Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University are delving into the origins of football in Manchester and exploring how the sport triumphed over other forms of team sports in the city.
Despite the city’s passion for football today, Manchester’s most popular team sport in Victorian England was rugby.
Dr Gary James, lecturer in Sport History, has looked into the transition of the city’s favourite sport for the Soccer & Society Journal in ‘The origins debate – how soccer triumphedg over other forms of team sports in Manchester.’
He said: “There is no doubt that Manchester was recognised as a rugby playing city during the 1870s to 1890s. Although an early football community had existed in Manchester during the 1860s, there were few opponents west of the Pennines making it difficult for the community to grow. The majority of local clubs also preferred a rugby version of the sport.”
Lacrosse and pedestrianism, a professional form of athletics, were also prevalent and popular sporting activities in Victorian Manchester. These sports were all more popular than association football – the game as we know it today.
In 1870s the contemporary form of football was growing with several prominent clubs appearing in Manchester and also Glasgow, Nottingham and Stoke. The establishment of the Manchester Football Association (MFA) in 1884 also helped the sport grow.
Dr James said: “Although the sport was growing, it couldn’t displace rugby and the introduction of Lacrosse in the mid-1870s saw that sport grow rapidly, limiting football’s opportunities to dominate the sporting scene.
“Despite this, it was not until the split in rugby in 1895 into two sports – a professional version, now rugby league, and an amateur version, now rugby union – that football could shine. Rugby’s demise was a self-inflicted wound that divided Manchester’s large rugby community into two.”
By the end of the nineteenth century, Manchester’s football clubs were seeing their first successes and football could be said to have become the leading Mancunian team sport.
Dr James added: “Other influences did factor in to football’s success in Manchester. After the rugby split, rugby league teams represented districts or towns rather than the city. Manchester’s football clubs not only saw an advantage in taking the city’s name but also managed to encourage wider interest in the sport through their ability to compete on a national stage.
“For any professional sport to prosper it needs motivation, interest, entrepreneurs, and a willing public and financial security.
“The pro-active football community, with two clubs keen to represent the whole of Manchester, supported by entrepreneurs who could see how to make their business a success.
“Once Manchester’s football clubs began finding trophy success, the opportunity for rugby of either code to displace football as Manchester’s leading team sport was lost.”


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