Dominic Sandbrook: Historians are Wrong to Kick Football into Touch

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dominic Sandbrook is a freelance writer on history and current affairs. His most recent book is White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (Little, Brown, 2006). He is the regular columnist for BBC History Magazine.]

The story of the first black South African football team to visit these shores, as June's issue reminds us, is not only extraordinary and inspiring, but a very fitting tale as we approach the first World Cup to be held in Africa.

It is also a welcome reminder that sporting stories, so often consigned to the back pages of the tabloids, can shed just as much light on the past as any well-worn political or economic narrative.

After all, the second most famous date in English history, after the battle of Hastings, is probably 1966, the year Sir Alf Ramsey’s team picked up the Jules Rimet trophy. As at Hastings, the clash at Wembley was a close-run thing. Extra time was required on both occasions....

But sport and history seldom mix. AJP Taylor’s classic English History 1914–1945 mentions football just three times, while even Andy Beckett’s recent book on the 1970s finds no room for the likes of Kevin Keegan, Gareth Edwards and Geoff Boycott.

Within academic circles, there is still a lingering feeling that sport is unworthy of serious thought. “Why don’t you talk about Tosca?” one female literature professor asked during the last World Cup. “Didn’t make the Italian squad,” came the inevitable reply.

But in overlooking sport, historians are rather missing a trick. There are surely few better institutional vehicles for exploring the social and cultural changes since the Victorian period than sporting clubs, many of which have led unbroken lives since the days of Gladstone and Disraeli....

Nothing sums up the flavour of the 70s, for example, better than the feud between the rival managers Don Revie and Brian Clough, the fiasco of Scotland’s participation in the 1978 World Cup, or the travails of the England cricket team under Tony Greig.

“Success in international competition,” announced the government in 1975, “has an important part to play in national morale.” And if Fabio Capello can work his magic this summer, perhaps we will see if they were right.

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