Tales from another era in football
Scott Murray tells this story from the late 1890s about a football game involving Aston Villa, probably against Sheffield United. The notorious English weather was so bad that one of the wingers from the team borrowed a raincoat from a spectator. Another player carried an umbrella—and they played with the rain gear.
“It was definitely more haphazard in the early years,” says Murray, a football and golf writer for The Guardian newspaper.
This story and several other quirky ones are part of a new book, The Title: The Story Of The First Division, which will be available for sale from 7 September.
Murray’s book traces the history of English club football from 1888 till 1992, when the Premier League replaced the old First Division. Stitched together from newspaper match reports, biographies, club histories, and other archival material, the book is a reminder of the amateurism that defined sport in the olden days.
For Indian fans of English football, the book would provide additional material to strengthen loyalties—or form new ones.
Murray says there is a huge backstory to English club football that has been forgotten. You can find histories of Spanish, German and Italian football in book stores. “But if you try to get the history of English football, you are struggling a bit. It’s a cherry-picked history that has passed down. No one has looked into it, which is why I did it.”
For example, the 44-year-old writer narrates this other story about Stanley Matthews. In the first season after World War II, Mathews, a British legend and one of the world’s most famous players, had a run-in with his manager at Stoke City.
Stoke were going for the championship that year but the team, says Murray, sold Mathews with three matches to go in the season. Stoke lost the league by a couple of points.
“That seems inconceivable now. But it’s a weirdly modern story: manager and star player running off each other in the press,” adds Murray over Skype.
“You wonder: Did that happen in 1946? Yet, it did. On the flip side, there are other times when it seems it really was another, innocent, almost pastoral world. Certain things don’t happen so often now.”
After the early 1990s, with the expansion of television coverage, sponsorships and global popularity, the English Premier League has turned into a multi-billion-pound behemoth. It’s dominated by a few rich teams, with the others playing supporting roles.
But it wasn’t always like that in the First Division. In the 1920s, a team like Huddersfield Town could win three titles in a row (1923-24 to 1925-26). Portsmouth won successive titles (1948-49, 1949-50). Manchester City won in 1936-37 and then got relegated the year after.
“I have avoided saying that this is exactly how it happened,” says Murray, who co-authored another book, And Gazza Misses The Final, a few years ago. “Like, this person sent the cross and this is how it was headed in.... It’s more about the feel and rhythm of all these title races. The Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur) in the 1960s were dominant but they won only one title in the period (1960-61). This (book) has the sort of ebbs and flows. It’s much more about the near misses than the victories sometimes.”
Another story that he reveals is about Chelsea, which nearly won the league but was pipped in the end by Manchester United, in 1964-65. There was a modern, tabloid sort of scandal when the players were prepping for one of their last matches.
Half of the team went boozing, returning to the hotel with women, having been to the casino all night. The manager, Tommy Docherty, sent eight players home as punishment and they didn’t play in the deciding game against Burnley, which they lost. The team was, at that point, just two points behind the leader, United.
“If this happened in 2017, it would be a huge scandal. It just kind of happened (then),” says Murray, who grew up at a time when the First Division was active and has straddled both eras as a fan.
There are other tales from the 1930s, for example, when teams would inject their players with monkey glands, seen perhaps as some sort of steroids of the day.
“Like teams would get whacked up on speed, running around like nutters. I am surprised half of them didn’t drop dead with heart attacks. Drugs were a huge scandal in the 1930s. It was a hot topic but it wasn’t illegal.”