In the early days of association football, newspaper coverage was sparse. ‘Newspapers, as a whole, took very little notice of matches,’ recalled journalist Jimmy Catton. ‘The reports were brief, and there were none of the personal paragraphs, garrulous items, and more or less sensational news which are now part not only of weekly periodicals, but of morning and evening newspapers.’
National dailies virtually ignored football, leaving it to weeklies such as Bell’s Life and the Athletic News, and to regional newspapers in prominent football areas. Even then, football would have to vie for column space with other sports such as horse racing, pedestrianism, and quoits.
Early match reports were typically submitted by club secretaries, and were formal and perfunctory – and often biased and unreliable. It wasn’t until the football boom of the 1880s that newspapers began to take the game seriously – following the realisation that coverage of the popular sport increased sales. Reporters were sent to cover matches, and columnists wrote opinion pieces and solicited correspondence.
Team selection, foul play, and disallowed goals were among the many subjects debated in newspaper columns. Football columnists often wrote under pen names, such as ‘Off-Side’, ‘Goal-Post’, or ‘Spectator’. For fans unable to attend matches in person, newspapers provided a way to follow their teams.
Initially, readers would have to wait until Monday for details of Saturday afternoon matches. Carrier pigeons and telegraph boys were used to ferry scores around the country, and fans would gather at local newspaper offices for updates from away matches. The installation of telegraph poles at grounds from the mid-1880s meant reports could be filed more quickly, and allowed the publication of Saturday night football specials.
Early football writing was often flowery, and littered with high-brow references, although it became more populist as football developed into the working man’s game. Crucially, journalism played an important role in nurturing and promoting the game in its formative years.
Victorian football newspapers:
Athletic News (1875-1931)
This Manchester-based journal of amateur sport evolved into the leading national football paper of the Victorian era, under the editorships of JJ Bentley and Jimmy Catton (AKA Tityrus).
Bell’s Life in London, and Sporting Chronicle (1822-86)
The first general newspaper to give prominent coverage to sport, Bell’s flourished during football’s formative years due to its focus on the increasingly-popular game.
The Field, or Country Gentleman’s Newspaper (1853-date)
Still published today, The Field was instrumental in the football rules debate. Aimed at a higher-class of reader, its football coverage initially focussed on public school games.
The Goal: The Chronicle of Football (1873-74)
Published by a Mr EM Fraser of London, this was referred to by Jimmy Catton as ‘surely the very first of football papers’.
Saturday Night (1882-98)
This Birmingham evening weekly was the first ‘football special’, beginning a popular tradition of Saturday pink ‘uns and green ‘uns that remained popular for a hundred years.
Sporting Chronicle (1880-1931)
This Manchester-based sister publication of the Athletic News was an early outlet for the football writing of Jimmy Catton.
Sporting Life (1859-1998)
Launched as a direct rival to Bell’s Life, this paper concentrated on horse racing, but also provided daily football news.
The Sportsman (1865-1924)
CW Alcock began his journalism career at this paper, which also published football guides and annuals.
This is an edited extract from The Victorian Football Miscellany by Paul Brown.
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