Book Review: The Origins of Wolverhampton Wanderers
The Origins of Wolverhampton Wanderers by Patrick A. Quirke
Published by Amberley Publishing
Wolverhampton Wanderers are without question one of England’s most storied clubs and with 2013-4 turning out to be a highly satisfactory one on the pitch, we thought it would be high time to reflect on times past. Amberley Publishing have released Patrick A. Quirke’s book on the early days of the club and Ben Piggott, designer of the avatars on this site and @Apt_Pseudonym on twitter gives us his thoughts.
At this point in football’s fervently chronicled history, as new chapters are drafted on an hourly basis, their club’s heritage has become an important touchstone for more and more supporters. With insolvency, unsympathetic owners, and total vanishment hanging over an ever-increasing number of sides, a sense of one’s roots has rarely been more widely cherished, or contested.
Football across the globe, but perhaps no more than the UK, is a game of authenticity — from on-pitch accusations to the honour-badges of fans and followers. It is the ground upon which English football’s discursive hierarchies are built. I was there for his debut! My dad was at the 1988 playoff final! My great granddad tied Alf Poppleton’s bootlace at the Oval! When your club is being run into the ground or auctioning off its future, how better to resist the seemingly inevitable than to strap yourself to the mast of the good old days, even if you weren’t around to remember them?
It’s this harkening back to purer, ruddier, more innocent times that makes books like Patrick A. Quirke’s more important than ever. We can unlace our salmon-coloured boots, use our £500 season ticket as a bookmark, and lose ourselves in the simpler ancestors of our modern game.
Of course, it was all the same back then as well, right? Football’s a game played by people, and people have been getting themselves into the same predicaments for ever. A hundred years ago, turns out journalists were still talking about teams looking good ‘on paper’, clubs were still spending more than they were making as they chased glory, and teams were swollen enough to have reserve sides and play different ‘keepers in league and cup. Above all, football was still an enormous personality cult.
It’s appropriate then, that Quirke uses the lives of Wolves’ founding fathers to frame this origin story. The Johns Brodie, Baynton, and Addenbrooke were the kind of absurdly stoical Victorians on whose shirted shoulders so many of the country’s clubs were balanced. In many ways, this is more a social history than a footballing one. We glimpse some of Wolves’ seminal early moments — forming the Football League in 1888, moving to Molineux a year later, incorporation in 1891, the fairy-tale FA cup win of 1908 — between their bustling legs, as though we’d snuck in to some antediluvian cup final.
This structure does become confusing at times, as each figure is accorded their own section of the book. This means that we hear about certain stories more than once, ostensibly from different perspectives. The 1888 FA cup final against the mighty Preston, for example, is accounted for twice — the latter being much the fuller, more thrilling account. The upside to this flitting around is that Wolves’ history is pieced together, rather than being spilled out all at once. We gather an understanding of the club by consciously reassembling its formative years.
Meanwhile, Brodie et al go through their lives with, to begin with, a baffling insouciance. All three were teachers, beginning their careers at St Luke’s school in Blakenhall, and a great deal of material is gleaned from the report book of their long-suffering headmaster Harry Barcroft. The book proves to be one of Quirke’s key resources, even though almost every entry runs along the lines of ‘Brodie unspeakably lazy today, turned up after lunch.’ At some point in their careers, the men all appear to have grown up. Barcroft’s assessments soften into grudging satisfaction almost in synchrony with Brodie, Baynton and Addenbrooke’s emerging roles as Captain, Goalkeeper and ‘organisational stalwart’ respectively of the nascent Wanderers.
Punctuality and admin aside, the book is not short on those flinty anecdotal gems on which such chronicles hang their hats. Baynton scores from a 97-yard goal kick recorded by ‘astonished officials’ and later leaves for Kidderminster Olympic, engendering the ‘bored goalie sits on a chair and smokes his pipe in the second half’ yarn. Addenbrooke is forced to write to himself in his capacity as both club secretary and landlord, and a few pages later secures the signature of star roofer/striker Billy Beats by taking him hostage up a ladder. At one point, Brodie turns his pupils’ hands to cabbage harvesting.
These kinds of outlandish folktales are the lifeblood of social histories. What are we after when we seek out the origins of our chosen clubs, our neighbourhoods, or our families if not the same scrapes and hijinks that we cobble together to tell our own stories? Hot prospects are smuggled into the team hotel under the noses of rival teams, star players commute up from their studies at Queen’s College Oxford, teams such as Willenhall Pickwick and Stourbridge Standard feature players named Gershom Cox, Charles Crumb and Little Ike, and nippers steal silk handkerchiefs to buy a football.
It goes without saying that this stuff is gold, not least for the respite that it brings from the snide encroachment of the modern game. Reading of how things were back then, the snarling, horizontal, gimlet-eyed assertions of today’s elite footballer begin to fade. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the TV mics to catch Wayne Rooney exclaiming to Ashley Cole ‘There is no replay, old man! We won by two goals to one as you will see when we take the medals!’ in the aftermath of a cup tie? Such moments are also encouraging for this reader, with their indication that forgetting the score of a match in which one has just played is a fine, longstanding tradition.
So while this story is in places lighter on the football than on the educational structures of late nineteenth century Wolverhampton, it strikes the right balance between the sport and the people who played it. As Quirke is keen to state in his epilogue, ‘football was only one aspect of their lives’. It that kind of perspective that may be the most valuable aspect of stories like these, lacking as it is in so many of our encounters with football a century later. That our clubs have endured long enough for their origins to be dimly recalled from a bygone age is testament to populations on either side of the grass, and this book conveys the unmovable, reassuring nature of that endurance. Any book the reading of which leaves one hopeful that Leon Clarke will one day open a tobacconist, is worth a dip.