ABOUT 12 years ago, I started a church football league on Merseyside for boys in their early teens. Before long, I was made aware that their friends at school did not consider it “cool” to play in a church league.
Comments such as: “Church leagues don’t count. You’re all soft!” and “Bet you use Bibles for goalposts!” were not infrequent.
So, when I read that a church had been the cradle of both Everton FC and Liverpool FC, I realised that I had discovered something that might help the boys. After all, were they not merely following in the footsteps of our two great local clubs?
The discovery prompted me to investigate further. How many other clubs of church origin could I find? The result is the book Thank God for Football, launched at the Football Association headquarters in the presence of the chairman of the FA, Geoff Thompson, and Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury.
The surprise conjunction of football and faith has turned out to be remarkably newsworthy. Many want to know exactly how these two unlikely partners met. The answer is to be found in the English public school system.
Before 1863, there were nearly as many varieties of football as there were villages in England. This diversity of rules and forms of play made it impossible for the country’s leading public schools to play each other. In 1848, a common set of playing rules for school matches was agreed at Cambridge University. But after leaving school, students who joined gentlemen’s football clubs found that they could no longer play such interclub matches.
Eventually, delegates from 11 clubs within the London region agreed to discuss a common set of rules. Their historic meeting took place at Great Queen Street on 26 October 1863. The outcome was the Football Association, and a new kind of football called Association football.
These ex-public-school boys did more than just produce a new form of football, however. They also imbued the game with the spirit of play they had learned at school. This was the Christian spirit that Dr Thomas Arnold had introduced when he was headmaster at Rugby School (1828-1842), and which spread to the country’s other public schools through Thomas Hughes’s novel about Rugby, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857).
As a result of the book’s influence, Rugby became renowned for producing Christian gentlemen whose chief characteristic was the courage to “speak up, and strike out if necessary for whatsoever is true, and manly, and lovely, and of good report”.
In the book, life was depicted as a moral battlefield. It was not long before parallels were being drawn between the battlefield of life and the demands made on the games field. Because football in Arnold’s day was a rough contact sport, it would have been tempting for players to avoid a difficult challenge. This was not considered “manly”, however, and the pupils were taught to confront such an unworthy spirit of cowardice.
Football came to be valued for its character-building qualities — not only for developing pluck but also fair play and unselfishness. And it was these very qualities that many clergymen who were products of the public schools wanted to transmit to the young people in their parishes.
Thanks to Dr Arnold, “Muscular Christianity” was born, a movement which placed emphasis on the practical expression of faith, not only on the sports field, but in practical service to others, particularly on behalf of the poor.
It is no surprise, then, that the message of football as a moral agent was spread with almost missionary zeal to all parts of England by the ever-growing number of sports-minded clergymen. In Birmingham alone, about one quarter of all football clubs formed between 1876 and 1884 had church connections.
There was no pattern to the creation of the new church clubs — in a great many cases a clergyman was the prime mover, but clubs also sprang up in Sunday schools, Bible classes, and choirs. The catalyst for many, however, was the appalling social conditions.
One thing common to all the clubs was that their members played purely for fun. Matches were friendlies, and no thought was given to cup competitions. In fact, no league of any kind existed until 1888, so games were often impromptu or subject to a last-minute change of date or venue.
As clubs progressed from members’ associations to companies, church connections and the original principles behind many of the clubs became lost. It came as a surprise, therefore, to discover that 12 out of the total of 39 clubs who have played in the FA Premier League have church origins, including Aston Villa, Southampton, Bolton Wanderers, Barnsley, Manchester City, Birmingham City, Swindon Town, Fulham and Queens Park Rangers.
Little was previously known about the connection between faith and football. Clubs have not only been appreciative of the new information about their church beginnings, but are also acting upon them.
On 24 September, the 100th anniversary of John Ripsher’s death, Tottenham Hotspur will honour the grave of its long-forgotten founder. Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, and Swindon Town are all in the process of following suit.
It has been good to witness so many clubs acknowledge with pride their church origins. Everton, for instance, when celebrating their 125th anniversary, brought out a range of clothing with “St Domingo’s” emblazoned across it, as a tribute to the chapel where the club was founded. And Southampton has named its new stadium St Mary’s in honour of the church to which they owe their origin. Swindon Town, meanwhile, has changed its club badge to reflect its correct foundation date.
In the light of these developments, members of church teams throughout the UK can rest assured that they are not oddballs. They are, in fact, inheritors of a rich tradition.
Peter Lupson is the author of Thank God for Football! (Azure, £9.99 (CT bookshop £9); 978-1-902694-30-6).
IN 1882, a group of young teenagers started a football club in the Tottenham area of London. But their enthusiasm was sorely tested when local bullies started kicking them off pitches they’d marked out for their games. By the end of the season, some of the boys were so dispirited that they left the club. Those who stayed turned to John Ripsher, the highly-respected Bible class teacher at All Hallows’, in Tottenham, for help.
Not only did Mr Ripsher ensure that games went ahead, but, with the full support of the vicar, he also organised the boys into a proper club with headquarters and a committee — of which he was elected president and treasurer.
The youngsters Mr Ripsher helped were no angels. They were expelled twice from headquarters Mr Ripsher had found them. He continued to stand by them. He secured a third HQ at the Red House Coffee Palace, and this remains in the hands of Tottenham Hotspur today.
Mr Ripsher ran the club for 11 years. During this time he helped transform the unruly boys into mature young men. And such was the good spirit he established at the club, that many of its early players had a long involvement with it. At the first AGM as a professional club in 1896-7, six of them were club officials, and two were elected directors when Tottenham became a limited company in 1898.
Through them, Mr Ripsher’s influence lived on, and the club established a long-lasting reputation as the cleanest and most popular in England. It is fitting, then, that the earliest club history of 1908, written by two of the first players, refered to him as: “The real father and founder of the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club”
Faith and football
Formed 1874, by members of the Aston Villa (Wesleyan) Chapel Bible class
Formed 1887, by Tiverton Preedy, assistant curate at St Peter’s
Formed 1875, by members of Holy Trinity Church choir
Formed 1874, by the headmaster of Christ Church Boys’ School and boys from Christ Church Sunday school. The Revd Joseph Wright was its first president
Formed 1878, by boys from St Domingo’s Chapel Bible class
Formed 1879, on the inspiration of Revd John Henry Carwell, curate at St James’s
Formed 1880, following the efforts of the Revd Arthur Connell, from St Mark’s Church, and his daughter, Anna, to regenerate the former rural district of West Gorton
Queens Park Rangers
Formed 1885, by boys connected to St Jude’s Institute
Formed 1885, by boys from the Young Men’s at St Mary’s
Formed 1879, through the inspiration of the Revd William Baker Pitt, curate at Christ Church