Interesting empirical football history studies might have fared better in the hands of a trained historian

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Hans Bolling
PhD in History, Independent scholar


Gavin Kitching
A Fateful Love: Essays on Football in the North-East of England 1880–1930
259 pages, paperback
Oxford, Oxon: Peter Lang Publishing 2021 (Sport, History and Culture)
ISBN 978-1-78997-834-6

At first glance, it may seem that football in the north-east of England hardly ever has been at the forefront of interest for Swedish football supporters, rather the opposite. It has, however, attracted some interest in recent years. First with the Netflix documentary Sunderland ‘Til I Die and then with Alexander Isak’s transfer to the newest and in more ways than one most problematic of football’s petro-clubs, Newcastle United in the summer of 2022. However, when one starts to think there is more that has caught the attention of football supporters through the course of history. Those with an interest in how the history of the laws of the association game have developed have heard about Bill McCracken and the Newcastle United team of the early 1920s. Those with an interest in the mediatisation of sport remember that Sunderland Association Football Club was one of the teams that participated when Swedish television started showing live football from England on Saturday afternoons in its legendary football show Tipsextra in 1969, even though Sunderland lost that particular game 0–1 against Wolverhampton Wanderers. And, of course, we all remember that Stefan Schwarz when he played for Sunderland at the turn of the millennium had a clause included in his contract that said that space travel would invalidate it. Sunderland’s chief executive John Fickling told the BBC: ‘One of Schwarz’s advisers has, indeed, got one of the places on the commercial flights. And we were worried that he may wish to take Stefan along with him. So, we thought we’d better get things tied up now rather than at the time of the flight.’[1]

In the book A Fateful Love: Essays on Football in the North-East of England 1880–1930, Gavin Kitching has published articles about football in the north-east of England. The fact that Kitching, with roots in the north-east of England and induced to follow Sunderland AFC by his father, but now living in Sydney Australia with an academic career in African studies and philosophy and not in history, gives promise of new and fresh perspectives. But one has to wonder if being a Sunderland fan has something to do with the title,

As I write this review and the new football season starts in Sweden, as a devoted supporter of AIK I can’t help but agree with Kitching: ‘Football as a professional and commercialised sport has entrancing virtues and repulsive vices.’

The book consists of an introduction, five empirical chapters and a concluding chapter. As most academic projects the final product is narrower in its focus than initially intended, but still tells us a lot about football at a local level during the decades around the turn of the last century. In the first empirical chapter ‘“From Time Immemorial”: The Alnwick Shrovetide Football Match and the Continual Remaking of Tradition 1828–1890’, Kitching studies a traditional form of football in the Northumberland town of Alnwick and the supposed dichotomy between traditional and modern football. He shows that, in Alnwick, the traditional game moved from streets and fields to a defined space and written rules, i.e., traditional football also changed during the nineteenth century.

In chapter two “What’s in a name? Playing ‘football’ in the mid-Victorian north-east”, the subject is the establishing of the main codes of football, association and rugby football, in the north-east. Kitching shows that hybrid game seems to have been the norm in the early years, a state of affairs that to a certain extent reminds me of Sweden where Viktor Balck in 1886 issued the rules of ‘Swedish football’ in Illustrerad idrottsbok, rules that he hoped would lay the foundations for a distinctive national football code.[2] The association code proved victorious, maybe not for structural reasons but because it became more fun to play and watch.

In chapter three “Mercutio and friends: The press and the commercialisation of north-eastern football 1885–1892” attention is turned to the early sporting journalists. We get a glimpse of how the game and its conditions were described in the newspapers. It is made clear that the sport journalists had influence on the game and how the infrastructure around it developed.

Chapter four “Shamateurism, corruption and prejudice on the eve of professionalism: The Sunderland AFC/Sunderland Albion split of 1888” is a study of the professionalization and commercialisation of association football in Sunderland. It is a story of power struggle and how an amateur club, created by teachers, developed into one of the best professional football clubs in England. In the chapter we get an empirical example of what historian Bill Sund called development-promoting conflicts when he studied the history of Swedish football.[3]

Sunderland AFC 1884 (Wikipedia)

In the fifth and final empirical chapter, “The curiously contorted class struggle: Crook Town FC, the Durham Football Association, and the FA, 1927–1933”, the theme is how amateur football clubs lived with the challenges created by the amateur rules in the highly competitive environment of the Northern League. To a large extent, it concerns the same approach to amateurism and the amateur rules that are noticed by Erik Nielson in Sport and the British World. Amateurism and amateur rules were not something fixed, but they were constantly exposed to negotiations and redefinitions. The view of amateurism by local sports leaders and practitioners has been far more pragmatic than the ideal promoted by the private school-educated upper-class leaders from the south-east of England.[4] It is an approach to amateurism that is also recognisable in Swedish football, where a pragmatic relationship to amateurism with generous broken-time and expenses payments has been the norm rather than an exception.[5]

In the concluding chapter, ‘Football as a commodity’ the author discusses modern football and his misgivings about the modern game, which might explain the title of the book. It is a pity that he doesn’t make more use of his empirical research to say something new about football in the north-east of England between 1880 and 1930. That Kitching is not a historian by profession becomes clear as he not only tries to analyse the modern game of football but in an appendix also presents four possible suggestions that he thinks might moderate the commodification of football. Even if I’m not sure that the presented solutions would solve any problems is it refreshing and thought-provoking to get the chance to read recommendations for action. As I write this review and the new football season starts in Sweden, as a devoted supporter of AIK I can’t help but agree with Kitching: ‘Football as a professional and commercialised sport has entrancing virtues and repulsive vices.’

So is it worth spending time with A Fateful Love? People with a keen interest in football in the north-east of England might get satisfaction from it, but readers who don’t intend to read more than three or four books on football history have legions of titles to choose from and I have a hard time imagining that A Fateful Love will end up on their reading list. Maybe it is the author’s background outside history that makes this book a little bit problematic for me. If there is one thing that is interesting with history, and the very point of the subject, it is that historians study change. With that in mind observations that the world is changing and with it society are not remarkable in any way. The limitation of historians is generally not that they know too little, rather that they know too much and thus are unable to share the ignorance of the people they are writing about. And thus, in the words of Göran B Nilsson, there is a risk that they write history backwards, i.e., ‘explain why what happened had to happen’.[6]

Copyright © Hans Bolling 2023


Notes

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/sport/football/fa_carling_premiership/410156.stm
[2] Viktor Balck, Illustrerad idrottsbok. Handledning i olika grenar af idrott och lekar [Illustrated sports book. Tutoring in various branches of sports and games]. D. 1. Stockholm: Fritze, 1886.
[3] Bill Sund, Fotbollens maktfält: Svensk fotbollshistoria i ett internationellt perspektiv [Football’s power fields: Swedish football history in an international perspective]. Solna: Svenska fotbollförl., 1997.
[4] Erik Nielsen, Sport and the British World, 1900–1930: Amateurism and National Identity in Australasia and Beyond. Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2014.
[5] Torbjörn Andersson, Kung fotboll: Den svenska fotbollens kulturhistoria från 1800-talets slut till 1950. Eslöv: Symposion: 2002.
[6] Göran B Nilsson, ”Historia som humaniora” [History as humanities], Kronos: Historia i skola och samhälle, nr 2, 1988.

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