Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Christian origins of football, George Best, and how I became a Football fanatic!

Kaka from Brazil and perhaps the best player in the world letting the world know he is not ashamed of being a Christian.

I remember the night I became a football fanatic and a worshipper of the Belfast born footballer George Best, who in his day was probably the greatest footballer in the world. It was at the end of a perfect ‘guy’s day: my Dad and I had just come home from a day’s fishing for trout and we were sitting down to watch ‘Match of the Day’. The year was 1967 and I was in my eight years old. Manchester United were playing and from the moment my dad pointed out to me the long haired Man U player wearing the number 7 shirt and said :’there’s George Best’ my life was to suddenly change.

For the next seven years I was to eat, drink and sleep football. As soon as school finished I would be out practicing with a football or playing football with my friends. At night when I was sleeping I would be dreaming of scoring goals for Manchester United and Northern Ireland alongside Mr Best! Of course we would score the same amount of goals-at least four apiece! However my first memory of watching a football match goes back to 1966 –the last and only time England won the World Cup. But 1968 stands out clearly in my mind when Manchester United won the European Cup 4-1 against the great Eusebius’ Benfica. Even now I can still rhyme off the whole team! That year the Belfast part-timers Glentoran, were to only go out of the competition on the ‘away goals rule’ against the mighty Benfica, having drawn 0-0 in Lisbon and 1-1 in Belfast.

I was later to become the captain of the school teams I played for and was fortunate to play for other teams that won several Cups and Leagues. My dad was my greatest supporter and every Saturday used to drive me and many of the other players to our matches! Most of the kids who played alongside me were like myself and dreamt of the great glory that would come about when we would play for a top English team and Northern Ireland. One of the best players I did play with was a chap called Noel Brotherson who went on to play for Blackburn Rovers and Northern Ireland. He also managed to score a goal that resulted in Northern Ireland winning the Home International Championship which included the English, Scottish and Welsh national teams! Sadly Noel was to later die as a relatively young man.

During the period when I was beginning to think about spiritual things (I had become a Christian in 1974) I remember the night I became totally disillusioned with ‘the beautiful game’. It was the 1976 European Cup Final between Bayern Munich and the French team Saint Etienne, and though the French were the better team, having pressed their German opponents the whole match, Munich scored the one and only goal on a break away. My conclusion after the match was that if this was the best Football in Europe I was going to give up watching it-and I did! It had been a god in my life for a good seven years but from that time it was dead to me.

However in the last ten years I have started to enjoy watching it again –but now I will never get upset if a team I like fails to win-unlike before! I actually enjoy watching most teams and if it is a good match even enjoy seeing my team being beaten! In moderation I think football can be enjoyed and talking about it is often a good ‘ice breaker’ when getting to know young people in a Youth group setting. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to discover its Christian origins and how it was often used in its early days to get young people off the street, to stop them fighting or to discourage them from getting drunk at weekends. Sadly it is perhaps ironic that it was alcohol that was to take the life of George Best, who through years of heavy drinking had become a chronic alcoholic. When my son took on a part time job with a local security company, his first assignment with them was to work as a steward at the massive funeral that took place for George in his home city of Belfast.However I also have it on good authority that before he died he had made peace with God!

Youtube tribute to George Best: the greatest player in the world of his generation.

The article below by Stephen Sizer on the Christian origins of football borrows much information used by Dave Roberts in his longer article in found in Christianity Magazine.AK

For some, football is their life, indeed it is their god. Their football pitch is hallowed ground. Apart from the bathroom, it is the only other place on earth where they will sing at the tops of their voices.

Many think that Church and football are in competition. Comparisons are common, although Sunday church attendance in Britain still far exceeds Saturday football attendance, its just you would not know it given the pages devoted to football in the Sunday newspapers.

Dave Roberts has written a brilliant article in Christianity about the origins of football in the UK, showing the profound impact local churches had in the formation of many of the leading clubs of today.

The association between Church and football is actually much closer than most people realise. As organized football grew throughout the 1860s and 1870s, it was actually church based teams which took the initiative to form the Football League in 1886. Tired of friendlies against inferior local opposition and the occasional thrill of the cup, William McGregor of the Aston Villa (Wesleyan) Football Club decided to see if there was interest in a league structure. Ten of the other teams joining Villa during that first decade of the league were church affiliated, with Methodists and Anglicans at the fore.

One of the founders, HS Yoxall, found large numbers of young men playing football on Sundays. He persuaded them to come to Bible class and provided a field for them to play on, on Saturdays. The same mission started cycling, rambling and angling clubs, and offered classes in arithmetic, writing, shorthand and music. They had a gymnasium, games room, lounge, library and refreshment bar. As this distinctive mission work went on, the Aston Villa (Wesleyan) Football Club grew from humble beginnings in 1874 to winning the FA Cup in 1887. McGregor had worked hard to curb the drinking of team members, and called a team meeting every Monday in a local coffee shop to help the players discover other social outlets.

John Henry Carwell, the vicar of St Andrews in Fulham, turned to the then 15 year old Tom Norman to recruit players for what became Fulham FC. He felt people needed to belong before they could believe. The church fed 160 poor local children daily with free hot dinners, while at the same time opened a gym to encourage fitness and sport. Southampton FC, similarly was founded by the curate of St Mary’s Church in the town.

Two other notable clubs founded by parish churches were Barnsley and Manchester City. Vicar’s daughter, Anna Connell started a men’s club at St Mark’s, West Gorton with around a hundred local young men to dissuade them from organised fighting. A football club was formed to help ‘deepen the bonds’ between them. The first match in 1880 of the team that would become Manchester City was against Macclesfield Baptist.

Queens Park estate in West London was another community in which the church initiated a football team. Christ Church Rangers eventually became Queens Park Rangers. Tottenham Hotspur similarly grew out of a young men’s Bible class at All Hallows, Tottenham. And teetotal Everton players associated with St Domingo Methodist Chapel actually provoked the formation of Liverpool FC when a small number of members formed the new club on Everton’s old ground at Anfield following a dispute over alcohol.

So maybe the Christian origins of the Street Child World Cup that has preceded the World Cup in South Africa should come as no surprise after all.
Stephen Sizer

With grateful thanks to Dave Roberts for his article, Aston Villa and the Mission of God in Christianity (June) 2010.


Alan Higgins said...

Hi Andrew,

Just got back from Crete and trying to catch up with emails and facebook entries.

Thanks for this article ... Willowfield Parish also has 2 football teams going at the moment. They originated from a Bible Class in the early 50's and are still going strong after 57+ years. We seem to attract guys who are Christians to the team although all don't belong to Willowfield but go to other churches as well. There's also a number of guys who aren't Christians and the ones who are have a great chance of being a witness for Christ.

Take care and see you in the not too distant future.

Alan Higgins

PS - My team is Hartlepool United!!! And I've been following them since the mid 60's through thick and thin

Andrew Kenny said...

Thanks Alan-hope you had a great holiday.Barcelona was also started by a Christian back in the distant past.Football is such a wonderful sport but like all such 'good gifts' it can become a god when not kept in its proper place.

Alan Higgins said...

Too true Andrew. Bill Shankly said that "football was much more than life or death" - what a load of nonsense. Yes we all like the game but there's far more important things than it.

John said...

Super story ,super video of Bestie.

Andrew Kenny said...

Mike Rowbottom, The Independent (25th October, 2007)
Photographs of many faces stare down at Peter Lupson as he works in the study of his home near the Wirral. Some are of his family. Others belong to people long dead who have nevertheless loomed large in his life as he has spent the last 11 years writing a book which offers English football an opportunity to examine its soul.

These grainy black-and-white reproductions of Victorian visages are nothing less than a gallery of the game's founding fathers, to whom Lupson's recently published Thank God for Football (Azure, £9.99) pays painstaking tribute.

In researching his work, this 61-year-old languages teacher has established that 12 of the 38 clubs which have played in the Premier League can trace their origin directly back to churches or chapels. He has also traced the lives of those responsible for starting the teams, in the case of six of them, all the way to their graves, which he has located in various stages of disrepair.

Last month, Tottenham Hotspur, having been alerted to the fact that their originator, John Ripsher, lay in a pauper's grave in Dover, became the first of those six clubs to honour their beginnings, setting up a smart new headstone which acknowledges the role played by this former bible class teacher from All Hallows Church.

Other clubs mobilising to spruce up their founders' resting places include Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City and Swindon Town, while Everton have just been alerted to the current whereabouts of Benjamin Swift Chambers, responsible for their creation as St Domingo FC.

Honouring graves is one thing; honouring ideals another. It is Lupson's fond hope, nevertheless, that these acts of piety may yet prompt football's influential figures to reconsider some of the principles which inspired the graves' inhabitants.

The teams in question were instituted in the spirit of "muscular Christianity", a concept that was developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century which emphasised the importance of serving others and striving in a physical sense as part of the Christian's duty.

Fostered in public schools, and popularised in Thomas Hughes' 1857 book Tom Brown's Schooldays, this ideal was instilled in a generation of young clergymen who emerged from universities and took up positions in urban communities where working men were in danger of being lost in a mire of poverty, drunkenness and gang violence. In Tottenham, in Fulham, in Southampton, in Swindon, in Everton, in Bolton, in Manchester it was time to "play up and play the game".

Andrew Kenny said...

"There were four key ingredients of character which it was believed the games field could develop," Lupson says. "Courage – which they called 'pluck', not ducking the hard challenge – fair play, unselfishness – you played for the team – and self-control. So football was seen very early on as a moral agent."

Thus, when a new rector arrived at St Mark's, in West Gorton, Manchester, in 1879, he encouraged his 27-year-old daughter, Anna Connell, to take on her own hard challenge.

"At that time, West Gorton was an area of tremendous deprivation," Lupson says. "There was overcrowding, squalor, poor sanitation and poverty, and the ways in which the men of the community sought refuge from this was drink and gang warfare, which was called 'scuttling' in that era.

"We are talking about 500 people at a time involved in fighting. The local press reported 250-a-side – we are talking about warfare. Anna was grieved by seeing these men live such wasted lives and wanted to do something for them that could reverse the direction they were going in."

Miss Connell knocked on every door in the parish – by Lupson's estimation, that meant 1000 doors – to spread word of the weekly working men's club she was setting up in the parish hall. The first week, three people turned up. But soon, with the help of two churchwardens who worked at the local ironworks, that number became 100.

Playing sport was a natural adjunct to other activities such as singing, discussion and bible recitations. That meant, in the first instance, cricket. But soon the men wanted to keep fit in the winter for their cricket, and decided to do so through football.

"They called themselves St Mark's West Gorton FC," Lupson says. " Anna's father, Arthur, was the first president, and that club exists today because of Anna Connell knocking on all those doors and not giving up, and it's called Manchester City."

Andrew Kenny said...

Peter Lupson, Thank God for Football (2006)
"I believe that all right-minded people have good reason to thank God for the great progress of this popular national game." Those words were spoken by the legendary Lord Arthur Kinnaird, the holder of the still unbeaten record of nine FA Cup Final appearances and the longest serving chairman in the FAs history.

Kinnaird, one of the leading Christian figures of the late Victorian era, would not have spoken those words lightly. As one of the pioneers at the forefront of football's amazing development from an amateur sport played by a small number of well-to-do enthusiasts to the country's national game enjoyed by countless thousands, he was able to look back with gratitude on all that had been achieved and thank God for it.

Remarkably, of the 39 clubs that have played in the FA Premier League since its inception in the 1992-93 season, 12 also have good reason to take Lord Kinnaird's words to heart - they owe their very existence to churches. But these same clubs know very little about the circumstances that led to their birth or the people involved. This is hardly surprising in view of the fact that church teams, when they started, were the equivalent of today's public parks teams and did not keep extensive records of their activities. How could they possibly have guessed that one day they would become famous and that details about their founders, match results, players' records, minutes of early meetings, etc., would be of enormous interest to thousands of their future supporters? Furthermore, much of the limited source material that was once available has since been irretrievably lost through fire or neglect.