Forgotten fathers: Long journey from altar to Eastlands

They lie in overgrown graves, but the Victorians whose brand of 'muscular Christianity' founded 12 of the 38 clubs to play in the Premier League are at last being given the credit they deserve, thanks to the painstaking detective work of a Liverpool teacher. Mike Rowbottom reports

Thursday 25 October 2007 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Photographs of many faces stare down at Peter Lupson as he works in the study of his home near the Wirral. Some are of his family. Others belong to people long dead who have nevertheless loomed large in his life as he has spent the last 11 years writing a book which offers English football an opportunity to examine its soul.

These grainy black-and-white reproductions of Victorian visages are nothing less than a gallery of the game's founding fathers, to whom Lupson's recently published Thank God for Football (Azure, £9.99) pays painstaking tribute.

In researching his work, this 61-year-old languages teacher has established that 12 of the 38 clubs which have played in the Premier League can trace their origin directly back to churches or chapels. He has also traced the lives of those responsible for starting the teams, in the case of six of them, all the way to their graves, which he has located in various stages of disrepair.

Last month, Tottenham Hotspur, having been alerted to the fact that their originator, John Ripsher, lay in a pauper's grave in Dover, became the first of those six clubs to honour their beginnings, setting up a smart new headstone which acknowledges the role played by this former bible class teacher from All Hallows Church.

Other clubs mobilising to spruce up their founders' resting places include Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City and Swindon Town, while Everton have just been alerted to the current whereabouts of Benjamin Swift Chambers, responsible for their creation as St Domingo FC.

Honouring graves is one thing; honouring ideals another. It is Lupson's fond hope, nevertheless, that these acts of piety may yet prompt football's influential figures to reconsider some of the principles which inspired the graves' inhabitants.

The teams in question were instituted in the spirit of "muscular Christianity", a concept that was developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century which emphasised the importance of serving others and striving in a physical sense as part of the Christian's duty.

Fostered in public schools, and popularised in Thomas Hughes' 1857 book Tom Brown's Schooldays, this ideal was instilled in a generation of young clergymen who emerged from universities and took up positions in urban communities where working men were in danger of being lost in a mire of poverty, drunkenness and gang violence. In Tottenham, in Fulham, in Southampton, in Swindon, in Everton, in Bolton, in Manchester it was time to "play up and play the game".

"There were four key ingredients of character which it was believed the games field could develop," Lupson says. "Courage – which they called 'pluck', not ducking the hard challenge – fair play, unselfishness – you played for the team – and self-control. So football was seen very early on as a moral agent."

Thus, when a new rector arrived at St Mark's, in West Gorton, Manchester, in 1879, he encouraged his 27-year-old daughter, Anna Connell, to take on her own hard challenge.

"At that time, West Gorton was an area of tremendous deprivation," Lupson says. "There was overcrowding, squalor, poor sanitation and poverty, and the ways in which the men of the community sought refuge from this was drink and gang warfare, which was called 'scuttling' in that era.

"We are talking about 500 people at a time involved in fighting. The local press reported 250-a-side – we are talking about warfare. Anna was grieved by seeing these men live such wasted lives and wanted to do something for them that could reverse the direction they were going in."

Miss Connell knocked on every door in the parish – by Lupson's estimation, that meant 1000 doors – to spread word of the weekly working men's club she was setting up in the parish hall. The first week, three people turned up. But soon, with the help of two churchwardens who worked at the local ironworks, that number became 100.

Playing sport was a natural adjunct to other activities such as singing, discussion and bible recitations. That meant, in the first instance, cricket. But soon the men wanted to keep fit in the winter for their cricket, and decided to do so through football.

"They called themselves St Mark's West Gorton FC," Lupson says. "Anna's father, Arthur, was the first president, and that club exists today because of Anna Connell knocking on all those doors and not giving up, and it's called Manchester City."

Forming a football club in order to maintain fitness for the main activity of cricket was a common pattern of the time – the young men whom Ripsher helped to set up the Hotspur team on Tottenham Marshes took the same route, as did the forerunners of the club whose background set Lupson off on his original quest, Everton.

Having established a Church League on Merseyside, Lupson soon found that many of the boys were being ridiculed for playing in what was viewed as a sissy organisation. The fact that Everton had evolved from a chapel team began to resonate with him. It offered his lads a valuable parallel, but it also got him enmeshed in a wider project.

As Lupson, a Christian who has something of the missionary zeal about him, burrows in his cupboard among dense piles of photocopied historical documents he unearths a pile of his previous publications – school textbooks with titles such as Echt Deutsch and Los Geht's!

His most recent literary labour has, he admits, become something of a quest. "What I'm trying to do, subconsciously," he says, "is to remind the clubs of how it used to be, and I'm therefore warmed at the fact that people I've been talking to at the highest levels have genuinely re-engaged with their roots.

"What do I think the founding fathers would have made of the game today? I think they would have been shocked by the obscene amounts of money that are paid to the players, but by the same token they would have been impressed by some of the marvellous community outreach programmes to the disadvantaged and socially excluded, and initiatives such as Kick It Out.

"Football is a business where the pursuit of profit is a key element. But it's not the whole story. And while it's not the whole story, the game can still be saved from itself. I really hope that by bringing to light the stories of these people it will inspire those who have influence on football to perhaps rethink some of the more important issues."

Stories are not the only thing he has brought to light. His research has shown that Swindon Town have been two years adrift in their founding date – it was not 1881, but 1879, and the club badge has duly been amended this season.

He has also discovered what was effectively the first-ever Manchester City match report – an account in the Gorton Reporter of 20 November 1880 of Baptist (Macclesfield) v St Mark's (West Gorton): "Played on the ground of the latter at Longsight, and resulted as follows: Baptist, 2 goals; St Mark's, 1 goal." They don't write 'em like that any more...

"I've found out that clubs really do care about their past," Lupson says. "A lot of people have said to me, 'Isn't this disgraceful that a lot of clubs can't be bothered about their founders and they've allowed this to happen?' Well the fact is they haven't because they didn't know the graves were there in the first place, but now they actively want to put this right."

Heaven sent: Pulpit to Premier League

Aston Villa

Founded in 1874 by members of Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel


Formed in 1887 by Tiverton Preedy, curate at St Peter's

Birmingham City

Started by choirboys at Holy Trinity Church, Bordesley in 1875

Bolton Wanderers

Formed in 1874 by boys from Christ Church Sunday school


Founded in 1878 by boys from St Domingo Chapel Bible class


Inspired by John Henry Cardwell, curate of St Andrew's in 1879


Indirectly church-inspired following split from Everton in 1892

Manchester City

Formed at St Mark's Church, West Gorton in 1879

Queen's Park Rangers

Started in 1885 at St Jude's Institute


Formed by Young Men's Association at St Mary's Church in 1885

Swindon Town

Began in 1879 through inspiration of Rev. William Baker Pitt

Tottenham Hotspur

Formed in 1882 by the bible class at All Hallows, Tottenham

Blatter and Finney join celebration for world's oldest football club

Not every non-league football club gets to entertain the Fifa president Sepp Blatter and the England legend Sir Tom Finney at its annual dinner. But then Sheffield FC, which started life in 1857 in a borrowed potting-shed, are no ordinary club.

The Unibond League First Division South side last night became the first football club in the world to celebrate a 150th anniversary, with a service at Sheffield cathedral and a gala dinner at the city's Cutlers' Hall.

Fifty years ago, the Duke of Edinburgh was among guests at the club's centenary dinner. But last night it was footballing royalty who turned out in force in south Yorkshire. In addition to Blatter and Sir Tom, others present included former England greats Gordon Banks, Bryan Robson and Geoff Thompson, the Sheffield-born FA chairman.

Though they reached the FA Cup quarter-finals three times in the 1870s, the club has spent most of their history in non-league football due largely to theirs amateur status. Probably their proudest moment came in 1904 when they won the FA Amateur Cup.

In recent years, the club have staged something of a revival under Richard Tims, their ambitious chairman, who wants to turn Sheffield into a global brand. He believes an international supporter base can be established among fans who know their history and will appreciate their unique status.

Though primitive forms of football have been played around the world for centuries, and the sport was practised well before 1857 in public schools and universities, historians accept that Sheffield was almost certainly the first club set up solely for the purpose of playing football. "The FA accepts that Sheffield FC is the world's oldest football club," David Barber, the official FA historian, says. "There is evidence for its existence from 1857, although it may have been formed two years earlier."

Next month, the club will enjoy another highlight when they take on Internazionale in a showpiece friendly. The great Brazilian player Pele is expected to be in attendance.

David Owen

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