Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Parallel World of Football in History

One hundred years from now I wonder whether it will be very well known that one by-product of the UK Riots of August 2011 was disruption to the football fixtures on the first day of the season. Many - I suspect particularly those in academia - might comment that the postponement of some trivial sport doesn't deserve to be observed in the same breath as the violence, damage and death which was caused in that insane week.

However, for some, the loss of their favourite passtime might be the only way in which they directly perceive any effect of the disorder. If their businesses weren't burning, and they wouldn't otherwise visit North London, then they might never have had any personal inconvenience until they found they couldn't watch Tottenham versus Everton at White Hart Lane.

But more importantly than examining the link between the events, I think it's interesting to dwell on the fact that even when terrible things happen, life does go on. People crave entertainment and distraction from the more distressing elements of life. In school we learn about Roman life and their obsession with the spectacles of the amphitheatre, so equally we should stop to remember that football has been enjoyed alongside the headline-grabbing cataclysms of the day for quite a long time.

At 6am on Saturday 8th September 1888, a market porter called John Davis discovered the body of a woman in a yard in Hanbury Street, Whitechapel. The victim was Annie Chapman, a 48-year-old mother of two who had been living in a common lodging house in the area. She had been stabbed and horribly mutilated, with her throat cut from side to side and her abdomen disembowelled.

That morning, the incident was quickly linked to a similar murder which had happened just a week earlier and Chief Inspector Donald Swanson of Scotland Yard began immediate searches of houses in the area to enquire about suspicious activity. A few hours later, her corpse was taken to Whitechapel Mortuary for further examination. That afternoon West Brom went top of the league after beating Stoke 2-0.

The clich├ęd swirling mists of Victorian London don't seem to belong to the same world as a stunning twenty-five yard free kick - yet there they are. Jack the Ripper butchered that poor woman on the very same day that Aston Villa defender Gershom Cox scored an unfortunate own goal, resulting in a 1-1 draw with Wolves.

In my mind, Jack the Ripper belongs alongside Sherlock Holmes in a world of opium dens, limehouses and other unfamiliar settings. It's almost inconceivable that actually the infamous and unknown serial killer might also have watched a football match and cheered a superb goal.

The Ripper was killing at the very dawn of the Football League which is still played today, but the game was far from new at the time. Over a decade earlier, in March 1876, a crowd of 17,000 fans watched Scotland beat Wales 4-0.

The opening goal for the home side had come somewhat controversially in the 40th minute when John Ferguson stabbed the ball into the net after it was knocked out of the hands of the Welsh goalkeeper David Thompson. The Scots dominated the game overall, and after two further goals from Lang and MacKinnon, it was put beyond all doubt when Henry McNeil drove the ball into the back of the next after some excellent link-up play between Ferguson and Highet.

Two months after this international game, across the Atlantic, General Custer made his last stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

As well as internationals, other familiar footballing contests had been around for some time, played in an era very much defined by the monarch. In February of 1872 a young Irishman attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria in London. A couple of weeks later the FA Cup final was settled by a single goal.

Further back still in October 1868, a year before Charles Dickens sat down to start writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it was the Stoke captain Henry Arnold who scored his side's only goal in a 1-1 draw at home.

This sporting vernacular which I know so well seems odd in unfamiliar Victorian surroundings. Admittedly, the further back you go the stranger the game would have looked, and the smaller the attendance, but the rules laid down in 1863 meant that the game has been played essentially unchanged for nearly 150 years.

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