Saturday, 17 May 2014

Tackling symptoms not causes – the FA Chairman’s England Commission Report May 2014


The FA Chairman’s  England Commission Report contains some good analysis but is deeply and seriously flawed, taking the document as a whole. Let me start by agreeing that there is a huge problem – none of us expect great things for Brazil 2014; South Africa 2010 was an embarrassment in so many ways; 2006 saw a disciplinarian exhibiting lack of control over players – there is no point in raking further back.

     Playing for England should be the pinnacle of every (English) player’s career: it should be an honour that eclipses all else in the game. It was for many of us who support two teams (our clubs and the national side) the only hope of one of our two teams of ever having a (now increasingly fading) chance of winning anything. It is not for no reason that you see so many flags of St George from the likes of Preston, Torquay or Crewe at England matches. We have traditionally dropped our distaste for some of the clubs that those players come from and for their lifestyles and got behind ‘our boys.’

The problems are well known. I have never been a fan of Chris Waddle, but in his 2010 post-World Cup rant http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/world_cup_2010/8767443.stm about the problems besetting the English game he articulated what many of us felt. So it is positive that the FA are trying to do something and their report also summarises those problems well. Where it fails is in its logic and its root-cause analysis. Like diagnosing a disease in a body, the only way to effect a cure is to tackle the cause, not to just try to treat the symptoms. This report confuses causes with symptoms. In Section 3 headed “The causes of the problem;” they refer to diagnosing the problem and come up with 4 key areas “identified as the primary obstructions to development of elite English players:
1)        Most importantly inadequate competitive playing opportunities for 18-21 year old players at top clubs
2)        The ineffectiveness of the regulation of the player market in preserving the desired balance between English, EU and non-EU players
3)        The quality and impact of coaching and coach education especially in grassroots football
4)        The quantity and quality of grassroots facilities, especially all weather pitches
The first two at least are not root-causes of the problem but symptoms of the disease at the heart of the English game. The FA give themselves away here when in Section 1 they analyse reasonably well “why this has happened” (i.e. the decline in the number of English players playing at the top level). They identify the growth of pay-TV combined with the formation of the Premier League: this poured money into the game – not that investment was necessarily a bad thing given the state of football emerging from international bans, Hillsborough, Bradford etc., but the money did not go into the game as a whole but was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few clubs and the pockets of the Premier League players. It was a disaster for the pyramid structure and raised the stakes for membership of that league so high that only by having an unsustainable business model propped up by a foreign billionaire sugar daddy could a club afford the ridiculously high prices needed to buy success. The dog fight for players capable of keeping teams in the league led to monstrous wage inflation and short-termism in the buying talent rather than building it.

The riches lead to top teams hoarding players as an insurance policy – though many of them will never see first team football. They hoover up players that show promise – often robbing lower league teams of players they have nurtured – at times you wonder whether this greed is as much to stop their competitors getting their hands on a player rather than an identified need – like a 6-year-old with buns at a children’s party. This wage inflation turns players’ heads. Rather than sticking with a club they grew up with, working hard, learning the game alongside seasoned professionals and in clubs where they are appreciated, working with managers who can guide them and provide pastoral care, they are lured by the Porsches and huge wage hikes and by agents promising them the world (in return for a sizeable cut). Then they fester in the big clubs and when they become a nuisance are put out on a succession of loans that often do little for their development. The report calls this waste of potential ‘the black hole’ or the ‘Bermuda triangle’ of English football.

As an example take the case of Jordan Slew, a striker who came up through Sheffield United’s academy having signed as an 11 year-old. Those of who saw him in the FA youth cup final in 2011 causing havoc amongst the Manchester United golden boys and getting his first team debut at the age of 18 could recognise a prodigious talent. He was capped for England at Under 19 level. We saw him sign a new contract at the start of the 2011/12 season and looked forward to seeing him develop, guided by Danny Wilson. Instead he went off to Blackburn Rovers at the end of the August transfer window lured by huge wages and promises. He was treated to a derisory 89th minute debut in December and then went out on loan to Stevenage. Even in a Championship Blackburn he couldn’t break through and was loaned to Oldham and then to Rotherham in League Two. In January this year he was loaned to Ross County. He has only scored one goal since he left Sheffield United; though he has been hampered by injury. I really hope he can still come good, and escape the black hole, but you can only wonder what would have happened if he had stayed like others from that FA Youth cup final, focussed on learning, sensibly tutored and given wise counsel.

So it is clear to everyone who follows the game what the cause is, but the FA seem reluctant (or totally lacking in power) to do anything to tackle the root cause. The Premier League is too powerful – money being power. The FA just tags along like the Vichy regime trying not to upset the beast too much. It says at para. 4.1.2 “There are even still those who believe the creation of the Premier League was damaging to English football despite the fact that it has become the most popular, successful league in the world.” Oh dear, how torn they are! Of course football must adapt and change but English football does not equate to the Premier League and if the FA can’t face up to this there is no hope.

So what is to be done and what about the report’s proposals. They start off by saying that the guiding principles for developing solutions include doing “nothing to impair the European prospects of our top football clubs or reduce the attractiveness of the Premier League.” It is not a good place to start if that is the first guiding principle and yet the root cause is the wealth and power of the Premier League. How can it ever hope to effect a cure? The problem is caused by the Premier League and yet the burden of tackling the problem is to be foisted on those that didn’t cause it because the Premier League is sacrosanct.

A campaign is already underway to challenge one of the so-called solutions: the league 3 idea – allowing powerful clubs to mess about in the lower leagues with their B teams which would debase competition and is an insult to clubs of long tradition and independence – it is condescending to those fans to make them watch their team play against a B team. It might work abroad but we have a 125 year tradition that is worth defending.

The other dangerous proposal is that of Strategic Loan Partnerships: lower league teams being liege to the Premier League feudal lords – making Tranmere a franchise for Liverpool or Oldham a franchise of  a Manchester club – in hock to them, at their beck and call, forced into dependency on the bigger club. They try to sugar this pill by saying that “visiting friendlies with the Senior club could add to gate receipts and fan interest.” As if that will happen except in meaningless pre-season games! Also hidden on page 71 it says of its proposals that “in return for agreeing to this re-organisation there should be a significant financial settlement from the Premier League to clubs in the lower divisions of the Football League.” Look out of your window: there goes a flying pig!

Other proposals just favour Premier League clubs too – the suggested tighter restriction on non-EU overseas players just being allowed into the Premier League. That gives those clubs more power – widens the gap even further – will further shift the balance of power in cup ties and make it harder for Championship clubs to compete at the higher level without a complete overhaul of their teams – which brings potential instability from the off.
They talk of enlarging the JP trophy to allow B teams to compete – which would further compound fixture congestion problems in the lower leagues to the detriment of all but the B teams.

However, I mustn’t be too negative – there is much in the report that can be salvaged. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that the Premier League will never agree to sharing its wealth or power, or kicks its greedy habits of sucking talent into their black holes, or, God forbid, that there should be a return to one football league where some sort of democracy prevails and takes into account the interests of fans. Where does that leave us? The report talks of the Under 21 Premier League not being competitive – well that’s in the hands of the Premier League to correct. At page 77 it says: “One problem is that clubs often play their third or even fourth string of players in the Under 21 Premier League, and it is unlikely that Premier League and other clubs limit their squad sizes or loan practices sufficiently to achieve any improvement in Under 21 Premier League competition.” Staggering complacency! Let the Premier League sort themselves out. The current loan system is not good for lower league teams – unless a loan is very well managed it can wreck team cohesion, creates uncertainty and instability, dependency on loans as solutions to problems rather than building of squads. It seems the Premier League want it all ways – they want a competitive structure for 18-21 year olds but can’t be bothered to build it themselves. The report says at page 67: “The Premier League itself has recognised the problems of the current Under 21 Premier League and has proposed a range of changes. From next season the Under 21 league will have two divisions, with promotion and relegation, which some believe will give more purpose to games. Some games will be televised and fixtures will be scheduled more regularly and the number of games clubs are required to play in their main stadium will increase from three to five for each club.” Let them work hard on this, make it attractive and competitive as the report says as an alternative to B teams in the lower leagues (page 68) rather than drunkenly gate-crashing the lower leagues.

Secondly the FA should have a serious go at reforming and strengthening the Home Grown Player requirements (para. 4.6). They also suggest at 4.9.5 that EU employment law might not be quite so rigid as everyone assumes when it comes to restricting EU players. They should test that fully before taking a wrecking ball to the pyramid.

They should also look to fix the problems of grass roots football and its is to be hoped that the reports due out in the Autumn on coaching and on investment in grass roots facilities are well focussed. We kill off prospects of talent at an early age for so many kids – my son’s school for example has no access to football pitches – not even grass ones never mind all weather ones. Even in the yard football has been banned because it is so over-crowded that teachers have deemed it unsafe. There is no school team. He can’t even play in the street like we did as kids. If we reduce the base of the pyramid so much how can we possibly hope that those at the top will excel?

A final thought: are the Premier League even bothered about the international team anyway? If not does it even have a future?

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Sheffield: the cradle of football

Sandygate: the world's oldest football ground


First published by the Football Pink: http://footballpink.net/2014/05/02/sheffield-the-cradle-of-football/


The game of football is the only truly global sport: played everywhere by everyone irrespective of social class. Before I go any further let’s be clear: we are talking here, as the name suggests, about a game played with the feet. If you run with the ball or hold it in your hands it is no longer a game played with the feet and should therefore be not be called football, if you insist on using the word then you should at least have the decency to qualify it as “rugby football” or “Aussie rules” or “American football.” This of course is blind prejudice on my part, but I come from the Home of Football – Sheffield – so you’ll have to excuse me. We have no great traditions of other versions of the game here. To a traditionalist it is quite simple: football is the winter game, cricket is the summer game.
   Back in the mid 1800s there were many different games around Britain calling themselves “foot-ball,” most of which involved some sort of catching, but then some clever chaps from round these parts, William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick, saw sense and applied the logic to the words ‘foot’ and ‘ball’ and wrote the Sheffield rules to codify the game they loved and restricted handling and hacking in order to civilise the sport. These rules were the precursor to the modern game and Sheffield worked with, and had great influence over, the nascent Football Association. See: http://www.1857-football.com/legacy/video-intro (By the way “Aussie rules” was based on the Sheffield rules originally: another Creswick, a relative, having taken them with him to Aus.)
   The game was further refined and the fair catch abolished: making it a game played solely with the feet: except for the goalkeeper. Another Sheffield invention – designated goalkeepers (however, in the 1970s in the local parks we still allowed the old rule of anyone who was back could be the goalie – the goalie’s wag rule – as it is properly called).
    The following things we associate with the game were also “Made in Sheffield”:
-         corner flags
-         corner kicks
-         goal kicks from 6 yards of the goal
-         indirect free kicks
-         the rule that players must not encroach within a set distance of a free-kick
-         throw ins
-         tape to limit the height of the goal (this refinement was first suggested by the Sheffield FA) – later replaced by the crossbar.
-         change of ends at half time
-         forward passes: imagine the game without the attacking play that allowed!
-         headers: the first observed account of headed balls was by Sheffield players

   That’s only the start of Sheffield’s claim to be the spiritual home of the game. Other firsts:
-         the first football club was Sheffield F.C. formed in 1857 (they are still going in the 8th tier of English football).
-         not a first but a second was Hallam F.C. formed in 1860 (now in the 10th tier)
-         Hallam F.C’s ground, Sandygate, is the oldest football ground in the world in continuous use. It hosted the first inter-club game, naturally between the two first clubs on the 26th December 1860.
-         the first football trophy – the Youdan Cup – won by Hallam F.C. in 1867
-         cup draws from a hat with the home team drawn first
-         the concept of cup-tied players
-         extra-time
-         the first away games: Sheffield F.C. making use of those new-fangled railways to travel to Lincoln and Nottingham
-         the first inter-county fixtures: 1871 versus London, 1872 versus Derbyshire, 1874 versus Glasgow
-         neutral officials including a referee
-         the first use by a referee of a whistle
-         shin pads
-         regular football columns in newspapers
-         turnstiles (believed to be a first at Bramall Lane in 1872)
-         speaking of Beautiful Downtown Bramall Lane, as it is known, it has the claim to be the oldest professional football ground or the world’s oldest major football stadium
-         charity and benefit matches
-         floodlit matches: the first was at Bramall Lane in October 1878
-         the first inter-schools trophy - the Clegg Shield (the 125th Clegg Shield final took place on 6th May 2014)
-         the first Saturday evening sports paper in 1907 – it soon became dubbed “The Green ’Un” – imaginatively called, the paper it was printed on being green – it is still going though, sadly, no longer the Saturday tea-time staple it once was
-         the first football phone-in – invented in 1986 by Robert Jackson, a former BBC Radio Sheffield presenter/producer as the “Grumble Spot” but developed into “Praise or Grumble” – though it must be conceded that the current state of football in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire means it carries more grumbles than praises. “Praise or Grumble” is the reason you won’t hear many South Yorkshire fans on the upstart programme 606: we know ours is much better and covers the only really important stuff – why would we want to hear about southerners going on about their faux attraction to North Western clubs all the time?

   No doubt this still comes as a shock to some people. Surely it was England’s great public schools that invented the game? The evidence does not support that. Clearly they made attempts to codify some sort of “foot-ball” but it was the Sheffield rules that shaped the modern game. James Walvin in his book The People’s Game suggests that the “Sheffield Club was established under the influence of Old Harrovians who persuaded local village footballers not to handle the ball, allegedly by providing the players with white gloves and florins to clutch during the game.” Note the word “allegedly,” in other words total piffle! Such myths are just history being written by the victors yet again (this time the victors in the class struggle who can’t abide the thought of a grubby unfashionable place having given birth to the beautiful game). You only need to think about it to realise what utter nonsense it is: a Sheffielder wearing white gloves? – to play football?? – holding in his hands half a week’s wages??? They would have just kept running and gone down the pub laughing at the chinless wonders from Harrow.
   There is plenty of evidence that football was played in and around Sheffield as a folk game with no external influence from posh schools in the south. It is likely that these folk games were the inspiration of the game. Of course Sheffield can’t claim the sole credit  - the game developed like many great inventions through collaboration, but its claim to be the cradle of the modern game has to be incontrovertible.
   Given such a strong claim to be home of football it is a source of sadness that both Sheffield league clubs currently under-perform so consistently. Sheffield United is the most under-performing club in the country if you compare support over the years with trophies. (Please don’t dismiss this as a whinge – stick with it, there is a thread – I know supporters of many clubs would love to have watched the cup runs and occasional promotions we have had; I am merely making factual observations.) This last season, average Sheffield United attendances in league and cup have been 18,000: and that in England’s third tier. When in the 2nd tier they had average attendances of  25,000. The last major trophy they won was beyond living memory: the FA Cup in 1925. Sheffield Wednesday in England’s second tier have maintained gates averaging 21,000 this season despite it being uninspiring. They have had had slightly more recent success (though it sticks in the craw to admit it): the League Cup in 1991, and the FA Cup in 1935. But they still probably rank as the second most under-performing club.
   All very peculiar. Perhaps I am on a hiding to nothing if I try to makes sense of this. (And, please, don’t anyone mention that old chestnut about the Sheffield clubs needing to merge, or that Sheffield is not big enough to support two teams. People who say that just betray their lack of understanding: in this case one plus one would not equal two. And Sheffield is much bigger than Burnley, Bolton and Blackburn combined; bigger than Liverpool).  It could be just a historical blip and will in time be rectified. (Maybe next season is the one? Recent financial backing for both the big Sheffield clubs holds out the promise of a new dawn; but then we have seen so many false dawns and it is the curse of every football fan to dare to dream at the start of each new season.) Or is Sheffield’s footballing malaise something deeper? Does it share a common root with why Sheffield gets overlooked so often by the nation and has done over many years? The same reasons that Government and other money, if it ever trickles out of London, heads to places like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. Evidence, for example, the BBC relocation, the bias of regional broadcasters against unfashionable Sheffield (Leeds based BBC Look North is very sloppy in its coverage of the region it is supposed to represent), National Museums funding – including the National Football Museum!!! (And, before I move off the subject of the National Football Museum, it has far too little recognition of the role Sheffield played in the development of the game: Sheffield FC are listed in the Hall of Fame, but not William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick. No Ernest Needham or the great JC Clegg, no Derek Dooley, no Ernie Blenkinsop, or Billy Gillespie. How so?) And then, adding Sheffield to the HS2 plan was an afterthought, possibly only conceded as a sop to Nick Clegg – all the original talk being about linking Manchester and Leeds to London. Perhaps in this same way football money or interest has never flowed into the city. When Sheffield United were in the Premier League in 2006/7 we always seemed to have to wait until the last slot of Match of the Day to see our team, irrespective of the quality of the game: as if there were resentment that we were there at all. When United (the original one: Sheffield) play the third United (Manchester) the commentators can never get out of their habit of referring to United when they mean Manchester United. In the early 1990s when these two Uniteds played against each other in the FA Cup, the lowly Sheffield upstarts were criticised (rather than congratulated) by commentators for stopping Manchester playing their usual style of football. Sheffield has long suffered from being an unfashionable place: most of the time its residents don’t care, they just get on with it: after all “it is them that don’t know what they’re missing.” Sheffield just gets on with things: in 2011 when the rest of England were rioting, Sheffield was the only large town that had no problems. They didn’t bother 30 years ago either when Toxteth was in flames. After all what is the point?
    Perhaps just sometimes we need to be a bit less chilled and shout a bit louder to be given our due. Perhaps we should stop being quietly proud in our Sheffield way and should shout about our football heritage a bit more loudly. We should have kicked up one hell of a stink when that original rule book went up for sale and was sold to Qatar. It should have had an export bar put on it by the Government, it should  have been saved for the Nation, for Sheffield, like Benjamin Brittan’s draft score of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was. Every football fan in the world should speak of Sheffield in hushed tones and have Sandygate on their list of places to go before they die. If Liverpool had done for the game what Sheffield has, you would never hear the last of it: there would be monuments and museums, heritage trails, memorabilia, open topped bus tours etc. etc. As John Lennon said, The Beatles may have been more popular than Jesus Christ. But football must be a thousand times more popular than the Beatles.

Football fans won't read fiction

October 2014 Update: 

Since I wrote this article I have started a blog post reviewing football novels: http://stevek1889.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/football-fiction.html . I am realising there are more out there than I first thought: some of them little known about. So why is there this myth that football and fiction are incompatible bedfellows? That there are no great football novels? Some obviously sneak past the publishers filters and are very good reads in their own right. Is it just that we don't recognise it, and that publishers aren't willing to concede this is a genre? Thoughts on a postcard please. I'll have to come back to this after I've reflected some more. 

A version of this appeared in the Italian Literary magazine Inutile in April 2014:


Aspiring novelists rarely get any feedback from agents or publishers but one to whom I am indebted told me that a novel based around football isn’t marketable because football fans won’t read fiction; they lap up biographies and autobiographies (almost entirely ghost-written, and works of fiction in themselves?) but not novels.
  There may be some truth in this, but is it just because there aren’t many examples of football fiction out there? Do football fans really lose a taste for fiction once they grow out of comic books?
  There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. David Peace’s The Damned United is the best. It is fresh, and a compelling read. It brings out the excitement of football and even though you know the ending you still want to know what happens – if that makes sense. The second best is The Thistle and the Grail by Robin Jenkins, a largely forgotten and ignored novel, written and set in the 1950s. It tells the tale of triumphs on the pitch and football politics off the pitch over one season of a Scottish lower league team. It captures the spirit of the game – the essence of a lover of the game’s obsession and why a relationship with a team is more enduring than many a marriage. Rodge Glass’s Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs is worth a read. It is stylistically clever and crystallises the madness that most fans harbour, if they dare admit it. People say: “What about Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch?” – it certainly caught a mood in the early 90s and tickled a London literary scene that had newly discovered football, finding it trendy in the wake of Gazza’s Italia 90 tears, but that’s about it: being more a self-indulgent whinge than a story. Can it even be described as fiction? Does anyone doubt that it would have disappeared without trace if it had been written about Notts County, Bury FC or Crewe Alexandra and not the metropolitan elite of Arsenal? (But then it sold in the thousands so perhaps it’s just me.) The other books worth a mention are Goalkeepers are Different by Brian Glanville, a book for boys, which now has a certain 1970s nostalgia but no real story at its heart, also a light, entertaining, if not well-crafted, novel Bailey of the Saints by David Alejandro Fearnhead, and finally This Sporting Life by David Story, but that is about Rugby League so doesn’t count.
  There are one or two novels of merit in which football features: A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines (though it is really the film that excels and sticks in your mind not the novel), The Unfortunates, by BS Johnson, and finally, there is also one brilliant and all too brief a paragraph about the game in J B Priestley’s The Good Companions. Next time someone asks you what the point is watching grown men chase a ball around, quote Priestley at them: “To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.”
  I am not aware of any football novels written in languages other than English. If they are hiding out there I would love to discover them. Surely calcio must have inspired someone to put pen to paper? Or the passion of the South American game? The Uruguayan Carlos Martínez Moreno wrote a brilliant story about pigeon racing for goodness sake! Albert Camus famously said “what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA” (the team he played in goal for). Sadly he never converted that knowledge into fiction.
  So why is there so little football in fiction when it looms so large in our culture? (The Americans seem to hold no similar qualms over baseball novels: for example, Shoeless Joe, by WP Kinsella, adapted for cinema as Field of Dreams, the much hyped The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, for which he collected a $650,000 advance, and The Natural, by Bernard Malamud.) Is it class prejudice: ‘literature and football’ being regarded like ‘opera and pop music,’ oil and water? Or is it that the game itself is such a fantastic story in its own right? Every season being a novel, made up of chapters, sub-plots, plot threads, rounded characters and flat characters, cliff-hangers, highs and lows, and everything a good novel has?
  Every fan has stories to tell: like how me and my dad left the ground with only minutes to go when Sheffield United were losing 1-0 to Walsall and we needed a draw to stay up. It was just too painful to stay: like averting your eyes as a beloved pet was put to sleep. From outside the ground we heard a cheer go up and rushed back up the steps just in time to see our team lining up for a penalty. Don Givens stepped up to take it, the usual taker having bottled it. Givens missed and United went down to the lowest tier of English football for the first time ever. Grown men who never weep at funerals wept that day.
  Is this why there is a dearth of fiction? That it is hard to capture half the drama and excitement of those real stories in print? That fiction can’t compete with real life? I don’t believe so: although a match report can rarely capture the drama of a game, we still love to read the stories over again in the newspapers. Football is one big fantastic story – we fans love stories. We tell them over and over; in the pub, on the way home from the match, on the way to the next match. The game is a metaphor for life – a metaphor that assumes an importance out of all proportion to reality. And isn’t that part of the beauty of the game? – that it fulfils an evolutionary need: something very primeval, tribal? The way fans dehumanise the opposition is just the same as in wartime propaganda. But if we can see the game as a substitute for those instincts, contain it, and share those stories, then we can unite in love of the game. Gary Armstrong and Matthew Bell get close to it when they write in Fit and Proper:

“We enjoy at times the possibilities the club’s fortunes offer for us to collectively submerge our very being. At an individual level football and football clubs allow us to reflect on the arbitrary nature of desire and hatred and consider – and be reminded of – the precariousness of success and failure. The game and its players offer audiences endless pantomimes that facilitate narratives on morality and deliberate on quintessentially human issues, such as character, strategic thinking, bewilderment, pity, farce and those occasions when brute force is preferable to sweet reason. The game and its clubs mirror our existence; the football calendar offers a beacon of predictability in a confusing world. The very certainty of the club and its position in the footballing hierarchies assists in diverting us in some way from the inevitability of death.”
  Football fans won’t read fiction. After I had written The Evergreen in red and white, the story of the first Romani footballer Rabbi Howell, I was faced either with consigning thousands of hours of my labour of love to the bin or going down the indie-publishing route. I look forward to seeing how people react. Whether it is any good, or breaks through that barrier, is for others to say.

Look out for my blog post reviewing Football fiction coming soon.

Rabbi Howell - Romani footballing pioneer

This article was first published in February 2014 on the IBWM online journal: http://inbedwithmaradona.com/journal/2014/2/24/footballs-first-romani

Much has been said and written, and rightly so, to improve recognition of Arthur Wharton, the first black footballer. Arthur played most of his football in the lower leagues but played only a handful of games at the top level of English football, for Preston North End in 1886/7 and then for Sheffield United in 1895; although he also achieved success as an athlete. He was buried in an unmarked grave when he died in 1930. In 1997 a headstone was erected to recognise his pioneering role in the game, and he has been inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame etc.
  Rabbi Howell was a much more significant figure in footballing terms, and yet he has been largely ignored and forgotten. He was the first Romani footballer and the first Romani international, playing his first game for England in March 1895 and scoring in a 9-0 defeat over Ireland. He played for his country again in 1899 and arguably should have been selected more often – he was clearly and consistently one of the best half-backs in the game for many years and if selection had been based purely on merit would undoubtedly have played more. This was an era when fewer international games were played: England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland playing each other once a year. Also, many in the hierarchy of the game still had a sentimental attitude towards ‘gentlemen players,’ such as the amateurs of the Corinthians, and selection often seemed tilted in their favour. Rab was anything but a ‘gentleman player.’
  There was a clear master-servant relationship in Victorian football – the players were expected to doff their caps and do their club committee’s bidding. Rab didn’t always conform – he was regularly up in front of the Sheffield United committee for undefined disciplinary matters and in 1901 appears to have been the ringleader in a player revolt on the pitch when playing in a minor game for Liverpool: he was suspended for a month.
  So what do we know about Rabbi Howell? The historical record is limited. It is believed he was illiterate, at least in the earlier part of his life, so left no diaries or letters that we know of. We are left with genealogical information, match reports and one short interview he gave in an 1897 match programme.
  He was born on 26th October 1867 in Dore, now a posh suburb of Sheffield and his birth certificate suggests he was born in a tent as there were no houses at the address given. His father’s occupation is recorded as ‘besom maker.’ It is not possible to trace Rab’s family any further back than the 1861 census when they were living in Ulceby in North Lincolnshire and his father was then called an ‘agricultural labourer.’
  He started playing local league football as an amateur, whilst earning a living as a miner, for Ecclesfield, a village to the north of Sheffield where his family lived. He had a brief spell in another local league team: Rotherham Swifts before signing a professional contract with Sheffield United in their first season, 1889/90. He continued to play for United and was a mainstay of the team right through to a couple of weeks before they won the English First Division in 1898.
  At 5'5½" (1.66 m), he was one of the “legendary midget half-backs” alongside Ernest Needham, 5'5" (1.65m), and Tommy Morren, 5'5½." They were regarded as the best half-back line of their day and their goals conceded record was unmatched.
  Why Rab left Sheffield United was a bit of a mystery – in effect he was sacked just days before they achieved the ultimate glory. A few weeks before he had scored two own-goals in a possibly pivotal defeat to their nearest rivals, away at Sunderland; and so the rumour seems to have grown up that there was match-fixing. This doesn’t fit the facts – the match reports cite bad luck in what was a very difficult and turbulent game – United’s shed of a dressing room had collapsed with them in it due to supporters climbing on top for a vantage point, and fans were stood, throughout the game, tight up against the touchline and regularly encroached upon the pitch. It should have been abandoned. Also it is inconceivable that Ernest Needham – a most upright individual and sometime England captain – would have eulogised Rab as he did in his 1900 book Association Football had there been any suspicion. The real reason appears to be that he left his wife and family of young children, including a newborn, for another woman who he took with him to Liverpool. Adultery would have been a huge scandal in 1898, especially for a club like Sheffield United, built along strict Methodist Christian lines. That it was hushed up was not surprising: other rumours filling the vacuum.
  He played his first match in a Liverpool shirt in a friendly against Grimsby, on the day that the United secured the championship.He played a key role in Liverpool’s half-back line in 1898/99, providing the steadying experience alongside the young Alex Raisbeck, a future Liverpool star. That season Liverpool were pipped to the top spot by Aston Villa in a last day of the season, winner takes all, clash between the two teams. Liverpool also got to the FA cup semi-final, but were beaten in the fourth replay by Rab’s old Sheffield United team (no penalty shoot-outs or extra-time in those days!). That season he was also only the third Liverpool player to win an England cap when he played in the international against Scotland in April. He was a first team regular the following season, but played only a fringe role in Liverpool’s first Championship win in 1900/01. He was by this time 33 years old.
  He was then transferred to Preston North End where he played for two and a bit seasons before breaking his leg in a tackle during a league game against Burnley. The crack as his tibia fractured was heard all around the ground. A collection amongst the spectators raised £24 15s 6d for him (around two months wages). A benefit match was played for him in October 1904 between Preston and Liverpool, Sheffield United having declined saying they could not “accede their way to the request.” He had played at the top level until the age of 36, an incredible achievement, especially in those days before sports nutrition, sports medicine and all the support a modern player gets, and given how much more ‘robust’ play was back then.
  Rab then went on to run a fruit and vegetable business in Preston. He died in July 1937. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Preston.
  It is uncomfortable to deliberate on why Rabbi Howell is not better known, and to wonder to what extent that is because of his ethnicity. Yes, he was a bit of a rebel, but Arthur Wharton was not exactly a saint. Anti-Romani prejudice remains strong throughout Europe – around English grounds you still hear calls of “gyppo” when a player of a certain appearance (beard, long hair etc) plays for the opposition and few regard it as anything like the use of the ‘n’ word. It still seems to be a prejudice that carries little taboo.
  We need a headstone for Rab. No one who has played for their country should be buried in an unmarked grave. We need to recognise him as a pioneer: the first Professional Romani footballer. Ricardo Andrade Quaresma, Christo Stoičkov, Gheorghe Hagi, Andrea Pirlo, Dani Güiza, Freddy Eastwood and Eric Cantona walk in Rab’s footsteps.