Most supporters have a picture that comes to mind when people talk about football club owners. For those, like me, whose formative years were the 1970s and 1980s, it’s the old-school stereotype that pops into our head; the cigar-chewing, sheepy wearing, local boy made good; a member of the city or town’s glitterati who wants to bring the hard-nosed lessons he learned in the business world to the club that he supported as a boy. But if that all seems horribly archaic and you’re more of a child of the Premiership-era, then the images that come to mind are probably of the game’s new generation of owners, like the Russian oligarch, the Middle Eastern sheikh, or the passionless, dead-eyed, American automaton.
It seems that as long as the game’s been around, it’s men (and it is largely men) like those above who’ve been in charge of the clubs that we follow and the relationship between English football and the business world appears to be as old as the game itself. Tales of boardroom disagreements between the manager and the owner and the times when the ‘Gaffer’ is given the full support of the board just days before he is given the elbow, form part of the collective memory of most fans. Along with the many managers and players who come and go over the years, the names of chairmen and owners also stick in supporters’ minds, so important are they to the functioning of the clubs we love.
But how did it happen? How did English football become like this? Because it wasn’t always this way; there was a time when clubs were the preserve of the players and the fans, with little room for the involvement of the local brewer or carpet magnate. To find out how it happened we have to go on a journey, back in time to the primordial swamps of football’s beginnings, when the game as we know it was first starting to take shape.
Football in England has a long (and occasionally exceptionally violent) history. The earliest known reference to some form of the game taking place appears in an account of London life, written around 1175 by William Fitzstephen, biographer of Thomas Becket. Writing on the various festivities and entertainments that took place in the capital on each Shrove Tuesday, Fitzstephen describes how in the afternoon the youth of the time would head off to a patch of ground (likely near Smithfield) just outside the city for the “famous game of ball”. This was a regular occurrence and one that even attracted spectators, who were usually those too old to play.
The game that was played then and for many centuries afterwards was so disorganised and brutal, it would be unrecognisable to us today (even to Joey Barton). Medieval football was essentially a massive kick-off, a poorly-defined contest between crowds of young lads, played in a disorganised fashion through the towns of England. There might have been opposing ‘goals’ to aim the ball towards, but the way in which teams could do this allowed for pretty much anything. This licence for lawlessness created a game in which violence and personal injury (even sometimes resulting in death) became the norm. These were riotous affairs that would make the most bad-tempered of Old-Firm head-to-heads look tame by comparison.
Despite attempts by the authorities to outlaw football (they were troubled by the social upheaval that occasionally accompanied games), the sport gradually weaved its way into the fabric of English life; becoming an essential part of the folk customs of this country by the middle ages. Although enjoyed by all classes, in its primitive form football primarily belonged to the lowest level of society, where its riotous nature found a more receptive audience. But this popularity amongst the lower classes proved to be something of a handicap as it made football vulnerable to any social changes that were occurring within the lives of working men. And during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these came thick and fast.
For much of the early existence of football working-class life changed very little. The country was agrarian and most ordinary men had a job that was in some way tied to the land. But this relationship underwent a radical transformation with the advent of the industrial revolution in the late eighteenth century. As the factories and mills grew in size, and the cities started to expand outward into the countryside, more and more workers found themselves drawn into the industrial workforce. Leisure time became limited, as Scrooge-like employers often restricted holidays to Christmas and Easter. Even Sunday, the traditional English day of leisure, was sacrificed to the rapacious appetite of the expanding economy.
Although by no means uniform, with examples of traditional football surviving in several working-class communities in the north, the ancient traditions of the game were scarcely evident amongst the vast majority of industrial workers during the first half of the nineteenth century. The people simply no longer had time for the ‘people’s game’. And it’s possible that football would have disappeared completely had it not been for the saving presence of the most improbable group in society that you would ever imagine riding to the rescue of the game; the pupils and masters of the English public school system.
Despite working-class dominance of early football, the sport had also found its way into the country’s public schools. Once there, it quickly evolved, with each institution developing its own version. Like much early football, what was played in the public schools during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries bore little resemblance to the game we know today. The game remained fairly anarchic, with scrums still evident, forward passing often forbidden and at Eton it was even illegal to turn your back on a charging player, as this was considered ungentlemanly (although apparently it was perfectly ‘gentlemanly’ to kick the shit out of your opponent at the same time).
Key to the game becoming more recognisable to our modern eyes was the revolution that took place in the public school system during the mid-nineteenth century. Prior to this, aside from a sprinkling of Latin and Greek, pupils had largely been left to their own devices; leading to a culture of unruliness in schools (several even suffered mutinies). A reform movement, led by the educator, historian and headmaster of Rugby, Thomas Arnold, began to initiate change during the early Victorian years. This was complemented by the arrival of more middle-class students in the schools, whose parents demanded something more for their children than a smattering of Latin and Greek and the occasional beating. In time, greater emphasis was placed on education and discipline, the latter underwritten by the prefect system.
As an integral and wildly popular part of student life, football was pulled into this wider effort to bring order to the schools. The game began to get greater support from headmasters who thought that a better structured, organised and less anarchic sport would be a valuable tool in their efforts to instill a stronger sense of discipline amongst their pupils.
To satisfy the desire to bring greater structure to football, and also eliminate anomalies, written rules governing the sport first began to appear in the 1840s. Through this process of codification, public school men from different institutions were able to recognise the common features of football played elsewhere, a process that would ultimately lead to matches taking place between schools and not just within them.
Preserving and then modernising the game within the public school system was all well-and-good but this didn’t really benefit the rest of society for whom football remained a pastime associated with a long-lost age. This would soon change. As the sport became a more entrenched part of public school life (often becoming a compulsory activity), old-boys began playing the game after they’d left. What started as just a handful of them founding clubs linked to their former school, such as the Old Harrovians and the Old Rugbeians, quickly spread as more and more established new clubs of their own.
But old-boys could only fill so many of the positions within these new teams and so, increasingly the men behind the clubs turned to the communities they settled in. In Lancashire for example, two of the county’s earliest football clubs, Turton FC and Darwen FC, were established by former pupils of Harrow, who having returned from school imbued with a love of the game, set about recruiting local lads into the sport. This was the beginning of a trend that would start to see the working-classes reacquainted with football, albeit in a revolutionised form to that which had existed prior to the eighteenth century, one with far fewer numbers of players, a more codified set of rules and less chance of its participants being maimed.
Along with those simply seeking local working men to join their newly formed teams, the working-classes were also encouraged to take up football by members of the middle-class, such as charity workers and church clerics, who were living or working in poorer communities. During the latter half of the nineteenth century working men gradually began to acquire more leisure time, a change attributable to the efforts of political reformers and trade unions. There existed a vein of thought amongst many interested in the welfare of the working-classes that if left to their own devices, working men might not use this extra time productively, instead squandering their hard-earned time off on drinking, gambling and other unsavoury, yet thoroughly enjoyable pursuits. For these concerned citizens, football appeared to be the answer, the perfect way to occupy idle hands. The church in particular pursued this approach and it’s telling that by the 1880s around a quarter of the football clubs that had been established in England had originated from a local church. In Liverpool, which quickly became the footballing epicentre of England, by the mid 1880s 25 of the 112 football clubs in the city had religious connections, the most famous of which, Everton, originated from St Domingo’s church in Kirkdale in 1878.
Part of the reason why football was so readily embraced by working men was because the game lent itself easily to urban life. It needed no equipment other than a ball and could be played by anyone, regardless of size, skill or strength. It was simple to play, easy to understand, and could take place under most conditions and on most surfaces.
The spread in the popularity of football was also assisted by the founding of the Football Association (FA) in 1863. On the 26 October, representatives from several of the recently established football clubs, such as Forest, Blackheath and War Office met together to establish an association that could clarify the rules of the game. Those that were ultimately agreed upon removed any overlap between football and rugby, by for example outlawing the handling of the ball and the legality of just kicking someone if they were faster or better than you. The establishment of codified rules meant that it was now simpler for teams to play against each other, something that acted as a catalyst for a rapid growth in fixtures during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Working-class interest combined with the organisational structure that the FA also provided ensured that football expanded swiftly between 1870 and the turn of the century. In 1867 the FA had just ten clubs affiliated to it. By 1888 this had risen to one thousand. Fast forward to 1905 and the figure stood at a mightily impressive ten thousand.
But what were these clubs? What were the differences and similarities to the football clubs, both league and non-league that we know today?
To begin with they were simply members clubs, with those who joined paying a subscription to do so. Although initially dependent upon the organising efforts of ex-public school boys, as time passed clubs were established by ordinary working men too. Many of these originated within workplaces, the railways proving a particularly effective midwife to several teams. One such club, Newton Heath FC, was formed in 1878 by workers from the Carriage and Wagon Department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot in Newton Heath, Manchester. This was a club that would, after a name-change and relocation, eventually morph into that footballing behemoth Manchester United.
Such was the popularity of the game amongst the working-classes that eventually fixtures started to attract crowds, bringing into existence the ‘football supporter’ for the first time. To begin with, these early supporters would have been those members of the club that weren’t playing, ex-players who still had an interest in the team and friends and family of those involved. In many instances, these supporters also paid a membership fee, which would act as a season ticket; one that would also provide them with a say in how the club was run.
This latter aspect of membership was important. When football first became popularised, most clubs were run as democratic entities, owned and controlled by the players and members. These were clubs like Aston Villa and Woolwich Arsenal. By the late 1880s the former was run by a nine man management committee, with each position elected by the club’s 382 members. A few hundred miles further south, Woolwich Arsenal, which had been established by employees of the Royal Arsenal in 1886, represented an interesting example of working-class organisation. During the early years of its existence a management committee of working men, elected by a membership dominated by working men, ran every aspect of the club.
In the very early days of football, when businessmen were at all involved it was usually because there was a connection with a place of work. At Thames Ironworks in East London, the owner Arnold F Hills helped establish a club with his works foreman Dave Taylor. Although this organisation, which would eventually sever its ties with both Hill and the Works and become West Ham United, was run by its members, Hill provided it with a stadium (one of the most impressive in England at the time) and established a sports committee that insured the players against loss of wages resulting from injury.
Alongside these more formal relationships, there were also occasional instances of local businessmen with an interest in the game throwing a club a few quid, such as Lancashire industrialist Sydney Yates. In 1883, his local club Blackburn Olympic had a great season, culminating with them reaching that year’s FA Cup final. During the closing ties of the competition, Yates provided the club with £100 to help undergo special training in the luxurious setting of Blackpool.
That the nature of this limited and often ad-hoc involvement ultimately changed, a process that saw businessmen drawn into the game, was attributable to the growing sophistication in the way football was organised during the closing decades of the nineteenth century.
Key to this was the arrival of the professional footballer in the 1880s. Professionalism had long been an anathema to many of those involved in the sport. Players were amateurs and the view, predominately amongst the old-boys that dominated football in its infancy, was this is how it should stay. These were men who believed that the game should be played for the sake of enjoyment, that players should remain equivocal in victory or defeat and that at all times the notion of fair play had to be upheld.
But as anyone who has played or followed football can attest, such ideals often wither in the face of competitive hunger. And for those imbued with this, one way to satisfy its rapacious appetite was to pay for the best talent available. At first, professionalism was a ‘behind-closed-doors’ affair. Along with ‘under-the-table’ payments, players were brought to clubs and given financial inducements to sign, or should it be a works team, a cushy job in the company.
Probably the first known person to play football solely for financial reasons in England was a Glaswegian called Fergus Suter who came south from Partick to play for Lancashire’s Darwin in 1878. Although ‘officially’ employed as a stonemason, Suter’s move to England was shortly followed by him giving up his job, allegedly claiming that English stone was too difficult to work, fueling suspicion that he was being paid to play.
Despite efforts by the FA to uphold the amateur ethos, including the fining or suspending of any clubs who were caught offering players financial reward, in 1885 professionalism was eventually legalised. The impetus for this change throughout had come from teams of the north-west, specifically those based in Lancashire. Clubs like Preston North End and Burnley were amongst the first to flout the FA’s prohibition against professionalism and the most vocal in their support for it to be legalised. They were also two amongst several northern clubs who had threatened to break away from the FA and form their own rival football authority should their demand not be met.
Once legalised, professionalism grew rapidly. Amateurism, and the clubs that still adhered to that principle, declined in response to professional teams who were simply better. Prior to legalisation, the encroachment of professionalism had already weakened the supremacy once enjoyed by the public school clubs anyway (the kind that were most strongly identified with the cause of amateurism). Teams like Wanderers, Old Etonians and Oxford University had dominated the FA Cup during its early years, and for the first decade of the tournament’s existence, no working-class club even managed to reach the final. This started to change in the early 1880s, and as the decade progressed, more professionally organised clubs, like Blackburn Rovers, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa started to eclipse their amateur rivals, a switch that was subsequently never reversed.
But although they might have lost the debate, that didn’t mean that those who valued amateurism were necessarily in the wrong or that their arguments weren’t valid. One of the fears stated by those who resisted the legalisation of professionalism was the belief that its introduction would bring the demand for more cash into the game, and by doing so change the nature of football forever. And in this, they were right on the money. Professionalism was the catalyst for the creation of the game as we know it in England today (warts and all).
For those clubs with access to money, the potential was now there to buy the best team possible. When it came to raising finance for wages, transfer fees and the improvement of facilities, the first area of recourse for any club to turn to was the fans and members. From being a sport watched by a handful of people in the 1860s, by the turn of the century the popularity of football had grown enormously. In 1875 only two games had pulled in crowds of more than 10,000 people. Within a decade that had increased to eighteen. But the most dramatic rise in attendances occurred in the 1890s, following on from the establishment of the Football League in 1888. During the league’s first season 602,000 people watched the matches between the country’s twelve leading clubs. By the eve of the First World War the figure had reached nine million. Football was fast becoming the national sport.
The rise in number of spectators gave clubs much needed income to pursue the dream of building teams that could compete. Initially, the fans that turned up to watch these games stood on man-made, earth embankments overlooking the pitch or, for a limited number of lucky individuals following the more affluent clubs, on simple, uncovered terraces that could hold a small number of supporters. It was the kind of salubrious setting that brings to mind the unlamented away-end at Roker Park on a Saturday afternoon.
Aware that demand for the sport was growing exponentially and that the greater the number of supporters that could be accommodated, the greater the income a club could enjoy, between 1890 and the outbreak of the First World War, football clubs began to construct purpose-built stadiums, the first example being Everton’s Goodison Park, which was built during 1892.
The sums involved in constructing stands and stadiums were often beyond anything that a members club could achieve through gate receipts, cash donations or subscriptions alone, leading many clubs to seek additional levels of finance. One of the simplest ways to do this was to turn into a joint-stock company. For these nascent professional sides there were numerous advantages to this move. Aside from the fact that a club could now issue shares which could pay a dividend, these companies also enjoyed limited liability; meaning that if the business became insolvent shareholders would not be liable for any of the debts (a legal protection that would make would-be investors more willing to part with their cash).
Small Heath (who would later morph into Birmingham City) became the first club to travel down this path in 1888. Over the following decades more and more clubs followed suit and by 1921, 84 out of the Football League’s 86 clubs had converted to private companies. But this shouldn’t necessarily have meant that it was businessmen that would come to dominate the clubs that we love. After all, when shares are issued, they are done so to all and not necessarily just to the wealthy.
And in the early days of the game there were many examples of working-class supporters investing in the clubs they followed. At Woolwich Arsenal, that paragon of working-class organisation, in 1893 the club incorporated with a nominal capital of 4000 shares, each priced at £1 each. From this, around 1500 were allotted to 860 people, the vast majority of whom were working men living in the Plumstead and Woolwich areas and likely employed at the Arsenal.
But although working men and working-class supporters did buy shares across football, they tended to be very much in the minority. Part of the problem was that share prices were often too high for the average supporter to afford. But even when clubs went out of their way to offer shares at a low price and specifically target working-class supporters, which is what Croydon Common, Dartford FC and Southport FC did around the turn of the century these efforts often met with little success.
In reality, shareholding never really took hold amongst working-class supporters. And even when a number of them did make the effort to invest, they could rarely buy in volume. By contrast, local businessmen and professionals from the middle-classes could buy shares by the bucket load, giving them the opportunity to gain influence at a club in a way that an ordinary, working-class shareholder never could. This is why positions on the board at English football clubs tended to be dominated by this section of the local community. Directorships were largely gobbled-up by big shareholders, not someone who’d managed to rustle up enough cash to buy a tiny stake. At Liverpool FC at the turn of the century, just a decade after the club’s establishment, 60 per cent of voting shares were owned by the club’s eight directors. Liverpool were fairly representative of the industry at the time in the professional game and perfectly illustrate how power in football became concentrated in the hands of the better off.
But it was as true of football back in the late-Victorian and Edwardian period as it is today, that the game was a lousy one to get involved with if you want to earn a few quid. Back then, although some of the more successful league clubs, like Everton, Chelsea and Liverpool, were capable of making profits, there were many more that did not. During the 1898/99 season, things got so bad that the Football League had to issue a circular asking clubs to contribute to a common fund which would be used to bail out fellow league members who were on the bones of their arse. Few shareholders, large or small, ever received a dividend from their club, a reality perfectly illustrated during the 1908/09 season when only six out of 62 prominent clubs paid-out to their shareholders. Of those that did, this was limited to five per cent of the share’s face value, following the issuing of the FA 34; a statute designed to ensure that profits went back into the game and not into the pockets of speculators.
For a hard-nosed businessman, what allure did football hold then? What reason was there for them to invest so much cash in an enterprise so unlikely to offer a decent return, if any at all?
For some, there were profits to be made if you looked beyond the accounts of the club itself. Several brewers became involved, using the game as a way to market what they produced. Products were advertised at grounds and players, both past and present, were given pubs to run in the hope that it would increase custom. Manchester City became known as the ‘brewers club’ because so many early benefactors, such as local beer magnate Stephen Chester Thompson, were involved in the trade.
But for many other individuals that became owners, major shareholders and directors there were often motivations for involvement beyond what could be done for their bank balances. Some simply loved the game and were avid supporters of the clubs they became connected with. Others already had an association with the club, having served on the management committee prior to incorporation. Involvement as a director was also something that was passed down through families, motivating those affected via a sense of familial obligation. The descendants of Chelsea’s founder Gus Mears, continued to be involved with the club after his death in 1912, maintaining ownership until 1982, when they sold up to Ken Bates.
Another motivation for involvement, one that might seem quaint by today’s standards, was a sense of civic duty. The game’s huge popularity meant that clubs quickly evolved into important institutions within the cities and towns of Victorian and Edwardian England, becoming an indelible part of their civic tapestry. The concept of serving your community and enhancing civic pride was something much valued amongst the middle-classes of the time. Investing in a club and becoming chairman or a director, could be seen as part of this public service ethos. It’s possibly why so many leading philanthropic figures of the various towns and cities that boasted professional football clubs, men such as John H Davies at Manchester United, a man who supported many sports and charitable causes in the local area, became investors.
But whatever the reasons for involvement, by the eve of the First World War the reality was that ownership had become dominated by the richer elements of local society. What’s more, the model that had emerged during the 1890s, a private company with limited liability, had also achieved complete dominance in the professional game. Democratically run members clubs (the model that had prospered during football’s infancy) were consigned to the margins.
And for much of the past 100 years very little has changed. Although local businessmen have sometimes been replaced by Arab sheikhs or Eastern European petrochemical billionaires and the presence of the ‘single-owner’ has become more common, in terms of how clubs are owned and organised English football today differs very little fundamentally to that which existed a century ago. But despite the resilience of the private model, in recent years changes to the game have started to challenge its apparent infallibility. As the following chapter reveals, just because something has trundled along successfully for some time, doesn’t mean that it will remain untroubled forever.
This chapter is taken from: Punk Football (The Rise of Fan Ownership in English Football)
It is available to buy here: https://www.pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop/punk-football