Off-Side and the mystery of the first football columnist

ANTON RIPPON delves in to The Blizzard on a trek through sports writing history

Who was he – that Victorian football writer who can be regarded as the game’s first columnist?

Who was Off-Side? The mystery persists more than a century later
Who was Off-Side? The mystery persists more than a century later

The world of Victorian footballer reporters is a fascinating one. Anyone who has ever trawled through 19th-century newspaper archives would probably vouch for that.

Paul Brown certainly will. The freelance has written for the Guardian, FourFourTwo and When Saturday Comes, and he edited and published Goal-Post: Victorian Football, a book reviewed here last autumn.

In producing that work, Brown came across “Off-Side”, a journalist who in February 1885 began writing for the Darlington-based Northern Echo. And so taken was Brown with Off-Side’s work that he began to seek out more, and thus came to realise that here was almost certainly football’s first columnist, the writer who helped shape the way the modern game is reported.

Brown, an exemplary researcher, has now gathered his findings together for an article, “The First Columnist”, which appears in  The Blizzard: The Football Quarterly, a publication of which I was hitherto shamefully ignorant but which I now rather like, with its eclectic collection of articles by a small stable of fine writers.

Brown points out that in the game’s formative years, those who reported on it were largely anonymous, men (I’ve assumed that there wasn’t a Victorian equivalent of Julie Welch) occasionally afforded pen-names such as Goal-Post, Full-Back or Spectator, which is a shame since they added colour to the sports coverage of Britain’s regional newspapers and cast a proto-pundit’s eye over the emerging game. Brown makes the case for these writers playing an important – and arguably vital – part of the development of football.

And for him, Off-Side stands head and shoulders above the rest.

In his introductory column for the Northern Echo (then a halfpenny broadsheet) Off-Side told his readers: “The object of the writer will be raising the status of the game … A main feature of the notes will be their thorough independence. There will be no trucking with this club or that; everyone will be treated alike.

“This is the most important point and the general public can depend on it being observed. The writer is not officially connected with any club, and will not sing the praises of one club at the expense of the rest.”

He certainly showed the local club no favours, on one occasion commenting: “Darlington played quite up to their usual form. Which is to say they played in no form at all.”

Administrators were a particular target: “Football legislators are a queer set, and a capital type of the standstill, querulous old Tory. The Durham Association have sunk so low lately; it is questionable whether they could sink lower … The decisions are unworthy of any body of representative gentlemen.”

He criticised poor tactics and what he saw as ineffective training regimes. He campaigned against disorganisation, with teams not turning up for friendly matches (remember, the Football League was still three years away, the only competitive football coming in the form of cup-ties). He despised creeping professionalism and the clubs and players who pursued “shekels”.

Off-Side certainly made people take notice. As his column became established, he began to occupy a position of some influence. Criticising clubs and associations, he demanded from them answers which were quickly forthcoming and which he published the following week.

Although it can hardly be regarded as tabloid-style tittle-tattle, he was also quick to report rumours of players moving from one club to another.

He encouraged readers to debate issues, a kind of Victorian equivalent of today’s internet forums. It proved a popular feature: “I cannot adequately peruse the voluminous number of letters received. The postmen have had a heavy time and the Postmaster-General has had to issue orders for the distribution of tonics to the unfortunate men.”

Prior to 1885, the Northern Echo’s football coverage, like that of most regional newspapers, had been fairly rudimentary, consisting of little more than a brief summary of the region’s results. Unlike papers in Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, it did not publish a Saturday evening “football special”. Instead, results received over the telegraph were posted in the front office and if the game’s followers were interested enough, they could go to the newspaper’s head office in the town centre on Saturday teatime and peer through the window.

Off-Side changed all that. Once he began his column, his newspaper covered the game in much greater detail. His strong opinions did not go unchallenged, however. After he accused a church institute team of cowardice, the newspaper received a letter from “Fair Play”, who wrote: “As an old football player myself, I cannot allow the remarks of your correspondent, Off-Side, whoever he may be, to be swallowed by the public without a protest.”

And that is the question: who was Off-Side? Paul Brown has made great efforts to uncover his identity but without success. Even the Northern Echo’s historian has no idea. All we do know is that his column was last published at the end of 1887-88, the final season before the Football League began.

His successor, “Observer”, paid a fond tribute to Off-Side’s “conscientiousness and ability” and wished him well “in his new sphere across the herring pond” where “may he haul in the dainty shekels to his heart’s (and his pocket’s) content”.

Thus we might assume that Off-Side sailed across the Atlantic. But Brown has found no trace of him in America. However, in July 1888, a new columnist appeared in the Wanganui Herald in New Zealand. “Football Notes by Off-Side” suggests that our man continued to write about the game for various Kiwi newspapers for the next 20 years.

In Britain, he certainly seems to have been something of an example to those working on the nation’s regional newspapers, a fact which appears to have irked their contemporaries on the nationals.

The growing influence wielded by local football writers was noted with some disdain. Bell’s Life, a London-based weekly sporting paper aimed at the working class, launched an attack on “writers like White Rose who do injury to the sport by casting imputations on those who have worked hard and unselfishly and fearlessly … safe under the shadow of a convenient nom de plume.”

Ironically, the Bell’s Life correspondent himself chose to remain anonymous.