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A matter of life and death: football, conflict and the coronavirus

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Echoes of the past

The suspension of the Premier League and English Football League seasons and debates on the sport’s responsibilities around Covid-19 have escalated in recent weeks. Initially, football authorities and government faced criticism for a lack of leadership and faced accusations of treating footballers as ‘guinea pigs’ as a result of their delay in calling the game to a halt.  Debates have now shifted to finding a satisfactory resolution to the season, with widespread criticism of the decision to void lower league seasons that has plunged many historic, smaller clubs into deep financial peril. Against this backdrop, Matt Hancock has singled out Premier League clubs and footballers through calls to make a financial contribution in the effort to defeat Covid-19.

Whilst it can be problematic for historians to draw similarities across time between different medical crises, a look at football’s responses to the challenges posed by a smallpox crisis can anticipate forthcoming scenarios, stalemates and might even help inform solutions.

Football the super spreader

In spring 1898, a smallpox epidemic ravaged the north east town of Middlesbrough, bringing hundreds of deaths and as with today’s coronavirus, led to the postponement of a number of Middlesbrough Football Club (aka Boro) fixtures and brought uncertainty and division in and beyond the game.  In short, football was recognised as a sporting, smallpox super-spreader. Of particular concern was the prospect of players and travelling supporters mingling in close contact and introducing smallpox to new towns.  

The issue gained national attention when a high-profile FA Amateur Cup semi-final tie between Middlesbrough and Thornaby scheduled to take place in neutral Darlington, was called off following local medical and political intervention. A meeting of the local Corporation’s Health Committee, alerted by a ‘prominent medical gentleman’ of the dangers posed by Teesside’s footballing faithful descending on the railway town, intervened and banned the tie from taking place in Darlington. The news spread across the country in the national press.

Darlington’s action reflected wider fear at a defiant Middlesbrough public spreading smallpox, including concerns from Middlesbrough’s new Medical Officer of Health Dr Charles Dingle. Appointed following the death of Dr John Malcolmson after ‘the increased smallpox in the town had produced overwork and worry, which quite undermined his health’, Dingle used a meeting of Middlesbrough’s Special Sanitary and Sanatorium Committee to air his grievances at disregard for rules at the town’s sanatorium:

Patients were observed climbing on the boundary walls talking to their friends, and even shaking hands. At one period during the afternoon the Grounds of the Hospital were invaded by the outside public. It has also occurred that convalescent Patients have left the Grounds of the Hospital before being officially discharged.

This behaviour reflected widespread public distrust and defiance of isolation policies repeated 122 years on – earlier this month it was reported those living in Middlesbrough are ‘most likely’ to ignore the ‘Stay At Home’ government guidance. Dingle’s indignation has striking echoes of today’s calls for action against rule breakers:

I would suggest…more men be appointed to patrol the walls and boundaries of the Hospital Grounds, and to restrain the convalescent Patients. Large numbers of the general public were assembled, drawn there by idle curiosity, in close proximity to the Hospital. I need hardly point out to them and this Committee the risk they run of contracting such an infectious disease as Small-Pox by such contact.

Conflict between clubs and governing bodies

Covid-19 has brought numerous meetings of football’s leading authorities seeking economic, social and sporting solutions for today’s crisis. A joint statement (3 April) following a recent meeting reported no resolutions but that participants ‘reiterated that the overriding priority is the health and wellbeing of the nation – including that of players, coaches, managers, club staff and supporters – and everyone agreed football must only return when it is safe and appropriate to do so.’ 

In 1898, numerous divisive meetings took place as the smallpox death toll increased. One such meeting saw the Football Association propose Middlesbrough pull out of the FA Amateur Cup ‘in the best interest of the sport’, with Boro’s directors unanimously rejecting the national association’s proposition to withdraw and forego a shot at cup glory.

Locally, Boro were at odds with the Cleveland Association over a Cleveland Senior Cup semi-final scheduled to take place against South Bank three miles away at the latter’s ground. The Cleveland Association Chairman considered it ‘the height of folly to bring a crowd together to stand 1½ to 2 hours for there would be a great danger of the infection spreading’, whilst the local Urban District Council demanded the tie’s postponement. Boro refused and attempted to vindicate their stance by pointing to the mixing of crowds from South Bank and Middlesbrough at Saturday markets. Although the Cleveland Association’s council voted 6 to 2 in favour of the match going ahead, South Bank’s committee swiftly rejected the ruling and declined to play the fixture.

Mixed solutions for reaching a conclusion






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About Tosh Warwick

Dr Tosh Warwick is Research Associate in the History Research Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University, with research interests in urban history and heritage, urban elites and governance in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the role of industrialists in shaping business, culture and politics in manufacturing towns.

Articles by Tosh Warwick

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