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A Fateful Love

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


Gavin Kitching

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.
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Appendix: Restraining the Commodification of Football


(If Anyone Wants to)

If – despite everything said above – one is a football fan, or a club director, or a player, who is agonised about the commodification of football and its long-term effects, is there any model of football professionalism which might even moderate this seemingly ineluctable trend?

Four possible suggestions have occurred to me and to other people. These are:

(1) probably the most frequently canvassed – applying some version of the NBA’s ‘draft pick’ system to football.1 In this model, the names of the most talented young players from club academies are put into a hierarchically organised ‘pot’ for each league. Clubs in the league are then allocated priority in choosing from ‘the pot’ in inverse relation to their performance in the previous season. Club X, having finished just one place above relegation, is given the first chance to obtain outstandingly talented young player Y – the first-ranked player in the ‘pot’ – or, in basketball terminology, ‘the first draft pick’. If, for some reason, Club X does not want player Y, it is then offered first choice of player Z, the ‘second draft pick’, etc. Conversely, the clubs performing best in the previous league season have the lowest priority in drafting players. This often means that they do not get a ‘pick’ at all, or, if they do, do not want any of the players still available. (Both things happen in the NBA).

This model would clearly do something to widen competition...

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