It’s something of a myth that Victorians commonly referred to association football as ‘soccer’. The practice was originally confined to Oxford University, where students thought it was terribly amusing to suffix abbreviations of almost every word with ‘-er’.
So football was ‘footer’ and rugby was ‘rugger’, and association football became contracted and suffixed to become ‘soccer’ (or ‘socker’), apparently on the instigation of future England captain Charles Wreford-Brown (right) around 1886.
The word ‘soccer’ was rarely used elsewhere, with the first recorded use not occurring until 1895. Instead, newspapers referred to ‘the association game’, until rugby became suitably separated, after which the round ball game was plain old ‘football’.
Wreford-Brown was one of England's finest amateur footballers - a converted goalkeeper who played at centre half, which was then central midfield position. He turned out for the all-amateur Old Carthusians and Corinthians clubs, and also played alongside professionals in the national team. He captained England on two or three occasions (the records are contradictory) in the 1890s.
The relationship between amateurs and professionals, or ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’, was often uncomfortable, particularly on international duty. Some amateurs refused to speak to their professional teammates, and there were tales of separate train carriages and dressing rooms.
It was Wreford-Brown's privileged background that allowed him to play football as an amateur without payment. And during a match against Scotland in 1898, the England captain gave an indication as to the depth of his pockets.
After Fred Wheldon scored England’s first goal, Wreford-Brown reached into his knickerbockers, and handed the Aston Villa forward a gold sovereign. Then Steve Bloomer scored, and Wreford-Brown gave him the same reward. Bloomer handed his sovereign to the referee for safe-keeping. When Bloomer scored his second goal, and England’s third, Wreford-Brown gave the Derby hero another gold sovereign. Bloomer again handed it to the referee, who remarked, ‘If you keep this up, Steve, I shall have to go for my handbag!’
Was Wreford-Brown's gift patronising? Professional footballers were relatively well paid by this time, but Bloomer accepted his golden goal bonus with good grace. England won the game 3-1 to secure the 1897-98 British Home Championship.
This is an edited extract from The Victorian Football Miscellany, available now from all good book shops.
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