The Ruhleben Football Association: How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived A First World War Concentration Camp

Paul Brown (Goal Post Books)

 

It’s becoming increasingly rare to find a football book that is both original and absorbing, but Paul Brown’s latest succeeds on both counts. Meticulously researched and carefully told, it is the tale of one of the most extraordinary episodes in football history, and one which should, if there is any justice, return one of the games earliest heroes and greatest names to the public consciousness.

Steve Bloomer was the greatest player of his generation, described by Brown as “football’s biggest star during the game’s flourishing Victorian and Edwardian boom times”. He scored 422 goals for Derby County, Middlesbrough and England and was revered as both a football hero and a man of the people. By the 1913-14 season his playing days were nearing their end and a coaching career beckoned. But in Britain, the idea that football could be taught was still regarded with suspicion, so Bloomer looked to mainland Europe, where progressive thinkers such as Jimmy Hogan, formerly of Burnley and Bolton Wanderers; Jack Reynolds – who helped found the playing principles of Ajax of Amsterdam; and John Cameron, who had been so influential in establishing Tottenham Hotspur as a national force, were working.

Germany, in particular, was a draw for British coaches, and Bloomer fetched up there in July 1914, joining former Boro teammate Fred Pentland; England international Fred Spiksley; Charles Griffiths, who had already coached Bayern Munich; and William Townley, who would also coach Bayern.

On 5th August 1914, after the outbreak of war, Bloomer was arrested and by November was interned in a concentration camp at Ruhleben, just outside Berlin. Alongside him were many of the footballers who had come to Europe to work and, as the thousands of prisoners began to organise themselves into some kind of community, Bloomer stepped up to organise sporting pursuits. What eventually developed was a fully functioning Football Association that organised a programme of league and cup games over the next four years. This book tells the story of how they did so, and why it was important.

It is a heroic tale, but Brown does not take the easy option of presenting a cartoon wartime yarn. What is clear from the start is how terrible conditions in the camp were at first, and why organising and a sense of purpose were key to the survival of so many. That football was at the centre of those efforts says much about the appeal of the people’s game. So Brown’s tale is one of courage and humour, but also of squalor, misery and cruelty. You’re left in no doubt how awful it was to be in the camp, and nor does Brown shy away from tricky subjects such as the strains of racism and anti-Semitism among the allied prisoners. The world is a complex place and heroes and villains are not always as well-drawn as some would like.

Although there are some familiar tales, such as the cameo appearance from the Daily Mail which misinterpreted the ironic humour in camp magazines to launch an attack on the prisoners as ‘featherbed heroes‘ enjoying an easy life while others fought at the front. The coverage coloured the perception of Ruhlebenites for years after the war ended. I guess you could admire the Mail’s consistency if you were desperate for something to like.

The value of the Ruhleben Football Association is summed up by Pentland, who wrote that “Only those who have been incarcerated in a concentration camp can appreciate what happiness is derived from the playing of games.” And through much of this story, despite the deprivations and downright cruelty, the strength of the human spirit shines through. It’s an imperfect tale but all the better for it, and the book is only let down slightly by a perhaps trite sales pitch cover line describing it as ‘the real Escape to Victory’.

It is isn’t, it’s a tale of far superior quality and greater depth than what is essentially an enjoyable romp.

The research is outstanding, the storytelling well-paced and sensitive. This is a book to savour, a true original and an important tale revived and put on display.