A Spectator

Every once in a while you read a book that prompts you to rethink your own ideas that you have about a subject. I’ve just read Joe Kennedy’s Games Without Frontiers from Repeater Books. It’s made me revisit an old essay of  mine which I have been sitting on for a while. I wrote it while living in Prague and spending my time following my local club there, Bohemians 1905. Following Bohemians for little over a season helped mme understand better my ideas about football and its social function. It also helped me better understand my own fandom,  and what it means to be a supporter of a club when you live away. That means finding a new club but also they way it reinforces and changes your relationship with your home club. As Kennedy concludes “football is only ever a microcosm of whatever exists in our broader social settings”. I am still developing and changing my ideas of what fandom looks like here in Norway, but this essay captures a moment when I was trying to find my place in Prague and also at the same time, understand what role, if any, football has to play in social formation. So here it is, the essay, unedited and unupdated as I wrote it almost a year ago. I am sharing it now because I thought and still think it was well written even if the ideas expressed are no longer directly relevant to my lived experience at present. 

As an outsider in a foreign country, all you ever are is a spectator. It is how you are oriented to everything, everyone else, in the city. You have no compass but the one given to you by others. Prague runs east to west, not as I am accustomed, north to south in its orientation. This is a deep form of orientation. Ingrained. Though in their minds this is Central, not Eastern Europe, I am Western. This is resolute. In the map of the city which I am granted by those who live here, those who I talk to, I am always approaching from the west.  This is an orientation I am unable to escape.

I live on the east side of town. Crimea. Sevastapol. Kharkiv. The River Don that runs southeast to Voronezh. My home lies on The River Don, on Donská. From my apartment window I look up the hill Kozácká, named for the Cossacks. Around the corner, runs The Black Sea. The Crimea bleeds seamlessly into Moscow, before it, in turn, encompasses the Caucases. These are my immediate borders. My streets. At my tram stop, the Crimea, there is graffiti which read Včera my, Dneska ty. Our yesterday, your today. It is painted blue and yellow. The colours of the Ukraine. There can be no mistaking the meaning. It is punctuated by a yellow heart. Here, in Vršovice, all of my surrounding streets are named for countries. Estonia runs parallel to Norway runs parallel to Finland. At the foot of each of these is Copehagen. Armenia. Moldova. Murmansk. Deeper into this part of town there is Ulyanov street. A street for the Altai mountains. A street for the Bashkir peoples of Turkey. For the 28th Regiment of the Red Army. Magnitogorsk. Yalta. Lvov. Carpathia. Yerevan. Cuba Square. Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan. Kirgizstan. Here, in Vršovice, these streets all flow from one great avenue, Russia. These streets a map, of Communism, of the East. Their yesterday. Something of which they were once a part. Their addresses a daily reminder of the greater project. It’s ghost lingering in red street signs with white lettering and blue borders.

Prague must be one of the most mapped cities in Europe. There are countless mapped versions of Prague. Cartoonish ones for tourists with giant drawings of the major landmarks, bordered by ads for pub crawls, ghost tours, casinos. In these, the limits of the city are stark. There are maps for the discerning tourist with cool, clean lines. It assumes a certain amount of knowledge is already held by the reader of the map. It is about getting off the beaten track. The unbeaten track is still mapped. There is the map of Prague on my phone, dazzling with the stars of saved places. I am always its centre. Its heart. I am my own tiny blue dot. Each yellow star forming a criss-crossed constellation of my eating and drinking habits. Of haircuts and work. You could with this map trace and traverse my life in this city. You could live as I have lived. It would double over on itself a dozen times, like the accordion folds of any map. You would know my borders, my limits.

My favourite asterism is the starry plough. When I first started seeing Miriam, I would visit her in Tábor, an hour and half south of Prague. As we walked one night around the illuminated, still-standing walls of this medieval city, I noticed the stars in the sky. It was a clear night. October. I mentioned my love of the starry plough. The big dipper she called it. No, the starry plough. Our aims most modest are, we only want the world, from the plough to the stars. When I think of the starry plough, I think of home. In those eight stars, whether on a field of deep blue, or green, I can map a history of Ireland.

The certainties I had about Prague, about the Czech Republic, have dwindled the longer I’ve lived here. Still I am trying to get a grip on it. I watch football from the terraces on Saturdays. There I am a spectator. But every other day of the week I am still one. I watch as this city, this country, my new home, also changes. From afar, I am a spectator of the changes at home. It is election week in Ireland. I wish I could vote from where I sit. I can’t. Instead I watch. I spectate.

One of the many things I love about Prague is its nearly inexhaustible number of antikvariats, or second-hand bookshops. In each one I visit I feel I am a deep-sea diver. There are corals of ex libris cards, discarded photos, postcards, medals, maps, and diaries. I swim through them, the water feels familiar though the language, the colour, is not.  Their stock in trade is second hand Czech books, which I cannot read, but occasionally I buy these if they are sufficiently interesting to me. Among the books I have bought are a range of different translations of 14th Century French poet and troubadour, Francois Villon, evidently considered sufficiently ideologically sound to be translated at the height of pre-Soviet invasion Czech communism.

Just before Christmas, the American poet Steven Rodefer died. I was lucky enough to have heard him read and to have even spoken to him at various times when I lived in Cork and he visited for the annual Soundeye poetry festival. I know the work of Francois Villon entirely because of him. His translations of Villon in the 1960s, under the moniker of Jean Calais is one of my favourite books of poetry. The week he died, in Prague’s Old Town, killing some time, and keeping out of the rain, I spotted on the poetry shelves of one particular antikvariat with which I am especially familiar, a whole slew of different translations of Villon from the late 1940s and the early 1950s. When I heard of Rodefer’s death I was cursing the fact that among the poetry books I brought from Ireland I didn’t bring his Villon. I wished I had.  I saw these three books and thought I had to buy them. They cost maybe a combined total of 150-,Kč. Though I couldn’t read the Czech, I could recognise something of Steven Rodefer’s own versions of Villon in the typography, the artwork of the books. It was a close proximation, across language, time and geography.

My only other substantial purchases in an antikvariat have been two photography books. One, which I got for 50Kč-, was a photographic history of Czech sport from the 1860s to the beginning of the First World War.  The other was a photo essay of the city of Prague. I bought this photo essay book early in my time in the city, when I was still in an exploratory phase and wanted to imbibe the city in as many ways as I could.

In his 1962 collection of photographs capturing Prague and its people, Praha a Pražané, published by the main publishing house of the Czech state since the period of the First Republic, Orbis, Václav Jírů included a number of photographs of sporting scenes. Along with the touching image of a group of young boys walking toward the open-air ice rink with their skates slung over their shoulder for some hockey in winter, there was also the power of the spartakiad, of speedway racing and more besides, but the most resonant images for me are those of football. As was surely de rigueur for a book of more or less vernacular, or at least social-realist photography taken in early 1960s Czechoslavakia, the images of football included almost obligatory jumpers-for-goalpost snaps.

The book of photographs covers a year in the life of the city, beginning in spring and ending in winter. As well as the jumpers-for-goalposts images of the summer months captured by Jírů, there are two other images of football that capture the game in that era in Czechoslovakia. On one page we see a fence, about ten feet in height, riddled with gaps and along the fence there are men, boys and women with prams, all looking on at the footballing action through the gaps – unable to get in either because of cost or because too many had already been let in. Here we have people straining to watch football. On the facing page, we see what appears to be a gate, but with no turnstile, wide open, and a single man standing, briefcase in hand, watching on as the action unfolds on the pitch. We can see, just barely, the packed stands of the stadium. Part of the book’s “autumn intermezzo” the image on the left is titled “One eye on the game” while that on the right is simply titled “A spectator”. In this last title there is the ambiguity of who is spectator and subject, from the camera lens, to the view that Jírů’s spectator sees of the players on the pitch, and the potential view of a spectator at the far end of the ground looking at Jírů’s subject, and finally, at Jírů as he takes the photograph himself. Borders on all sides. Framed, and framing. The page. The picture. The city.

Aside from being a beautifully poised image, constructed and captured so well, this image has helped me understand Czech football and the country at large as I have lived here. If the photography of Jírů showed the sport of the people with the people clambering to get a view – then it would be nearly impossible to compose a similar picture of the game, and of the Czech people, in today’s climate.

So what is the reality in Prague? In a city where the major ideological battles of the twentieth century have been played out – democracy, fascism and communism all creating a palimpsest here through which you can walk, the history mapped and mappable, the city is one that now embraces the neo-liberal consensus. Yet there are in places a resistance to this.

Sparta Prague, the Czech Republic’s biggest and most successful club, play their home games at Letná Stadion, or the Generali Arena as it is officially known. For a club supposedly the darling of the old Communist regime and the worker, the nasty truth is that in a post-Communist state this is manifested in a decided rightward shift of its hardcore fans – the right-wing tendencies of the Sparta ultras manifests itself all around the local area. As you walk around the leafy Dejvice and Letná area generally you are likely to be met with stickers with taglines like “Good Night Left Side”, a play on the usual antifascist slogan of “Good Night White Pride” in part no doubt a result of the large student population in the area, typically the holders of the city’s liberal flame. Thus Letná is a contested zone between on the one hand the hard-right ultras of Sparta and those opposed to an increasingly nationalistic, right-wing, anti-immigrant culture typical of many post-Communist states in central and eastern Europe.

Ironically, Letná, Dejvice and Holešovice, which make up the catchment area of the club are each popular with expats, usually older more settled ones who have been in the city for between fifteen and twenty years in some cases. Happy to take their money at the gate, nonetheless one wonders how welcome these interlopers would be among the Sparta faithful.

When I first moved here, I saw Bohemians as the natural antidote to this as a football club. The bigger question remains for me however: are Bohemians, their fans, and their stadium a space for the exploration of alternatives to the orthodoxy of neo-liberalism that prevails in the Czech Republic or is it like many such alternative clubs – still fundamentally about the football first and the culture second?

The hope has to be that the culture is of real significance, if not the primary raison d’être. It is my suspicion, having attended Bohemians games for most of this season that most fans are just there to follow their team and have a good time while doing so. For many, politics probably doesn’t come into. You sense there is a degree of apprehension among some Bohemians fans in seeing themselves as the vanguard of an increasingly under-threat alternative culture in the Czech Republic’s capital. But for other fans following the club itself is a political act.

In recent times, the last official squat in Prague was forcibly shut down by a heavy-handed police operation. Following the major floods in the city in 2002, the regeneration that was required was used to gentrify a previously vibrant working-class community making it a centre for new office buildings. Karlín, which had been cheap and thus a good place for many in the city’s artistic community, including artist collectives, was increasingly overrun by new office buildings and subsequently by developers looking to build apartment blocks to house the area’s new office working population. This change has seen the spaces available for artists to work in diminish. The best example of this is the destruction of the former factory that housed the Trafačka collective – occupants of the former industrial site for a number of years until the owner of the building decided that the offers being made to him to demolish the site and build new apartments in its stead became too tempting. This has meant the dispersing of a collective that has operated for eight years.

The end of Trafačka means not alone a reduction of these artists’ collaborative potential but the end of one of Prague’s most celebrated artist groups of the past decade – a real loss to the cultural life of the city. This shows that the values driving Prague forward as a city are hostile to such collectives – be they squats or shared artistic spaces. Even the inoffensive Karlín Studios, which has been around for about ten years, is due to close in 2016. This exhibition space is in a former factory warehouse that has been gutted but developers have decided that it ought to be turned into either offices or apartments or some kind of mixed development. It will be erased. Removed from the physical map of the city.

In the suppression of the city’s small number of squats, the demolition of spaces like those occupied by Trafačka in order to make them into profitable developments for business, one notes the same processes at work as the education provided by the neo-liberal tutors identified by Benjamin Tallis. In two recent essays appearing in Abolishing Prague, Tallis reassessed the paneláks which house the majority of the city’s citizens and also the communist-era architecture spread throughout the city.

The view of panelák housing (think late 60s early 70s social housing flats) held by westerners is unremittingly negative in contrast to the actual lived experience of those in them here in the Czech Republic. Likewise, the brutalist architecture of Prague that Tallis argues is occasionally the equal of Berlin goes against increasingly restricted ideas of what Prague as a city ‘is for’; the city as the tourist sees it is only to operate as a kind of real-life Eurodisney devoid of the things that make such places worth living in in the first place. In how read Prague, its architecture, it history, we are told to keep within the well-defined borders of the cartoonish maps your hostel or hotel furnish you with. The beauty of the Baroque is undeniable, objective. Anything else is heretical, subjective, awkward, a posture. No one, we are told, can really love Kotva.

Despite the demolition of places like Trafačka, other spaces are emerging that at least have the potential to act as engines of a subversive culture, in particular Paralelní Polis – a Bitcoin only café, and educational open office space that plays host to Prague’s crypto-anarchist community of hackers and others who are determined to build an alternative culture in the city. It will remain a clique-ish oddity, but its continued existence is a reminder of broader possibilities. It gives us a different way to read the contours of the city.

What does this have to do with me, with my little constellation of stars, my limits, my borders? The fans of Bohemians and the club are widely seen to share an antipathy for modern football’s pursuit of profit over other concerns. Through its development policy and absolute adherence to the logic of the market Prague may be seen to be preventing the emergence of alternative art spaces and squats that have the potential to help establish the city as a receptive one to creative people operating beyond mainstream culture.

It might be fair to say that in fact Bohemians’ home ground, Ďoliček, the dimple, is an alternative space. Not through a conscious cultivation of a politicised alternative but because in a culture largely uncritical of neo-liberal orthodoxies, any space that offers alternative approaches and culture is welcomed, encouraged and celebrated. When I stand watching Bohemians, I like to think of the club, of its fans, as Jírů’s lonely spectator – watching the game, wondering if it might be better. It too offers itself as a map. Perhaps I will save it and make it part of my constellation.

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Soccer at the edge of the World

Last weekend I was lucky enough to take part in Paddy’s Fringe,  a new festival in Oslo that celebrates Irish culture with a difference.  I gave a talk on the first encounters between Ireland and Norway in world cup qualifiers in 1937. Below is an edited video of the talk:

What’s in a crest? Waterford FC, Three Lions and history

As you walk down Colbeck Street in Waterford,  with The Mall to your left and Parnell Street to your right you may notice the waterford city arms crest on the corner building.  This comes from a hotel which was previously on this site called the Waterford Arms Hotel.

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As you can see from the photo the Waterford civic arms contain two main motifs. On a red field there are three lions representing the United Kingdom and below it on a white field,  three ships – the now recognised symbol of Waterford city.

Waterford’s coat of arms, and the city’s motto urbs intacta manet watefordia were gifted to the city for its loyalty to the English monarch Henry VII who faced opposition from two pretenders to his throne in the late 16th century.

I mention this because there was some comment made on social media about the newly unveiled crest of newly rebranded Waterford FC. Much of it focused on the inclusion of the three lions into the crest.

Many saw this as being too close to the three lions coat of England’s football and cricket teams. It sparked a certain amount of knee-jerk armchair (or is it keyboard) republicanism.

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The newly unveiled Waterford FC crest which takes the 1930 crest as it’s inspiration.

Of course, the three lions derive from the same source but their inclusion into the new Waterford FC crest reveals something far more interesting than simple West Britonism.

Aside from the link with the Waterford city arms, the use of the three lions and the other elements of the new crests are one more element of the curious nostalgia rebranding of the club under its new owner, Swindon Town chairman Lee Power.

The most important of these includes the dropping of the United from the club name. The club, which until then was Waterford FC, became United in 1983 when it was reforned as a new limited company.

After a decade of poor results and dwindling public interest in the club, the choice to rebrand the club under new ownership to a name from a more successful period in the club’s history is deliberate.

There has also been a trend for some years now in England for club crests to be redesigned in one of twos ways: either hyper modern with contemporary font styles or,  more prominently, hyper retro versions of the club crest with nods to storied pasts. Think of Tottenham Hotspur or Everton. The processes under way  with Waterford FC are the same. There is a certain extent to which this taps into the idea of many fans, especially strong in League of Ireland  circles, of being “Against Modern Football”.

In a city where the past decade has been forgettable on a sporting and civic front, with the city reeling from the effects of recession, deindustrialisation,  youth unemployment and emigration, it is a smart move on the part of the club’snew owner to evoke a more prosperous and successful period for Waterford as part of the preparations for the coming season and new dispensation of Power’s ownership.  The three lions on the new crests then are less a symbol of latent West Britonism, or British royalty , but speak instead to a desire to return to a time when soccer was king in Waterford.

Beyond the Garrison Game at PRONI, Belfast February 2017

Myself and Conor Curran are delighted to announce that on the 17th February 2017 at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast, in association with the British Society of Sports History, there will be a one day symposium to celebrate the publication of a special issue of Soccer & Society which we edited earlier this year.

The talks will take place throughout the day and the full timetable can be found here. The event is FREE but places are limited so be sure to register with eventbrite to secure your place for the day.

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On the day the talks will take in a wide range of historical, economic and coaching related talks about soccer in Ireland north and south from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. The line-up is as follows:

Morning Session: The Early Years

9.55 am-10.15 am Paul Gunning (Independent Scholar): The ‘Socker’ Code in Connacht, 1879-1906: Association Football in the Shamrock Shire’s Hy Brasil
10.15 am-10.35 am Aaron O’Maonaigh (Dublin City University): “Who were the Shoneens?”: Irish militant nationalists and association football, 1913-1923
10.35 am-10.55 am Tom Hunt (Independent Scholar): Harry Cannon: a unique Irish sportsman and administrator
10.55 am-11.10 am Questions and Answers

Late Morning Session: The 1960s onwards

11.40 am-12.00 pm Cormac Moore (De Montfort University): Football Unity During the Northern Ireland Troubles?
12.00 pm-12.20 pm Daniel Brown (Queen’s University, Belfast): Linfield’s ‘Hawk of Peace’: pre-Ceasefires reconciliation in Irish League football
12.20 pm-12.40 pm Helena Byrne (Independent Scholar): How it all began: the story of women’s soccer in sixties Drogheda
12.40 pm-12.55 pm Questions and Answers

1.00 pm-2.00 pm              Break for lunch

Afternoon Session: Coaching and Developing the Game

2.00 pm- 2.20 pm Conor Curran (Dublin City University): The development of schoolboy coaching structures for association football in Ireland, 1945-1995
2.20 pm- 2.40 pm Seamus Kelly (University College Dublin): Pedagogy, Game Intelligence & Critical Thinking: The Future of Irish Soccer?
2.40 pm- 2.55 pm Questions and Answers

Late Afternoon Session: Supporters and Governance

3.00 pm- 3.20 pm Mark Tynan (Independent Scholar): ‘Inciting the roughs of the crowd’: Soccer hooliganism in the south of Ireland during the inter-war period, 1919-1939
3.20 pm- 3.40pm Robert and David Butler (University College Cork): Rule Changes and Incentives in the League of Ireland from 1970 – 2014
3.40pm- 3.55pm Questions and Answers
3.55pm- 4.15 pm Closing Comments

It promises to an interesting and enlivening day of discussion and isn’t to be missed. We look forward to seeing you there in the New Year!

From the Archives: Ireland 3 – 3 Norway, November 1937

In 1937, Irish football was in fairly healthy state, and had in many respects weather many of the worst storms of the decade. Domestic football had mixed fortunes in the 1930s, growing in popularity and casting off its image as the foreign game. At the same time, the games newfound popularity and the growth of the Free State League faced many difficulties as a result of the deep depression that Ireland, and the world, found itself early in the decade following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. 1937 saw a first for Irish soccer, as we played Norway in our first competitive fixtures against one another at the end of the year which would be forever famous as the year that our new constitution came into force.

While most people will probably recall the game between both countries at USA ’94 in the group stages, our history of competing against one another goes back much, much further. Back in 1937, over the course of a month, Norway and Ireland played each other twice, in a pair of games for World Cup qualification – the new competition which had begun at the start of that tumultuous decade in 1930. The first game was played in Oslo at Ullevål Stadion, which I wrote about yesterday, and saw the Norwegians beat Ireland by three goals to two. Two of the winning goals were scored Reidar Kvammen, then a young policeman playing for Vikings in Stavanger where he would spend his whole career. Kvammen would also go on to be the first Norwegian player to reach fifty international caps, and he scored a career total of 17 international goals. The game was played in front of Norwegian king Håkon and Prince Olav.

The journey to get to Oslo was a gruelling one – the players went firs to Newcastle by boat and then onwards to Bergen, before a twelve hour journey from Bergen to Oslo. (Evening Herald, October 6 1937) However, the trip was not all travelling, with the Irish Press reporting that the players would be brought to see the viking ships at Bygdøy and dine at Frognersæteren Restaurant in Oslo before heading back to Bergen to begin the return leg of their trip. They even managed while in Newcastle, and waiting to head to Bergen, to catch Celtic take on Sunderland at Roker Park. (Irish Press, October 9 1937)

While there was disappointment with the loss from Irish officials, the trip was a success from a cultural exchange point of view. The Norwegian Fotballforbund (NFF) gave the Irish team a silver replica of a Viking ship as a gift, while the FAIFS gave their Norwegian counterparts a Belleek statue representing the figure of  Eire. (Irish Press, October 14 1937)

The return game v Norway, and the prospect of getting to the World Cup proper was seen as an opportunity to get one up for the FAIFS against all the other home nation sides who were not taking part in the newly minted competition.

When the Norwegians came to visit Dublin, they stayed at the Gresham Hotel, and were received at Government buildings by President Eamon de Valera. Their post match dinner was at the Royal Hibernian Hotel.This game was a draw, with the Irish team getting a late equaliser to make it 3-3, however this wasn’t enough and Norway progressed. Remarkably footage of the game survives:

Not only footage, but here you can hear the Norwegian state broadcaster, NRK, radio coverage of the game, including a brief few words from then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne. The Evening Herald, in a colour piece about the second game in Dublin, made some reference to the longer history between the countries, with a correspondent writing that:

Once again the Norsemen have carried out a raid. It was vastly different from those perpetrated by their forefathers in the distant past, but even the modern Norsemen did not go away empty handed – they took away with them Ireland’s hopes of remaining in the World’s Cup competition.

There was a definite feeling that this was a bit of a missed opportunity since the the Irish team came back from 3-1 down to draw the game 3-3, though it was too little too late. Ireland would have to wait until 1990 before finally reaching a World Cup final competition, starting an era on unprecedented success for the national team but in 1937, they came very close indeed against Norway.

At Ullevål: Norway 0 – 3 Germany

On my first visit to Norway last November, I stayed briefly in Oslo, and was in the Ullevål area of the city, close to Ullevål Stadion which is the home of the Norwegian national football team, and Vålerenga football club. Part of the complex is also a football museum, there is a fanshop, and the offices of the Norges Idrettsforbund (Norwegian Sports Association), the Norwegian Fotballforbund (Norwegian FA) and the Norwegian Olypmic and Paralympic Committees  can be found there. Perhaps only Bislett Stadion, closer to the city centre, and host of many world record breaking triumphs in speed skating, rivals Ullevål in terms of importance in Norwegian sport.

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Ullevål Stafion as it was when it was first built, with the connecting Sognsvannbanen also in the picture. Source: Norges nasjonalbiblioteket

The stadium was built in the 1920s, opening in September 1926 after Lyn football club agreed to go for this site over others. A deciding factor in the choice of Ullevål was that Akersbanene, the local tram company, had the rights to the Sognsvann line. A private company was established to build and run the ground made up of Lyn football club, Aker municipality who owned around 25% of the company, and several other sports clubs whose combined ownership amounted to 5%. It has been revamped over many years since then, and Vålerenga moved in to make it their home in 2000. Lyn’s share in the ground, which by the mid 2000s, had been much reduced to just over 13% of the ground, was bought out by the NFF in 2007.

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Anders Beer Wilse photo of the crowd at Ullevål in October 1935. Source: Norges nasjonalbibiloteket

Last night I finally got to go and see a live game at Ullevål, as Norway took on Germany in a World Cup Qualifier. Although no one expected an upset in this game, the Norwegian team acquited themselves well and it was the second goal, which came just before half-time, which really killed the game as a contest. Up to that, Norway had responded well to going a goal down. The goal came after 15 minutes, and was the result of poor attempts to clear the ball from the Norwegian box. The goal had been coming as Norway set itself up lying very deep in that opening period, and attempting from early to spring the counter attack. After the goal, they responded well, playing positive and more open football. They pushed their own line a little higher up the field, and one chance which broke was one of those great almost goals that any football fan will be familiar with.

The second goal, which came not more than a minute before half time killed off whatever resolve the Norwegian side had, and the second half was all about damage limitation. Not that 3-0 was a flattering scoreline, as it seemed Germany were capable of being broken down when Norway strung their passes together. It was a fantastic occasion despite the result and will certainly be a memorable game for me.

Myself, herself and her uncle got to the ground in good time, and I bought myself a scarf – a nice deep red scarg with ‘NORGE’ on one side and ‘JA, VI ELSKER’ on the other. Ja, vi elsker is part of the opening line of the Norwegian national anthem,  which was played on the night by a large brass band wearing a cream uniform (so if anyone can help me identify who they are, that’d be great). I tried to use my debit card to buy the scarf, but, being an utlending (foreign) card, it wouldn’t work, so herself had to step in to buy it for me.

As we approached this impressive ground – it’s a fine stadium but has a surprisingly small capacity of around 28,000 – I went to look for a match programme. Much to my surprise, not only had they programmes but they were free! I was fully expecting to pay 100NOK (about €10) for a programme at such a big game but instead they were completely free, which I thought was a great touch from the NFF.

Once inside the ground, and taking our seats – we were sitting just the German away support in mixed seating – we got ready for the buildup. After a while the players came out for one last warm up and then the brass band came on. The carpet was laid out on the halfway line and the cardboard fixtures put up, the flags were held and the national anthems were sung. Time for kick-off.

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My view of last night’s game.

Football in a Norwegian Key

It’s unseasonably hot for August at the moment (or at least for me!) and yesterday evening I spent the late sunshine at Heming sports arena, on the western fringes of Oslo. I was out there to watch Fotball Klubb Lyn play against Kjelsås 2.

I’m back where I was over a year ago when I first lived in Prague and had to find a team to call my own. The differences between Prague and Oslo are many but one of the intriguing differences is that for all the football clubs to be found in Norway’s capital, the big teams are from elsewhere: think FK Brann from Bergen, or Molde currently managed by Manchester United great Ole Gunnar Solkjær. Or Rosenborg for instance. Oslo’s biggest club, Vålerenga who share their home with the Norwegian national team at Ullevål stadion (recently the host of a Tottenham Hotspur Inter Milan friendly), are going through a dry spell. They haven’t won the top division since 2005 and currently sit tenth in the league. Not that I’m especially a glory hunter, but Vålerenga are certainly the obvious option in terms of picking a club for someone living within range of Oslo.

While looking up which clubs were in the city, I came across Lyn. Lyn is Norwegian for lightning, and that could certainly describe the kind of season they are currently having. Lyn are top of their division. They play in the second group of the Norwegian 3rd division (at 3rd division level there are a dizzying twelve seperate groups). En route to secure promotion to 2nd division football (in which there are four groups) in 2017, I decided to take a look at Lyn, who’s tagline is ‘Ekte fotball, Ekte fans’: Real football, real fans.

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And they certainly do have real fans. At this quiet and otherwise unremarkable set of astroturf pitches and community gym – the club’s home is Bislett stadium but it was unavailable for this game – at the Gramåkken T-bane stop, a good show of around 200+ fans showed up to shout on their team in what was certainly an unusually one-sided affair. It was 100 NOK (about 10 euro) to watch and for another 50, I bought two issues of the Lyn magazine to peruse. Even at this small ground, in front of an exclusively Lyn crowd (it seemed), banners were unfurled and some in the crowd were in vociferous humour.

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Lyn took the lead on 15 minutes and by half time were three goals to the good. The second half was fairly dull in all truth, until towards the end when there two late red cards (one for each team) and an unfortunate own goal from the Lyn captain, meaning that all four goals came from a Lyn boot.

Once the final whistle blew, I made my way back to Oslo S before getting the Gjøvikbanen home to Harestua. It was a strange game of football – for one thing the sun lingered for almost three quarters of the game and was incredibly hot, it can’t have been easy to play in. On top of that, with Lyn leading so strongly from halftime, you felt Kjelsås were very much playing the damage limitation game. Nonetheless it was enjoyable if understated affair. It not really being Lyn’s home, and the awkward kick off time on a  Tuesday night may have compounded the occasionally muted atmosphere that every so often exploded into a roar, may also have had some bearing on things. But they look a good team, playing with confidence, and the fans seem good. I’ll certainly take another look at Lyn.

Book Launch: A Social and Cultural History of Sport in Ireland

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Next week, just before Ireland prepare to take on Italy in their final group game of Euro 2016, a new book will be launched in Boston College on St. Stephen’s Green. The book, A Social and Cultural History of Sport in Ireland, edited by Richard McElligott and David Hassan brings together some of the most up-to-date research on the history Irish sport from a social and cultural perspective. I am just one of the many contributors to this excellent volume. So, if you want to make a whole evening of that final group game, why not go along if you find yourself in Dublin!

Soccer in Munster: One Year On

So this week marks a year since the publication and launch of my book, Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937 by Cork University Press. As Ireland, and many other countries around Europe gear up for the beginning of the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament in France, it seems a fitting time to remind people why it is I wrote the book. As I said on the night of the book launch in Cork last year:

Sport matters. It matters hugely to me. It matters hugely to millions of people. Soccer matters. To me and to millions. Yes it’s a commercial behemoth that appears to have overtaken and sullied much that is good about sport. Yes it means FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and the deaths of thousands in Qatar. But soccer is so much more than FIFA and the Premier League… Soccer is much more than twenty-two men on a field kicking an inflated pig bladder. It is, and was, a central part of the lives of many Irish people. I hope my book, arguing why that is the case will, in your hands and in your minds, amount to much more than the paper and ink it is printed on but will help you see our past a little differently – with a little more colour and a little more community.

I still hope that that is the case .

That’s why, in this week when we hope that Irish dreams of something like glory on the international footballing stage will become reality, remember that the history of football, or soccer, or whatever you like to call it, is a long one in Ireland. The sport as it was played over one-hundred and fifty years ago would be nearly unrecognisable to us today, but some kernel of the same drive and desire to represent your community – whether your street, city, or country – can be found across time. For now though, it’s enough to shout: Come on You Boys in Green!

Early forms of football in Munster: 1865-1885

Football – today, it means many things to many people. It is played with oval balls and round balls. Fifteen-a-side, eleven-a-side, five-a-side and six-a-side. Under floodlights. On Friday night, or Saturday or Sunday mornings, afternoons and evenings. It is a summer game. It is a winter game. It can mean rugby union, rugby league; it can mean soccer, Gaelic football, Australian rules, American football, Canadian football and other points in between.

Much ink has been spilled on the emergence of various forms of football in the late middle and late nineteenth century in Britain. There were folk games with long histories, going back into the mists of time there was versions of football played in Britain’s elite public schools. There was great local variation in sizes of teams, lengths of time that games lasted, what constituted a score and so on. When you see football notices in the newspapers around Munster in the period 1860-1880, things were no different. In the period before the GAA, the IRFU or the IFA, football was a highly localised affair with many variations. Historians, myself included, have traced the move from these various disparate forms of football into their respective codes. The work of Conor Curran, Liam O’Callaghan, Neal Garnham and Paul Rouse, among others, has done much to aid our understanding this process in the Irish context. In this blog post though I wanted to take a look at some of the early reports of various football matches – where rules were unspecified and highly localised – to give you a flavour of what football in Munster was like before the rules were firmly established.

The highly localised nature of the game, and the fact that various kinds of football were all reported under the heading “Football” make it difficult to say just what these games might have looked like. Very often though they were two teams of anywhere between ten and thirty men playing from one end of a field to another with the aim of scoring a goal – getting the ball across the goal-line of the other team. The games were often messy affairs, with no clear winner emerging frequently.

There is evidence that football matches were used a means to cover up Fenian meetings as well in the 1860s. Take for instance these descriptions from the Cork Examiner:

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Cork Examiner, August 21 1865.
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From a case examining Fenians in Midleton. Cork Examiner, May 11 1866.

As well being used as a cover for Fenian organisation and drill, football was sometimes a cover, or an excuse for faction fighting, as this report of the police attending a game of football in Coachford suggests:

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Cork Examiner, March 26 1877.

As the 1860s gave way to the 1870s and rules were set for rugby and the association code, rugby began to make an appearance more and more in Cork and Limerick, and by the early 1880s in Waterford as well. In Cork, the Cork Football Club were the main driving force behind the emergence of the rugby code in the 1870s. They make their first appearance in the pages of the Cork Examiner in late 1868.

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Cork Examiner, November 14 1868.

Rugby would take a firm hold in Cork in this period, with teams including the Cork FC, Knickerbockers, Montenotte, Queen’s College Cork and Rushbrooke  all making regular appeareances. Indeed, a first inter-provincial game between Munster and Leinster would be played in late 1878.

Football in Waterford was similar to Cork in that there was local variation in the 1870s. Consider this game of football which took place in 1876 in Riverstown in Tramore, which was twenty-a-side and contested between married and umarried men:

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Munster Express, January 29 1876.

In 1878, this game which took place near Kill, was like the game in Coachford, put on the radar of the authorities:

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Munster Express, March 1878.

Previously, I had put the earliest reported game of rugby in Waterford as one between the Waterford Boat Club and the Waterford Bicycle Club in 1884. However, with the expansion of the Munster Express archive online at the Irish Newspapers Archive, I have been able to find new evidence of rugby being played in Waterford, centred chiefly around a city team and a team from Tramore in 1882.

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Munster Express, January 7 1882.

The Waterford team also took on the  Carrick Athletic, Cricket and Football Club. This club had been established in August of 1879 and had among its members future co-founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Maurice Davin. This club organised their first athletics day in November, which saw an estimated 3,600 people turn out to watch, according to the Munster Express. Among the prizes for the various races were a claret jug, a butter dish, silver lockets, a champagne knife, a breakfast cruet, a silver pin, an asparagus helper and a silver ring. When they played the Waterford FC, it was noted that while it was the Carrick men’s first time having a go at the rugby game, the Waterford players, despite their “juvenile appearance” next to the Carrick men, when it came to rugby they “had few superiors in the south of Ireland.”

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Munster Express, March 25 1882.

By the middle of the 1880s, while most games are still being reported under the general heading of “Football”, the distinctions between the games being played is a good deal clearer, as this notice of the Carrick-On-Suir Athletic, Cricket & Football Club annual sports day shows in 1883, even before the founding of the GAA. There is a distinction between the “Irish game” and the “rugby union” code.

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Munster Express, March 17 1883.

And then we have this game in between Callan and Ballyneal which explicitly states itself as being held under GAA rules in 1885.

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Munster Express, May 9 1885.

And so it was that in Munster by the middle of the 1880s, a much clearer picture of the various codes of football that would be played emerged. Within twenty years football in this part of Ireland, as in the rest of the country, had changed from an amorphous, highly localised affair into various organised sports with distinct rules and organisations to help them develop.