Rugby vs Football: Gentleman’s game played by hooligans, or a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen?

Smithfield Warthogs Rugby Union Football Club
Smithfield Warthogs Rugby Union Football Club

Story written & researched by Sean Fagan for SaintsAndHeathens; Sep 30, 2013 @ 10:55

No doubt, you’ve come across the witty quote – in various forms – about the football codes and whether a particular one is a game for gentlemen, ruffians, hooligans and so forth.

The most common form is in a comparison between Rugby and football (soccer):

“Football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, and Rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen”

 or

“Football – a game for gentlemen played by hooligans. Rugby – a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.”

But which is correct? And from where did it originate?

Story written & researched by Sean Fagan for SaintsAndHeathens.com

Other forms of the endless variants include:

“Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by thugs. Rugby league is a thug’s game played by thugs. Rugby Union is a thug’s game played by gentlemen.”

Toss in “Gaelic football is a game for hooligans played by hooligans,” “Cricket is a game for gentlemen played by gentlemen” and one for Walter Camp and American football by Henry Blaha (Blaha was apparently Australian?):

“Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen. Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by beasts. Football is a beastly game played by beasts.”

Seeking to find the original quote that set in train these cross code barbs, and hoping to read it in its original context, I set out on a search.

What did I find? Just who first quipped “football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, and Rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen”?

Some sources attribute the quote to Britain’s war-time Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. However, nothing documented has ever been found to support that. The nearest is a line from one of his most famous speeches: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Another ascribed the honour is 19th century Irish playright, Oscar Wilde. I found he had made a quote about Rugby, but it wasn’t the one I was looking for. Wilde said: 

“Rugby is a good occasion for keeping thirty bullies far from the centre of the city.”

English novelist George Orwell is often cited as comparing a Rugby match as the equivalent of “war minus the shooting.” Orwell’s quote is interesting, but doesn’t specifically refer to Rugby at all, nor is it the “hooligans game” line that I was after:

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

Another name put forward as the possible source is Rudyard Kipling, English poet and author of a century ago. In the midst of the Boer War, Kipling wrote:

“Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls, With the flannelled fools at the wicket, or the muddied oafs at the goals.”

William Percy ‘Tottie’ Carpmael, founder of the Barbarian FC in 1890, was suggested. The connection here was probably based on the Barbarian FC having a motto, written by Walter Carey:

“Rugby football is a game for gentlemen of all classes, but for no bad sportsman of any class.”

hooliganTurning to the “Oxford Dictionary of Quotations,” the Penguin equivalent, and “Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,” all came up empty as to the source of the “gentleman’s game played by hooligans” quote.

A reference on the internet pointed to a book called “The Wonderful World of Rugby” by Jon Clarke as the originator. However, such a book could not be found, nor any evidence of it ever having been published.

The RFU’s “Museum of Rugby” mounted a search of their extensive archive to answer my question, but nothing came to light there either.

The word “hooligan” doesn’t appear to have come into common use in Britain until the very late 1890s.

After trawling through library archives of newspapers, the earliest use of the quote I could find were two in the British press in 1953, both of which almost certainly brought it into popular use around the Rugby and soccer (football) playing world.

The first was in London’s The Times newspaper in an article called “The Evolution of Football” [ January 30, 1953; pg. 10] discussing the various forms of football, which goes on to say:

“… a large family – Association, Rugby Union, Rugby League, Gaelic football, American football, and Australian Rules. Each clearly has its merits and may safely be left to its adherents, but one cannot refrain from repeating the story of a certain Chancellor of Cambridge University (confessing complete ignorance of all football), who was asked to sum up a debate on Association and Rugby. “It is clear,” he said, “that one is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; the other a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”

The second was in The Spectator [December 25, 1953; pg. 17]:

“… the comment of the nineteenth-century Cambridge don — “it seems to me that one is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans and the other a game for hooligans played by gentlemen” — seems to have contained the essence of the similarity between the two [football codes]…”

The Chancellor appears to be having ‘a bob each way’, rather than backing one side over the other. Being ignorant of all football, all the debate proved to him was that the adherents of each code will always speak from their own biased point of view.

The popular form of the quote widely used today is almost certainly wrong, and the original quote didn’t ‘pigeon hole’ one game or the other when it came to gentlemen and hooligans.

“It is clear that one is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; the other a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”
Chancellor of Cambridge University, date unknown (c.1890s)

© Sean Fagan

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SaintsAndHeathens.com

 

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