The Leaguers: The Making of Professional Football in England, 1900-1939

By Matthew Taylor | Go to book overview

Conclusion

Histories of English football have established that the game as we have come to know it was effectively 'made' during the late nineteenth century. In not much longer than a decade, between the mid-1870s and mid- to late 1880s, 'football acquired all the institutional and ritual characteristics with which we are still familiar'.1 The next 20 or so years witnessed its social and cultural transformation, from the recreation of a largely upper- and middle-class elite to a popular activity indulged in by a small but significant proportion of the English population each week. Through the associated press coverage and the rise of football betting, it seeped into the consciousness of millions more who never played or watched a game in their lives. By the First World War at the latest, it was difficult to deny that football had become the 'national' English winter game. It was clearly coming to mean a great deal to a considerable number of people, representing at the very least a central facet of the cultural experience of many English males.2

Yet this chronology fits the professional game much less neatly. As a social and cultural form football may indeed have been 'made' by the turn of the century, but as an industry and a profession it was still very much in its infancy. Professional football's infrastructure was not constructed all at once but built up steadily over decades. In its various guises as a sporting competition, a collective of clubs and an executive body, the Football League was central to this process of 'making'. It was, in Ross McKibbin's view, 'the heart of professional football'.3 Most of the major landmarks in the game's pre-1945 history – from the record attendances to the expanding transfer fees – took place within the structure of the League. Even the great events that subsequently became mythologised in popular and sporting history – such as the 1923 White Horse Cup Final and the success of Scotland's 'Wembley Wizards' in 1928 – involved League clubs and players. In addition, the transformation of the game from a negative to a positive social phenomenon in the

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