London’s major football clubs grew out of their communities and so will future participation

Yesterday, more than 36,000 people congregated in North London to cheer for a team formed by bible students as they played against a local works team.

The genesis of Premier League toppers Chelsea, formed by a businessman in need of a tenant for his athletics stadium, does not represent the norm for London’s major football clubs. Even then, had Gus Mears had his way, it would now be Fulham FC — formerly Fulham St Andrew’s Church Sunday School F.C — now playing their home games at Stamford Bridge.

Thames Ironworks FC (1897) via Wikimedia Commons

The stories of London’s top clubs are derived from expressions of strong local communities. Some teams; like Tottenham Hotspur or Fulham, found commonality in education and faith; others such as Arsenal, Millwall or the Thames Ironworks FC — later known as West Ham United — sought a post-work social.

Efforts to reach beyond traditional club networks, to engage organisations embedded in their community and to encourage those organisations to adopt physical activity as part of their remit does not represent a departure in the world of sports development. In many ways, this marks a return to the first principles that established the societal importance of many of our nation’s major club sports.

Equally, the development of initiatives that lift sport from the confines of specialist facilities and bring them to a community’s doorstep only represent a departure from the belief that ‘quality’ delivery means standardised delivery. In an age before ‘No Ball Games’ signs, Charlton Athletic were formed by a group of teenagers kicking a ball around residential East Street.

By John Powles — Iron in the Blood, published by Soccerdata via WikiCommons

It wasn’t only the questions of who and where that football clubs of the mid-to-late 1800s addressed. Just as sport and physical activity must now adapt to an ‘on-demand’ world, the Saturday afternoon kick-off was thier response to work-life and societal constraints of the Industrial Revolution. Yet, even then, some communities formed their own market-led adaptation. Next weekend, in a last-ditch effort to reach the “£200 million game” and the Premier League, Fulham travel to Sheffield Wednesday, a club formed by local tradesmen whose work pattern off didn’t allow for weekend games.

This month Sport England invite applications to the “Helping The Active Stay Active When Life Changes” fund. A programme aimed at finding ways to help those who have recently experienced major life overhauls to stay active. Once more, there are parallels to be drawn to the infancy of the capital city’s football scene. The inaugration of Leyton Orient can be traced back to graduates of the now Cambridge-affiliated college of Homerton continuing the friendships they formed between lectures and on the fields of play.

The lesson to be drawn? That the interpersonal, organisational and community networks often labelled as “non-traditional sporting environments” are no such thing. It was in these environments that the roots of many of today’s most successful “traditional” clubs took hold. So to, it is these environments that represent the compost that contain the seeds of future clubs and the growth of sport and physical activity.