An extract from “Bottled: English Football’s Boozy Story”

Below is an edited extract from the beginning of “The Battle For Souls”, Chapter Two of Bottled, Ben’s new book out on 5 August.

No one ever gets lost on a straight road’ –
Charles Clegg, FA chairman and president.

FOOTBALL’S complicated relationship with the bottle had begun more than 120 years earlier as competing interests sought to use the new sport of association football to further their moral or commercial objectives.

The first example of this was the cross-pollination of church and sporting activities. Several decades before the rules of association football were codified, evangelicalism had become widespread across most Christian denominations. Many vicars, curates, deacons or otherwise thought sporting teams could help them attract more working-class people to their congregations. Those clergy who were already sportsmen urged their colleagues to become proficient in this new game of football, which was catching on by the 1870s, carrying ‘a Bible in one hand and a football in the other’.

Seeing the human body as the site of sin and something to be fought against, a sport which working-class men participated in such as football was the ideal vehicle to indoctrinate them into proper Christian manliness. The Factory Acts of the mid-1870s meant that these men now had a little more free time on a Saturday afternoon and some senior churchmen were worried that it was not being used wisely.


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Indeed, the Bishop of Winchester was extremely distressed to think that potential converts were using their leisure time to drink themselves into a state of ‘dissipation, riot and drunkenness’.

He was not alone. Across the board, the churches were sceptical about these extra hours that were now available to working men. One prominent figure of the time railed that ‘Our streets are reeking with the abuse of pleasure; our society is rotten with it; our social fabric is crumbling beneath it; our best institutions are being shaken and paralysed by it.’ For some establishment figures, football was the answer. This was given voice in a Times editorial, which explained: ‘When you can at the same time enjoy yourself and feel the consciousness that you are doing a moral action, it is difficult to refrain.’

Consumption of alcohol had reached a peak in the 1870s and there was a keenness to provide men with alternative distractions to chart their path to a Godly life. It was hardly surprising, then, that just a decade later a quarter of clubs in the Birmingham area had a connection to one of the city’s churches: teams created specifically as an alternative to the pub in the same way that Barnsley (as Barnsley St Peter’s) and Bolton Wanderers – originally formed as Christ ChurchFC – had been.

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Quite often, it was church members who sought to form a team, rather than being a recruitment drive led by the officers. Once they had been established, though, players were usually quick to cut ties with the church that had provided them with the resources to get started. Aston Villa had originated out of a Wesleyan Bible class, while their near-neighbours Wolves were a Church of England school team as St Luke’s Blakenhall. In this case the impetus seems to have come from the publican father of one of the players, evidence coming from the schoolmaster’s diary, in which he wrote, ‘Let boys out earlier on Friday and they had a Football Match.’ These were often marriages of convenience rather than outright unanimity of purpose. Nevertheless, the early influence of the church on these clubs often carried residual impacts; there was not a single licensed bar within Villa Park until well after World War Two.

In what was then the hotbed of football, many Lancashire clubs, especially Burnley, recruited Scotsmen for their teams. These same Scots would be regarded as a bad influence. Not only were they being paid to play, but they were getting pissed too and encouraging Englishmen to do the same! A good way of tempting such men down to England’s north-west had been to offer them the job of landlord at a pub near to the club’s ground, an enticement that was to the chagrin of many in the south-east who wanted the game to retain its amateur origins. Half of the Sunderland team of the 1890s were thought to be employed in such a fashion, and early in that same decade Aston Villa had four players working as pub managers. Given this evidence, it’s clear that from its earliest days football had a drink culture, and in 1904 Tottenham’s captain, a J.L. Jones, wrote that beer was a ‘recognised article of diet’ for the professional footballer.

In the latter part of the 19th century, many churches and the temperance organisations that were often attached to them began to see football as, if not an unqualified good, then something they were able to make pragmatic accommodations with. Such officials reasoned that even if men had a drink at a football match, the spectacle before them would slow their consumption. The match was seen as an experience in itself and the drinks you might have there were merely an added benefit.

Still, one clergyman from Yorkshire was not convinced, fuming, ‘Football is a fascination of the devil and a twin sister of the drink system.’ Though the temperance movement and its friends in the church had generally given their grudging support to sport by the early 20th century, sceptical voices remained. Among them was a C.T. Studd who, in 1908, opined that ‘a man cannot attend even a football match without making his way to the refreshment bar. It is at the part nearest the drinking bar that one hears the worst language. Men frequently get half-intoxicated and, in most cases, bad tempered, and so the good name of sport is taken away, never to return until the drinking booths are abolished… ’ In a similar vein, a correspondent in the Lancashire Evening Post opined, ‘We have heard and read a lot about professionalism being an evil, but I think a greater evil exists in the temptations to drinking which are put in the way of professional footballers.’

One argument against the nascent professionalism becoming apparent was that these rowdy players had ample free time and drank too much, which, in turn, encouraged fans to do likewise. Bob Crompton – an early England international – was, however, sceptical about the idea that football encouraged fans to drink to excess. ‘The idea is simply preposterous,’ he said. ‘What happens during the season? They drop in and have one drink after their work on a Saturday afternoon. Then they go off to watch a match, every one of them invigorated by the open air all the time.’

Clapton Orient’s Harry Reason also saw the fuss as unnecessary. ‘We aren’t abstainers by any means,’ he told an interviewer, ‘but we find that we can enjoy a quiet chat just as well over that beverage as over any other, and know that it will not have a counter-acting effect on our training.’ This was, according to Reason, because footballers ‘have something else to live for’. He went on to explain that ‘footballers can be and are as good citizens as any other class of men. Our life is not made up of drinking, squandering our hard-earned money and betting.’

That may have been true for some men, but Newcastle’s Bill Appleyard was aware of the dangers his profession posed: ‘Is the life of a footballer full of temptation? Candidly, I must confess it is.’ As Appleyard well knew, fans liked to buy drinks for their favourite players. ‘It sounds like egotism on my part, and insanity on the part of the type of individual I speak of, but nevertheless it is true,’ he said. Another player, Bolton Wanderers’ Albert Shepherd, was only too pleased to oblige the pubs which courted his custom. ‘This of course,’ he clarified, ‘was the idea of attracting people to have a quick sing-song and chat. I have some big friends in the business and I have never hesitated to give them a “look-in”.’

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John Cameron, who was secretary of the Players’ Union (a forerunner to the PFA), did not conceal his concern. Writing in Spaldings Football Guide, he suggested, ‘The worst temptation the beginner has got to face is that of drink. When you become a popular pet your admirers think that they can best show their appreciation of you by buying you beer and Scotch-and-soda. To many of your fatuous admirers it seems an honour to be allowed to pay for your drinks at the “Pig and Whistle”. Beware of such admirers.’ He had a warning for younger players regarding their older team-mates, too: ‘The beginner is only too apt to be led by the old stager. Tread warily when you first join the professional ranks.’

In 1909 Preston North End’s Jimmy Wilson spoke candidly on these matters. ‘We all know the bugbear of a footballer’s career is alcohol,’ he cautioned, ‘Perhaps it is not generally known to how great an extent such a state of affairs does exist. One has only to make his way to one or two well-known hotels to see it for themselves.’ Jimmy Costley, who played for Blackburn Olympic, was only too aware; his granddaughter later recalled that ‘wherever he went people would buy him a drink and he would come home drunk’. Costley later signed ‘the pledge’ and became teetotal, although, in mitigation for his earlier actions, we might want to consider that Blackburn Olympic had a dietary schedule for its players before big games which involved consuming a glass of port at 6am. Still, that was not as detrimental as attending a wedding reception the night before one match was to Leicester Fosse, who suffered the indignity of a 12-0 loss to compound their collective hangover.

Looking upon such events, our old friend the anonymous columnist ‘Football Secretary’ in Thomson’s Weekly News shared the same concerns as Jimmy Wilson about the influence of hangers-on. ‘Footballers have a weakness for celebrating victory in their own way,’ he wrote. ‘It is often a case of “deliver me from my friends” for “friends” (so-called) spoil many a player; they’re ever ready to treat him to a drink and then he ofttimes knows not when to stop.’

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