A little image of England’s class divide

Two obituaries today, one of Nobby Stiles, one of JJ Williams. The second being a sporting generation younger than the first but equally dominant in his chosen game.

But the conjunction of the two leads to an observation. I’ve never actually seen film of Nobby playing. Not knowingly at least, although I’m sure I’ve seen a clip of the ’66 final at some point. Whereas JJ was one of those that I spent the 70s watching. Sitting on the sofa, father in his armchair, us both twitching in excitement and bemoaning the English inability to hold a pass.

This isn’t just about a function of decades though. Rugby was and is, in England, a middle class game, among players and watchers. There are regions where this is not so – Cornwall for example – but it is largely true across the country. Football, until the late 90s at least when it became reverse fashionable, was a working class game.

Wales is very different in this, or at least used to be in the period I’m talking about.

Of course, all the English – and most of the Welsh – know this already as it’s rather in the bone. For outsiders though. It would be entirely common that if Nobby hadn’t been in that World Cup Final then generations of an entire layer of society would have no idea who he was or even have known of his existence. Despite being a European Cup winner, League etc. Equally, there are generations of a very much larger layer of society who didn’t – and don’t – know who JJ Williams was even as that Nobby ignorant layer regards him as one of the greats.

Of course, this is normal in that followers of one sport will know the players in that sport and etc. The point being made here being that in England, until recently, those mapped so closely over class backgrounds. Indeed, which sport you followed was one of the definers of class……

30 thoughts on “A little image of England’s class divide”

  1. ” Rugby was and is, in England, a middle class game, among players and watchers. ”

    Union is absolutely; League, not at all.

  2. Well, yes, a good example of the divide. In that it didn’t even occur to me – a southern middle class type – to even think about League…..

  3. I think there’s also a regional element. Coming from the West of England, there was no top-level soccer anyway – but the best football teams in the country in Gloucester and Bath.

  4. ITV4 showed the 1968 Euro final during lockdown. It was a brilliant game, really exciting. Stiles was massacring the Portuguese forwards, with the exception of Eusebio who was far too fast and wily to be caught in possession when Nobby was around.

    They also showed Leeds v Arsenal FA final. Bloody hell I had quite forgotten what a bunch of thugs Leeds were.

    My South London comp had a very good rugby team, but all the opposition were public or church schools. They generally had no answer to some of the huge kids that played in our forward line.

  5. ” Well, yes, a good example of the divide.”

    Does it just come down to the distinction between Gentlemen and Players?

  6. Jonathan already mentioned Union rules versus league, as an outsider even I knew that. On being an outsider, my uncle used to say about cricket that an outsider can watch it for decades and never really understand the game. I think rugby is the same in that respect.

  7. Growing up in Wales with my mum’s family over in the NW of England I had no knowledge of this arcane stuff. Union was working-class Wales and League was working-class England, as far as I knew. And soccer was pretty much for everyone. My working-class Grandad was a cricket man through and through and had no time for bat-less sport. Only when I encountered obviously posh politicians confusing WHFC and AVFC because of the similar strips did I realise there was any stratification involved. Even then I assumed they were just political geeks who followed no sport at all rather than disdainful posh sorts. I’d try not to read too much into it, if I were you. All our social divisions are overrated. Ethical distinctions are the only ones that really matter.

  8. The differences between rugby league and rugby union to me mean nothing. As an outsider it’s like looking at rounders and baseball and saying they’re the same game.

  9. I learned recently Che Guevara was a rugby player….

    also been enjoying the women’s 6 nations…kind of like rugby before everyone had to be jonah lomu.

  10. I know what you mean but its not static is it. Until the 1940s and Grammar schools, only Public school boys played rugby and everyone else played football, many of these people would have considered themselves middle -class.
    When I was young watching the FA Cup final was part of your life in just the same way as watching the 5 nations and my ancient mother who used to annoy us by supporting Scotland happily watches Liverpool.
    On the question of watching Nobby Stiles play I have also watched much footage of JJ Williams playing for the Lions and none of Stiles. That said I could tell you pretty much every player in the Arsenal Leeds Liverpool and other teams of the 1970s .
    Not a clue who JJ actually played for at club level

    Lets see

    Keegan
    Toshack
    Heighway
    Kennedy
    Lindsay
    Clements
    Heighway
    Emelyn Hughes

    um….ok not all

  11. Che, didn’t know that but very middle class Argentinian, yes, makes sense. Even more so, medical student…..

  12. And then there were those of us who went to public schools with their own primitive versions of football – generally hacking a round ball on a muddy pitch and scrumming against solid objects as brick walls, ropes and fences. We tend to look down on the bourgeois sports of rugby and hockey.

  13. Alex – I played aussie rules footy for a short while. I found it far more violent than rugby. You would often receive the ball standing still with a guy marking you only a foot away. He’d grab you/ tackle you but there was no momentum to take you to the ground, unlike rugby when you are usually tackled while running. Inevitably the arms flail somewhat when you’re “tackled” and it doesn’t take much for that to turn into fistfight.

  14. ” Alex – I played aussie rules footy for a short while. I found it far more violent than rugby.”

    Hockey is the most violent game I’ve ever played.

  15. Newmonia may be for once, correct. Depends what school you went to. I think I have touched a soccer ball once. By accident. With my face. If it had been the oval ball I’d have ensured I never touched one at all. The most intelligent thing on any football field is the grass.

  16. Everything I know about Aussie rules footy I learned from The Paul Hogan Show. Those sleeveless tops were cool.

  17. Bloke in North Dorset

    My grandfather used to take me to watches Bradford Norther at Odsal Top, not far from the Idle Working Men’s club. He used to insist there was only one type of football, rugby football, and the round ball game was soccer.

    I remember the great names from Union, probably because we got the internationals on BBC. At the time the differences in play were minimal and it was easy to follow the 2 codes. League’s changed so much they are two different games.

  18. Where does that leave cricket? The only people who seem to take an interest in it these days are ex-empire immigrants. Back in the days when we used to go to the office, it was only the Saffas and Indians who got excited about cricket tournaments.

  19. Socially acceptable ritualised violence. Today my aging body experiences the consequences of being forced into it at age 7 by my father and compelled to participate at secondary school or spend an hour in detention 2-3 days a week after school: “body all aching and wracked with pain”. Fortunately by the time I arrived at 17 my body was sufficently damaged that I never had to go on another sports field.

  20. I abandoned the game on the telly this arvo. Rugby has just become too monotonous: thud and blunder repeated ad nauseam.

    Such a pity.

  21. There *were* some Public schools that played soccer. The boy who was Captain of my prep school’s soccer XI talked his dad into sending him to Repton instead of Sherborne (his dad and uncles’ school) because he wanted to stick to soccer [FYI I wasn’t good enough at any ball games to be significant and my best friend, who was the best soccer and cricket player in the school, followed the previous year’s 1st XI captain to Durham which played rugger]

  22. JJ (very) briefly discussed playing League – from The Times obit:

    Pecuniary reward was not the issue at the end of Williams’s life that it had been for him in 1974, when he returned from the Lions’ tour of South Africa and received an offer of £13,500 to become a rugby league player for Widnes in Cheshire. Their coach, Vince Karalius, “the wild bull of the Pampas”, parked the biggest Mercedes ever seen in Maesteg outside his house, which rather gave the game away. Word reached the WRU, who decided that if he was turning professional, he would be banned from playing for Llanelli.

    The sanction lasted for one match. On the following Monday Williams was welcomed back for training, the governing body realising it would not be wise to do battle with a homecoming hero.

  23. Diehard footy man, till I enlisted in the boy’s army aged 16 and was billeted in Wales. Lots of short, red haired (working class) goblins that knew nothing but rugby. Despite playing the game as a teenager and thereafter engaging with rugby in order to connect with neighbours, colleagues and friends, I understand the game about as much as I understand women.

  24. “Football is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, and rugby union is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.”

  25. Rugby was all there was for boys at our school with some athletics thrown in, no football team, our games teacher and rugby coach was JJ’s elder brother who also recently passed away just over a week ago. Great guys the pair of them, sad to see them gone.

  26. “Rugby was and is, in England, a middle class game, among players and watchers… Football, …, was a working class game.” – can’t quite agree with you on that, footy is and always was “The People’s game” – all of us. Some rugby snobs refuse to follow footy, but footy is widely followed among all the classes.

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