2020 - Football's Most Important Year?

Well well well...2020. What a mad year. This time last year, few could predict the unprecedented events which would develop as the world went into lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic has swept through nation after nation disrupting all aspects of life. Even football, which often seems untouchable, was shutdown in March. Upon its restart in June, stadiums usually full of tens of thousands of supporters were left deserted as the game struggled to cope. Our first book, Football's Fifty Most Important Moments was released in April, just a month after the UK's first lockdown began. As a result, interviews on various podcasts would consistently ask that if the book were to be released later - would the COVID-19 pandemic be included. Undoubtedly, yes. 2020 will be regarded as one of the game's most pivotal years - but what other years deserve their place in football history? 


Six years before the codification of football under the 'association rules', the game was beginning to boom in Sheffield. Playing under the 'Sheffield Rules', the emergence of clubs in South Yorkshire helped provide the nation's first football sub-culture. Sheffield FC would be formed in 1857 before further sides like Harrow (1860) joined the movement. The famous 'rules derby' is still played today between Sheffield and Harrow and upon the first fixture between the two, the notions of identity and local pride were evident for all to see. Despite the later introduction of association rules, the code developed in Sheffield would prove to be more popular for the remainder of the 1860s. The Youdan Cup would provide an opportunity for football's first competition and it would only be with the success of the FA Cup that the South Yorkshire game eventually found itself assimilating with its southern rivals.


A common answer from many of our twitter followers was 1863. For many, 1863 is the year football was born. Of course this statement is false as the game was already flourishing in Sheffield and various forms of the game had been played in public schools and universities before this date. What 1863 does provide, however, is a convenient start date for the association game which remains the game of today. The Freemason's Tavern in London would provide the location for twelve clubs and public schools to meet to discuss their visions for the game. A list of rules were drafted and ratified by 11 of those in attendance. Discrepancies would arise with the removal of 'hacking' from the game - the practice of kicking the opponent's shins to regain possession. Despite the objections from Blackheath, the Football Association would be established, and a platform would be offered for the game to evolve.


Twenty-five years into its codified existence, football was never far from debate and scandal. The introduction of the FA Cup in the 1870s had created a game in which winning was now an important element to the sport. Professionalism soon followed and in the 1880s football was well and truly split. As well as the 'broken-time' payments offered to players (often from working-class areas), a new 'professional' approach would see teams and clubs begin to train and rethink tried and tested tactics. Amateur clubs would renounce this new attitude and refuse to compete alongside the increasing number of sides (mainly from the North of England). In response 12 clubs would set up the first ever English League in 1888 in order to play throughout the year and not limit themselves to competitive FA Cup action which could be over in round one. Professional football would continue to grow and develop throughout the 1890s and into the 20th century. The amateur game would never recover. 


The growth and evolution of women's football had been one positive to emerge from the ashes of the First World War. Prior to the conflict, women's football had been limited by a misogynistic society determined to scupper any opportunity for female equality. However, as the men's game was suspended from 1915, the British public found the void being filled with women's players. Primarily assembled from 'munitionettes', sides like the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies would draw impressive crowds throughout the conflict as they raised vital funds for war veterans and widows. Although initially seen by many as a novelty, the speed, guile and excellence of the players saw women's football develop genuine fanbases and supporters to rival the men's game. Over 50,000 would attend a match at Goodison Park in 1920, demonstrating the pulling power of the women's game. Threatened by a new rival to the men's game and in response to a change in some public attitudes, the FA took the decision to ban women's football from playing at FA affiliated grounds in 1921, effectively destroying the game in the UK. It would be over 50 years before the ban was lifted. Women's football would have to start again.


Arguably the year football became the world's game. After successful Olympic football tournaments in 1924 and 1928, FIFA would introduce the World Cup. Controversially hosted in Uruguay, the first edition of football's greatest prize was noticeable for a lack of European participants. France, Belgium, Yugoslavia and Romania were the continent's only representatives as South America took centre-stage in Montevideo. Argentina would face-off against neighbours Uruguay for the honour of becoming the first world champions. A 4-2 victory for the hosts would see the nation mark its 100th birthday in style. Despite initial European and noticeably British reluctance to take part, the tournament would return four years later and see the game taken to new levels.


It had taken years before English football opened itself up to the world game. Prior to the Second World War, England had created for itself a sense of superiority due to its status as 'inventors of the game'. Indeed, the first three FIFA World Cups were notable for the absence of British nations. Adamant that the competitions were of a lesser standard to the Home Nations Championships, the FAs of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland took a firm stance in their objection to the tournament. The climax of WWII, however, had highlighted the need to British nations to demonstrate a more open approach to foreign affairs and football, they believed, would be a key element in this. The 1950 World Cup in Brazil was a disaster for England as they surprisingly exited in the first round. A rather embarrassing defeat to part-timers the USA compounded the misery.

In 1953, England had its chance to eradicate the performance in 1950 by beating Hungary at Wembley. The Three Lions had never lost to a nation from outside of the British Isles at Wembley and would fancy themselves against the Magyars. English arrogance was unfounded as the side led by Puskas, Kocsis and Hidegkuti ran riot on the hallowed Wembley turf and pummelled their opponents 6-3. The capacity crowd would watch in awe as intricate passing and ruthless attacking play devastated a record which had last almost 80 years. Football in England would never be the same again. The English were not the power they once were, reflecting the nation's wider position in global politics and debate.


European football had reached an impasse by the late 1960s. The continental game had been dominated by Italian football and the tactical superiority of 'catenaccio'. The system was deployed to a brutal extent by Helenio Herrera's Inter Milan as they won the European Cup in 1964 and '65. Aiming for a third triumph in four seasons, the Nerazzuri would face Jock Stein's Celtic in Lisbon. Celtic had earned their place in the final through attractive attacking football and were very much the antithesis of the Italians. Winning 2-1 in the Final, Celtic's Lisbon Lions had demonstrated that beautiful football was good enough to win even the most prestigious of prizes. Later European triumphs would be found in the 'total football' of Ajax with Johan Cruyff becoming one of the game's first superstars. Football had evolved into a new tactical style, not for the first time and certainly not for the last.


For all its triumphs and supporters, football has never been far from tragedy. The standard of football stadiums around the world had been subject to scrutiny throughout the 20th century. In the UK, Ibrox Disasters in 1902 and later 1971 had highlighted that stadia was not up to standard. Unfortunately, a lack of action from authorities meant another disaster was just around the corner. The 1980s saw the game reach a crisis point following a rise in hooligan related tensions and a game neglected by those on charge. The Bradford Fire in 1985 had raised questions of stadium standards and the Heysel Disaster had seen a crumbling ground met with hooliganism. 

In 1989, the Hillsborough Disaster saw 96 innocent supporters crushed to death during an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Despite no hooligan related trouble - draconian measures implemented at stadiums saw steel fences around the perimeter of the pitch. A lack of thorough planning and a limited number of entrances into the stadium saw police order an exit gate to open up. As a result fans were allowed to flow into the Leppings Lane end of the ground. The resultant crush against the steel fences was to leave hundreds of Merseyside families without their loved ones. To add further insult the stance of the press and in particular, The S*n was to immediately blame to disaster of the supporters, bolstered by fabricated and deceitful headlines. It would take almost 30 years for the fighting families of the 96 to see a inquest verdict finally reveal that every death was preventable and not an accident.

The resultant Taylor Report into the standard of football stadiums would highlight a number of key reforms needed at top-flight stadia in the UK. Perhaps the most noticeable of changes was the removal of terraces and the introduction of all-seater grounds by the mid-1990s. 


The birth of modern football? 1992 saw major rebranding in two of the games' most influential competitions. In England, the lure of financial profit bolstered by the major television companies (most notably BSkyB saw the century-old Football League become the Premier League. On the continent, the European Cup was also to undergo a similar change by becoming the Champions League, once more heavily influenced by an increase in television revenue. The influence of the Premier and Champions Leagues is of immense importance. Money rules the modern game and the reinvention of these competitions in 1992 has led the way for mass commercialisation and staggering wages. On the other hand, the influx of finances has also made for a better, safer game. The standard of football has no doubt improved massively as pitches and stadiums frequently go under careful maintenance and the exposure of television has added to the prestige of the competitions they show. The Premier League is the greatest league on the planet and The Champions League is its greatest competition.


2020 is hard to put into words and even harder to restrict to a paragraph or two at the end of this blog. In fact, the last 366 days (yep, it was a leap year) have meant different things to each and every individual. By asking our Twitter followers for their memories we were able to see why 2020 is so important to football history:

  • The removal of fans from grounds around the world due to COVID-19 was the most common response as we all began to appreciate what we sometimes can take for granted. 
  • Liverpool ending a thirty-year wait to win the Premier League also received shoutouts from many of you (mainly Reds fans!).
  • Celtic winning an unprecedented quadruple treble.
  • The loss of perhaps the greatest player to ever play the game - Diego Maradona.
  • The return of Leeds to the Premier League.
  • The increased implementation of VAR which has caused a split through the heart of the game.
What are your memories of 2020?

©The Football History Boys, 2020


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