There have been many great books published about football over its long history, but the most-sought after is surely Association Football & The Men Who Made It by Alfred Gibson and William Pickford. Published in four volumes, it's a lavish and comprehensive guide to the early game. Arguably the best ever football book, it's more than 100 years old, and pretty rare and valuable. We've been fortunate enough to get hold of a copy for look inside its covers.
Although not strictly Victorian (it was published in 1905/06 by the Caxton Publishing Company), it covers the Victorian origins of football, and was one of the first major works of literature to be devoted to the game. According to the author and football memorabilia collector Hunter Davies, the four volumes of Association Football are "the best books on football ever written. They're the best produced, the best published, with the best photographs and best information." They've been described as the "most desirable" football books, and are regularly valued at upwards of £500. So what makes Association Football so special?
"So far Association Football has had no voice commensurate with its claims," write Gibson and Pickford in their introduction to the book. "During the last twenty years the game has developed in such a remarkable manner that the literature on the subject has failed to keep pace with it. No game has ever taken so deep a hold on the public imagination. Its kingdom grows from year to year, and its thrall extends to all sections of society. The microbe of football is more virulent and more persistent than any other of its kind. It grows by what it feeds on. Once it gets into the blood nothing can root it out."
There had been many previous books about football, and of course newspapers and magazines wrote reams of pages about the game. It was the authors intention that Association Football would be a permanent and complete record of the game's history and development. "The game has grown by leaps and bounds, but its literature is by no means equal to the demands of its devotees," they write. "It is with the desire to supply in some measure the urgent need of the age that this book has been produced."
The authors were well-placed to produce an authoritative football book. Alfred Gibson was a respected sportswriter who was known to readers of popular paper the Football Star by the pen name "Rover". William Pickford was an influential Football Association council member who would later become president of the FA and vice-president of FIFA. But Gibson and Pickford also include contributions in Association Football from numerous footballers and football administrators.
The first volume is largely concerned with the history of the game, covering its antiquity, the formation of the Football Association, the age of the amateurs, and the rise of professionalism. Volume 2 features an essay on the history and future prospects of the Football League written by League founder William McGregor. It also features potted histories of the country's most famous clubs, which continue into subsequent volumes. Volume 3 looks at football in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and has essays on the history of international football and the FA Cup. Volume 4 features a piece on football referees, and profiles of members of the FA council.
Alongside club histories, each volume contains in-depth profiles of some "Giants of the Game", and many of the names featured will be familiar to modern fans. They include famous Victorian players such as Steve Bloomer, John Goodall and Nick Ross - as well as some players who might not be so well-known. We learn of Bloomer's "hurricane rush and cannon shot", and how Goodall played football that was "both artistic and intellectual". Of Preston's Nick Ross, the authors say, "he possessed the indefinable something, the magic quality which, for lack of a better word, we call genius."
Nick Ross had been dead for more than a decade by the time Association Football was published. He died from tuberculosis in 1894 aged just 31. But other early football stars were involved in the production of the book. Steve Bloomer contributes an essay on how to score goals ("do not hesitate to shoot"), and Billy Meredith writes about wing play - and rails against arm-chair critics": "The mistake which many of our good critics make is that they do not realise many of the things which make it necessary for the player to do precisely the opposite to what the spectators think should be done." Leigh Richmond Roose contributes an essay entitled The Art of Goalkeeping. "An experience of the game leads one to the belief that to a great extent a goalkeeper is born, not made," he writes.
Aside from the fact that Association Football provides much valuable insight into the Victorian and Edwardian roots of football, another reason it is so valuably treasured is that it is a beautifully produced book. Inside the embossed cloth covers are lavishly illustrated pages that are a delight to browse. The four volumes contain more than 100 full-page plates plus around 100 in-text photos featuring player portraits, team line-ups and match action shots. Many of these photos are absolute gems, and some would be very valuable as individual items. Indeed, one of the reasons that decent copies of Association Football are so rare is that owners have removed plates from the books to keep or sell individually.
So how can you get hold of this fantastic book? Well, you're more likely to find it at an auction house than on Amazon. Bonhams has sold several sets over the past few years, ranging in price from £216 up to £800. Christies sold a set in June 2012 for £875, but they were an unusual set bound into two volumes. At the time of writing, there are six of the four-volume sets listed on Abebooks ranging in price from £500 to £862. So the book is available if you're looking to make an investment. For those who don't have £500 to spare, we're going to be posting a whole host of images from Association Football & The Men Who Made It on our Twitter feed over the next couple of weeks. We hope you enjoy them.
The Victorian Football Miscellany, packed with trivia, facts and anecdotes, available as book and ebook.
"One of the greatest books written about football since Charlie Buchan put down his pen! Spectacular, mesmerising." – Danny Baker