As students of my blogroll (probably that's only me then) will notice I recently added a new blog to it- the football blog More than Mind Games to my blogroll. There is some fascinating stuff on it- but no more fascinating than the attempts of the author to get at what football was like in the Edwardian era, two particular posts here and here demonstrate some important truths about the history of football, rugby and cricket at the turn of the century. The ways that technique has developed, the ways that the games' administrations have changed and the difficulty of finding out how the game was played because of limited footage demonstrate some really interesting historical points which should always be kept in mind when looking at the past.
The first point is that things evolve. Football today is not the same game as was played at the beggining of the Twentieth Century. Just because the same word is used and the same organisations led football in that period- though clubs like Corinthians have since vanished and clubs like Leeds United did not exist, clubs like Manchester United (for whom Billy Meredith pictured above played) and Manchester City existed- doesn't mean that the game was the same. To be onside required you to have not one but three opposition players between you and the goal when the ball was played.
The second point is that the evidence for most things in the past is very difficult to come by. Edwardian football existed after the first cinematic cameras were being used, after sports journalism had started and yet its very difficult to tell how it was played. Most of the camera's attention was focused upon the supporters not the game for example which makes it difficult to see what was going on, the footage can be obscure as well and grainy. We have very few observer reports on the difference- Herbert Chapman recalled it as a golden age from his vantage point of being the first modern manager but there isn't much more than that. Consider now what you would say about football prior to that era when all we have is drawings- the great Wanderers sides or Royal Engineers sides of the 1870s are almost inaccessible now. We have little idea about how they played. And as for football before the 1870s its almost impossible to know what was going on- we have a few accounts of observers but not much to go upon.
The third significant point is that what we do have is often changed by the fact that it was filmed. One of more than Mind Games's videos he invites you to watch is that of the great cricketer, Arthur Mold, accused of throwing not bowling, who tried to prove he didn't throw by videoing a ball that he bowled. Mold was obviously concentrating so hard on his action that he ended up bowling a ball which went incredibly far wide. Mold's bowling action tells us a lot about the style of bowling at that point, but again it may be influenced by the fact that this was done as an exhibition, an attempt to clear his name- was this the way that he bowled in a normal county game? We have no way of knowing.
The study of sporting history throws up therefore all the kinds of doubts that historians normally face- that things with the same name, aren't neccessarily the same, that evidence is often fragmentary and difficult to get at, that the fact someone has taken down the evidence means that the incident of which we have evidence is far from typical- its been recorded in some way. More than Mind games's posts are fascinating for the person interested in the history of sport- particularly football in the early 20th Century- but they are also fascinating for illuminating the central problems of doing history. He's done a very good job, but when you read anyone make historical claims- bear in mind the three lessons, lessons in doubt, that you can get out of his work. They are worth remembering.