“Much more than life an death”

With the approach of Euro 2024, Roy Francis explores the Church’s role in establishing today’s football league and poses the question: ‘Should the Church use sport to share the Gospel?’

Football is like religion in that it inspires the kind of passion, belief and devotion that most spiritual leaders can only dream of. At this time of the year, when most leagues in England have drawn to a close, it’s the European Cup football tournament – second in prestige to the World Cup football tournament that most of Europe, if not the world, will be watching this summer.

As far as financial rewards go, the English Premier League is top. Each year it brings in around £7.6 billion to the economy through match-day ticket sales, and broadcast rights. It supports many industries, including marketing, hospitality, conferences, as well as businesses in local authorities.

It might come as a surprise, but many of the most successful clubs in today’s English Football League owe their origins to the Church, whose work in socially deprived areas was the Christian soil the game took root in and flourished. Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Barnsley, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Bolton Wanderers, Queens Park Rangers, Southampton, and Tottenham Hotspur can all trace their beginnings to churches as part of what we would today call outreach ministry.

Victorian vicars saw the potential of football as a way of diverting young people’s attention away from alcohol, delinquency, and personal conflict, and adopted it. It was their way of guiding the young people in their care towards Christian values.

The thinking behind this was a 19th century idea of ‘muscular’, ‘masculine’, or ‘manly’ Christianity. It contended that games like football – and sports in general – was a good way to build character. Peter Lupson, who has written extensively on football and the Church, says ‘Courage – not ducking the hard challenge – fair play, unselfishness – you played for the team – and self-control’ were Christian traits churches wanted to instil in young people, similar to those typical of the public schools of Rugby, Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, and Oxford and Cambridge universities.

An interesting story in the history of football is Barnsley FC, which was started by Rev Tiverton Preedy in 1887 at St Peter’s Church, in what was then a deprived, squalid part of the town. Barnsley St Peter’s Football Club – as it was originally called – was a way of giving young men in the area something to do, especially during the winter months (cricket occupied the summer) and as a soft way of instilling Christian virtues and leading them to Christ. The team played regularly in Barnsley until 1893, when it joined the Sheffield and District League, winning its first trophy in the same year.

In that year also, Rev Tiverton left Barnsley to take up a curacy at St Clement’s in City Road, Islington, thereafter moving to White Lion Street, another area in the borough. A keen sportsman, who knew the transformative power of sport, Tiverton established boxing and wrestling clubs as a way of ministering to the people of the area, including those who sold fruits and flowers in what was then the beginning of Chapel Market.

Number 71 White Lion Street, Islington, is where my parents started their church in 1967. It is one of the earliest Black Pentecostal churches in London and was also the home of the Inspirational Choir. Although our church wasn’t aware then of the history of this part of the street, it’s good to know, for descendants of members of the church have gone on to make their mark in the world of sport.

Back in Barnsley, it’s intriguing to witness how the twists and turns of life unfold. While the connection between Barnsley Football Club and its roots in the local church community may not be as robust as it once was, there’s a resurgence of that bond – thanks to Bruce Dyer. In 1994 he became Britain’s first teenager to be signed for over £1 million when he joined Crystal Palace FC. He also played a pivotal role for Barnsley until his retirement in 2008. Notably, Bruce is the son of the late George Dyer, who almost single-handedly made reggae gospel music acceptable to the Black Church community in Britain, by staging many of the finest gospel reggae concerts, featuring artists from Jamaica and the Caribbean.

What Bruce is doing in Barnsley is following in the footsteps of Rev Tiverton, seeing sports – and in his case football – as a way of ‘winning souls’. He is the pastor of ‘Love Life Ministry’; has strong links to Barnsley Football Club; stages football tournaments, coaching sessions, outreach work; and holds church services. Each year at the Love Life Sports Ground in Grimethorpe, Barnsley, Bruce stages sporting activities and youth development initiatives, aiming to teach young people football as well as life skills and, through these, to help lead them to Christ.

When it comes to the role football plays in the Black community, it’s hard now to imagine there was once a time when hardly any Caribbeans were playing football in the English leagues, let alone watching it from the terraces. Now, 43% of all football players here in the UK are Black, and there’s virtually no English club that doesn’t include a Black player, and many of the biggest names in the game are Black.

Football has not only transformed Black players’ lives, but also the clubs they play for, and many people believe it has helped foster good relations between the races. When once Black players had to contend with racism in their clubs – from their teammates, on the terraces, and from opposing fans – football now helps to heal, bind and unite.

With so many Black players being heroes to their fans, it’s hard to continue to abuse them if they keep scoring goals, keep defending so brilliantly, and keep skilfully orchestrating the game from midfield. It is now a proven path for Black youngsters who want to enter the game, for their heroes are in it and are doing well – unlike in the past, when negative stereotypes, racism and fear blocked their way.

How did this happen, especially when the community Black players came from had little or limited tradition in playing football? The answer lies in the pioneering ability of several Black players – children of the Windrush Generation – who blazed the trail for transformation of the English Football League and, to a large extent, British society. In this sense, Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson, Garth Crooks and Viv Anderson (and others) occupy pantheon status in the game.

It’s unfortunate that our churches often overlook the immense potential for using sport as a means of building character, community service, and serving God. In today’s sports-centric society, it’s evident how many individuals, both in England and worldwide, are engrossed in events like the upcoming Euros.

Indeed, we live in a football- and sports-obsessed age. Just think how many people will be watching the Euros this summer! Some say it is the new religion, with its quasi-religious status, commanding a level of devotion once reserved for churches and religious institutions.

About 50,000 churches exist in Britain today, and with a membership of less than 10% of the population, some would say the Church is in decline – though there are pockets of revival. The proportion of people defining themselves as Christian has fallen from about 66% in 1983 to less than 40% in 2016. Those professing no religion at all has risen from 33% to 52%.

Interestingly, in today’s society, many people are more passionate and devoted to football than to Christianity – a result, many would say, of the increasing secularisation of society. The Church unfortunately is caught in a bind; it needs to adapt, but at the same time it is trying to hold on to traditional values and revealed truths. At times it finds this difficult. Perhaps it needs the skill, leadership and vision of someone like Bill Shankly – perhaps Liverpool’s greatest manager – who, when commenting on his devotion to Liverpool, said:

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Roy N Francis is a former BBC TV producer, founder of Roy Francis Productions, and is author of ‘Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain’. Visit https://www.royfrancis.co.uk/

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