The nature of historical research in sport is changing. Academics, researchers and historians now operate in what has been described as the ‘digital era’ where they have access to a greater amount of information and data than ever before. Traditionally research was characterised by trips to archives and libraries, spending endless hours trawling through boxes of dusty paperwork or microfilm tapes in an attempt to locate what was often a proverbial needle in a haystack. However, the introduction of online digital archives, facilitated by digitalisation and optical character recognition (OCR) technology, makes it possible to access an ever-increasing amount of sources from the comfort of your own home or office. The online British Newspaper Archive in expanding at a rate of 8000 pages per day with keyword searches making it possible to locate relevant information almost instantly.
Whilst the ‘digital era’ is certainly not without limitations, the introduction of new technology has undoubtedly provided those conducting research into the history of sport with more information that is easier to access and search. This not only enables the generation of new knowledge but also provides an opportunity to review and re-examine previous research and accepted interpretations of the past.
The origins of Stoke City Football Club
Over the last decade Stoke City Football Club have become something of a global entity due to the exposure provided through regular participation in the English Premier League, a competition that was broadcast to one billion homes across the world during the 2016/17 season. In addition to this, the club also have a long and significant history that refers to renowned players such as Stanley Matthews and Gordon Banks, success in the 1972 League Cup final, and becoming founding members of the Football League in 1888. However, the origins and early history of the club is unclear.
Stoke City claim to have been formed in 1863, theoretically making it the second oldest surviving professional football club in the country, and in 2013 arranged a variety of commemorative events to mark its 150th anniversary. Despite these celebrations and the fact that the club crest is emblazoned with the year 1863 the official club website admits that ‘uncertainty clouds the actual date of formation’ and that ‘many details remain sketchy’, hardly a convincing proclamation.
The traditionally accepted account depicting Stoke City’s beginnings suggests that the club were formed in 1863 as Stoke Ramblers, (it would not be until the twentieth century when Stoke-on-Trent was granted city status that the club would adopt its current title), by four ex-public schoolboys from Charterhouse. These four ‘Old Carthusians’ are commonly named as Armand, Bell, Matthews and Phillpott and it is suggested that they had arrived in the region to become apprentices with the North Staffordshire Railway company. Football was regularly played at Charterhouse school and it is proposed that these four students acted as missionaries, disseminating the game to the local populace and establishing the first formal club.
However, this account of the club’s origins is undermined by a lack of evidence and major discrepancies with research being unable to identify the four supposed founders. The Charterhouse school records do not refer to a Phillpott and whilst there are multiple students that are listed with the surname Bell none fit into the appropriate time-frame. A Henry John Almond (a possible corruption of the name Armand) and a William MacDonald Matthews did attend the institution during the mid-nineteenth century but they would have been aged 12 and 13 respectively when the club was purportedly formed and had yet to finish their studies. In addition to this, the first contemporary reference of a football club existing in Stoke does not appear until 1868, five years after Stoke Ramblers were reportedly established, and it is highly unlikely that no comment, even a minor remark, would be made in the local press for five years.
Research by Martyn Cooke and Gary James has concluded that the traditional interpretation of the club’s origins is little more than a myth, although there are some links and connections to the truth, and that Stoke Ramblers were actually formed in 1868.
The first indication that a formal football club existed in the region can be found in the Field magazine in 1868 which states that ‘a new club has been formed [in Stoke-upon-Trent] for the practice of the association rules under the charge of H.J. Almond’. Harry John Almond had attended Charterhouse school where he had been a prominent member of the institutions football team and in 1868 he arrived in Stoke to become a civil engineer at the North Staffordshire Railway. It is clear that he was determined to continue playing the game in his new locality and, upon arriving in the region and discovering that no club yet existed, decided to form Stoke Ramblers. Over the following two years there are numerous reports in contemporary local, regional and national publications that affirm that the club were formed in 1868, that Almond was the founder, and that the first game was played in October 1868 against a side selected be E.W. May.
Almond captained the team in the inaugural match, reportedly scoring the club’s first goal, but had departed the region within a month to follow a career that led him to live in Spain and South America working for various railway companies. His valediction appears to have had little impact on the development of the club, which continued to arrange regular matches, and in 1870 Stoke Ramblers dropped the moniker from their name and became known simply as Stoke Football Club or Stoke-on-Trent Football Club.
The club continued to evolve and grow throughout the late nineteenth century, becoming gradually more influential and developing a national reputation that culminated in their invitation to form the Football League in 1888.
Stoke City are certainly not alone in accepting and presenting a mythical interpretation of a specific aspect of their past. In fact, the history of sport is afflicted by myths. These are events, narratives and incidents in the annals of history that either did not occur, are incorrect, or have been distorted and exaggerated so that the ‘truth’ has been lost. For example, it is widely perceived that William ‘Webb’ Ellis invented Rugby in 1823, to the extent that the victorious team in the Rugby World Cup are presented with the Webb Ellis trophy. However, research has demonstrated that there is minimal evidence to suggest that he had any substantial involvement in the creation of the sport. The traditionally accepted interpretations of the origins of Stoke City and Rugby demonstrate how a myth can acquire a power and resilience that allows then to continue and become entrenched.
The nature of historical research in the ‘digital era’ now means that academics, researchers and historians have access to more information than ever before. This tsunami of new data should provide hope that more myths in sport will be identified, revisited, debunked and a more accurate narrative accepted and presented.