United for a fee of £5,000. Alex Murphy argues in The Official Illustrated History of Manchester United that: "The club had just been relegated, but they knew exactly what they wanted to revive their fortunes: a tough man to put some steel back into the side and inspire the men around him to win promotion. Barson was the right man. Just the fearsome sight of him was enough to demotivate some opponents: at 6 feet tall Barson loomed over most opponents and he had the sharp features and narrow, menacing eyes of an Aztec warrior."

As Garth Dykes, the author of The United Alphabet has pointed out: "Frank Barson was probably the most controversial footballer of his day. Barrel-chested and with a broken, twisted nose he was a giant amongst centre-halves. A blacksmith by trade, his one failing was that he hardly knew his own strength and was apt to be over impetuous. His desire to always be in the thick of the fray brought him into many conflicts with the game's authorities."

On 27th March 1926, Manchester United played Manchester City in the semi-final of the FA Cup. During the game Sam Cowan was knocked unconscious. It was alleged after the game that Barson had punched Cowan in the face. An investigation by the Football Association resulted in Barson being suspended for eight weeks.

Barson was transferred to Watford in May 1928. Soon afterwards he was sent off in a game against Fulham. It was the 12th time in Barson's career and the Football Association decided to impose a seven-month ban on the player.

On 1st February 1936, Sunderland played Chelsea at Roker Park. According to newspaper reports it was a particularly ill-tempered game and Chelsea's Billy Mitchell, the Northern Ireland international wing-half, was sent off. The visiting forwards appeared to be targeting the Sunderland goalkeeper, Jimmy Thorpe, who took a terrible battering during the match. As a result of the battering he had received, Thorpe was admitted to the local Monkwearmouth and Southwick Hospital suffering from broken ribs and a badly bruised head. Thorpe had also suffered a recurrence of a diabetic condition that he had been treated for two years earlier. Thorpe, who was only 22 years old, died of diabetes mellitus and heart failure on 9th February, 1936.

As a result of the death of Jimmy Thorpe, the Football Association decided to change the rules in order to give goalkeepers more protection from forwards. Players were no longer allowed to raise their foot to a goalkeeper when he had control of the ball in his arms. However, the shoulder charge, remained an important feature in the attempts to intimidate players.

Bill Shankly, who played for Preston North End, was considered one of the hardest tackling defenders playing in the 1930s. In his autobiography, Shankly (1977), he claimed "I was a hard player, but I played the ball, and if you play the ball you'll win the ball and you'll have the man too." Shankly argued that he helped protect skilful team-mates like Tom Finney. "Tommy was injured regularly, and when he was a boy the other players in the team used to look after him a bit in matches. I remember playing in one game when an experienced Scottish player threatened Tommy. He said, 'I'll break your leg.' I heard this, so I went over to the player and I told him, 'Listen, you break his leg and I'll break yours. Then we'll both be finished, because I'll get sent off.' He didn't bother Tommy after that."

Bill Shankly argued in his autobiography that Wilf Copping, who played for Arsenal, was a genuine dirty player who "played the man" rather than the ball. The first time Shankly encountered Copping for the first-time in an international match against England on 9th April, 1938: "Wilf Copping played for England that day, and he was a well-known hard man. The grass was short, the ground was quick, and I was playing the ball. The next thing I knew, Copping had done me down the front of my right leg. He had burst my stocking - the shin-pad was out - and cut my leg. That was after about ten minutes, and it was my first impression of Copping."

The following season Wilf Copping badly damaged Shankly's ankle in a league game against Arsenal. As Shankly later pointed out: "For years afterwards I played with my ankle bandaged and wore a gaiter over my right boot for extra support, and to this day my right ankle is bigger than my left because of what Copping did. My one regret is that he retired from the game before I had a chance to get my own back."

Tommy Lawton also complained about the tackles of Wilf Copping. While playing for Everton against Arsenal in 1938. Lawton constantly beat the Arsenal defenders in the air and Copping warned him that he was "jumping too high" and that he would have to be "brought down to my level". As Lawton later recalled: "Sure enough the next time we both went for a cross, I end up on the ground with blood streaming from my nose. Wilf was looking down at me and he said 'Ah told thee, Tom. Tha's jumping too high!' My nose was broken. when Arsenal came to Everton, Copping broke my nose again! He was hard, Wilf. You always had something to remember him by when you played against him."

A Leeds United historian has provided a good description of the player: "Wilf Copping was the original hard man of English football, paving the way for the likes of Norman Hunter, Ron Harris, Peter Storey, Tommy Smith and Graeme Souness in later decades. However, it is highly debatable whether any of them looked and played the part as well as Copping, with his boxer's nose and build, his unshaven appearance on match days and the bone shaking charges and tackles which were his trademark. Copping, at left half, was liable to unnerve the opposition with just one fixed stare from his craggy face. The harder the going, the more Copping liked it." Jeff Harris argues in his book, Arsenal Who's Who (1995) that Wilf Copping "had the legendary reputation of being more than forceful in the tackle... and that he was the first to admit that he was temperamental and fiery his bone-jarring tackles were mainly timed to perfection and fair". Harris adds that proof that Copping was a clean player is the fact that he played in 340 league games and was never cautioned or sent-off during his career.

You see a hyperlinked version, plus photographs, from here:


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