To the modern observer, football in Britain is historically and intrinsically tied to the working-class population. In the globalised climate of increasingly wealthy clubs charging substantial fees for even the most ordinary of league matches, a counterculture has developed which invokes the strong historic bond between football and the working man or woman. The cries for cheaper ticket prices through initiatives such as “Twenty’s Plenty” are significantly motivated by the idea that the modern game is pricing out its oldest and most loyal customers. The industrialised, football-loving masses, so beautifully captured in the likes of LS Lowry’s Going to the Match, are remembered now as the historic spine of British football culture and so to take the game away from them through higher prices is akin to killing its soul. 

It is easy to forget that football in England – at least in its modern form – ended up as the sport of the public having started very much in private. It was at the schools of Eton and Harrow where the sport is said to have properly developed into the ‘association football’ we recognise now as the modern game. It would actually not be until the end of the Victorian era that association football became anything like the working man’s pastime it is now regarded as being. This transition of football from public-school playing fields to packed, urban-centre stadiums by the end of the nineteenth century was in part reflective of the growing significance of the ‘man on the street’ – the everyday member of the working or lower-middle class – in day-to-day British society. 

Generations of industrialisation, urbanisation and the profound impact of the 1870 Education Act had helped to create a new kind of mass public. They were larger, better educated and lived in more densely populated areas than any previous generation of British lower class. With those changes came a new blend of political, economic and social needs. The growth and increased geographical density of their numbers had led to new demands on housing, welfare and public hygiene. What’s more, the concentration of workers in mass industrial employment led to growing concerns over workplace safety and the fiscal and political imbalance between those working the factory floor and the managers reaping the riches of their hot, hazardous labour. In addition, the recreational options of past working generations were changed by their urban surroundings. New industrial workers rarely left the town or city where they had a job and so further need was created for leisure pursuits that catered to the ever-growing population of more static, urban-dwelling workers. 

Seen in the context of industrialised pre-World War I Britain, the development of football into the working people’s pastime becomes a part of this growing demand. It was a sport which, with its large stadiums and strong ties to local professional and social societies, catered directly to a large urbanised mass wanting affordable, communal entertainment connected to bustling, inner-city lifestyles. Indeed, many of the earliest clubs in professional English football history were founded by industrial worker’s groups. Notable examples of this include the creation of Arsenal by workers at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich or of Manchester United (originally Newton Heath) by members of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. Others meanwhile were founded to try to counter the negative aspects of the new, urban working-class experience. Newton Heath’s crosstown neighbours St. Mark’s were created by two humanitarian church wardens, who thought a football club could offer a welcome alternative for Gorton’s urban poor to the gang involvement and alcoholism currently on offer. Years later, they would change their name to Manchester City. 

Football as we understand it now grew out of the new, industrial working classes, partly because of direct involvement from club-founding workers’ groups and partly through larger socio-economic developments that drove up interest in providing commercialised leisure pursuits for the industrialised masses. This rise of working-class football by the beginning of the twentieth century occurred alongside other societal evolutions that were similarly aimed at the working and lower-middle classes. These other changes were motivated by different factors and sprung from different origins, but they shared with football an interest in speaking and appealing to the archetypal everyman, thus bringing them further into the social, political and economic mainstream.

One of these other worker-oriented revolutions was the formation and rapid rise of the Labour Party. With its roots in the Independent Labour Party of 1895, Labour was a political movement specifically created in reaction to the growing needs and wants of an urban proletariat. Led by the likes of Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and Ramsey MacDonald, it grew from a humble alliance of Fabians, Marxist Social Democrats and trade unionists into becoming a significant political force by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, with 42 MPs by the end of 1910. It consistently stood on a platform of bettering working-class lives through labour reforms, the nationalisation of industry and the erosion of historic British classism. Labour, much like association football, entered the twentieth century wanting to talk and appeal directly to the urbanised worker. 

Alongside the growth of Labour and the early political left came a revolution in the British newspaper industry; a revolution which too was motivated by a desire to appeal to the lower-to-working class inhabitants of Britain’s industrial metropolises. Inspired in part by the mass-selling ‘yellow’ newspapers being produced in the United States, a movement quickly coined the ‘New Journalism’ (a term first used dismissively by the cultural critic Matthew Arnold) swept through the British press in the late 19th century. Pioneered by editors and proprietors such as George Newnes, W T Stead and Alfred Harmsworth (and publications such as the Daily Mail and the Pall Mall Gazette), this truly was a ‘new’ style of British journalism. Traditional layouts were altered with bold headlines, regular subheadings and eye-catching images. The news topics now focused more on the dramatic and the scandalous: divorces, disasters, murders and sport. The writing style became less formal: there were more jokes; serialised fiction; cooking and housekeeping tips; betting tips for the big race. The prices too plummeted: the Daily Mail was marketed as “a penny newspaper for one halfpenny”, while The Times cost six times as much at 3d a copy. This New Journalism – with both its lower price and its many changes to newspaper formatting, content and style – had one clear audience in mind: the urban-dwelling everyman who needed news, information and entertainment in an accessible manner and at an affordable price.

These three major cultural changes – popular football, popular press and popular politics – were all vying for the attention of the increasingly influential mass British public. It was no real surprise therefore that these phenomena often overlapped. Certainly, football and the popular press became closely connected in a way that still defines the media genre today: arguably the strongest selling point of any tabloid is its sport coverage, especially that of football. One of the earliest innovations of the New Journalism was its dedication to sports coverage. Football’s key appeals – drama, action and masculine heroics with the ball – made it an ideal topic for the New Journalism’s sensationalised style of newspaper writing. Cartoons depicting key goals, photographs of key players and match reports that read like works of pulp fiction quickly became a prominent constant on the pages of the new, mass-selling newspapers of the late-Victorian and Edwardian era.

The New Journalism also became of interest to Labour and the rising political left. While many across the British left dismissed this new media out of hand as merely “capitalist”, vacuous and inherently anti-socialist, there was acknowledgement from the Labour Party that the popular press may have a use in spreading the party’s message to a large working-class audience. This culminated in the Daily Citizen, a Labour-owned daily newspaper that combined the innovations of the New Journalism with socialist messages throughout a troubled three-year lifetime from 1912 to 1915. It hit circulation peaks of 250,000 copies a day (not inconsiderable in a voting population of just over five million) but forever struggled to find a balance between being a light-hearted popular daily and a socialist educational paper determined to spread the party’s message. 

One of the Daily Citizen’s major issues was how it went about covering football. Clearly, those in charge of the paper realised that the sport was a major component of every other mass-selling daily. It was featured in every edition of the football season, with large sections of a dedicated sports page dedicated solely to match reports from across the country. For big games, such as the 1913 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, they dedicated two full pages to details of the game, including large photographs of the entire squads with player descriptions, Cup form guides and predictions from several writers. 

However, much of their football coverage was distinctly two-faced in nature. While it tried to capture the style of other football-heavy newspapers of its day, it struggled to reconcile a full acceptance of the sport with its mission as a political organ. Between match reports, it would include opinion pieces offering party opinions on the supposed realities of the sport. These included pieces such as that in an issue from 7 January 1913 that called a recent transfer of a player to Blackburn Rovers for £2,000 “sordid commercialism” and bemoaned the wider evils of money in the game. There were also long editorials insisting condescendingly that all workers “should play sport” to discover their individual worth against a backdrop of faceless industrialism. Sometimes, the Citizen’s sport sections feel like disguises for further political coverage. One such example came on 20 January 1913: a photograph of a victorious team was used alongside a long article on the Labour party’s proposed reforms to benefit the children of striking workers. Reading the paper in bulk, it is as if the writers and editors are tone-deaf to football. They understood it was popular and that people wanted to read about it; they just seemed unwilling fully to embrace it as a subject in its own right.

The Daily Citizen, in its pursuit of the circulation figures of the other new dailies, was the only left-leaning paper to include sport as a regular topic of discussion. From papers such the Clarion and the Labour Leader to societal papers like the Cooperative News, football (and sport in general) is rarely featured as a topic of news or debate. When it is, and through inferring when it largely isn’t, the modern historian catches a glimpse into the profoundly uneasy relationship between football and the early political left: the third connection between the three cultural evolutions that swept through early Edwardian Britain. 

The vast majority of left-wing publications in this early period of mass media shared a broad ideological understanding of the working-classes as a people in need of education. For too long, so the theory went, employers and wider social forces had manipulated workers for their own means, while those workers being used were unaware of their plight. One of the key socialist missions therefore was to teach the British working classes of the realities of their political and socio-economic troubles, so that they would be better prepared for any attempt to improve their place in wider society. These ‘realities’ included details of domestic and foreign industrial disputes, horror stories from tenants in exploitative ‘slum’ accommodation and the benefits of communal or societal cooperatives and social unions. The broad message across this media was simple: here is what is wrong with your lives and here are ways in which effectively to improve them.

The way in which this broad underpinning philosophy emerged when socialist publications discussed football showed the unpleasant underside of the early British left’s understanding of the urban working classes. While much of their educationalist approach to the common man was laudable, it also frequently manifested itself into the tone of an unhearing schoolmaster: the writer, rather than the working-class reader, knew what was best. There are parallels between these radical left voices at the beginning of the twentieth century and the moralistic Victorian reformers such as Edwin Chadwick. Both spoke about their subject populations in infantilising terms; as naive children who did not really know the truth or reality of their situations. Both therefore spoke of the problems they saw facing ordinary people in ways which patronised those affected. Alcoholic drink and gambling were the most common examples of evils described as poison to the average worker who was too ill-informed to know just how damaging it was to both his health and soul. The problem was external, but considerable blame seemed to lie at the feet of the undereducated worker.

This same attitude, of a holier-than-thou teacher addressing a supposedly slow student, was the defining feature of the early political left’s discussion of football. From coverage across the leftist press to what can be found of private political correspondence on the matter, it was seen as a worthless pastime. Many editorials – such as one in a November edition of the Cooperative News entitled “Should Football Be Stopped?” – criticised football as being corrosive to the public mind. While many writing on the left saw most sports as varying degrees of (according to accounts in both the Labour Leader and Cooperative News) “worthless”, football was met with particular derision because of its supposed hold over the working classes’ imagination and interest. 

Essentially, the average working-class person cared more about football than about socialism and, by extension, their own social, economic and political betterment. To the majority of the early socialist left, football was placating the masses with a hollow spectacle that was alien to the ‘real’ issues they were facing in their everyday lives and was thus an enemy of the true goals of working-class Britain. It was a sport of tribalism with close associations to the twin ‘evils’ of bookmaking and alcohol consumption. The tens of thousands attending weekly matches therefore were a collection of the misguided, the foolish and politically weak, who were accidentally or otherwise living lives contrary to their best interests. These openly aggressive pieces against the sport were the only discussion of football in the left-wing press; mostly, it was seemingly too unimportant a topic to exist on the page of a worker-oriented publication. It was from within this contemptuous cauldron that the conflict within editions of the Daily Citizen becomes more understandable.

The result of this, oddly, was a political movement dedicated to improving working-class livelihoods that fundamentally misunderstood one of the key realities of working-class existence. Much as with gambling and drink, the political left in Edwardian and late-Victorian Britain saw football as a curse on the masses that they needed educating out of. The labour movement grew in parallel with a sport that was becoming a national favourite, but their disdain of it spoke of their flawed understanding of what truly was an authentic working-class experience. To them, to be a worker was to live a principled socialist life of campaigning, reform and educated betterment. Anything out of that field of acceptability was simplistically seen as an act of wrong. Football, rather than being a deeply invested and socially complex working-class experience, was nothing more than a waste of time. 

The historian Laura Beers talks in her book Your Britain about how Labour and the British political left steadily began to embrace popular media and culture after the First World War, which played a significant role in their eventual growth into a truly major political party. A part of this change came in its understanding of what working-class audiences were truly interested in: cinema, magazines, radio and sport. By better understanding the realities of lived working-class experiences the party and the left in general grew to accept elements of popular culture into their perceptions of what it meant to be ‘working class’, thus improving their broader relatability with the voting public. It was this political change, decades behind the social and press acceptance of football into working-class identity that confirmed football as the everyman’s pastime. With it, the outdated leftist understanding of workers as a passive people in need of educating was slowly eroded. 

In the modern era, where populist campaigners invoke the working-class spine of the sport, popular newspapers burst with footballing content and politicians feel the need to come up with a football team to appear to support, it is strange to think that football was once such a contested part of working-class identity. Now and for decades past, “football fan” and “working-class person” have become almost synonymous. In reality, the link between football and the common public was born out of decades of gradual acceptance of the sport’s place into the fabric of British working-class reality.