Football and Education: Wales - Rugby or Football?

Growing up in Wales, P.E. lessons were dominated by one sport - rugby. Gareth and I both attended the same high-school in Cardiff, and both enjoyed playing the game from time-to-time. But for us, football was always our number one. Coming from Wales, people are sometimes surprised that rugby indeed takes a back seat in our interests and that our love for football only grows stronger each day. This got us thinking, what really is the most popular sport in Wales? Our recent paper - "Football and Education: Class, Identity and the Dunce Hat", looked in depth at the role football has played in schools since the 1850s and highlighted its influence on children around Britain. The next step for us was to look deeper at the sport and its role in schools in different areas of the UK, to see if certain regions are indeed impacted heavier than others. In a land so used to rugby, how has football changed the lives of school children across Wales?

Heading back to the birth of association football in Wales - it is clear that the game was played, at some level, from its codification in 1863. What is easily forgotten amongst football fans and indeed historians, is that Wales was in fact the third nation to field an international XI in 1874. The 1870s themselves are of equal importance to education. In 1871 the Education Act was passed to offer affordable schooling to all in society. That very year, a rival to the association game was created - Rugby.

So how does this impact on children and schools in Wales. Immediately we have a question to ask, 'Which sport was more popular in Welsh schools - football (soccer) or football (rugger)'? Searching through newspaper archives, an instant problem arises. With both being called football, early mentions of the sport and education could mean one or the other. The easiest way to find out which is which is to count the number of players fielded by each side!

One of the earliest mentions of football in Welsh schools comes from 1872. The Cardiff Times article explains a tie between Bridgend School and Mr Shewbrookes School. Reading through the piece we can see comments towards the 'fine play' and 'magnificent runs' of Shewbrookes' captain. Then we see the score...'two goals and four points to nothing'. Now even to us, this is confusing. Due to the infancy of the rugby code, we assumed any early articles of school football in Wales would be the association game - but we were wrong. Rugby's scoring system in 1872 had not yet seen the inclusion of 'tries' and indeed, 'goals' were used to describe a touchdown over the opposition's goalline. Confusing, right?![1]

The rest of the 1870s sees similar articles appear, with a distinctly middle-class feel to them. What is evident, at least at first, is that the use of rugby in schools is limited to private and independent institutions. The first reference of note to association football being played comes from 1878 and the Denbighshire Advertiser. What is interesting to see is that the fixture sees an eleven of Bangor play a fifteen of Beaumaris Grammar School. It throws up the inconsistency of football and rugby in 1870s, but the score of 'three goals to nil' suggests that the association game was being played. Furthermore, the match taking place in North Wales introduces another theme to this piece. The idea of North vs South.[2]

Related image
Victorian Rugby

Unlike in England, where football's heartland was the industrial towns (mainly in the North), the Welsh mining towns and villages were quicker to adopt rugby as 'their' sport. Indeed, this could only have influenced the children in these areas. In Wales, the association game found its true calling in the North of the country. This could perhaps explain why the national side played their first internationals at the Racecourse ground in Wrexham. By the 1880s, the use of association football in grammar schools was becoming more widespread, but little is found on its use in state education.

1888 is a pivotal year in football history. The introduction of the Football League meant the professional 'working-class' game would become the main force in the sport. Likewise, by the end of the 1880s, education had also evolved to include stricter rules on attendance and child employment - meaning more youngsters than ever were at school. Indeed, it is in 1888 that we find a reference to possible elementary school football. The article concerns 'Greenhill School and Tenby Juniors'. Once more, a thorough read through the piece is required to make sure it is the association code which is discussed.
"After about ten minutes' play, however, W. Davies taking the ball about halfway, dribbled it up to the Juniors' goal, and by a grand shot from the side obtained a goal for Greenhill, the ball passing just underneath the cross-bar"[3]

This sentence seems to prove that the game discussed is football and not rugby. So, were Greenhill and Tenby state schools or once-more a private affair? Greenhill was indeed a 'grammar school' - a style of education which although requiring a fee to attend, was not as upper-class as public schools. It is clear then that football was, in some cases, as popular as rugby in Wales. By the end of the 19th Century - rugby as a game was to completely change. In 1895 a schism had rocked the sport and created two new factions - Northern working-class 'League' and Southern middle-class 'Union'.

It would be easy to expect Wales, a nation predominately working-class, to have followed its Northern industrial cousins into 'league', but as we know - this wasn't the case. Sports historian Richard Holt writes that in the late 19th Century, only the USA had higher immigration rate than Wales. Irish and workers from the west of England flooded into the South Wales coalfields and rugby was seen a chance to help unify communities into a new 'Welshness'. There was also little point in club players moving North when they could make almost as much money remaining as amateurs.[4] Matthew Taylor believes that victories like the one over the New Zealand All-Blacks further helped to cement Wales as a 'rugby nation'.[5]

Image result for Wales 3-0 New Zealand 1905
The victorious Welsh rugby team

Martin Johnes' Soccer in Society: South Wales 1900-1939 also builds on Holt's work regarding sport in Wales. Johnes is quick to recognise the stereotypical view of a 'rugby-mad' Welshman but believes the true history of Welsh sport has been lost behind the symbolic importance of rugby to the nation. Indeed, actual participation levels in the association game could comfortably rival rugby, even in the South. Is this the case in education?[6]

So let's skip forward into the twentieth-century. Did football manage to grow in influence in state schools? One of our most fascinating finds was from 1915. The Western Mail, covering the English Shield Competition from Ninian Park, recalls that in 1892 a group of teachers joined together to form the first football club in Cardiff. The club was formed 7 years before Cardiff City and does indeed prove that football's influence was growing in South Wales and indeed schools.[7] A year earlier, we can see this puzzling piece from the same newspaper,

Strangely, the segment goes no further - but what it does offer is some clue as to the growth of football in school.[8] A decade later and football in Wales had reached new heights. Still to be matched in terms of professional club achievements, in 1927 Cardiff City FC won the 'English' FA Cup, beating Arsenal at Wembley. An outstanding triumph, the side had reached the final two years previous as well, only to lose to Sheffield United. There can be little doubt as to the impression this success must have had on children in Welsh schools. Perhaps, this is clearest from the images of the team returning to thousands of men, women and children lining the streets of the capital, welcoming their heroes home.

Two months later, we can see greater press coverage of school football and the Cardiff Schools Football League. The picture below shows the 'Town Team' which reached both the Welsh and English Shield finals.

Despite obvious growth in the South, rugby was still king and indeed it remained in schools. There is far greater coverage of the rugby code prior to the Second World War. The association game, at least in secondary schools, was played by children but wasn't the source of school pride like rugby was. A school's rugby side would come to represent more than just the fifteen outfield players, but the community in which it played. Especially in the South Wales valleys - rugby was more than just a game.

Schools had changed their attitude towards physical education in the 1920s - probably due to the impact of the First World War and the need for everyone, not just those at the top of the social order, to be fit and healthy. In 1929, a proposal for a 'Football School' in Newport was initiated for boys who had left education. Described as a 'remarkable innovation' - the project would aim to find professional clubs for Welsh youngsters.[9] Little can be found as to the success of the proposals, but football clearly had an influence on young men in Welsh society.
Related image
The Cardiff City FA Cup Victory changed football forever
In 1927, the Welsh FA were keen to develop a project of elementary school football in North Wales. The meeting with several headmasters was held to form a school football league. Such news would have been greeted warmly by the children of the soccer-mad North.[10] Despite being Welsh soccer's homeland - the North of Wales has, over the years, often felt forgotten by the FAW. Indeed, with most recent international fixtures being played in Cardiff - only one has been performed in the North, against Trinidad and Tobago in Wrexham. Intriguingly, some felt this was the case in 1933. School football had grown considerably in the 20 and 30s and an article in the Western Mail highlights the complaints sent in to one journalist about the failure to mention school football in the North.[11]

Approaching the Second World War - we can see that the relationship between football and education had evolved rapidly in a relatively short space of time. From the 1870s and the introduction of international football and rugby to Wales, we also saw the Elementary School Act. This provided education to more children than ever. Despite rugby dominating the early sporting allegiances, by the twentieth-century we saw that the association game gradually became more significant to schools and school life. What has been clear is that, to discuss football in Wales, you have to recognise rugby. Rugby had inspired a 'Welshness' and helped to form the national identity of the country, long before football. Eventually, football leagues and competitions were set up in both the North and South and the success of Cardiff City in 1927 only helped to inspire children to become the next Fred Keenors and play the game in playgrounds around the nation. 

Part two will be looking at how football and education changed in Wales after the Second World War. In a world of increasing consumerism and technological advancements, how did the beautiful game influence children on and off the playground? 

Part Two


1. Cardiff Times, 1872
2. Denbighshire Advertiser, 1878
3. 1888
4. Richard Holt, Sport and the British, 1989
5. Matthew Taylor, The Association Game, 2008
6. Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society, 2002
7. Western Mail, 1915
8. Western Mail, 1927
9. Western Mail, 1929
10. Western Mail, 1927
11. Western Mail, 1933


Popular Posts