The Use of History in Football

You’ll most likely love this time of year if you’re a football fan, or you’ll hate it if you’re not. That’s right, Euro 2020 is finally upon us, despite Covid’s best attempts in delaying it by a whole 12 months. For me, an international tournament is paradise. 

I’ve long recognised the use of history in football as a method to form group identity. However, this was really made apparent during Friday night’s grudge match between England and Scotland. The preceding days saw the media pour over the footballing history of the two teams’ rivalry, stoking up the ashes of 1977 and 1996. Yet, it was the non-footballing references that were particularly of note. Shortly before kickoff on ITV’s coverage, James McAvoy presented a short skit to set the pulses racing. The montage flicked through historic encounters between the two nations’ football teams, but then the Scottish actor got to the heart of the matter of the rivalry. “Just read your history books” McAvoy implored: “Bannockburn, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the poll tax, William Wallace.” Football now, he claimed, is the slightly more civilised way this “ancient rivalry” is now settled.

Bannockburn was invoked a mere five minutes later when the two nations stood to sing their national anthems. If England’s anthem is all about the Queen, what is Scotland’s all about? Scotland’s anthem for most of its major sporting sides now is “O Flower of Scotland”, and boy did the Tartan Army (the epithet popularly given to their passionate fans) belt it out with pride amongst the chorus of English boos. I’d never really listened to the anthem all the way through, so the day after the match (following much sulking at the result of the match as a proud Englishman where sport is concerned) I looked it up. “O Flower of Scotland” has been adopted from a song by The Corries of the same name from the 1960s, written to commemorate the Battle of Bannockburn, where Robert the Bruce repelled King Edward II’s invasion of Scotland during the First Scottish War of Independence in the 14th century. Here are the lyrics:

O Flower of Scotland

When will we see your like again?

That fought and died for

Your wee bit Hill and Glen

And stood against him

Proud Edward’s Army

And sent him homeward to think again

Those days are past now

And in the past they must remain

But we can still rise now

And be the nation again

That stood against him

Proud Edward’s Army

And sent him homeward to think again

“O Flower of Scotland” remembers Robert the Bruce’s victory over King Edward II in the 14th century.

Talk about using history for present purposes! That same Saturday morning I bought a newspaper to read the pundits’ post-mortem of England’s lacklustre display. On the front page of the Daily Telegraph the footballing headline read “Scotland brave-hearted, England half-hearted” – a further reference to that era of history and Mel Gibson’s famous film adaptation thereof. In the sport section, Oliver Brown stepped outside of the footballing analysis to laud the match’s ability to help both Englander and Scot forget, for one night, only the ravages of Covid on the British Isles over the past 15 months. Even a Chief Sports Writer of a national newspaper couldn’t help himself but indulge in a bit of history, waxing lyrical that:

“The tone was set by suggestions that the Scots would be possessed with the same fury with which they repelled Edward II. That might be a touch hyperbolic, but when a few English fans began arriving in full 14th-century regalia, you sensed it could be a torrid night.”

Of course, it’s not just this rivalry that invokes the past in football. The Dutch national team are called “the Oranje” and play in orange (eschewing the colours of the national flag) because of the historic Royal House of Orange-Nassau. And it isn’t always benign. In a contemporary documentary by ITV about Euro 1996, former players from that England squad lamented how unhelpful they found the military rhetoric used by the tabloid press in the run-up to their semi-final with Germany.

The tabloid press during Euro 1996 conjured up World War II imagery, to the lament of the England players. Source: Pinterest

History is ever-present in club football too. Barcelona and Real Madrid are arch-enemies dating back to the Spanish Civil War. In England, several teams’ nicknames provide a link to the town/city’s history: “The Gunners” (Arsenal), “The Toffees” (Everton) and “The Blades” (Sheffield United) are just some of the commonly known examples. “The Monkey Hangers” (Hartlepool United) is one of football’s more colourful nods to the past, commemorating a monkey who was mistaken for a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars. Whilst a statue commemorating this event is causing headlines, the nickname of the town’s football club will arguably “do the memory work” of this event far more than the statue will in the years to come, especially with the club’s return to the Football League.

Hartlepool FC carry one of English football’s most intriguing nods to the past with their nickname.

So to wrap up, why is football synonymous with history? Many words will have been typed on this subject before by far more distinguished academics than myself, but I’d hazard an educated guess that football clubs (and sport in general) invoke the history of their town/city to help forge an identity amongst fans which provides cohesion, loyalty and allegiance. Only this year many fans felt threatened by projects like the European Super League, which they claimed prioritised international audiences above domestic fans. Nicknames and anthems are just some of the ways that fans can maintain that link between a club, their locale and their fanbase alive through the powerful, ever-present past.

By Steven Bishop

Steven is researching the recent protests against statues of controversial historical figures across the world, focusing on the complex relationship between history and memory. His other historical interests include the history of the United States of America, especially the period from colonisation to the Civil War. He also have a burgeoning interest in local history and write about Colchester’s many heritage sites in Colchester United’s matchday programme.