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Football Clubs’ Religious Roots
In some ways, football has become similar to religion.
Every weekend for nine months, large groups of people make a pilgrimage to stadiums across the country to support their team. They often wear replica shirts or their team colors to identify themselves.
However, like religion, rivalries have caused conflict, often resulting in violence between the two sides. Of course, hooligans don’t really think about religion when beating up rival fans, but they still think they’re following the true faith.
With the amount of money currently at stake, it is often forgotten that many of Britain’s big clubs were in fact formed by religious groups. And, ironically, eradicating violence was one of their goals when they were created.
Even today, there are many programs to get young people off the streets and into sports, but religion does not play such a big role in society as it once did.
By the 19th century the church was more influential and in several cases the clubs set up by the parishes grew into multi-million pound societies.
Brother Walfrid’s bhoys
North of the border, there is such a club that still has religious ties: Celtic.
Several clubs have been formed by Irish Catholic communities, the first being Hibernian of Edinburgh
(their name being Latin for Ireland).
Unlike the others however, the ties between the Bhoys and their roots remain strong to this day.
They were first thought of on 6 November 1887 by Marist Brother Walfrid (alias Andrew Kearns) in the hall of St Mary’s Church in Calton, Glasgow.
The club was created with the aim of alleviating poverty in the east of the city. The name, Celtic, was immediately adopted and reflected the club’s Scottish and Irish roots. Surprisingly, the club’s first official match was played against Rangers on November 6, 1888 in what was probably the only “friendly meeting” between the two sides.
The Bhoys became the first to claim bragging rights by winning 5-2, with several of the starting XI players borrowed from Hibernian.
Brother Walfrid himself wanted to keep the club amateur and only had charitable intentions for the club. However, he would not get his wish, as local builder John Glass was to sign eight Hibs players without the knowledge of the committee in August 1888, while offering them huge financial incentives.
With the club now a professional side, they quickly established themselves as one of Scotland’s top teams, winning their first trophy (the Scottish Cup) in 1892, with their first league title the following year. Since then, along with Rangers (who were trained by rowers), they have dominated Scottish football for over a century.
The other team to have played at Anfield
Nowadays, Everton play their home games at Goodison Park.
But it’s often forgotten that they used to play across Stanley Park, where their deadly rivals Liverpool now call home.
In fact, the Toffees can claim to be indirectly responsible for the formation of their neighbor.
Everton became the first of the great Liverpool clubs to be formed in 1878.
The minister of St Domingo’s Methodist Church, Reverend BS Chambers, started a football club so members of the church’s cricket team would have something to do during the winter.
The club was originally called St Domingo FC, but it was changed to Everton in November the following year after men from outside the parish wanted to come and join.
Everton became one of the 12 founding members of the Football League in 1888 and at that time the club leased Anfield, owned by John Orrell with his friend John Houlding the tenant.
Eventually Houlding had to buy the land from Orrell and quickly raised the rent, which Everton refused to do.
They therefore left Anfield in 1892 and moved across Stanley Park to their current home, Goodison Park, which allowed Houlding to form Liverpool.
But that’s not where the religious ties with Everton end, as Goodison Park is the only Premier League stadium with a church on its grounds – St Luke the Evangelist.
The church is located between the three-tiered main gallery and the end of Gwladys Street and the walls of the latter are a few meters from these two galleries.
He even has a role to play on game days as he sells refreshments.
While their most illustrious neighbors were trained by employees of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, Manchester’s blue half team was thought up by the daughter of a rector.
Two years after the birth of what became Manchester United, Anna Connell, whose
Father Arthur was rector of St Mark’s Church in Gorton, in the northwest of the town, looking to provide activities for men who had nothing to do in the winter.
Like Everton, a cricket club already existed and more activity was needed to reduce levels of violence and alcoholism in the area.
Ironic, given that these are the kinds of things now associated with football fandom.
Wet fights often took place between different religious and racial groups and the problems were compounded by the high levels of unemployment in the region.
With the help of two churchwardens, William Beastow and Thomas Goodbehere, Connell established West Gorton (St Mark’s) FC – the club that eventually became Manchester City.
The club played their first match against Macclesfield Baptist Church on November 13, 1880.
The initiative was so successful that it led the Archdeacon of Manchester to comment on Connell: “No man could have done it – it took the tact and skill of a woman to make it happen.”
Eventually, the club had to move away from its roots.
He dropped his name St Mark’s to become Gorton AFC in 1884 and three years later moved across town to Ardwick and turned professional.
It adopted the name of its new home before eventually becoming Manchester City in 1894.
Pitt of uncertainty
It’s not just the most famous clubs that owe a debt of gratitude to the Church and in this case the man of the stuff even got in on the action.
For a long time there was debate over when Swindon Town was founded, with the club moving between founding dates of 1879 and 1881.
For a long time the later date was deemed official as on 12 November that year Swindon, in their former Spartan Club guise, merged with St Mark’s Young Men’s after a match between the two sides.
But last year, substantial evidence led the Robins to recognize 1879 as the correct date.
It is now accepted that the Reverend William Pitt, vicar of Christ Church in the town centre, formed the club with the aim of uniting the communities of workers on the Great Western Railway and those who were there before the arrival of GWR.
Two main lines of evidence suggest that this was the case.
One is a local report, discovered by former club statistician Paul Plowman, of a match between Swindon AFC and Rovers FC on 29 November 1879.
The report included a team photo with Pitt himself.
Pitt severed ties with the club in 1881, when he was appointed rector of Liddington Church.
However, he provides the other piece of evidence in a speech in 1911, in which he
said the name was changed to Spartan Club because members found the original name too heavy.
He also mentioned that his estrangement from Swindon led to his departure.
Two years after his departure, Spartan Club became Swindon Town.
The clue is in the name
When Southampton moved from the Dell to St Mary’s Stadium in 2001, it was a bit of a homecoming.
For the club has returned to the part of town where it was originally formed in 1885.
The stadium’s name was a welcome change from the current trend of selling naming rights, as it referenced the nearby church.
The club was started by members of the Young Men’s Association of St Mary’s Church of England, meaning their first name was rather wordy, leading to them being referred to as St. Mary’s YMA by the press local.
St. Mary’s played at a variety of venues around Southampton, one of the earliest being Southampton Common.
Or at least they tried to play it – the Saints often saw their games interrupted by pedestrians wandering the pitch!
The club had changed its name to Southampton St Mary’s by the time it became a limited company in 1897 and ended its association with the church.
In 1898 Saints, now simply Southampton FC, drove through town to The Dell before making the return trip 103 years later.
More fabric clubs
There are many other football clubs that have their roots in the church – some are more successful than others.
FA Cup semi-finalists this season, Barnsley was originally a club trying to give football a foothold in an area dominated by rugby.
The Tykes were formed in 1887 by the wonderfully appointed Reverend Tiverton Preedy of St Peters’, whose church named the club after him as Barnsley St Peters’.
He wanted to create “a football club that rugby players will not crush”.
The club moved to Oakwell soon after, but by 1897 Preedy had left the area and their fanbase now included those outside the local parish, leading to a name change to Barnsley FC.
Aston Villa also had to deal with other sports when they were created.
They were formed by members of the Villa Wesleyan Cross Chapel in 1874 who, like many
of the other clubs mentioned were cricketers looking for something else to do during the winter.
It took them a year to find opponents in an area where rugby was more popular and they were in fact a rugby team.
In March 1875 they played Aston Brooks St Mary’s in which the first half was to be played by rugby rules and the second by football.
Villa won that encounter, keeping the first half scoreless and scoring just one goal after half-time.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Jewish connections are well known, but they were actually founded by a Bible class.
Hotspur Football Club was founded in 1882 by a group of high school students from All Hallow Church.
These boys then made their teacher, John Ripsher, the club’s first president – a position he held until 1894.
Ripsher died in poverty in 1907 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Dover – until Tottenham presented him with a suitable headstone a century later.
The Church of England church on Star Road, West Kensington can be credited with the formation of Fulham in 1879.
The Cottagers were originally a Sunday school team and started their existence, like Southampton, with a long name – Fulham St Andrews Church Sunday School.
The church still stands and a plaque outside recognizes its place in the club’s history.
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