Religious roots of football clubs

In some ways, football has become akin to religion.

Every weekend for nine months, large groups of people make pilgrimages to stadiums across the country to support their teams. They often wear replica shirts or their team’s colours to identify themselves.

Like religion, however, rivalries have created conflict, often resulting in violence between the two sides. Of course, hooligans don’t think about religion when they beat up rival fans, but they still think they are following true faith.

With the amount of money at stake now, it is often forgotten that several of Britain’s major clubs were formed by ecclesiastical groups. And ironically, eradicating violence was one of their goals in setting it up.

Even today there are many plans to get young people off the streets and into the sport, but religion does not play as big a role in society as it used to be.

What football clubs are Protestant?

In the 19th century, the church had more influence and in several cases, the clubs founded by parishes have developed into multi-million dollar businesses.

Brother Walfrid’s Bhoys

North of the border there is one such club that still has ties to religion: Celtic.
Several clubs were formed by Irish Catholic communities, the first being Edinburgh’s Hibernian
(their name is Latin for Ireland).

Unlike the others, the connections between the Bhoys and their roots are strong to this day.

They were first conceived on 6 November 1887 by the Marist Brother Walfrid (aka Andrew Kearns) in St Mary’s Church hall in Calton, Glasgow.

The club was founded to alleviate poverty in the East End of the city. The Celtic name was immediately adopted and reflected the club’s Scottish and Irish roots. Amazingly, the club’s first official game was played against Rangers on November 6, 1888, in what was probably the only ‘friendly meeting’ between the two teams.

The Bhoys became the first to claim the bragging rights when they won 5-2, with some of the starting squad players borrowed from Hibernian.

Brother Walfrid wanted to keep the club an amateur himself and had only charities for the club. His wish did not come true, however, as local builder John Glass was to contract eight Hibs players in August 1888 without the commission’s knowledge, while offering them huge financial incentives.

With the club now a professional outfit, they quickly established themselves as one of the top teams in Scotland, winning their first trophy (the Scottish Cup) in 1892, with their first league title the following year. Since then, they, along with Rangers (who were formed by rowers), have dominated Scottish football for over a century.

The other team that played at Anfield

Today Everton plays their home games at Goodison Park.

But it is often forgotten that they previously played on the other side of Stanley Park, where their deadly rivals Liverpool now call home.

The Toffees can claim to be indirectly responsible for their neighbour’s formation.
Everton became the first of Liverpool’s biggest clubs in 1878.

The pastor of St Domingo Methodist Church, the Rev. BS Chambers, founded a football club so that members of the Church’s cricket team have something to do during the winter.
The club was originally called St Domingo FC, but this was changed to Everton in November of the following year after men from outside the parish wanted to come and join.

Everton became one of the 12 founding members of the Football League in 1888 and by this time the club was leasing Anfield, owned by John Orrell, with his friend John Houlding as a tenant.
In the end, Houlding would buy the land from Orrell and quickly raise the rent, something Everton refused to do.

So they left Anfield in 1892 and moved to the other side of Stanley Park and their current home, Goodison Park, resulting in the formation of Houlding Liverpool.

But this is not where the religious ties to Everton end, as Goodison Park is the only Premier League stadium to have a church on the grounds – St Luke the Evangelist.

The church is located between the three-tiered main stand and the Gwladys Street End and its walls come within a few yards of these two strands.

It even has a part to play on match days, as it sells refreshments.

blue faith

While their more illustrious neighbors were formed by employees of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, the blue half of the Manchester team was conceived by a headmaster’s daughter.

Two years after what became Manchester United came into existence, Anna Connell, whose  father Arthur was rector of St Mark’s Church in Gorton, north-west of the city
, sought activities for men who had nothing to do in the winter.

Like Everton, a cricket club already existed and more activities were needed to curb the level of violence and alcoholism in the area.

Ironic, since this is the kind of thing now associated with football fandom.

Drunken fights between different religious and racial groups often took place, and the problems were exacerbated by the high unemployment rate in the area.

With the help of two churchwardens, William Beastow and Thomas Goodbehere, Connell founded West Gorton (St Mark’s) FC – the club that eventually became Manchester City.

The club played its first game against Macclesfield Baptist Church on 13 November 1880.
The initiative was such a success that it led the Archdeacon of Manchester to say of Connell: ‘No man could have done it – there was tact and skill from a woman to make it. so successful.’
Eventually, the club would drift away from its roots.

It dropped St Mark’s from its name to become Gorton AFC in 1884 and three years later it moved across town to Ardwick and turned professional.

It took the name of its new home before finally becoming Manchester City in 1894.

Pitt of uncertainty

It’s not just the most famous clubs that owe the church a big thank you and in this case, the man of the cloth even showed up on the action.

For a long time, there was some debate as to when Swindon Town was formed, with the club moving between the founding dates of 1879 and 1881.

For a long time, the later date was considered official, as on November 12 of that year, Swindon, under their previous guise of Spartan Club, merged with St Mark’s Young Men’s after a match between the two teams.

But last year, substantial evidence led the Robins to recognize 1879 as the correct date.
It is now believed that Reverend William Pitt, chaplain to Christ Church in the city center, founded the club to unite the communities of Great Western Railway workers and those there before GWR arrived.

There are two main pieces of evidence to indicate that this was the case.

One is a local report, discovered by former club statistician Paul Plowman, of a match between Swindon AFC and Rovers FC on 29 November 1879.

The report included a team photo with Pitt himself.

Pitt cut ties with the club in 1881 when he was appointed rector of Liddington Church.
However, he provided the other proof during a speech in 1911, in which he
said that the name was changed to Spartan Club because members thought the original name was too much of a mouthful.

He also said his removal from Swindon led to his departure.

Two years after his departure, Spartan Club became Swindon Town.

The clue is in the name

When Southampton moved from The Dell to St Mary’s Stadium in 2001, it was a bit like coming home.

The club moved back to the part of town where they were originally founded in 1885.
The stadium’s name was a welcome change from the current trend of selling name rights, as it referred to the nearby church.

The club was founded by members of the St. Mary’s Church of England Young Men’s Association, meaning the first name was rather long-winded – leading to them being referred to as St. Mary’s YMA by the local press.

St Mary’s played at several venues in Southampton, Southampton Common is one of the earliest.

Or at least they tried to play there – the Saints were often interrupted by pedestrians walking across the field!

The club had changed its name to Southampton St Mary’s by the time it became a limited company in 1897 and ended its association with the church.

In 1898, the Saints, now simply called Southampton FC, moved across town to The Dell before making the return journey 103 years later.

More clubs off the canvas

There are plenty of other football clubs that have their roots in the Church – some more successful than others.

Barnsley, this season’s FA Cup semi-finalist, was originally a club trying to gain a foothold in a rugby-dominated area.

The Tykes were formed in 1887 by the beautifully named Reverend Tiverton Preedy of St Peters’, whose church lent its name to the club as Barnsley St Peters’.

He wanted to ‘create a football club that will not crush the rugby test.

The club moved to Oakwell shortly after, but by 1897 Preedy 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 deal with other sports when it was founded.

They were formed by members of the Villa Wesleyan Cross Chapel in 1874 who, like some
of the other clubs mentioned, were cricketers looking for something different to do during the winter.

It took them a year to find opponents in an area where rugby was more popular and they were a rugby team.

In March 1875 they faced Aston Brooks St Mary’s in which the first half was to be played under rugby rules and the second football.

Villa won this encounter, kept the first half scoreless, and scored a lonely goal after the break.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Jewish connections are well known, but they were founded by a Bible class.

‘The Hotspur Football Club’ came into existence in 1882 thanks to a group of high school boys at All Hallow Church.

These guys then made their teacher, 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 presented it with an actual headstone a century later.

The Church of England Church on Star Road, West Kensington can be attributed to the formation of Fulham in 1879.

The Cottagers were originally a Sunday School team and, like Southampton, began their existence with a long-winded name – Fulham St Andrews Church Sunday School.

The church still stands and a plaque outside recognizes its place in the club’s history.

For those who want to read more on this topic, Thank God for Football! By Peter, Lupson is widely available in bookstores for £9.99.


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