A Fateful Love

Essays on Football in the North-East of England 1880-1930

by Gavin Kitching (Author)
©2021 Monographs XVI, 262 Pages
Series: Sport, History and Culture, Volume 10


How did the world’s most popular sport begin? How was the ancient family of pastimes called «folk football» transformed into a new codified game - «association football» - which attracted such large numbers of players and paying spectators? Gavin Kitching tackles the question through a strikingly original and deeply researched history of the game in one of its most passionate strongholds: the north-east of England. Making extensive use of previously neglected newspaper reports and other sources, he shows how, in just a few years of the 1870s and 1880s, soccer evolved from its origins as a collective scramble into a dispersed and intricate passing game, exciting and rewarding for players and spectators alike. But the booming popularity of football in the Victorian North-East also had deeply ambiguous consequences - for footballers, for the clubs for which they played, and for the local press which reported the game and further fuelled its popularity. Kitching analyses these ambiguities in chapters on the professionalization and commercialisation of elite soccer in Newcastle and Sunderland and in an account of the «shamateur» Northern League clubs of the Durham coalfield. A Fateful Love concludes by tracing these ambiguities through to the present day. The visual excitement and beauty that created professional football lives on, but the media–driven «commodification» which has marked it from its beginnings has now reached levels which raise profound concerns for the game’s future.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 ‘From Time Immemorial’: The Alnwick Shrovetide Football Match and the Continual Remaking of Tradition 1828–1890
  • Chapter 2 What’s in a Name? Playing ‘Football’ in the Mid-Victorian North-East
  • Chapter 3 Mercutio and Friends: The Press and the Commercialisation of North-Eastern Football 1885–1892
  • Chapter 4 Shamaterurism, Corruption and Prejudice on the Eve of Professionalism: The Sunderland AFC/Sunderland Albion Split of 1888
  • Chapter 5 The Curiously Contorted Class Struggle: Crook Town FC, the Durham Football Association, and the FA, 1927–1933
  • Chapter 6 Conclusions: Football as a Commodity
  • Appendix: Restraining the Commodification of Football
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index



In writing this Foreword I am breaking the self-imposed editorial silence I have maintained over many years. I always thought it best to let authors introduce themselves, setting out their stall in a Preface or in the introductory chapter. Why change the habit of a lifetime? I have two reasons: one personal and intellectual; the other professional and historical.

On the personal level, as Gavin Kitching generously acknowledges, I bear some responsibility for encouraging him to carry out this research. As friends since postgraduate days – almost fifty years ago – we both discovered we grew up with football. As a boy I occasionally went to Newcastle United with my uncle when he went regularly to Sunderland with his father, whose formative and wise influence is tenderly evoked in the opening pages of the book. Unlike the visceral loathing of the ‘Mags’ and ‘Mackems’ of today – I never recall hearing those words then – in our youth the rivalry was fierce but more friendly, fans sometimes attending each other’s games, rooted in a shared industrial heritage and the world of organised Labour. Football and the north-east along with the predictable mix of Sixties radical politics and music were the things we found we had in common when we met in the early 1970s at Oxford. Gavin was finishing a doctorate on Tanzanian agriculture and I was writing a thesis on sport in France.

Gavin moved from a successful academic career in African Studies to a second life as a professor of philosophy with major published works on Marx and Wittgenstein and a chair in Politics at the University of New South Wales. Just as he spread his wings – crossing academic disciplines in a way which remains rare – I went the other way, getting more narrowly involved in the new sub-discipline of sports history. He always took a close interest in what I was doing in the history of sport in general and the history of football in particular. This, I now realise, was partly to do with his father, whom he lost at a young age, and partly a product of a profound interest in history. He has a long-standing admiration for the work of Eric Hobsbawn, whose flexible empirically grounded historical materialism and comparative method encompassed all manner of socio-cultural phenomena, including organised sport. I was also an admirer of Hobsbawm’s work, especially on the class cultures of urban industrial society which included professional football. Although Gavin’s work was predominantly philosophical, we discovered we were both fascinated by the historical moment when the industrial world that had shaped our own childhoods first came into being.

As the author of a general history of British sport, I was familiar with the literature including the excellent work on association football by Tony Mason, Dave Russell and Matthew Taylor amongst many others. But there were still gaps. In particular, scholarly ‘bottom up’ urban and regional studies, which captured the transition to modernity in detail, were still thin on the ground. Doctoral work, which went narrow and deep, had begun at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University, where I worked and where Gavin became an Honorary Fellow. Other universities – notably in Ireland – followed suit but there was plenty of scope for new research, especially by someone with vast experience and proven research expertise. Hence when Gavin retired and expressed an interest in working on the history of football in the northeast, I was encouraging. As his research progressed, I became increasingly convinced he would make a genuine contribution to the history of the game. He had a fresh pair of eyes combined with a philosopher’s clarity of focus and vast experience in posing and answering research questions. He was also fully committed to a grass-roots approach and seemed to relish doing the ‘hard yards’ in the primary sources.

Gavin came to sports history from a very different place than most of us working in the field. He was first an economist and then a philosopher. His philosophical work underpins his approach to writing about the history of sport, especially his interest in both Marx and Wittgenstein. This made him both sensitive to economic forces and to social class but also to the language in which such changes were expressed. In particular, Wittgenstein’s insistence that words are understood through their use in language rather than having fixed universal meanings encouraged him to explore the mutability of terms such as ‘tradition’, ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’. Far from losing the lay reader in abstraction, his philosophical work has made him profoundly sceptical of theory-led social science research. He has even written a book about the danger of basing social science research on canonical texts of social theory. The conclusions he draws come directly from an exhaustive study of primary sources with limited reference to the existing secondary literature.

He was a newcomer to what had become quite a substantial academic literature. There were advantages to being an outsider. He could be an ‘enfant terrible’ almost without realising it, who could ask the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ kind of questions. Why did people play these games? How did they play them? Instead of looking at sports through the lens of class, gender or politics, he could simply ask ‘why did they expend so much energy or income on it?’ ‘Pleasure’ was the elephant in the room. In a liberal society no one was actually forced to play football or cricket and yet hundreds of thousands of people – mostly but by no means exclusively young men – freely chose to do so. By extension, why did they pay to watch other people doing the same thing? What kinds of satisfaction did they get from it? As he kept saying, sport had to be ‘fun’ or it would never have happened at all. It was easy for the ‘professionals’ of sports history to forget this, it took an ‘amateur’ – albeit an unusually qualified one – to remind them.

His approach was to ask these big questions. Capturing lived experience is the Holy Grail of cultural history. This is especially difficult when working on popular culture where participants rarely wrote about their daily lives or personal feelings. How can we find out more about the sporting lives of those who started to play and to watch ‘football’? What were early games of football like? The answer turns out to be partly hidden in plain sight. Reading hundreds and hundreds of match reports in the local press, which he often quotes at some length, turned out to be very revealing. The assumption of most historians, including myself, was that these would be uniformly thin and formulaic. This was wrong. Poring over them, especially those of his favourite reporter, ‘Mercutio’, revealed detailed descriptions of how the game was being played and by whom; how spectators travelled to the ground, what they found there and how they behaved. This is laborious work. Digital searches can throw up vast swathes of material but only long hours of patient reading can find what is hidden there. This ‘panning for gold’ is an important achievement in its own right. No-one – least of all someone with such a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of social science as he has – would claim this provides more than a series of snapshots of the sporting past. But in the absence of survey data and personal reminiscence – and crucially in the right hands – match reports and extracts from other press coverage prove most revealing.

He has found his own way to tell this story. His is neither a regional narrative nor a case study of a single community. His approach is episodic, peripatetic and loosely chronological. He shifts from ‘traditional’ forms of football in the old county town of Alnwick in mid-century to the new versions of the game taking shape in the regional capital, Newcastle, in the 1870s. He then looks at the early professionalisation of the sport in Sunderland in the 1880s and finishes in the 1920s with semi-professional ‘amateur’ football in the mining communities of the Durham coalfield. As he explains, this work was originally conceived as part of a bigger project to tell the history of the region through football, which he decided not to pursue. However, arbitrary as it may seem, there is a strong case for stopping where does. This is a history of origins and growth, pinpointing moments of change, digging deeply and moving forward, as an entire region was saturated in a single sport from back lane kickabouts to the First Division of the Football League with a myriad of clubs in between.

So much for why this book is distinctive both in conception and method. What has been revealed which we did not already know? It is not my purpose to provide a summary of the book. I simply want to underline some of the ways he challenges received wisdom as well as sometimes confirming it. In an analysis of Shrovetide football in the Northumberland town of Alnwick, he interrogates the long-held binary division between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. It turns out there were several forms of the ‘traditional’ game, each succeeding the other, moving from streets and open fields to written rules and precisely demarcated spaces; from the old conjugal order of married versus bachelor to a parish-based structure. ‘Traditional’ football was not the unchanging customary practice commonly supposed.

Next he moves to the establishing of the association and rugby football codes in the region. Here he confirms rather than challenges the drift of recent research away from the specific origins of either code, preferring to stress the flux of early ‘football’ with Tyne Association FC playing Northumberland (Rugby) FC and other instances of hybrid games in the early years. He is fascinated by the game itself, by the process of ‘learning though playing’. Why did the north-east become a stronghold of the association rather than the rugby code? Was it to do with how both games were actually played? The point here is to re-focus our attention on the pitch and the nature of play itself rather than on the socio-economic structures around it.

As his work is so heavily dependent on the local press, it makes sense to have a closer look at early sports journalists. Again, with a few exceptions it is surprising historians have not done more of this before. T. W. Gale, ‘Mercutio’, is his favourite reporter. Gale’s work for the Newcastle Daily Leader from 1885 to 1892 took him from Middlesbrough in the south to Ashington in the north, commenting as he went not only on the games he saw but on the state of grounds, the size, age and behaviour of crowds and the importance of the railway in the thriving new world of professional football.

In a careful micro study of the ‘process’ of professionalisation and commercialisation in Sunderland, we see how a club formed by school teachers playing as amateurs within a decade were changed out of all recognition to become one of the best teams in England. This story, of course, has been told before for other clubs such as Preston North End or Blackburn Rovers. What makes his account new and compelling is the insistence that this was not part of a predetermined ‘process of transformation’ in the sense that it was ‘inevitable’. On the contrary, it was a bitter personal feud between key individuals, which drove the precise course of events in Sunderland. In passing, he also takes a side swipe at the idea of amateurism as the dominant ideology of Victorian sport. The schism between Sunderland AFC and the short-lived Sunderland Albion was sparked not by the payment of players but by the policy of importing them from Scotland.

This indifference to amateur values informs the final chapter on ‘The Crook Town Affair’, which explains in forensic detail how a system of semi-professional football operated within the ‘amateur’ Durham Football Association. Using evidence from the FA’s investigation of Crook Town in 1928 after allegations of illegal payments, which were followed by the club’s own retaliatory revelations, he meticulously pieces together a story of personal intrigue. This is ‘thick description’ which tells a story whilst also explaining why neither full professionalism nor genuine amateurism were feasible. Sports history has overlooked the intermediate category of ‘semi-professionals’ and explains why the FA colluded in getting round their own regulations.

‘Small keys can open big doors’ was advice that used to be given to doctoral students undertaking local case studies. These essays on the early history of football in the north-east of England are an excellent example of what can be achieved by going ‘narrow and deep’. Each chapter, in its own way, refutes, modifies or expands our understanding whilst cumulatively providing a compelling account of how association football took such an unshakable hold in the north-east England during its industrial hey-day.

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My Father

My father took me to see my first Sunderland first team match at Roker Park in 1955 or 1956 when I was eight or nine years old. He introduced me to the experience slowly, taking me first to a few reserve matches and seating us safely in the old ‘Clock Stand’. As I grew though I was allowed the full first team experience, and to stand with him in his preferred Roker End, a habit which I continued long after he died.


XVI, 262
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Commercialisation and amateurism in football language and social change money and sporting competition A Fateful Love Gavin Kitching
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XVI, 262 pp., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Gavin Kitching (Author)

Gavin Kitching was born and brought up in a mining village on the Durham coalfield but now lives in Australia. He is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.


Title: A Fateful Love
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