A century of football

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

New Statesman
Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

I was very young at the time but I do remember football in 1913, yet stuff that happened last week goes from my mind. Funny, that. Take Sunderland – now, what’s the name of that manager they sacked just two weeks ago, O’Whatsit, already gone? But ask me who won the FA Cup in 1913, no bother. And where was the game? Not Wembley, dum-dum, hadn’t yet been built, but Crystal Palace. And the attendance? It was reported as 141,900, a world record. Sunderland beat Aston Villa 1-0. They were the two best and richest clubs in England, which also meant Europe, the universe.

My hero was not a Sunderland player but the Welshman Billy Meredith who in 1913 was playing for Man United. You could always tell him in the comics as he was depicted with a toothpick sticking out of his mouth. He’d gone down the pit at 12, where he learned to chew tobacco. When he became a footballer, he had to chew something. Fans would send him packets of toothpicks, just as 50 years later dopey girls would send packets of jelly babies to the Beatles, whoever they were.

He was a winger, slight and slender, the Wizard of the Wing, a title handed on to other Man United wingers such as George Best and Ryan Giggs. He didn’t smoke or drink, unusual for players in those days. He helped establish a players’ union but the FA managed to stop it.

President of the FA in 1913 was still Lord Kinnaird. I had a soft spot for him, as most boys did. He played for the Old Etonians in loads of FA Cup finals, standing on his head if he won. He always got well stuck in. His mother worried that one day he’d come home with a broken leg but was reassured by one of his team-mates. “Don’t worry, my lady, it won’t be his own.”

Another hero of mine was Fatty Foulke, who had recently retired. He was a goalie, played for Sheffield United, Chelsea and once for England, and reached 24 stone. He would come down early in the team hotel and eat everyone’s breakfast. He finished up saving shots on Blackpool Beach where he caught a chill, so it was said, and died aged 42. All the football comics loved him.

Players in 1913 were on a maximum wage of £5 a week, which had gone up from £4 in 1910. You had to be a senior player, with long service, to get the £5 max – and only in the winter. In the summer, you got less and often had to paint the stands. The football authorities and most football hacks thought the players were more than well paid.

I still have my copy of the 1914 Northern Echo Football Guide, covering the 1913 season, and an editorial attacks the modern player for being greedy. “The man who kicks the ball is not satisfied and he loses no opportunity to demand illegal back - handers.” This demand for “baksheesh” took various forms. For instance, one player wanted a “preposterous amount for the removal of his furniture”

First Division players in 1913 on the £5 max were earning roughly twice that of a skilled craftsman, so they felt quite well off. Today, in the Prem, they earn around 100 times more – if you reckon on a top player getting £5m a year and a top London plumber making £50,000.

Oh, but they were happy then, as we all were, tra-la. On a Saturday evening, the local team would get in for free at the local music hall. If they had won, of course. They would be invited up on stage at the end and the whole audience would wildly cheer them. Then, possibly, maybe, you went backstage to meet the dancing girls, show them how you scored.