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Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football by Richard Sanders

Release date: 04th June, 2009
Publisher: Bantam Press

List Price: £16.99
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Richard Sanders has enjoyed enormous success as a film-maker; his documentaries include Escobar's Own Goal about the murder of Andres Escobar, the Colombian footballer who met his untimely death after the 1994 World Cup, and Kicking the Habit, a rather critical look at Diego Maradona. Now he has turned his attention to the origins of British football and produced a thought-provoking read.

Bookshelves are weighed down by tomes which seek to explore and explain how the beautiful game came into being and was eventually codified before developing into the colourful, money-making version we watch so avidly each week.

This book's endpapers give a hint of what Sanders has on offer, saying that "Beastly Fury picks apart the complex processes which forged the modern game, turning accepted wisdom on its head." It certainly does that, because Sanders maintains it was not public schools and universities who were responsible for codifying football, as has been accepted for years, but rather it was "the common people who civilised the upper-class game."

Such a line would not be out of place in a fourth former's essay and unfortunately ignores historic fact.

Prior to 1880, most leading football clubs were southern-based, their members largely former pupils of public schools, while many were current or former university players. No common people there then. Moreover, by the late nineteenth century, football was recognisable as the game that demands so much attention today. Sanders' 'common people' did not have the time, nor sufficient access to the game to be involved in its codification, though gradually, they did become central to its development.

It was the influx of Scottish players to Lancashire-based clubs from the late 1870s onwards that resulted in football's style being improved.

The Scots arrived in the north west in response to demand for skilful players to compete with the well-established, mostly London-based clubs. They were enticed by offers of better paid jobs and pay for time spent away from work. Whereas 'gentlemen' players were usually free to play on Saturdays, working class footballers stood to lose half a day's pay (Saturday working was the British norm) if they played and so sought compensation from gate receipts.

When this was forthcoming, working class players began training more seriously, raising their levels of fitness as the Scottish influence, which involved spreading the play more effectively by accurate passing, continued to grow. By 1882/83, London and southern entries to the FA Cup were outnumbered by those from Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire and the Midlands.

Once professionalism took hold in football, the amateurs responsible for developing the game were increasingly marginalised and after the Football League was established in 1889, the professional game was given further impetus.

Sanders empathy with the 'common people' is laudable, but it could be argued that they changed (for the better) a game that was, in the eyes of its founders, already civilised.

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