For the love of the game
The story of determined teachers who sacrificed their home lives to pioneer schoolboy football inspires Gerald Haigh
It's a simple but proud truth that competitive school sport - rugby, soccer, rounders, swimming, basketball (the list would fill the page) - only happens because teachers give their own time to it. That it was ever thus is confirmed in Colm Kerrigan's meticulous account of the early years of school football.
He tells us of some of the heroes of those years: AH McVea, a teacher at the Orphan Working School in Marylebone who, in the 1890s, took his team to 163 matches in seven years, and WJ Wilson, a driving force in both the South London Schoolboy Football Association and the London SFA itself. Mr Wilson's family had to sacrifice themselves to the cause. We read that he saw so little of his own son that when the little boy was punished for some naughtiness or other, he mistook his father for one of the family's lodgers. "The son enquired of his mother as to what right 'that man' had to punish him."
True or not - and Kerrigan hints that it may be apocryphal - that's a story that would draw nods of recognition from the partners of many of today's school sport organisers, whose activities tend to make them strangers both to their families and to any sort of social life.
This book, which began life as a PhD thesis, confines itself to association football, mainly in London schools over a period of 30 years. It is exhaustively researched within those bounds, and although the detail that's necessary in a scholarly work can sometimes make for hard going, it's not difficult to find the nuggets.
The very first foundations of school football in London were laid down in the early 1880s by those strange social phenomena, the university settlements and public school missions. These were a means by which earnest and dedicated young middle-class men went to run boys' clubs in selected "poor" areas of London, with the aim of lifting aspirations and bringing a bit of culture and healthy exercise, not to mention sporting attitude, to the community. Kerrigan quotes a much earlier historian - WM Eager, author of Making Men, written in the 1950s -who writes: "The public school men had to overcome the Win, Tie or Wrangle spirit, and inculcate the basic idea of sportsmanship to be taken up later by the elementary schools."
So it was that Uppingham school had a mission in North Woolwich, Malvern College a similar one in Canning Town. Eton's was in Hackney Wick, and it's on record that Eton boys sent their old rowing kit off to the Hackney Wick lads, "to enable them to experience the benefit of changing for athletic pursuits".
Into the 1890s and across the turn of the century, though, the schools took over their own associations. It was during this time, Kerrigan writes, that schools established the principle by which all school organised games have been run since: "They were correctly teaching their charges what association football actually was, namely a competitive game bound by strict rules and a game at which the boys' abilities could be improved by training."
This, he says, took courage and commitment on the part of colleagues, many of whom used their own money to make their children's lives better. At that time there were no government healthy living initiatives. On the contrary, it seems that the authorities, in London at least, were decidedly cool on the whole idea of schoolboy football. The South London Schoolboy Football Association, which started up in 1885, received gifts and support from various private individuals, but was turned down both by the local MP and the School Board for London.
Kerrigan finds this difficult to understand, given the board's enthusiasm for gymnastics and swimming. He suspects - and it rings true - that the board was reluctant to support a movement that it knew couldn't be made available to every child, "taking into account the cramped conditions of the playgrounds in so many schools and the scarcity of pitches in the heavier populated areas". It's a familiar refrain: local authorities don't like to support other people's initiatives, especially if it seems that the demand may prove both insatiable and expensive.
And so, the author tells us, it was the teachers, on their own initiative, who gave their time and energy and eventually saw to it that outdoor sport of all kinds eventually found its place in the official school day:
"Teachers were in the front line in the battle against the harsh effects of the poverty that characterised the environment of so many elementary schools in late Victorian and early Edwardian London." And, we might add, teachers are still in there fighting a similar battle.
This book gives the pioneers their overdue recognition. It's a proud record, and there are many teachers today who are living up to it in full measure. It's still not easy to run organised games. Poverty lives on in some communities, but there are other problems, too: boys and girls who don't recognise the concept of pride in team and school; the lure of part-time work (which has more or less killed secondary school Saturday matches in many places). Teachers of boys' and girls' organised games are still heroes, playing on an uphill pitch.
The book is a tour de force of social and educational history which whets the appetite. We want to know about the early history of girls' games, and we want to know more about the effects of later developments: two wars, the emergence of a different sort of youth culture, the growing awareness of equal opportunity issues. There are still lots of unsung heroes waiting for their chronicler.