The history of sport in general, and football in particular, is surprisingly little studied in the UK. There has, of course, been quite an upsurge in the academic study of sports history in the last 10 or 15 years, but, even so, enthusiasts and serious students of the game alike can only look with envy at the wide range of materials - team histories, player biographies, academic texts - available to fans of, say, baseball's 'dead-ball' era. This book is, in fact, the first general study of the origins of English 'soccer' to be published since James Malvin's rather shorter (but much broader) 'The People's Game', which first appeared something like 30 years ago.
It's for this reason that Philip Gibbons' work is such a disappointment. It is, let it be admitted, the product of a tremendous amount of work; it reads easily enough; and it is also admirably comprehensive, so long as you are interested in the scorelines of matches that took place up to 130 years ago. Yet it so lacks both context and any sense of a developing story, or even of the excitement of individual games, that it is hard to imagine anyone reading it right through for pleasure.
The book might, in fact, more accurately be described as a chronicle than a history. It is divided into a total of 25 chapters, the early sections covering several years at a time and the latter ones - after the foundation of the Football League in the late 1880s, in particular - just a season each. Each chapter is then sub-divided into 10 or a dozen short sections, covering international games (England games only), FA Cup Finals, and other notable incidents of the season concerned. Once the League gets going, each First Division team gets a section of its own for every year, but - again - a side's progress through a given season is followed in rather a cursory manner. Gibbons gives endless lists of scores, but never contextualises, so we find out little more than the occasional scorer's name, and certainly nothing of the importance of the fixture or the main incidents of the game. Similarly, almost nothing is ever said about a team's manager, owners, star players, crowds, or its problems on or off the pitch; anecdote is all but absent, and important trends such as the professionalisation and unionisation of the game, changes in tactics or rules and so on are only covered spottily. All sense of excitement is, in short, sacrificed to an impotent 'completeness'.
It is, for example, hard to imagine even the keenest West Brom fan deriving much pleasure from an account of the team's 1897-8 season that reads (p.371)
'Albion opened the season with a 4-3 reverse at Aston Villa, with Higgins, McManus and McKenzie on target for the visitors, which preceded a 2-0 home success against Nottingham Forest with Ben Garfield netting a brace of goals. A 3-2 defeat at Derby County continued their indifferent start to the season, but a 2-0 home win against Stoke saw a return to winning ways...'
and goes on, in like manner, for a further page. It would surely have been better to have covered fewer games in more detail, and certainly to have made some reference to their actual importance in deciding championships or relegation battles.
It might, of course, be argued that Gibbons has done what he can with the material available. Early records certainly are lacking, and the chance to do what Lawrence Ritter did for baseball in the early 1960s by recording and editing the hugely entertaining player reminiscences that make up The Glory of Their Times was lost decades ago. There are newspaper reports, of course, but I am sufficiently a veteran of the close-printed, barely-headlined pages of the Victorian newspapers archived at Colindale to know what a large and thankless task it would be to scan even a representative sample of the material available for so long a period as that covered by this book - 1863 to 1900.
And yet, it can be done. Gibbons seems not to have read, and certainly does not use, the handful of biographies that do exist for this period. John Harding's excellent study of Billy Meredith, Peter Seddon's recent work on Derby Country great Steve Bloomer, and even Phil Vasili's eccentrically-organised yet deeply-researched book 'The First Black Footballer' (on Arthur Wharton, who kept goal for Preston and Rotherham in the early 1880s) contain more sense of history than this book. And, for all its narrow focus, Peter Stead's 'For Club and Country: Welsh Football Greats' makes readers experience something of the rich personalities of early players such as Meredith and the immortal Leigh Richmond Roose in a way that Gibbons simply cannot.
'Association Football in Victorian England' is, then, only a stepping-stone to a book that still needs to be written - one that places the scorelines that form the central plank of Gibbons's work in their proper context, and explains how and why football developed as it did. There would be room in such an ideal work for personality, incident and humour too. But, yes, it would be a brave and industrious man who actually sat down and wrote it.
So many questions remain. What made the Preston North End team of 1888 invincible? How on earth did Bloomer - an inside right - score so many goals? To what extent was Jack Robinson, of Derby, New Brighton and Southampton, the first truly modern goalkeeper? How did the dribbling game of the 1870s come to be superseded by the 'combination' (passing) game of later years, and what did early fans think of the change? What, exactly were the apparently endless 'prior commitments' that kept the famous Meridian Brothers, AM and PM Walters, out of the England defence on so many occasions in the early 1880s? And did the legendary G.O. Smith, the game's first great centre forward, really refuse, as a matter of principle and breeding, ever to head the ball? Sadly, you won't find the answers here.