The Encylopedia of British Football

Railways and Football

In the 19th century football clubs found it difficult to obtain a mass following. One reason concerned the cost of travelling to games.

In 1871, Charles W. Alcock, the Secretary of the Football Association, announced the introduction of the Football Association Challenge Cup. All games had to take place in London and as a result, three of the original 15 entries, had to withdraw because they could not afford the travelling costs of playing in the competition. Only 2,000 spectators watched the first FA Cup final in 1872. The cost of travelling to the game was a major factor in this low attendance.

In March, 1889 the Football League was formed. It consisted of six clubs from Lancashire (Accrington, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Everton and Preston North End) and six from the Midlands (Aston Villa, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanders). The main reason Sunderland was excluded was because the other clubs in the league objected to the costs of travelling to away games.

In the 19th century it cost 6d to watch a Football League match. This was expensive when you compare this with the price of other forms of entertainment. It usually cost only 3d to visit the musical hall or the cinema. It has to be remembered that at this time skilled tradesmen usually received less than £2 a week.

As Dave Russell points out in Football and the English: A Social History of Association Football in England (1997): "In terms of social class, crowds at Football League matches were predominantly drawn from the skilled working and lower-middle classes... Social groups below that level were largely excluded by the admission price." Russell adds "the Football League, quite possibly in a deliberate attempt to limit the access of poorer (and this supposedly "rowdier") supporters, raised the minimum adult male admission price to 6d".

Men also had the problem of having to work on a Saturday. Although some trades granted their workers a half-day holiday, it did not give them much time to travel very far to see a game. Even a local game caused considerable problems. For example, West Ham United played Brentford in an important game at the end of the 1897-98 season. A local newspaper reported that because of the inadequate transport system supporters had to travel by boat from Ironworks Wharf along the Thames to Kew before catching a train to Brentford. Given these transport problems, it is no surprise that the game was watched by only 3,000 people.

It was the railways that eventually provided cheap and fast travel. Over 114,000 people watched Tottenham Hotspur play Sheffield United in the 1901 FA Cup. It has been estimated that a large percentage of the crowd travelled to Crystal Palace Stadium via the London & Brighton Railway and Great Northern Railway.

When Chelsea was formed in 1905 it chose Stamford Bridge as its home as it was close to Waltham Green station (now Fulham Broadway). Tottenham Hotspur benefited from its closeness to White Hart Lane railway station. It has been argued that "10,000 spectators could be easily handled by trains arriving every five minutes".

In 1906 a railway station at Ashton Gate was opened to enable people to travel to the Bristol City ground. Manchester United moved to Old Trafford in 1909 to take advantage of the railway network established for the nearby cricket ground. One of the main reasons Arsenal moved to Highbury in 1913 was because it was served by the London Underground station at Gillespie Road (later renamed Arsenal).

In 1923 the FA Cup was moved to Wembley. The ground had been built for the British Empire Exhibition and had excellent railway links. Over 270,000 people travelled in 145 special services to the final that featured West Ham United and Bolton.

The railways had a considerable impact on the attendances of international matches. Only 1,000 people from Scotland travelled to watch the game against England at Crystal Palace in 1897. However, for the match at Wembley in 1936, 22,000 Scots came to London in 41 trains provided by the London Midland and Scottish Railway.

© , September 1997 - April 2014