Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University
In recent years, an increased Swedish interest in the cultural heritage, historical use and collective memory of sports has been notable. Historian John Berg at Malmö University is currently working on a dissertation on how Swedish sports museums present their collections. I myself have just published a book about bandy and nostalgia, The dying bandy?, and I’m presently working with photographer Edvard Koinberg on a book about the cultural heritage of Swedish football.
Football is at the forefront of this kind of sporting historical interest, perhaps together with baseball in the United States, as a number of more or less new football museums around Europe testify to. Manchester United’s and FC Barcelona’s museums have large numbers of visitors. The National Football Museum, located in a futuristic building in Manchester, has the world’s largest and best collection of football items and is an essential destination for all football tourists who enter the city daily for matches with City and/or United. In Sweden, the top club Malmö FF has endeavored to strengthen its luster with a recently established museum in its home arena.
Unsurprisingly, it is otherwise the UK that is leading this development. Nowhere is the interest in antiques in general bigger than there, and since modern football is a British creation, it is perfectly logical that the collection and presentation of football memorabilia is a growing genre. For many years, auction houses have had special football object auctions, where some items, often old jerseys worn by legendary players, can go for above £10,000. Simple everyday items such as old match programs and match posters – of which 99 percent were thrown away as waste – now cost thousands of pounds.
Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that even smaller British clubs have their own amateur history researchers. It is when you come across their efforts that you understand the breadth and depth of British football interest, one consequence of which is that clubs in lower divisions have far higher audience numbers than the corresponding teams in other countries.
One such passionate collector is John Dewhirst, who has published a number of voluminous tomes that in various ways depict the history of Bradford City AFC. Here I am content with briefly presenting the oldest book, A History of Bradford City AFC in Objects (see below for information of the others), published in 2014, since it builds entirely on different objects.Where I grew up in the 70s, in Linköping, you could buy football pennants and mugs commemorating the most successful English teams in any sports shop.
For the world, the club is best known for the horrendous marquee fire in the Bradford arena Valley Parade in 1985, which resulted in 56 casualties and hundreds of injured. At that time the club appeared as a relic, housed in a rickety, flammable arena. The Yorkshire club had been formed in 1903 and already peaked in 1911 with an FA Cup victory. After that, no major successes were reaped until the 2000s when, among other things, they played sporadically in the Premier League. Now, however, the team are again relegated to the lower levels of the professional league.
Despite this not very glamorous history, Dewhirst can fill nearly 350 pages with football items of various kinds related to the club! This says something about the commercialism that has long been around professional English football. A number of small businesses have since the beginning of the 20th century manufactured all kinds of small things for football fans: signs, buttons and labels, mugs, postcards and various other collectibles.
For a long time, the club itself has printed match tickets and issued match programs, and from the 60s, when the modern supporter culture was born, comes a series of brand identity products, such as scarves and caps. For the major teams, these products also reached a Swedish market, whose Anglophilia was pumped up by TV broadcasts of the English Football League matches. Where I grew up in the 70s, in Linköping, you could buy football pennants and mugs commemorating the most successful English teams in any sports shop.
The fact that Dewhirst has collected all these memorabilia, all these little relics, in one single book – in splendid print, too – must feel like a nostalgic bombardment for the Bradford fan. But the project is of interest for others as well. The experience of browsing the book is akin to the kind astonishment that people must have felt in front of a cabinet of curiosities a few hundred years ago.
The question is whether any club in the world other than Bradford City AFC can show a similar collection of objects equally minutely documented. This is local history seen through a magnifying glass; information on how and when different artifacts appeared on the market. Many people in Bradford would have encountered these items at some point in their lives. The city still has close to 500,000 inhabitants. You realize the breadth of football as a cultural phenomenon.
One can also, with a little sadness, see how the products tend to become increasingly plasticky and ugly, how professional knowledge has been distorted, in the era of mass production. The cultural heritage industry has been accused of prioritizing older objects –another gray runestone is preferable to a colorful circus poster from 1900.
This attitude is probably changing, albeit gradually. Awareness of the modern cultural history of everyday life has increased, and so of the objects that bring people’s – or perhaps, in this case, men’s – feelings to life. In this context, John Dewhirst’s book plays a role, although England cannot be accused of a paucity of conservatism in this regard. Contemporary England is still the stronghold of football conservatism, although, nowadays, she is also its postmodern spearhead.
Copyright © Torbjörn Andersson 2019
More books by John Dewhirst in this series (read about them and buy them here):