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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, June 29, 2005
    When did football start?
     
    Probably the deepest and most intense intellectual discussion I initiated as an undergraduate twenty years ago was in the snug at The Mackintosh, and the topic was this: "When did football start?"

    I never realised it would be such an issue, but this was a debate which went on a very long time, that evening and then forward throughout our student days. It's never been resolved. That night, as the crowd grew around our tables and more and more folk pitched in, it became clear it is a debate between two perspectives: the one I share which is let's say the Ur-game (football started the first time a prehistoric person kicked a spherical object), and the other which might be called the Sir-game which is that football started the day the toffs of the FA published the rules of Association Football.

    Now Norman Giller, in Football and All That, is with me, though he rejects Eric Morecambe's theory that Adam started it all by kicking an apple to Cain and saying 'On me 'ead, son'. But he reckons there's evidence that it might have been the Chinese in 255 BC who set the ball rolling. To me, the alternative point of view seems to forget that football is always evolving, and that the FA's rules are not the same as those we make up in our kick-arounds in the park but both are 'football'. But in that pub, some of those who held to the latter view were historians, so perhaps they've grasped something I've missed.

    Whatever, it mirrored the equally interesting debate we were having in our Welsh History classes about when Wales started, a face-off between those who saw its origins in the mists and ancient stones, in Arthur and Owain, and those (well, Dai Smith mainly), who insisted that the real history of Wales only starts with the coalfields - modern Wales, formed in the sweat of industrial labour (on this, I've a lot of time for Dai's perspective).

    Anyway, I was reminded of the footie debate tonight by that fascinating documentary The Lost World Of Mitchell And Kenyon about a recently-discovered series of Edwardian film shorts, including the first ever film of Manchester United, made within weeks of their genesis. On a day when that club's power to influence the TV presentation of all Premiership games is in the news again, it was wonderful to hear that this was the first ever screening of that film from a hundred years ago. Reason: the game was played at Burnley, and because Burnley lost 2-0 they suppressed the film, they wouldn't let the public see it in the music halls that evening...