Victorian Football

Our brand new book, Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football, traces the evolution of the fan from football's earliest origins right through to the modern era. It pays due attention to the beginnings of football fandom and the growing popularity of the game during the Victorian era. Here we present an assortment of bonus Victorian football tales and tidbits that didn't make the cut and aren't featured in the book:

It was during the 1880s that football spectators began to be referred to as “supporters”. In September 1882, after Arbroath came back from 0-3 down to beat Dundee’s East End 4-3, the Dundee Courier noted: “The unexpected turn made the hearts of the Arbroath supporters (and they were not few) jubilant. An extraordinary amount of party spirit was displayed, every little bit of real play by the Arbroath being cheered to the echo, while a no less brilliant exhibition by the East End passed unnoticed.”

They weren’t yet being referred to as “fans”, although they could sometimes be fanatical. “The excitement was intense from the beginning, but language indulged in and the uncomplimentary epithets hurled at the players by fanatic partisans were only detrimental to the game of football,” remarked the Essex Standard after one particular match. The contraction “fan” originated in the US through baseball around the 1880s. (“Kansas City baseball fans are glad they’re through with Dave Rowe as a ball club manager,” reported the Kansas Times & Star in 1889.) Football supporters wouldn’t be known as “fans” until the early 20th century.

The “prejudice and partiality” of spectators was explained in 1883 by R Smart, the secretary of Dundee’s East End FC, in a letter to the Dundee Courier. Football spectators, he said, “may have taken a fancy for a certain club, and can see nothing but perfection in their play, and nothing but reprehensible actions on the part of any other club.”

That prejudice and partiality could sometimes turn into rowdiness and bad behaviour. After a “general fight” between spectators on the field during an 1886 match between the St Peter’s and Brierfield clubs in “notorious” Burnley, a reporter for the Burnley Express wrote, “Unfortunately there is too much partiality displayed by football spectators. They ought never to allow themselves to be carried away so far as to enter upon a general fight in the field.”

Such boisterousness did not seem to deter the "fair sex" from attending football matches. "In the manufacturing districts their presence is tolerated only when their hats and bonnets are of moderate height," wrote Charles Edwards in 1892. "They must, too, take their chance in the crush which often precedes entrance into the field; and, to do them justice, they do not seem to mind these crushes."

The majority of early football fans supported their local teams. At a time before any real transport links had been established, few of them would ever venture beyond the confines of their own communities. The rest of the world were outsiders, and innate rivals. Local or tribal affiliation would remain a key theme throughout the evolution of the football fan. The arrival of the professional footballer in the late 1880s changed the make-up of teams, which were no longer comprised entirely of local men.

But this didn’t affect the tribal nature of football support. The great sportsman, politician and almost-king of Albania CB Fry wrote about this in 1895. “The crowds who flock to see two football teams play in the North or Midlands like a good match,” said Fry, “but their predominating desire is to see their own champions win, and this desire is made the more intense by the fact that the players are fellow-townsmen with whom they are in touch, or whom perhaps they know personally. Nowadays, it is true, most of the Northern Association teams are composed of invaders from across the Border; but these are soon identified with their new home, and become to all intents and purposes natives.”

As football mania swept the nation, commentators attempted to account for the game's incredible popularity. “One great cause of the success of football, as a sport, is its attractiveness for lookers-on,” wrote a contributor to All The Year Round in 1890. “In spite of wind or foul weather, any good football match is sure to attract its thousands of spectators ready to ‘plank down’ a shilling or more for the sight of their favourite game.”

“Once you have assisted as a spectator at a good football match, you will cease to wonder at the attraction of the game for the general public," continued the contributor. "For it is essentially a lively, emotional game, full of moving incidents, and the ding-dong earnestness of the players and the personal risk which they incur, enhance the dramatic effect. It is the nearest approach that we can make, in these modern days, to the gladiatorial combats of old Rome.”

Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football by Paul Brown is published by Goal Post and is available now from and

How did we become football fans? Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football Fans is the brand new book from Goal Post's Paul Brown, tracing the remarkable evolution of the fan from the earliest origins of the game right through to the present day.
It's available from at the sale price of £10 (RRP £12.99), and from Amazon stores worldwide. There are also a limited number of signed copies available direct from the author - click here for details.

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