Public School Magazine, October 1901
I THINK I may claim the distinction of being the only male adult in the United Kingdom (exclusive of those who are unable to write) who has never written a song about football, rhyming “leather” with “weather” and placing the adjectives “glorious” and “wintry” before the latter word. At one time there were three of us, myself, a Mr. Williams of Upper Tooting, and a Mr. Smythe of South Penge. That was early in the eighties. Since then Mr. Smythe has died, while Mr. Williams took to drink in the summer of 1890, and now writes odes to prominent players for the football edition of the Upper Tooting Sporting Lynx. I am, therefore, the only claimant to the title, and under the circumstances it is only fitting that I should express myself on the subject in prose.
Football is essentially an undignified game, and can never be to the artist soul quite what cricket is. The best part of cricket is, undoubtedly, sitting in the pavilion and watching the game. In football you miss this. The football spectator is a wretched being, lashed by the rain and the sport of the wind, and frozen into one solid mass from the feet upwards. He cannot take that calm, restful interest in the play which makes the lot of the cricket spectator so pleasant. He is given to understand that the only way in which he may help his side to victory is by shouting, and without a stop at that. Often after a school match the actual players are as fresh as paint compared to the spectators, who go home feeling that any remarks they may wish to make for the next week or so must be made in guttural croaks eked out with dumb show. Mr. W. S. Gilbert has drawn a vivid picture of the difficulties experienced by a curate when he had to explain in dumb show to his deaf housekeeper that his aunt in Spain had sent him a cask of Amontillado, which the wine merchant had presented to her in exchange for the temporary use of two rooms on the second floor; but it is scarcely less easy to explain to one’s form master on the morning after a match that you have not done your work because you didn’t feel well last night and you thought he had not set any and you didn’t know where it started and you left your book at school by mistake. It is almost simpler to leave the thing alone.
The fly in the ointment of the Rugby footballer is in the matter of dropped goals. No soccer player can experience that supremest and divinest of ecstacies. The nearest he gets to it, I suppose, is when his hot shot gets past into the net. But really the two things are not to be compared. The chief charm of an attempt at a dropped goal lies in its uncertainty. There is literally nothing on this earth so gloriously uncertain. Cricket? Bah. Roulette? Pooh. The breakfast egg? Tush. They are not to be mentioned in the same breath as a drop at goal. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you have the ball and that you have for the moment sufficiently mastered your conscience to enable you to make the attempt. Why, anything may happen then. The ball may touch the side of your foot and trickle off towards the spectators, an offence to gods and men, or you may kick it perpendicularly into the air, which is worse, or you may fail to kick it altogether, which is worst of all. Juvenal talks about the utter pettiness of life and the hollowness of all things human. What did he know about it? He had never been collared from behind at the exact moment when he ought to have kicked the ball but didn’t. Most footballers have experienced the mental and physical anguish of kicking nothing exceedingly hard. Let them speak of the woes of life.
Never to have dropped a goal poisons the most successful football existence. An international of my acquaintance met me one evening after a club match in which he had scored five times. I congratulated him. To my surprise he sighed heavily. “Cheer up,” I said, “surely five tries are enough to go on with?” “It isn’t that,” he replied, dashing away a tear from his left eye, “I was thinking that in all my life I have never dropped a goal. Look here, if I can find time I shall get up a team consisting entirely of English internationals, and take them to play some small private School. Then I may get a chance.” “Do,” I said, “it ought to be a magnificent game, judging from England’s form of late. Rather a sell for you, though, if their masters play for them. Better start with the Kindergartens and work slowly upwards. Good-night.” We parted. The dangers of football are, in my opinion, over-rated. Accidents will happen in every game, witness the melancholy case of the man who played at pretending that his gun was not loaded, or the unfortunate gentleman who was struck by lightning during a game of Spillikins. Nobody calls Spillikins a dangerous game. Yet the fact remains that the man was killed. Why then has football such a bad name? Simply because the comic papers have formed a secret society, one of the rules of which is that no mention of football be made unless, at the same time, the poor dear old jest is allowed to totter out. With the exception of those games, which in England take the place of the old code of the duello, football is almost painfully safe. Accidents, of course, sometimes occur. I can remember the case of a friend of my own, a man noted for the crispness and despatch of his tackling. He invited an aunt, whose heir he was, to see him play in a College match. After the game she refused to speak to him, and when the will came to be read it was found that the bulk of her money had been left to the Society for Supplying Square Meals to Orphan Cats, while my friend came off with fourpence in coppers and a bound volume of tracts on the subject of ruling the temper. All this because one of the players whom he had happened to tackle in his own bold style had fallen on his aunt instead of on the ground. And my friend was a man who had never killed a fly, though this, I am bound in honesty to admit, was not for want of trying. A counter instance, which goes to prove that football is after all not so very rough, is the case of another friend, who bought a couple of eggs on his way to a football match, thrust them carelessly into his pocket and forgot all about them. As he was leaving the ground at the end of the game he suddenly remembered them, and felt in his pocket, expecting, as was only natural, to find them mainly pulp. They were absolutely intact!! (Note. I ought perhaps to mention that it was in the pocket of his great-coat that he had placed the eggs, though this does not affect the main point, that they were unbroken at the end of a long game).
Football is at its pleasantest in early autumn or early spring. In winter the only game that ought to be played is chestnut roasting. There is a special variety of wind which never comes out except during a football match, that takes away in two minutes the pent-up enthusiasm of months. “Blow, blow, thou winter wind,” wrote Shakespeare, probably at a time when he was joining Ben Jonson at the latter’s expense in sixpenn’orth of something warm at the fireside of the “Mermaid” tavern, and listening to the blasts roaring in the chimney, “Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” Now, without wishing to injure William’s well-earned reputation in any way, I should like to remark that this is purely a matter of opinion. A jury of footballers would, I am inclined to think, have a good many words to say in favour of the opposite view. And when wind and rain and cold combine, one feels that life was made for sterner, higher things than football. I asked a footballer, once noted for his keenness for the game, why he had given it up while his strength and wind were yet unimpaired. It was as I had guessed. One bitter day in December he was playing on a wet ground. He was a wing three-quarter of extraordinary pace, and when he got hold of the ball thought of nothing else except how to get past the opponent’s full-back. On this particular day he was skimming down the touch-line, when he trod with inconceivable violence in the very centre of a deep puddle. The result may be easily imagined. Football knickers (as the advertisements call them) are built with an eye to these special cases. Not a drop of that puddle was wasted. “Until that moment,” he told me, with a shiver at the recollection, “I had not believed that anything on earth could be so fearfully cold and yet remain liquid. They asked me to play for England that year. I said that I should be charmed to oblige them if they would only consent to play the game in a well-warmed room. The secretary replied that he had laid my request before the authorities, but was afraid that it was not feasible. So I wired my refusal, and gave up the game for good. I go in for incubating chickens now.”
With all these objections to the game, it may be wondered why football is ever played at all. The reason probably is that by no other means can one obtain that feeling of absolute peace and bodily comfort which comes to the footballer, when, his battles o’er, he boils himself at full length in a bath, and remembers how desperately cold it was out in the field. Omar Khayyam—I think I recollect rightly—says on the subject:—
“I often think that ne’er was bath so warm
As that in which reclines the tired form
Of him who played some twenty minutes since
Two weary ‘thirty-fives’ of wind and storm.”
It is the thought of this that nerves him throughout the fray. It shines before him like a beacon. It consoles him for the dropped goals and the shots that did not come off. To quote Omar once more:—
. . . “Some
Sigh for the Prophets’ Paradise to come.”
I cannot help thinking that he had the aftermath of football in his mind when he wrote those lines. They express the yearning so exactly.
Mr. W. S. Gilbert has drawn a vivid picture: An Elixir of Love, chapter III. Thanks to Arthur Robinson for the reference.
I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in her Lap from some once lovely Head.
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
—Quatrains XIX and XIII from Edward Fitzgerald’s English version (one hesitates to call it a translation) of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Thanks to Karen Shotting for the references.