Patrick Kelly discusses the theatre production The Game, set in 1913, which is about football corruption in the North of England; an issue that still exists in the modern game

A corrupt business deal, a wealthy owner, a bribe to throw a crucial match. The latest production from renowned theatre company Northern Broadsides sounds like a contemporary take on modern football. Except that the script for The Game, which premieres in Halifax’s Viaduct Theatre on September 16, ahead of a national tour, was written in 1913.

It’s the work of Mancunian playwright Harold Brighouse, whose best known play, Hobson’s Choice, a family saga set in the industrial north of the Victorian era, was made into a hit film by director David Lean. It has been adapted numerous times and is still a set text on many a GCSE student’s reading list.

The Game also has a northern setting – at a time when football was still a working-class game rooted in the manufacturing towns of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the north-east. Teams like Sheffield United and Sunderland dominated league tables and the likes of Arsenal and Spurs were makeweight clubs on a par with today’s Wigan Athletic or Bolton Wanderers.

The play is set on match day and Blackton Rovers are in need of money. Owner Austin Whitworth sells his star centre-forward, local football hero Jack Metherell, to a rival club on the eve of a crucial match that could relegate Rovers to the Second Division. But honest Jack is asked to throw the match, and he is torn between professional honour and loyalty to his old club. The plot is complicated by the fact that Whitworth’s feisty daughter Elsie and Jack are in love, despite the best efforts of Jack’s domineering mother, played by Wendi Peters (Coronation Street’s Cilla Battersby-Brown).

But although Hobson’s Choice ran for years in London, and enabled Brighouse to give up his job as a manager in a textile firm to become a full-time writer, The Game never made it to the West End and was quickly forgotten about after its first run.

Northern Broadsides director Barrie Rutter puts the play’s failure down to London prejudice about the value of football. “Footballers were working class heroes who lived with their parents and travelled to the match on the corporation bus, not like today’s pampered prima donnas.” But the sport had not caught on with the middle-class theatregoer, says Rutter. “The Times critic said he did not see the point in mixing sport and drama. That more or less buried it.”

Rutter, who has built his theatre company on its strong “northern voice”, is not one to pass up the opportunity to pick a fight with the capital’s theatre establishment. He believes The Game’s time has come as the perfect vehicle to comment on the dodgy morality of football today. “It’s been on my top shelf for a few years, awaiting its timely entrance,” he says.

In fact, dodgy deals and match-throwing were part of football lore even before the First World War. Brighouse would have been well aware of contemporary scandals involving Aston Villa, Burnley and Middlesbrough. In December 1910, Middlesbrough club chairman and Tory candidate for the city, Thomas Gibson Poole, arranged for the Sunderland team to be offered £2 each if they threw a crucial derby match. Sunderland refused and instead reported the attempted bribe. Gibson Poole was suspended from football for life and he also lost the election

Manchester City were embroiled in a bribery scandal when captain Billy Meredith was found guilty of attempting to bribe his Aston Villa counterpart in a crunch game, which would have won City the title. Meredith responded by going public about illegal payments to players to get round the £4 a week maximum wage imposed by the FA in 1901. The City manager was suspended from football for life and 17 players were suspended for a year. City were forced to sell their squad at an auction in a Manchester hotel. And in an ironic twist, the gifted Meredith was signed to arch rivals Man Utd for only £500. United then went on to win the League title in the 1907-08.

The Game is all about the change from an amateur local sport to a professional one,” says Vivien Gardner, professor of theatre studies at Manchester University. “And shows how footballers at that time were beginning to lose their roots in the local community with things like transfers and transfer fees. It’s also a very good story. I hope football fans will take the chance to see it.”

From WSC 284 October 2010

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