Ardent fan with clear view of play between sport and society

Soccer and Society
November 8, 2002

However active and imaginative the pioneers of any sub-discipline, they can be certain that their efforts have succeeded only when a subsequent generation starts to deliver work of authentic quality. Martin Johnes offers a clear signal of that maturing process.

Welsh sports history's great landmark remains Dai Smith and Gareth Williams's Fields of Praise (1981), the official centenary history of the Welsh Rugby Union, which, as Williams himself has pointed out, is "as much a conventional institutional history as Moby-Dick is a book about a fish", and was arguably the last world-class performance by any team selected by the WRU.

Based on a PhD thesis, this book unavoidably lacks the narrative sweep of Fields of Praise , but shares many of its virtues and those of its football contemporary, Tony Mason's Association Football and English Society 1863-1915 . It offers a compendium of the benefits professional historians have brought to the study of sport: recognition that insights are as likely to be drawn from the front pages of newspapers as from the back pages; that the relationship between sport and society operates in both directions; and a sense of perspective and profound enthusiasm tempered by detached academic judgement.

Johnes places South Wales's football's rise and fall firmly in its socioeconomic context. Dramatic early growth enabled by an influx of people pursuing industrial jobs gave way to decline mirroring industrial depression from the mid-1920s on.

Johnes also shows how sport can illuminate a society, using the game and its followers to develop a subtle, sophisticated analysis of the complexities of identity in South Wales, coming down firmly on the side of Patrick Joyce and Linda Colley rather than those who locate identity more exclusively in class.

Awareness of those complexities underpins a nuanced contribution to the often-sterile debate as to which of rugby and soccer is Wales's national game. In showing why football, in spite of higher participation and larger crowds for club matches, has never attained rugby's cultural salience, he also rightly makes it clear that this is not an either/or proposition. In the process, he demolishes Ken Morgan's contention that "football was not really a Welsh institution".

Johnes is also, as might be expected, a football fan. Like this reviewer, he supports Swansea City. The urge to emphasise his own club's past - a driving force for most amateur sports historians - must have been considerable, particularly when one considers that Swansea and Cardiff pursue their rivalry with a mutual venom that might occasion raised eyebrows in Barcelona or Madrid, Manchester or Liverpool. But a fan's distaste for Cardiff City acquired via the footballing Walpurgis nights that are derby days at the Vetch Field and Ninian Park is far outweighed by the historian's recognition that its rise and fall - elected to the league in 1920, near-champion in 1924, FA Cup winner in 19 and re-election supplicant by 1934 - is not only one of the most remarkable stories in football history, but supplies a ready-made, compelling narrative that underpins and illuminates Johnes's main themes.

If only Welsh sport were as well served by its teams and administrators as by its historians.

Huw Richards is visiting researcher, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University.

Soccer and Society: South Wales 1900-1939

Author - Martin Johnes
ISBN - 0 7083 1741 3
Publisher - University of Wales Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 238

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