Guest post by Tony Collins
As the Premier League has its most exciting and unexpected finish ever, no-one today could deny that football is the undisputed king of all sports. But it wasn’t always like that.
Imagine a world where rugby is the most popular game. Where Liverpool, Manchester and the North East are among the heartlands of the oval ball code.
Yet that is not an imaginary world. That’s how sport in Britain looked in the 1880s.
In fact, from our 21st Century view, the sports world was completely upside down.
So how did we end up where we are today? That was one of the questions I set out to answer in The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby – and the answer proved to be more interesting than I expected.
In 1863 the Football Association (FA) was founded, followed eight years late by the Rugby Football Union (RFU). But despite being first to organise, the clubs that played association football were a distinct minority.
Rugby dominated the industrial cities of the north of England. The Liverpool and Manchester rugby clubs were formed a generation before the forerunners of those cities’ now world famous football teams. In the North East, the Northern FC rugby team was the leading sports club in the region.
Yorkshire was dominated by rugby, with the sole exception of Sheffield. ‘The lower classes prefer watching a rugby union game’, reported The Field sports weekly in 1884, ‘the Association rules find more favour in the eyes of the middle and upper classes’.
Rugby was the national winter sport.
But in 1871 the FA began what would become its secret weapon: the FA Cup. The new national tournament saw teams of northern industrial workers players pitting their wits against sides full of Old Etonians. What better drama could there be in class-ridden Victorian Britain?
Many in rugby wanted their own national knock-out cup too. In 1878 the RFU was given a ‘cup to be annually competed for by all rugby union clubs’ by the recently disbanded Calcutta rugby club in India.
But the RFU didn’t like the idea that in a knock-out cup clubs couldn’t choose their opponents. A gentlemen’s club from London might be drawn against a team of dockers from Hull – and that was seen as a violation of a gentleman’s right to choose how to spend his leisure time.
Sensing the danger, a letter in The Field in 1884 argued with remarkable foresight that ‘unless a Rugby Union Challenge Cup be speedily established, in a few years the Association clubs throughout the Kingdom will outnumber those of their rivals by at least ten to one’.
The RFU’s refusal to organise a national cup competition was felt most strongly in Lancashire, where local soccer cups and leagues fuelled local rivalries and eroded rugby’s appeal. In soccer almost all matches were in a league or a cup, but most rugby matches were friendlies.
Lancashire rugby’s failure to organise a cup tournament meant that previously rugby cities like Liverpool and Manchester were gradually colonised by soccer. And clubs like Burnley and Preston North End, which began as rugby clubs, switched to the round ball game in the early 1880s.
The pendulum moved even further to soccer in 1885 when the FA legalised professionalism and again in 1888 when the top clubs formed the Football League. But the RFU was firmly opposed to both professionalism and leagues.
Unbelievably, many RFU leaders did not want rugby to be a mass spectator sport. ‘The loss of followers of the grand old game is regrettable,’ wrote a rugby supporter in the 1889 Football Annual, ‘yet looking at the present state of all professional sports we cannot but think that this possible loss is far preferable to legalising professionalism’.
So in 1886 the RFU declared rugby a purely amateur game and banned all forms of payment to players. A civil war broke out between it and the big clubs in the industrial north of England as clubs and players were banned for alleged professionalism.
Eventually rugby split in two when the northern clubs resigned from the RFU in 1895 and began what would become rugby league. As well as paying players, rugby league organised leagues and started the Rugby League Challenge Cup.
But it was too late to turn back the tide of soccer. By the time of the first Challenge Cup final in 1897, the FA Cup final attracted 65,000 spectators, twice as many as had attended even the biggest international rugby matches. In 1901, over 110,000 people attended the final, probably the biggest ever crowd for any sporting event at that time.
Little more than a decade after rugby’s 1895 split the FA had over 7,500 affiliated clubs, roughly fifteen times the number of rugby clubs playing either league or union. Rugby’s civil war had left it exhausted – and soccer was the clear winner.
But it could have been so different. If the RFU had used the Calcutta Cup as rugby’s equivalent of the FA Cup way back in 1878, it’s probable that soccer would have remained the weaker sport.
And that would mean that the sporting world would look very different today.
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