Underdogs: Football's First FA Cup Heroes
Underdogs: The Unlikely Story of Football’s First FA Cup Heroes
Yellow Jersey Press 320pp £16.99
When and how was the game we know of as football born? How did its rules evolve? Who were the first players and the first professionals? These questions, and many others, are answered in Keith Dewhurst’s fascinating and entertaining Underdogs. Although this book is ostensibly the story of a team from a Lancashire cotton town called Darwen and their giant-killing FA Cup run in 1879 there is much, much more here to enjoy. This is because Underdogs, structured around a series of vignettes and written with all the verve of a seasoned journalist, is also a social and cultural history of sport, class, British society and identity. Dewhurst visits Britain’s top public schools, key sites for the birth and development of amateur football. But, as he shows, despite their proficiency and fitness and their importance in developing shared sets of rules, the Etonians and Salopians who played football were too few to create a modern, mass game.
For that to happen the working class had to learn to love the game, to buy tickets to see it and also be paid to play it. Dewhurst sees Darwen’s 1879 cup run as a key moment in this development. Darwen, as he writes, ‘were the harbingers of the spectator sports future … the first step on that lurid road to the San Siro, Old Trafford and the Nou Camp’. The rise of the Darwen team signaled the beginning of the end of amateur football, with its ethics and its ethos and its class-structure. Of course there was considerable resistance to the emergence of professionalism in Britain, as there had been in the world of Italian football, but in the end the pressure from below, and from above, was too much.
Social change was also crucial. ‘Demographics’, according to Dewhurst, ‘doomed the Gentlemen amateurs’ – there were more working-class players fit and willing to play. Since then, over the last 130 years or so, the game has changed irrevocably. But Dewhurst still sees some continuities with those early, crucial days. He argues that what he calls ‘the instinctive nature of the English game’ is still wrapped up with the ‘Darwen and Old Etonian past’. Here, perhaps, he is guilty of a little hyperbole when he writes that ‘we cannot deny that sport, as a recreation and as a spectator entertainment, and as a lesson in life to young people, was Victorian England’s greatest gift to civilisation’.
This book is based on deep and wide-ranging research (there are accounts of games, life stories and hundreds of beautiful little details packed into these pages) but it wears its research lightly. Each vignette is a compact story in itself and the reader is left wanting to know more about the numerous characters, and their extraordinary lives, who appear on these pages. Moreover it is another example of the importance of sport in analysing the contemporary world, its passions, its cultures and its understanding of rules, regulations, competition and fair play. Sport is still marginalised or ignored completely by most historians, leaving a gap that books like these can only partially fill.
John Foot is is author of Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling (Bloomsbury, 2011)
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