Historians are wrong to kick football into touch

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The story of the first black South African football team to visit these shores, as June’s issue reminds us, is not only extraordinary and inspiring, but a very fitting tale as we approach the first World Cup to be held in Africa.

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It is also a welcome reminder that sporting stories, so often consigned to the back pages of the tabloids, can shed just as much light on the past as any well-worn political or economic narrative.

After all, the second most famous date in English history, after the battle of Hastings, is probably 1966, the year Sir Alf Ramsey’s team picked up the Jules Rimet trophy. As at Hastings, the clash at Wembley was a close-run thing. Extra time was required on both occasions.

While no university history department is without its sport-haters, each also has its loyal core of football fans, for whom exam boards and research frameworks pale beside the attractions of a midweek League Cup tie away at Exeter City.

When I taught at the University of Sheffield, lunchtime gatherings were essentially divided into two camps: those who wanted to discuss the previous night’s games, and those who preferred to chew over some exciting development on the teaching and learning committee.

Even some of the most eminent professors had not quite left the terraces behind. One morning during the 2002 World Cup, a friend and I bunked off a meeting to watch Ireland’s match against Germany in a pub next door to the history department.

Amid the cheering after Robbie Keane’s last-gasp equaliser, we were alarmed to see the head of department lurking behind us at the bar. Disaster loomed, and as he approached us we braced ourselves for a reprimand. “Always a pleasure to see the Huns disappointed,” he murmured confidentially. “Another round?”

Yet given how many historians are devotees of the Beautiful Game, it is odd that sport and history are so rarely intertwined. Liverpool boasts a pioneering Football Research Unit, while nobody interested in social history would want to miss Emma Griffin’s prize-winning books on popular sports in early modern England.

But sport and history seldom mix. AJP Taylor’s classic English History 1914–1945 mentions football just three times, while even Andy Beckett’s recent book on the 1970s finds no room for the likes of Kevin Keegan, Gareth Edwards and Geoff Boycott.

Within academic circles, there is still a lingering feeling that sport is unworthy of serious thought. “Why don’t you talk about Tosca?” one female literature professor asked during the last World Cup. “Didn’t make the Italian squad,” came the inevitable reply.

But in overlooking sport, historians are rather missing a trick. There are surely few better institutional vehicles for exploring the social and cultural changes since the Victorian period than sporting clubs, many of which have led unbroken lives since the days of Gladstone and Disraeli.

My own beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers were founded in 1877 by pupils of St Luke’s School, Blakenhall, a suburb that saw enormous growth during the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, as founder members of the Football League, Wolves have held up a mirror to society for more than a century, from the first games against European opposition in the 1950s – which reflected globalisation and the growth of the European ideal – to the arrival of the first black players, the influx of foreign talent and the commercialism of post-Thatcherite Britain. A proper scholarly history is long overdue. I for one would buy it, especially if they stuck Steve Bull on the cover.

The other obvious reason for taking sport seriously is that, as David Kynaston’s books on Britain in the 1940s and 1950s remind us, it is so deeply woven into the fabric of everyday experience. Researching my own series on postwar Britain, I have been struck by the extent to which our parents and grandparents, like us, were obsessed by celebrity sportsmen from WG Grace and Jack Hobbs to Duncan Edwards.

Nothing sums up the flavour of the 70s, for example, better than the feud between the rival managers Don Revie and Brian Clough, the fiasco of Scotland’s participation in the 1978 World Cup, or the travails of the England cricket team under Tony Greig.

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“Success in international competition,” announced the government in 1975, “has an important part to play in national morale.” And if Fabio Capello can work his magic this summer, perhaps we will see if they were right.