Mar 28

The origins of soccer training

Posted by Ian Nannestad

The 1883 FA Cup final is rightly recognised as a significant moment in the history of soccer, for it represents the event which changed the culture of the game. Prior to this the old boys’ teams based in the south of England had been dominant but the victory of Blackburn Olympic over Old Etonians changed the game for ever. Arising from this, new methods of training, styles of play and playing formations emerged as well as a new breed of fanatical spectator. The upper class amateur spirit epitomised by the public school old boy teams was replaced by a much more hard-headed and business like northern culture which placed winning and, particularly, ‘pot hunting’ to the fore.

Blackburn Olympic, by their victory at Kennington Oval on 31 March 1883 became the flag bearers of this new culture, but evidence suggests that they were often better described as a manifestation of the new football rather than innovators.  In this article we shall look at the organisation of structured training methods and the Olympic’s role in this.

‘Strict training’ was the name given to organised, structured training undergone by athletes prior to important events. Although regularly used by professional athletes (‘pedestrians’) and rowers, strict training was also employed by the two crews for the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities. In the early 1880s the crews would assemble for strict training on the day after Ash Wednesday and continue for a period of five weeks leading up to the race. There is something of an irony here in that strict training when introduced to soccer was linked to professionalism, while within the context of the Boat Race it was considered as completely acceptable within amateur sport.

The first evidence of football clubs entering into strict training, however, comes from the West Midlands, not Lancashire. The Staffordshire Sentinel for 6 April 1881 reported: “Both teams, the “Villa” and the “Swifts”, are in strict training, and a magnificent game is sure to take place.” The game in question was the Staffordshire Cup final due to take place between Aston Villa and Walsall Swifts at Stoke on 16 April. There is further evidence the following season, 1881-82, relating to Wednesbury Old Athletic, said to be in strict training for their FA Cup quarter-final tie with Blackburn Rovers in February and again in April prior to their Birmingham Cup final tie with Aston Villa.

By the start of the 1882-83 season strict training had become established as a method for preparing for important cup ties and when the latter stages of the FA Cup were reached many of the teams from the North and Midlands underwent strict training including, amongst others, Druids, Church, Aston Villa and Eagley. “During the past week the “Villans” have gone into strict training, and everything is being done to bring the team on the field in the pink of condition. Running and walking exercise has been freely indulged in, and the services of a professional trainer have been engaged purposely for getting the men in perfect form. The Notts representatives have also been adopting similar tactics…” (Athletic News, 28 February 1883)

Blackburn Olympic, having engaged in some extra training at home prior to the FA Cup fourth round tie with Church took things a stage further, taking the team to Blackpool for a week with a professional trainer to prepare for the semi-final against Old Carthusians. The Olympic won comfortably and established a precedent that others soon followed. Olympic returned to the seaside for another week’s work prior to the final then travelled down to Richmond on the Thursday before the match to ensure the players were fresh and rested before the big day. The hard work paid off and Olympic won the final against Old Etonians in extra time creating history by becoming the first provincial team to win the FA Cup.
The beneficial effects of strict training at a holiday resort were evident to all and several other clubs followed suit. Both teams contesting that season’s Lancashire Cup final (played on the same day as the FA Cup final) went away to prepare: Blackburn Rovers to Morecambe Bay and Darwen to Blackpool. In the Midlands, West Bromwich Albion players spent a week at Matlock before their Staffordshire Cup final tie.

The national sporting press was somewhat bemused by this new phenomenon. Bell’s Life (31 March 1883) called it “the football training mania,” while the Sporting Life correspondent ‘Harrovian’ looked into the future with a certain degree of accuracy: “Sporting papers, it is evident, will before long have to devote a special column to the dissemination of special news from the football training grounds.” (29 March 1883)

We know a little of the early trainers and their methods, although the identity of the professional trainer working with Blackburn Olympic is unknown. Dick Oxenbould, who was also the Birchfield Harriers Athletic Club trainer, prepared West Bromwich Albion for their Staffordshire Cup final in April 1883. Oxenbould had previously taking part in pedestrian races in the Birmingham area throughout the 1870s.  He became well known as a starter for professional races and had a short spell as trainer of Aston Villa in the 1890s. Another professional trainer was Jemmy Nuttall, who assisted Bolton Wanderers in the 1883-84 season. Nuttall had a higher profile in pedestrianism than Oxenbould and in the 1860s had held the British half-mile record

It seems that most of the early football trainers were either former pedestrians (professional athletes) or had experience of training in the field. A small number had trained professional rowers or boxers. Their methods focussed on preparation of the body for an athletic contest and football training was probably very similar in nature to training for running and walking contests.

We know something of the nature of the training undergone by Blackburn Olympic at the seaside from interviews with their players in later life. The physical work consisted mostly of walking and running, although there was some skills work. Jimmy Costley remembered, “[we] used to practise ball control by dribbling between a row of stakes stuck upright in the ground.” (Athletic News, 23 April 1928) This was unusual and may have reflected input from the team’s senior professional, Jack Hunter. Otherwise areas such as diet and rest were important as recalled by two of Costley’s colleagues in the Olympic team. Centre-forward George Wilson remembered: “We were all supposed to be in the house by 9 o’clock and in bed by 10,” (Yorkshire Telegraph & Star, 2 February 1907) while Tom Dewhirst, reminiscing to the Lancashire Daily Post (10 August 1939) noted, “We were allowed a bottle of beer a day while training, and a glass of wine, and we walked from Talbot-road to the old Uncle Tom’s Cabin early every morning.”

Clubs continued to engage in strict training during the 1883-84 FA Cup campaign, although Sporting Life was relieved to find that Blackburn Rovers had not followed the example of Olympic by spending a week at the seaside before the final. In June 1884 the Football Association introduced a rule change restricting compensation to players for ‘lost time’ to just a single day’s pay per week, effectively halting these early seaside visits, although the acceptance of professionalism eventually led to this clause being dropped.

The Sporting Life’s ‘Harrovian’ showed tremendous insight into the events of 1883, not just in his prediction that football training would take on a much greater significance in the game in the future. He correctly identified the 1883 final as a seminal moment in the history of soccer when he wrote “Old times have changed, old manners gone,” and that the match had been “a trial between the old and the new system of football.” (29 March & 5 April 1883)

What is perhaps surprising, however, is that aspects of these very early examples of football training became embedded in the game and persisted for well over half a century or more. The practice of players training without a ball (later justified as a means of keeping them ‘hungry’ for their Saturday performances) continued into the 1950s when clubs began to realise that the natural ability of players could be improved by coaching skills as well as developing physical fitness. Seaside visits for ‘special cup training’ lasted even longer with clubs taking their players off to resorts such as Blackpool, Brighton and Skegness as late as the 1960s.

Blackburn Olympic did not introduce serious training to soccer, but they adapted it by instituting the practise of taking players away from their often unhealthy urban environments to healthier climes for the purpose of preparing for important matches, setting a precedent which was to continue for a century or more.