A Matter of Life and Death: A History of Football in 100 Quotations

A Matter of Life and Death: A History of Football in 100 Quotations

by Jim White


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781781859285
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jim White has written for the Independent, the Guardian, and the Telegraph. He is the author of Manchester United: The Biography and Rough Guide to Manchester United.

Read an Excerpt

A Matter of Life and Death

A History of Football in 100 Quotations

By Jim White

Head of Zeus Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Jim White
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78185-926-1



'... there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.'

First recorded law against street football, issued by the Mayor of London, 13 April 1314.

Prince William likes a game of football. The Aston Villa- favouring second in line to the throne enjoys nothing more than a kickaround on the lawn of his gran's place, in his slightly too long shorts and his carefully mismatched socks. Which puts him at quite a distance from his predecessors. Throughout history, when not fomenting war or cavorting with ladies-in-waiting, the monarchy has spent much of its time trying to stamp out football.

Take Edward II, the first monarch to legislate against the beautiful game. Though in truth, early fourteenth-century football was more Dark Age thrash metal than a silky symphony of pass and move. This royal edict of 1314 was issued in response to the pleas of London merchants to clamp down on the medieval hooligans vandalising their shopfronts and scaring their clientele. Two more Edwards (Edward III in 1349 and Edward IV in 1477) would both use the law against the game, as would a Richard (Richard II, 1399), and two Henrys (Henry IV in 1401 and Henry VIII in 1540). Like their present-day descendant, history suggests that Williams, even when attached to Marys, were more tolerant of the game.

The primitive sport that these not-so-merry monarchs were endeavouring to suppress has changed out of all recognition in the intervening centuries. But a whiff of its exuberant, free-for-all flavour can still be had on Twelfth Night in the North Lincolnshire village of Haxey. Here, every 6 January, the clock is turned back to less complicated times. Televisions are switched off, tablets disconnected from the wi-fi, smart phones temporarily ignored as the entire population, plus much of that of the surrounding area, engages in what seems like an afternoon of prolonged public push-me-pull-you, followed by an evening of prolonged public drinking. Frankly, it appears that the locals are getting medieval on one another's hides.

Closer inspection of the mayhem seething across the wolds reveals that this is the annual playing of the Haxey Hood. It has been going on since the fourteenth century, more than 700 years of unbroken tradition represented in the heaving mass of humanity blundering through mud-filled fens, scrabbling and scrapping as they try to force a black leather tube back to their favoured pub, in competition with small armies of men and a few women representing three other local hostelries.

Watched from the sidelines, as the steam rises from the backs of the pushers and shovers, the Haxey Hood can resemble a scrummage without purpose, a rolling bundle of blokes splattering across the muddy countryside, fuelled by copious amounts of New Year ale, soundtracked by urgent cries of 'heave it boys!' and 'kill 'em!' A bit like the first day of the Harrods Sale, in fact.

But it turns out this is an event steeped in ritual and tradition. Despite every appearance, this isn't just a rural riot, there are dozens of arcane rules, lots of roles and positions, supervised by a sizeable hierarchy of officials. It may sound like it's been scripted by the League of Gentlemen, but when a bunch of portly farmers dressed like Morris dancers and calling themselves Boggins open proceedings by lighting a bonfire under a chap smeared in minstrel-style blackface paint in the village square, they have not turned feral. They are doing what has been done once a year on this spot for seven centuries: they are Smoking the Fool. And if you think being the Fool might not be the best thing to be at the Haxey Hood (that face paint alone is enough to warrant investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality), then obviously you are unaware of the tradition which entitles him to demand a kiss from any female he encounters during the day.

The Hood is one of those precursors of football that sprang up across the country in the Middle Ages. It may not look much like the modern game, with its gleaming stadia, pristine pitches and players signing contracts worth £300,000 a week. But what goes on in Haxey marks the start of an evolutionary process that led to the game of Ronaldo, Rooney and Roman Abramovich. This is where it all began.

Now almost entirely extinct, Haxey-like shenanigans were once a familiar sight, on high days and holidays, in every village, market town and city square across Britain. By the middle of the fifteenth century so many folk games had become established, the king's officers and local mayors were everywhere moved to intervene. This was not just a case of the ruling classes being spoilsports, out to stop the working man from enjoying his rare moments of leisure (although two centuries later the Puritans of Cromwell's Commonwealth would try to ban football simply because they didn't like it). Rather, as this decree dating from 1477 states, it was because games like the Hood distracted the populace from what the then powers-that-be regarded as its primary function:

No person shall practise ... football and such games, but every strong and able-bodied person shall practise with the bow for the reason that the national defence depends upon such bowmen.

Those few spare hours when young Englishmen were not toiling in field or workshop were not to be spent arsing about with ball, barrel or roundel of cheese, but in the manly pursuit of archery, honing their skills with the longbow that had won the day at Crécy and Agincourt. The reason Haxey's version of the game survived intact – along with those of places like Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Alnwick in Northumberland – is probably because it was rural, and played under the protection of the local landowner. It was, after all, the wife of a fourteenth-century lord of the manor who had first sparked the anarchy when her hood blew off as she traversed the fens, sending her footmen off on a wild chase across the fields in its recovery. Or so Haxey legend has it.

In London, Canterbury and Edinburgh, however, the burghers were less tolerant of mobs of inebriated lads getting together annually to beat the living daylights out of each other while chasing an inflated pig's bladder down alleyway and up passage. For centuries the holiday bundles roaring down tight city streets earned the ire of the authorities. The football act issued by James I of Scotland in 1424 read: 'It is statut and the king forbiddis that na man play at the fut ball under the payne of iiij d.'

A fourpenny fine for playing fitba in an Edinburgh street was no small sum for the average medieval labourer. Some two hundred years later, in 1659, the Mayor of York went much further. He fined eleven players 20 shillings each when their game resulted in a smashed church window, at the time an astonishingly draconian fine. The prosecution provoked a violent protest, in which more than 100 men stormed the mayor's house and ransacked it.

By the early nineteenth century, though, local by-laws had done little to suppress the urge to play. So widespread were such games, and so fearful were the citizenry at what was unleashed, that a nationwide ban on street football was introduced in 1818. At about the same time, bored pupils in public schools started to develop their own versions of football, adapted to the wider green spaces of those elite institutions.

But in Haxey, they played on through ban and edict. Every Twelfth Night the Boggins and the Fool cocked a snook at their urban contemporaries, stuck a couple of bowman's fingers up to their ruling masters and roared their way across field and brook. And the good thing was, even in defeat, the pub was always there. No matter what rules you play by, that has forever been the fundamental by-law of English football: win or lose there is always the booze.



'The maximum length of the ground shall be 200 yards, the maximum breadth shall be 100 yards, the length and breadth shall be marked off with flags; and the goal shall be defined by two upright posts, eight yards apart, without any tape or bar across them.'

The First Law of Association Football, 8 December 1863.

These words may read like an extract from a DIY manual, but they were the cornerstone on which our national game was constructed. They record the very founding moment of what would become a shared obsession. These are the words that brought modern football into being.

Drawn up by Ebenezer Cobb Morley and a committee of university chaps across a series of meetings held in the Freemasons' Tavern in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, this was the First Law of Association Football. Given the impact that its bland prose had on the world, it should have been delivered on tablets of stone rather than on the back of a beer mat.

Morley's initiative was to have a profound impact not just on society in Britain, but across the globe. So much so that his list of thirteen laws, published that year by the newly formed Football Association in pamphlet form, was selected by Melvyn Bragg, Baron Bragg of Wigton, as one of the 12 Books that Changed the World for a 2006 television series. And when I spoke to him about it, His Lordship made a convincing case for its inclusion.

If people came back from 1862, the year before the laws were written, to now, they'd look around see our football stadiums and think: what are these massive buildings? What goes on in them? What is this thing that fills our newspapers with news? And it's not just here, it is massive everywhere. Then you find that 20 million women are playing, then you find it's worth billions of pounds a year and that the men who play it are iconic figures, they set the fashions like Beau Brummell used to. Yes, it did change the world.

Before that final meeting in the Freemasons', people played something resembling football across the country, but to no pattern. There were folk games in villages like Haxey, unruly tussles at Eastertide and Twelfth Night on heath and green; there were various arcane developments in England's public schools, all governed by obscure local regulations. Then Morley suggested that representatives from a group of clubs get together and try to produce a set of rules that would work for all. The urge to bureaucratise, after all, goes to the heart of what it means to be a Briton.

Delegates turned up at the pub from the following clubs: Forest (later to become Wanderers, the first winners of the FA Cup); NN Kilburn (NN stands for No Names but the club was always known by its initials); Barnes; War Office; Crusaders; Perceval House (Blackheath); Crystal Palace; Kensington School; Blackheath; Surbiton; and Black-heath Proprietary School. In addition Charterhouse School sent an observer and several unattached footballers were present.

It was a lively meeting. The Blackheath contingent wanted the rules to embrace those of the game being played at Rugby School, with all its William Webb Ellis, pick-the-ball-up-and- run-with-it plot diversions. The rest did not. When Blackheath were defeated in a vote, they took their ball off in a huff and eight years later helped form the Rugby Football Union. But those who stayed constructed their thirteen rules. It was a moment the world seemed to have been waiting for.

'It absolutely stunned me when I realised,' Bragg told me. 'These guys met in a pub, knocked these rules together and from that moment it was a sensational success. There's been nothing like it. This was a game played by no more than a thousand young men in England. Even then, it was different games. Half-time was introduced so that university men could play Eton rules one half, Rugby rules the next. Then it was standardised and it went like a rocket. Not just round Britain, but British sailors took it round the world. They got off the boat and started playing it. Which is why the first teams in most countries – Le Havre in France, Genoa in Italy – were in ports.'

And it was the rules that made the game. Perfectly coinciding with the rise in leisure, driven by adherents of muscular Christianity, who saw in its rhythms an unbeatable weapon in the battle against masturbation in the young and the bottle among the working class, Morley's way of doing things spread like a pandemic. Within ten years of the pub meeting, 30,000 people were watching matches played to his laws in Russia.

So what was it about the Freemasons' Tavern rule-book that made it so instantly accessible across classes, countries and creeds? What was it exactly that Morley unwittingly unleashed?

'Its beauty is its brevity,' reckoned Bragg. 'There were only thirteen rules. You could paste them up in the dressing room and say: look, that's how it works. And the thing was, until the book came out, nobody, anywhere, was playing the game like that.'

Plus there was its flexibility. Morley's was to be an ever- changing rule book, constantly adapting to circumstance. Here are a couple of the original laws, long since removed from the game's statutes.

1. The two sides change ends after each goal is won.

2. If a player makes a fair catch, he shall be entitled to a free kick, providing he claims it by making a mark with his heel at once; and in order to take such kick he may go back as far as he pleases, and no player on the opposite side shall advance beyond his mark until he has kicked.

Over the years new laws were added to replace those lost. In 1871 goalkeepers were introduced, followed in 1891 by penalty kicks, while in 1992 the back-pass rule was altered. At the start of the 2013–14 season, the glacially slow advance of technology finally bore fruit when cameras were brought in to alert the referee when the ball had crossed the goal line.

And none of them would have arrived were it not for Morley's first law. This is indeed the quotation that started it all.



'The Scotch now came away with a great rush, Leckie and others dribbling the ball so smartly that the English lines were closely besieged and the ball was soon behind.'

Report from The Scotsman newspaper of the first officially sanctioned England v. Scotland international match, played at the West of Scotland Cricket Ground, Hamilton Crescent, Glasgow, 30 November 1872.

Demonstrating quite what a rampaging forest fire the spread of Association Football was, less than a decade after Ebenezer Cobb Morley and his pals had met in a London pub to decide on the laws of the game, St Andrew's Day 1872 saw the first official international between Scotland and England.

Not that those trudging through a grim, foggy Glasgow afternoon would have appreciated that they were witnessing a 'Eureka!' moment, the fountainhead of a new species of footballing contest that would spawn the World Cup and the European Championships, and the thrill, intensity and fervour of Brazil versus Argentina, Germany against Holland, or Croatia against Serbia. Around 3,500 people were reckoned to have made their way to the ground in Partick, each paying a shilling admission (the same amount as had been charged at the first FA Cup final in London that March). For that outlay, they were treated to what The Scotsman's reporter suggested was a pretty stagnant, uninspiring 0–0 draw.

Yet, with the keen eye of hindsight, there were many hints of what was to come. The Scots were kitted out in dark blue shirts, with a thistle embroidered on the chest. And – in a manner that was to echo down the generations – neither side was able to field its best players. According to The Scotsman, 'the teams were got together with some difficulty, each side losing some of their best men almost at the last moment'. Roy Hodgson will know exactly how they felt.


Excerpted from A Matter of Life and Death by Jim White. Copyright © 2014 Jim White. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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