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Football Clubs’ Religious Roots
In some ways, football has become like a religion.
Every weekend for nine months, large groups of people make the pilgrimage to stadiums across the country to support their team. They often wear replica jerseys or their team colors to identify themselves.
However, like religion, rivalries cause conflicts that often lead to violence between the two parties. Sure, bullies don’t really think about religion when they beat up opposing fans, but they still go around thinking they’re following the true faith.
With the amount of money now at stake, it is often forgotten that several of the biggest clubs in the UK were actually founded by church groups. And, ironically, eradicating violence was one of their goals when they were created.
Even today, there are many schemes to get young people off the streets and into sports, but religion doesn’t play as big a role in society as it once did.
Back in the 19th century, the church was more influential, and in some cases clubs created by parishes turned into multimillion-dollar companies.
Bhoys brother Walfrid
There is one club north of the border that still has links to religion: Celtic.
Several clubs were founded by Irish Catholic communities, the first of which was Edinburgh’s Hibernian
(their name is Latin for Ireland).
Unlike others, however, the ties between the Bhoys and their roots remain strong to this day.
They were first coined on 6 November 1887 by Marist Brother Walfrid (aka Andrew Cairns) at St Mary’s Church Hall in Calton, Glasgow.
The club was created to fight poverty in the East End of the city. The name “Celtic” was adopted immediately and reflected the Scottish and Irish roots of the club. Amazingly, the club’s first official match was played against Rangers on 6 November 1888 in what is probably the only ‘friendly’ between the two teams.
The Bhoys were the first to claim bragging rights as they won 5-2, with several players in the starting XI on loan from Hibernian.
Brother Walfrid himself wanted to keep the club amateur and had only charitable intentions for the club. However, his wish was not granted, as in August 1888 local builder John Glass was to sign eight Hibs players without the committee’s knowledge, while offering them huge financial incentives.
With the club now turned professional, they soon established themselves as one of Scotland’s top teams, winning their first trophy (the Scottish Cup) in 1892 and their first league title the following year. Since then they, along with Rangers (who were founded by rowers), have dominated Scottish football for over a century.
The second team to play at Anfield
Nowadays, Everton play their home games at Goodison Park.
But it is often forgotten that they used to play on the other side of Stanley Park, which is now the home of their mortal rivals Liverpool.
In fact, Toffees can claim to be indirectly responsible for the formation of their neighbor.
“Everton” became the first of the major clubs of Liverpool, established in 1878.
The Reverend BS Chambers, a minister at St Domingue Methodist Church, started a football club to give the church cricket team something to do during the winter.
The club was originally called St Domingo FC but was changed to Everton the following November after people from outside the parish wanted to come and join.
Everton became one of the 12 founding members of the Football League in 1888, and until then the club was leasing Anfield, which was owned by John Orrell and his friend John Houlding.
Eventually Houlding had to buy the land from Orello and quickly increased the rent, which Everton refused.
So they left Anfield in 1892 and moved to the other side of Stanley Park and their current home, Goodison Park, resulting in the Holding forming Liverpool.
But the religious connections with Everton do not end there, because Goodison Park is the only stadium in the Premier League, on the territory of which there is a church – St. Luke the Evangelist.
The church is located between the three-tiered main tribune and the end of Gwladys Street, and its walls are a few meters from these two tribunes.
It even plays a role on match days as it sells refreshments.
While their more famous neighbors were formed by employees of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, the team from the blue half of Manchester was formed by the rector’s daughter.
Two years after Manchester United appeared, Anna Connell, whose
father Arthur was rector of St. Mark’s Church in Gorton, in the north-west of the city, and sought to provide occupations for men who had nothing to do in winter.
Like Everton, the cricket club already existed and additional measures were required to stop the level of violence and alcoholism in the area.
Ironic, given that such things are now associated with being a football fan.
There were frequent drunken brawls between different religious and racial groups, and the problems were exacerbated by the high unemployment rate in the area.
With the help of two churchwardens, William Bistow and Thomas Goodbicher, Connell founded West Horton (St. Mark’s) FC, the club that eventually became Manchester City.
The club played their first game against Macclesfield Baptist Church on 13 November 1880.
The initiative was such a success that it led to the Archdeacon of Manchester commenting to Connell: “No man could have done it – it required the tact and skill of a woman to make it so successful.”
Eventually, the club had to move away from its roots.
It dropped St Mark’s from its name 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 finally becoming Manchester City in 1894.
Pit of uncertainty
Not only the most famous clubs are in debt to the Church, and in this case the man of the cloth even got involved in the action.
There has long been debate as to when Swindon Town was formed, with the club’s foundation dates varying between 1879 and 1881.
For a long time the later date was considered official, as on 12 November of that year Swindon, under its previous guise Spartan Club, merged with St Mark’s Young Men’s following a match between the two teams.
But last year, substantial evidence led the Robbins to accept 1879 as the correct date.
It is now recognized that the Reverend William Peet, curate of Christ Church in the city centre, formed the club in an attempt to unite the working communities of the Great Western Railway and those who had been there before the arrival of the GWR.
There are two main lines of evidence that this was the case.
One is a local report found by former club statistician Paul Plowman of a game between Swindon AFC and Rovers FC on 29 November 1879.
The report included a photo of the team, including Pete himself.
Pete severed ties with the club in 1881 when he was appointed rector of Lidington Church.
However, he presented another proof during a speech in 1911, during which he
said the name was changed to the Spartan Club because members thought the original name was too much of a mouthful.
He also mentioned that his removal from Swindon led to his departure.
Two years after his departure, “Spartan” became “Swindon Town”.
The clue is in the title
When Southampton moved from the Dell to St Mary’s Stadium in 2001, it was a bit of a homecoming.
After all, the club moved back to the part of the city where they were originally established in 1885.
The stadium’s name was a welcome change from the current trend of selling off naming rights as it referenced the nearby church.
The club was founded by members of the Young Men’s Association of St Mary’s Church of England, meaning its first name was quite verbose, leading to the local press referring to them as St Mary’s YMA.
St. Mary’s performed at various venues around Southampton, one of the earliest being Southampton Common.
Or at least they tried to play there – Saints games were often interrupted by pedestrians wandering the field!
The club changed its name to Southampton St Mary’s before becoming a limited company in 1897 and ending its association with the church.
In 1898, the Saints, now just known as Southampton FC, moved across town to the Dell before moving back 103 years later.
More lumps of fabric
There are many other football clubs that have their roots in the church – some more successful than others.
This season’s FA Cup semi-finalists Barnsley were initially a club trying to give football a foothold in a rugby-dominated region.
The Tykes were formed in 1887 by the wonderfully named Reverend Tiverton Priddy of St Peters, whose church lent the club the name 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 Priddy had left the area and their fan base now included those outside the local parish, leading to a name change to Barnsley FC.
Aston Villa also had to contend with other sports when they were established.
They were formed by members of the Villa Chapel of the Wesleyan Cross in 1874, who, like some other
from the other clubs mentioned there were cricketers looking for something to do in the winter.
It took them a year to find opponents in an area where rugby was more popular and they were effectively a rugby team.
In March 1875 they faced Aston Brooks St. Mary’s, in which the first half was played at rugby and the second at football.
Villa won this encounter, leaving the first half goalless and scoring the only goal after the break.
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 grammar school students at All Saints Church.
The boys then made their mentor 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 gave her a proper headstone a century later.
The Church of England church in Star Road, West Kensington can be traced back to Fulham in 1879.
The Cottagers were originally a Sunday School team and started out, like Southampton, under the long name of Fulham St Andrews Sunday School.
The church still stands and a plaque outside marks its place in the club’s history.
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