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The English foxhunter riding wild over other people’s lands circa 1800, and the English football hooligan running wild over other people’s lands much later, were related figures. For both, writes Robert Colls, sport was “an expression of liberty and belonging”. In fact, sport was central to Englishness.

Historians long either ignored sport, or dismissed it as the new “opium of the people”, a ruling-class trick to impose social control. Colls, a cultural historian at De Montfort University, Leicester, takes sport seriously, from the point of view of those who played it. Sport for them has “always been its own reward”, but it also shaped their self-image. They didn’t feel like “victims . . . or God forbid, inert masses, but winners, the people on whom the country depended for its strength and liberty”, he writes in This Sporting Life.

Before industry arrived, the most glamorous English sport was foxhunting. The local Master of Fox Hounds was a celebrity, immortalised in the prints that still line the walls of some country pubs. Foxhunting brightened the gentry’s existence. Even Marx’s buddy Friedrich Engels “thought riding with the Cheshire the greatest joy of his life”, notes Colls. The sport was hard to disentangle from horsebacked war: cavalry regiments across the Empire hunted with hounds for sport, as did Wellington twice a week during his campaign in France.

But hunting was also the English gentry’s version of blood and soil. As you trampled the fields of your terroir, owned by neighbouring landlords and peasants, you asserted your right to be there. Poaching — a means of sustenance, but also sport — was usually a poor man’s rebellion, rural England’s version of class conflict, an argument with the gentry over who had a customary right to the land. Some poachers were deported to Australia.

The pre-industrial English poor had countless communal sports. People danced around the maypole at parish festivals, tortured bulls in the streets of Stamford, raced, wrestled, and watched illegal prizefights. Boxers (a few of them women) were working-class heroes, who embodied English warrior virtues. But as fields and villages were lost to industrialisation, such pastimes died out, or fell under elite control.

Boxing was tamed by the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules of boxing. The elite public schools produced the sports of industrial England. Initially each school played its own games, but in 1863 the old boys of different schools (the average age of the delegates was 21) hammered out the rules of football. Sport became national instead of local, governed by laws not custom.

Footballers, playing in the traditional English warrior-like style, soon became working-class heroes. They and their fans embodied liberty and a new urban belonging. Almost every industrial town acquired its own professional club. “Home ground” became one of the strongest emotional concepts in football. Even today, with foreigners dominating the boardroom and the field, these clubs still provide local belonging.

Historians often do their best work after 60, because it takes decades of reading just to begin to understand a period. This Sporting Life displays exhausting quantities of erudition, sometimes within a single sentence. The prose is lively even in the footnotes, though the occasional passage of Joycean free association can be confusing. Still, there are jewels on every page, such as the footballer Nat Lofthouse rising at 3.30am on Saturdays in 1943 to work a full shift in the coal mine, before playing for Bolton Wanderers in the afternoon. There is more life in these pages than can be explained, or needs to be.

This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760-1960, by Robert Colls, OUP, RRP£25, 416 pages

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist

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