Matt Dickinson writing in The Times today....
According to the FA, a recent visit by Greg Dyke to First World War graves in northern France was just the kick-off for footballs act of remembrance over the next four years. The Football League and the PFA also made the pilgrimage, while the Premier League is in the process of building a floodlit pitch at Ypres in Belgium.
One hundred years after the start of the Great War, we will hear plenty about what the game did for the war effort and those footballers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
It is right and proper that the game reflects but, for balance, we also need to recall how football failed in 1914 in a way that caused much agonising at the time, wounding itself in a way that has consequences to this day.
Dyke, the FA chairman, can be thankful that he will never have to make a decision of the magnitude that faced his predecessors 100 years ago when war broke out in late July 1914. There was an immediate need to mobilise hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
To continue with the looming football season or not? The games went ahead but the sight of fit footballers chasing a ball while thousands of their countrymen were signing up for King and country soon began to provoke dismay.
Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar addressed a New Army battalion: I respect and honour you more than I can say. How different is your action to that of the men who can still go on with their cricket and football, as if the very existence of our nation were not at stake.
The anger was not just felt among military ranks. Thomas Fry, the Dean of Lincoln, began an outspoken campaign against the game and the spectators turning up in their thousands: Onlookers who, while so many of their fellow men are giving themselves in their countrys peril, still go gazing at football.
George V, as patron of the FA, was lobbied to intervene to stop the matches but the Kings private secretary replied that contractual obligations to the players had to be fulfilled. It was not just sport but business. The FA sought to duck the escalating controversy by asking the War Office to make a ruling. The hot potato was passed straight back to the governing body.
Crickets season finished and, in August, leading rugby clubs announced that they were scrapping all fixtures because they simply did not have enough players. In early September 1914, the RFU formally cancelled all club, county, and international matches.
Yet the Football Leagues hierarchy voted that the show must go on. The FA announced that it would contribute £1,000 to the war fund but had no intention of stopping the FA Cup or the top two divisions.
As more volunteers signed up, a prominent cartoon in October 1914 featured an unapologetic professional footballer being told by Mr Punch, No doubt you can make money in this field, my friend, but theres only one field today where you can get honour.
The FA went on the defensive. Charles Clegg, the chairman, argued that the game was being singled out unfairly. The FA insisted that it was behind the war effort, distributing recruitment posters. Yet attempts to enlist at matches drew dismal numbers, casting the sport in an even worse light.
The Times carried a story One recruit at Arsenal match and noted that this failure contrasts strongly with the wholesale volunteering which has distinguished the performers and devotees of other forms of sport. Rugby union clubs, cricket elevens and rowing clubs throughout the kingdom have poured men into the ranks. This paper became a strident opponent of footballs continuation.
Eventually, the game did respond through the formation of the Footballers Battalion, the 17th Middlesex, in December 1914 at Fulham Town Hall. Frank Buckley, the Derby County and England centre half, was its first member. It quickly grew in numbers, mostly with supporters and amateurs, but also professionals.
Their sacrifice was duly recognised by Dyke but the FA should not draw a veil over the wider controversy that lasted a whole season until the FA Cup Final in 1915, the so-called Khaki Cup final because of the large number of uniformed soldiers present. The Earl of Derby presented the trophy to Sheffield United and then declared everyones duty to now play a sterner game for England. Games were over until 1919.
It is easy to think this was a problem of the time, but the damage was lasting. Football had been the main sport within public schools but the war marked a significant shift in the sporting geography. Dozens of boys schools abandoned football, turning to the oval ball, in the belief that rugby had proven itself a sport that brought up the right sort of chaps, noble defenders of imperial ideals. By 1929, the number of public and grammar schools affiliated to the RFU had more than quadrupled to 133, up from 27 a decade earlier. It was a powerful trend, still felt today.
I went to one of those schools that did not play football and still feel resentful about it. I recall my countless, failed attempts to argue that it was absurd that an English school did not play the national game.
I was no loss to football, but it is fair to wonder how many top players have been missed because of the class polarisation between rugby and football that deepened after the war, especially at independent schools.
Only when there are England players with educated accents might the national team maximise its potential, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski wrote in their book, Why England Lose.
Dyke can chew on that 100-year-old problem left by his FA predecessors as he leads the commemorations.