Book Review: English Gentlemen and World Soccer
English Gentlemen and World Soccer
by Chris Bolsmann and Dilwyn Porter
Published by Routledge
Although he was writing before the arrival of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Ivan Sharpe’s labelling of the Corinthian Football Club as one of the four greatest club teams in English football history is the kind of assertion that really makes one sit up and take notice. Founded by Nicholas Lane Jackson in 1882 in an attempt to fashion a team of ‘gentlemen’ to rival Queen’s Park from north of the border in Glasgow, the club existed for 57 years and in the 1880s and 1890s in particular, achieved great popularity and legendary status.
The Corinthians were originally set up to not take part in competitive matches, were strictly amateur and didn’t enter the FA Cup until the 1922-23 season. One off prestige friendlies against other leading sides of the day were soon supplemented by the notion of Corinthian FC as a touring club, first of all the length and breadth of Britain, but quickly to continental Europe, South America and South Africa. Attracting large crowds for the most part everywhere they went, the club enjoyed a certain mystique and while decline set in post-World War I, partly as a result of losing players to the conflict, partly because of a failure to keep pace with the professionals in the game, they were competitive up until their merger with another amateur outfit, The Casuals, in 1939.
Chris Bolsmann and Dilwyn Porter’s new book provides a meticulously researched history of the Corinthians – largely an attempt to provide some balance to accounts of the club, most of which of which were previously authored by insiders and former players. They strike the right balance in emphasizing the prominent place the club take in the pantheon of English football while pointing to more nuanced factors that might play down the club’s influence. The sweep of the club’s history is analysed while chapters are devoted to the various tours the club undertook. All are fascinating.
That the Corinthians were half decent is evidenced by certain landmark results in the club’s earlier history – an 8-1 win over FA Cup holders Blackburn Rovers in 1884, victory over the Preston North End ‘Invincibles’ and a 10-3 thumping of Bury in 1904. The Corinthians were known for their expansive style of play and while even the power of youtube cannot lend credence to this, the fact that the club contributed the entire first XI for England against Wales in 1894 and 1895 is telling.
The Corinthians are often held up as representative of a southern, amateur, upper class ethos within soccer while the professional game, centred as it was in the early days in the industrial midlands and North, is painted as being unapologetically northern and working class. That distinction certainly holds water. Relations between these two opposing forces were at first relatively friendly but as class differences heightened in the latter years of the nineteenth century, poles would become further apart. The climax came in 1907 when the Amateur Football Association was founded and the Football Association moved quickly to ban all matches between teams from the opposing bodies. With the schism lasting until 1914, the Corinthians would never be quite the same again, henceforth relying on touring abroad to a greater degree.
But how amateur were the Corinthians? While proposing to uphold the ‘chivalric traditions of the English aristocracy’, it’s fair to say that they would unlikely pass a test in modern day bribery and corruption training. Expenses were generally lavish and often demanded, junkets were prolonged and enjoyable, often involving local dignitaries, civic receptions, hearty meals and much wine. That the Corinthians would refuse to accept penalty awards was often viewed as evidence of lofty hauteur by their accommodating hosts – no doubt Harry Kane would not have enjoyed turning out for the club.
The authors do a thorough job of analysing such accusations of ‘shamateurism’ and it’s a debate that lives on today – especially in the college version of American football – this reviewer is also old enough to remember when rugby union was a bitter fulcrum for such debate.
This tough minded, critical approach is the book’s main strength – another element that is analysed is the notion of Corinthian FC as having brought football to the world. In fact, many of the countries that the club would tour already had extensive soccer cultures and while the club were well received and even led to a famous team of the same name being founded in São Paulo in their honour, the development of the sport in South Africa, Latin America and mainland Europe was as much about cross-cultural transfers and connections than a simple one-way colonial narrative.
In the wake of England’s penalty shoot-out victory after a tempestuous encounter with Colombia in the 2018 World Cup, the notion of the ‘Corinthian spirit’ and English fair play once again raised its head – in some quarters, the match was seen to line honourable Englishmen against a culture of cheating and skulduggery. But just as David Squires’ recent Guardian cartoon on the match showed the English to be less than angelic, the Corinthians too were often accused of roughhouse (as opposed to ‘shithouse’) tactics, the shoulder barge being a prime example.
In all, Bolsmann and Porter have presented a fascinating introduction into the Corinthians but also the early history of amateur soccer and sporting tours in general.