Jonathan Wilson

When football replaced cricket on the back pages

You can almost pinpoint the date when the switch happened in England

Jonathan Wilson
Jonathan Wilson
Newspapers in UK reporting David Beckham's transfer to Real Madrid, June 18, 2003

When was the last time cricket was splashed across the pages of UK papers like this?  •  AFP

Anybody who writes about the history of sport will have spent a significant amount of time ploughing through old newspapers. Facts and statistics, of course, can easily be dredged up from websites, and so too can some match reports, but there's something far more evocative about going to the British Newspaper Library at Colindale, propping the great bound volumes on a stand and carefully turning the pages. In part it's the smell, the fustiness of age giving a sense of the passage of time that is reinforced by the way the pages crumble in your fingers. But more than that it's the chance discoveries, the odd juxtapositions.
Yes, you might be looking for a report of Brian Clough's Brighton beating Walsall in 1974 but how much more fascinating the detail or two you might glean from that is when you know that that night, two miles away from the Goldstone Ground in the Brighton Pavilion, Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest with "Waterloo". Adverts and news stories give a flavour of the age.
I spent so much time in Colindale while researching my Clough biography that in the end the staff gave up on the usual reservation system and handed me years of microfilm at a time. It was a constant struggle not to be waylaid by cricket reports, particularly as you saw, for instance, England's tour of Australia in 1970-71 unfolding as it was experienced at the time - the increasing sense of a touring team under siege becoming more and more cussed.
More generally, what's striking is the quantity of cricket coverage as opposed to football. Certainly before the Second World War, the county championship took priority over the end and beginning of the football season. In 1929, for instance, when England's footballers suffered their first defeat to non-British or Irish opposition, the Herald paid more attention to the presentation of a grandmother clock to Wally Hammond. Even in 1947, when Liverpool clinched the league title in an astonishingly tight finish, previews and reports took second place behind speculation over who would play in the first Test between England and South Africa at Trent Bridge. It's entirely fitting that, in Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, Charters and Caldicott, the two comic characters on the train, ask every English person they meet how the Test is going. As Martin Kelner points out in Sit Down and Cheer, his history of sport in television, these days an equivalent question would be "What was the United score?"
That raises a couple of questions. Firstly, why? Was cricket given pre-eminence because it was genuinely the sport most people cared about, because it was the sport people who read newspapers cared about, or because it was the sport people who ran newspapers cared about? And secondly, given that cricket struggles now to kick transfer tittle-tattle off the back page, when did it change?
The answer to the first question is probably a bit of all three but, given all publishing is ultimately driven by the market, cricket must have been sufficiently popular in comparison to football to justify its pre-eminence (and, of course, there has been a shift in dynamic: the football season is longer than ever while the buying and selling of players has almost become a spectator-sport in its own right).
The second question is addressed directly by Kelner and, intriguingly, he comes up with an extremely precise answer. The moment football took over from cricket, he says, was May 2, 1953. It was on that day that Stanley Matthews at last won the FA Cup. He was 38, the most popular footballer in England and had twice lost in Cup finals before. With 20 minutes to go, his Blackpool side trailed 3-1 to Bolton but thanks to his wizardry (and, although it seems almost uncouth to mention it, an injury to the left-half Eric Bell that left the left-back Ralph Banks exposed to Matthews' brilliance), they came back to win 4-3. It's estimated as many as 12 million people watched the game, many of them crowded round televisions that had been bought ready for the coronation of Elizabeth II, which happened the following month. It was a watershed: the FA Cup final was enshrined as a landmark event and from the following season, no first division matches were scheduled for the same day.
At the same time, Neville Cardus was at Lord's for the first first-class match of the season there, MCC against Yorkshire. "Play was not possible until 3.15," he noted glumly in a letter to the Times, giving a definite sense of having missed the real action. "Then the players came into the field and in an hour 20-odd runs were scored without a sign of a daring gesture, without a hint of personal relish. And then, after an hour of what I can fairly call a creeping paralysis, the players left the field - for tea. The small crowd looked on in silence. As I departed from the ground I felt pretty certain that I had been attending a decaying contemporary industry which, but for the artificial respiration applied from time to time by the Australians, would before long pass into the hands of the brokers, and gradually disappear, not greatly lamented, into profound oblivion." Geoffrey Green, in his report of the FA Cup final, spoke of football as "the game of the people"; a few years earlier, Cardus said, he'd have objected furiously but now he accepted Green was probably right.
The letter is notable for a number of reasons (and not just because he left his home address at the end; the sign of a world in which sports fans were not dementedly angry all the time). For one thing, there seems to have been a perception cricket is in decline ever since a shepherd first picked up his crook and whacked away a stone (which is awkward: how will we know when it really is in decline?). And for another, cricket seems always to have placed refreshment breaks over play.
But also because Cardus was correct about football supplanting cricket. As Kelner points out, that day the BBC Light programme only carried commentary on the second half of the FA Cup final, preferring to cover the touring Australians at Leicester and a championship match between Hampshire and Essex. It wouldn't happen again.
Martin Kelner's Sit Down and Cheer is published by Wisden Sports Writing

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here