Football Clubs’ Religious Roots

In some ways, football has become similar to religion.

Every weekend for nine months, large groups of people go on a pilgrimage to stadia across the country to support their team. They often wear replica shirts or the colors of their team to identify themselves.

However, like religion, rivalries have caused conflict, often resulting in violence between the two sides.Of course, hooligans don’t really think about religion, when they’re beating up rival fans, but they still go around thinking they’re following the true faith.

With the amount of money now in the game, it is often forgotten that several of the major clubs in Great Britain were in fact formed by church groups. And, ironically, stamping out violence was one of their aims when setting them up.

Even today, there are many schemes to remove youths from the street and get them into sport, but religion does not play as big a part in society as it once did.

Back in the 19th Century, the church was more influential and in several cases, the clubs set up by parishes have developed into multi-million pound companies.

Brother Walfrid’s Bhoys

North of the border, there is one such club that still has links with religion: Celtic.
Several clubs were formed by Irish Catholic communities, the first such being Edinburgh’s Hibernian
(their name being Latin for Ireland).

Unlike the others though, the connections between the Bhoys and their roots remains strong to this day.

They were first thought of on 6th November 1887 by the Marist Brother Walfrid (aka Andrew Kearns) in St Mary’s Church hall in Calton, Glasgow.

The club was set up with the intention of alleviating poverty in the East End of the city. The name, Celtic, was immediately adopted and reflected the club’s Scottish and Irish roots. Amazingly, the club’s first official match was played against Rangers on 6th November 1888 in what was probably the only ‘friendly encounter’ between the two teams.

The Bhoys became the first to claim the bragging rights as they won 5-2, with several of the players in the starting XI borrowed from Hibernian.

Brother Walfrid himself wanted to keep the club amateur and only had charitable intentions for the club. However, he wasn’t to get his wish, as local builder John Glass was to sign eight Hibs players without the committee’s knowledge in August 1888, whilst offering them huge huge financial incentives.

With the club now a professional outfit, they soon established themselves as one of the top teams in Scotland, winning their first trophy (the Scottish Cup) in 1892, with their first league title coming the following year. Since then they, along with Rangers (who were formed by rowers) have dominated Scottish football for over a century.

The other team to have played at Anfield

Nowadays, Everton play their home games at Goodison Park.

But, it is often forgotten that they previously played on the other side of Stanley Park, where their deadly rivals Liverpool now call home.

In fact, the Toffees can claim to be indirectly responsible for their neighbour’s formation.
Everton became the first of Liverpool’s major clubs to be formed in 1878.

The minister of St Domingo Methodist Church, the Rev. B. S. Chambers, set up a football club in order for the members of the church’s cricket team to have something to do during the winter.
The club was originally called St Domingo FC, but this was changed to Everton in November the following year after men from outside the parish wanted to come and join.

Everton became one of the 12 founder members of the Football League in 1888 and by then the club were renting out Anfield, owned by John Orrell with his friend John Houlding the leaseholder.
Eventually, Houlding was to buy the ground from Orrell and quickly increased the rent, something Everton refused to do.

So they left Anfield in 1892 and moved to the other side of Stanley Park and their present home Goodison Park, resulting in Houlding forming Liverpool.

But this isn’t where the religious links end with Everton, for Goodison Park is the only Premier League stadium with a church in its grounds – St Luke the Evangelist.

The church is located in between the triple-tiered Main Stand and the Gwladys Street End and the walls of it come within meters of these two stands.

It even has a role to play on match-days, as it sells refreshments.

Blue faith

Whilst their more illustrious neighbors were formed by employees of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, the team from the blue half of Manchester were thought of by a rector’s daughter.

Two years after what became Manchester United came into existence, Anna Connell, whose
father Arthur was rector of St Mark’s church in Gorton, in the north-west of the city, looked to provide activities for men with nothing to do in the winter.

Like Everton, a cricket club was already in existence and more activities were needed to curb levels of violence and alcoholism in the local area.

Ironic, considering these are the sort of things now associated with football fandom.

Boozy fights often took place between different religious and racial groups and the problems were made worse by the high levels of unemployment in the area.

With the help of two church wardens, William Beastow and Thomas Goodbehere, Connell set up West Gorton (St Mark’s) FC – the club who eventually became Manchester City.

The club played its first game against Macclesfield Baptist Church on November 13th 1880.
The initiative was such a success it led to the Archdeacon of Manchester commented of Connell: ‘No man could have done it – it required a woman’s tact and skill to make it so successful.’
Eventually, the club was to drift away from its roots.

It dropped St Mark’s from its name to become Gorton AFC in 1884 and three years later moved across the city to Ardwick and went professional.

It adopted the name of its new home before finally becoming Manchester City in 1894.

Pitt of uncertainty

It’s not just the most famous clubs that owe a debt of gratitude to the Church and in this case the man of the cloth even got himself in on the action.

For a long time there was some debate over when Swindon Town was formed with the club switching between foundation dates of 1879 and 1881.

For a long time the later date was deemed official as on November 12th that year Swindon, under their previous guise of Spartan Club, merged with St Mark’s Young Men’s after a match between the two teams.

But last year, substantial evidence led to the Robins acknowledging 1879 as the correct date.
It is now accepted that Reverend William Pitt, curate of Christ Church in the town centre, formed the club in an attempt to unite the communities of the Great Western Railway workers and those there before GWR arrived.

There are two main pieces of evidence that suggests this was the case.

One of these is a local report, discovered by former club statistician Paul Plowman, on a game between Swindon AFC and Rovers FC from November 29th 1879.

The report included a team photo including Pitt himself.

Pitt severed ties with the club in 1881, when he was appointed Rector of Liddington Church.
However, he provided the other piece of evidence during a speech in 1911, during which he
said the name was changed to Spartan Club as members found the original name too much of a mouthful.

He also mentioned his removal from Swindon led to his departure.

Two years after he left, Spartan Club became Swindon Town.

The clue’s in the name

When Southampton moved from The Dell to the St Mary’s Stadium in 2001, it represented a bit of homecoming.

For the club moved back into the part of the city where they were originally formed in 1885.
The stadium name was a welcome change from the current trend of selling off naming rights, as it referred to the nearby church.

The club was set up by members of the St Mary’s Church of England Young Men’s Association, meaning its first name was rather wordy – leading to them being referred to as St. Mary’s YMA by the local press.

St. Mary’s played in a variety of venues around Southampton, one of the earliest being Southampton Common.

Or at least they tried to play there – the Saints often had their games interrupted by pedestrians wandering across the pitch!

The club had changed its name to Southampton St Mary’s by the time it became a limited company in 1897 and ended its association with the church.

In 1898 the Saints, now just called Southampton FC, moved across the city to The Dell before making the return journey 103 years later.

More clubs of the cloth

There are plenty of other football clubs that have their roots in the church -some more successful than others.

This season’s FA Cup semi-finalists, Barnsley were originally a club trying to give football a foothold in a rugby-dominated area.

The Tykes were formed in 1887 by the wonderfully-named Reverend Tiverton Preedy of St Peters’, whose church lent its name to the club as Barnsley St Peters’.

He wanted to create ‘a soccer club the rugbyites will not crush.’

The club moved to Oakwell soon afterwards, but by 1897, Preedy had departed the area and their fanbase now included those outside the local parish, leading to a name change to Barnsley FC.
Aston Villa also had to contend with other sports when they were created.

They were formed by members of the Villa Wesleyan Cross Chapel in 1874 who, like several
of the other clubs mentioned were cricket players looking for something else to do during the winter.

It took them a year to find opponents in an area where rugby was more popular and they were in fact a rugby team.

In March 1875, they faced Aston Brooks St Mary’s in which the first half was to be played under rugby rules and the second football.

Villa won this encounter, keeping the first half scoreless and scoring a solitary goal after half time.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Jewish connections are well-known, but they were in fact founded by a Bible class.

‘The Hotspur Football Club’ came into existence in 1882 thanks to a group of grammar school boys at All Hallow Church.

These boys then made their teacher, John Ripsher, the club’s first President – a position he filled until 1894.

Ripsher died in poverty in 1907 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Dover – until Tottenham presented it a proper headstone a century later.

The Church of England Church on Star Road, West Kensington can be credited with the formation of Fulham in 1879.

The Cottagers were originally a Sunday school team and started their existence, like Southampton, with a long-winded name – Fulham St Andrews Church Sunday School.

The church still stands and a plaque outside it recognizes its place in the club’s history.