Football & Newspapers

Newspapers are a major source of information about Victorian football.

Leicester had several newspapers by the mid 111nineteenth century. The Leicester Journal (1753) and Leicester Advertiser (1842) were Tory, while the Leicester Chronicle (1810) and Leicester Mercury (1836) represented rival factions of the Liberal/Radical coalition which merged in 1864. These weeklies were joined by other, short-lived ventures such as the Leicester Guardian (1857) and South Midlands Free Press (1859). Leicester’s first daily newspaper, the Leicester Daily Post was begun in 1872, and followed two years later by the Leicester Daily Mercury. The Leicester Chronicle remained a weekly publication (until 1979). These were merged, together with the Leicester Chronicle and Mercury, in a single group by Francis Hewitt in 1883. The second Leicester Guardian (1899-1906) succeeded the Wyvern (1891-97). Loughborough during the same period had the Loughborough Monitor (est. 1857). At the beginning of the final decade of the nineteenth century it was joined by the Loughborough Echo (c. 1891). Since these were only news sources of the day, they covered everything from major world events through to local fair shows and sporting events. As the popularity of football grew so did the number of column inches devoted to both codes.

Newspapers during the early days of football relied on club secretaries to send in match reports, which of course were often biased, containing inaccuracies and misspelt player names. For example the the surname Loughborough right back appears in the press as Spilby, Spielby and Spilbey. The match reports given here are transcripts taken directly from the original newspapers. Only obvious errors have been by corrected!  

League tables in general were supplied to newspapers by the secretary of the league and may contain errors.

On one or two occasions due to the age of the newspapers it has not been possible to ‘read’ the print. Instead of trying to guess the words, they have been replaced by ‘xxxx’. It was not until the 1890s when the Fosse and Loughborough were playing in the Midland League that local newspapers had specialist football correspondents.

Journalists of the era treated football matches as if they were battles, which in many respects they were, with teams laying siege to the enemy’s citadel, attempting to lower their visitors flag and storming their opponent’s fortress. Although outdated language is adopted, Victorian match reports provide the reader with an enjoyable and often detailed description of the key moments. In fact, in many of the longer reports, such is the level of Dickensian descriptive detail that you can almost visualise the game as if you were watching it live. Some of the language used by football correspondents may seem strange, so here is a short glossary to help you:

•       Citadel – goal

•       Combination – football based around teamwork and cooperation. It would gradually favour the passing of the ball between players over individual dribbling skills which had been a notable feature of early Association games.

•       Custodian – goalkeeper

•       Flag kick – corner kick

•       Leather – ball

•       Point – goal

•       Screamer: impressive long-shot goal

•       Screw – shot that curves or bends

•       Scrimmage – goalmouth scramble Newspaper reporters were often unable to identify the scorer of a goal and would report simply that the goal had been scored “from a scrimmage”.

Attendances given in match reports were estimates since there was no means of counting spectators as they entered the ground. It was generally reckoned that a single row of spectators around a pitch equated to an attendance of 500. Thus, so will notice that most reported attendance are rounded to the nearest 500 or 1,000. Thus, a six-deep crowd around the whole ground would be estimated as being 3,000. Although the club secretary would probably be able to give a more reliable figure to the press, they were reluctant to do so for a whole host of reasons, mainly financial (tax).

By the twentieth century the extent of football coverage invariably increased in daily local and regional newspapers to include more general news on local teams and brief mentions of important national events such as the FA Cup final.  However, it was between the wars that local newspapers’ coverage of football increased and diversified significantly into something that modern readers would recognise.  By the 1930s, it was normal for daily local papers to have not only match reports on even local amateur and schoolboy games but also gossip and news from this world of junior football too.  For the senior clubs there were now action photographs, human interest stories, hints of scandal and rumours from inside clubs and interviews with players and managers.  This extended beyond concentrating on local clubs with newspapers buying in syndicated interviews with famous players of the day. There were also national form guides and tips, prompted by the rapid growth in popularity of the pools.  Reports and articles were increasingly written in ‘snappier’ styles, with shorter sentences and more colourful descriptions. Many local newspapers also began to publish letters from fans commenting on everything from last week’s performance to the cost of admission and the policies of directors. Weekly local newspapers inevitably contained much less football coverage but they too adopted of some of these new approaches.

The stimulus for change in the local papers came from developments in the national press. National popular newspapers were selling more and aggressively marketing themselves to a working-class audience with door-to-door salesmen promising free gifts in return for subscriptions. Although football played only a minor role in the ‘quality’ nationals until the 1960s, sports reporting in the popular nationals was becoming ‘gossipier’ and more sensationalised in order to win and sustain increased readerships in this more competitive market.  The local daily press had little option but to follow such approaches if it was to retain readers.  Indeed, many local newspapers actually used sport to win distinguish themselves from the nationals.  The nationals inevitably focussed on the first division in general rather than any specific team.  A local newspaper in contrast could offer the extensive coverage of local clubs that local readers sought.

Reporters were well placed to offer extensive coverage of local clubs through their position in local football culture. Directors used the press as their official voice for everything from the announcements of signings to denials of rumours and the thanking of supporters.  Sometimes this would be through a letter to the paper but, more commonly, it was done by asking a reporter to write a story.  It was these connections between club directors and newspapers that made the press a component of the local football culture rather than just a reporter of it.  Thus, for example, in times of financial crisis, the local newspaper took the lead in promoting fund raising and stressing the gravity of the situation and supporters’ duty to help.

Yet the close relationship reporters enjoyed with clubs also put them in a difficult position.  They relied on access to clubs for information, which made it difficult for them to print critical stories for fear of endangering that relationship. Fans thus often accused reporters of being in the pocket of clubs, while many articles frustratingly hint that the reporter knows more than the club will allow him to write.  For the historian this means that explanations or defences of clubs’ actions need to be read and interpreted with caution. Nonetheless, fans had their own opinions, watched games themselves and sometimes even met and knew players. They were not willing to tolerate justification of obviously poor results and performances.  Reporters thus had to strike a balance, one that depended on their own inclinations and relationship with supporters and the local club.  As a reporter in Cardiff complained, ‘If I criticise players fearlessly I am told I am undermining their confidence, if I praise them I am told by the public I am an agent of the club.’