Blog: Bryce Evans

The social history of football deserves to be better known, says the academic, launching two new research posts

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Due to the relentless pace of today’s news cycle, some of the more astounding stories that have emerged in 2020, this odd and ghastly year, have passed without proper contextualisation.

Two important examples of this are the Premier League Players Together Initiative to support the NHS and Marcus Rashford’s efforts to combat school holiday hunger.

While many commented that the Players Together Fund – set up to offer direct support to NHS Charities Together – showed Matt Hancock’s comments on wage cuts to be opportunistic, and that Rashford’s campaign forced Boris Johnson’s government into a humiliating u-turn, many more missed the broader significance.

Quite simply, a group of young footballers had been responsible for two of the greatest celebrity interventions in this country since Charles Dickens criticised the ideological meanness of the New Poor Law in A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist.

Everton in the Community neighbourhood manager Sarah Atherton makes a food parcel delivery. Main photo: Food from USM Finch Farm,Everton’s training ground, to be donated to local people as part of the Blue Family Campaign

Next to them stood football supporters and clubs all playing their part. Everton Football Club’s players and senior staff took pay cuts and wage deferrals, which ensured it retained every job and paid its casual match-day and non-match-day staff. The club was the first to set up an outreach campaign, Blue Family, which has helped thousands of local people with everything from food parcels for the most vulnerable to medicine and utilities vouchers for the socially isolated, and laptops and resources to help families with schooling. Current and former players, the chairman, CEO and club staff have also made thousands of welfare calls to supporters.

Fans Supporting Foodbanks, which sees Everton and Liverpool supporters come together every match day to help feed people across the city (25 per cent of food collected for North Liverpool Foodbank comes from match-day collections at Anfield and Goodison Park) quickly moved their operation online and worked alongside the clubs to continue to support those in need.

Evertonians also made news when the overwhelming majority of season ticket holders and Lounge members donated their season ticket refunds – to the tune of £400,000 – to the campaign to support local people during the pandemic.

But while all of this deserves great acclaim, the role of football as a serious social force is nothing new.
From its mid-Victorian roots to the present day, association football has not only reflected prevailing social structures – it has challenged and changed the status quo, and in doing so acted as a decisive and positive force for change. Examples are legion, running from everyday attitudes to successful political challenges to dictatorship and colonialism.

Why, then, don’t we read more about football’s role in history?

While we’ll all remember being taught in school the well-worn and heart-warming story of combatants clambering out of their trenches for a kickabout in 1914, football’s role in History with a capital ‘H’ often ends there.

This reflects the fact that history, as an academic subject, has only relatively recently progressed from old men in elbow-padded tweed talking about Great Men and their Great Deeds to a more inclusive social history.

And in the same way that history used to be exclusively about Great Men, the way football is written about tends towards heroic stories of great players or managers while downplaying the game’s inherent place in society across time.

Nothing has illustrated this better than the absence of fans during the current pandemic, with the manufactured chants played over live coverage only serving to emphasise the hollowness of football without its public and its community.

Liverpool Hope University has teamed up with Everton Football Club to offer two research masters scholarships focusing on the history of one of the country’s oldest and best-known clubs

Football clubs have brought jobs and commerce to some of the most deprived communities during some of their most challenging times. When some local and regional economies were on the brink of collapse, football’s economic contribution has played a major role in keeping them afloat. These clubs are employers across generations. Many of them have deep connections to their town’s oldest religious communities. Football clubs are interwoven with geographic and social identities. The establishment of Bury AFC, with its tagline “By the fans, for the fans, bringing football back to the town of Bury”, says it all.

Football, then, deserves to be at the centre of our understanding of British social history. This is why Liverpool Hope University has teamed up with Everton Football Club to offer two research masters scholarships focusing on the history of one of the country’s oldest and best-known clubs. Aside from uncovering new areas of social history, the club has also made clear its aim of helping to kick-start the careers of social history researchers of the future.

Focusing these unique new scholarships on a case study of one club may draw some predictable heckles rooted in competitive fandom – for every football supporter wants to proudly assert their club’s greatness over their rivals. But what this new partnership between academic history and a football club is trying to achieve is a greater depth and a fresh perspective on the popular narratives we build around the beautiful game, teasing out the hidden histories.

For example, while many fans of the Toffees will be familiar with club greats like Dixie Dean and Alan Ball, far fewer will be familiar with Frank Soo and Jason Scott-Lee, guest players for the club during the war as it had become common among clubs to draft in temporary cover. In 1942 the Liverpool Evening Express announced that the club was making history with “two Chinese footballers playing for them in their derby games with Liverpool”.

To mark VE Day, Everton Veterans’ Hub participant Tom Beevers was paid a visit by Everton in the Community’s Dave Curtis

Both Soo and Scott-Lee came from Liverpool’s sizeable Chinatown; Scott-Lee’s father was a political refugee who had travelled to England from Hong Kong prior to the First World War and would become a prominent community leader of the Liverpool Chinese community in the face of racism and deportations; Soo became England’s first non-white player and would go on to play for England nine times.

This tale of Everton’s first Eurasian players doesn’t just tell us about individual achievement, it illuminates issues of race, identity and community across half a century. In much the same way, football has been the fabric of our social history for decades, in ways that we may not even realise.

Earlier this year, Anfield hosted its first Women’s Super League Merseyside derby. While the planned return match at Everton’s home ground was curtailed due to coronavirus, exactly 100 years earlier a long-standing world record crowd of 53,000 had packed Goodison Park for a women’s match in 1920 to watch Dick, Kerr Ladies take on St Helens. Such a whopping attendance isn’t just an isolated footnote for statisticians: the subsequent decline and resurgence of the women’s game tells us as much about British social history across a century as it does about a specific sporting contest.

Defiant of early criticism, football has surprised many by emerging from the coronavirus crisis with much credit and, in many cases, links to fans better cemented through community support, a social role that Everton – with its hard-earned moniker of the People’s Club – has carried out for longer than most.

Everton’s charity, Everton in the Community, was founded in 1988, three years after the team raised the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and at a time when the city of Liverpool was facing some of its most challenging economic circumstances. It now has more than 40 programmes for people of all ages and has equipped the area around Goodison Park with a £10 million campus of community facilities. Earlier this year the charity said its societal value has benefited the local economy by £222.3 million over the last three years.

It is to be hoped that Everton’s trailblazing support and funding of historical research into its role in the social history of the North West will be matched by similar initiatives from other professional teams, not least because it indicates a corporate willingness to go beyond the superficialities of branding and dig deeper into a shared past – a past, and a community connection, to which any football club’s current standing is indelibly linked.

To find out more about the two research masters scholarships being offered by Everton Football Club and Liverpool Hope University visit the Liverpool Hope University website. The deadline for applications is 4 September.

Associate professor Bryce Evans is a specialist in modern history at Liverpool Hope University

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