Thursday, 24 August 2017

Spotlight on: Professor Jim Walvin

It has been around a year since our book 'Foundations of Managing Sporting Events: Organising the 1966 FIFA World Cup' was published by Routledge.  We are still really proud of the book and the response it has been getting.

Equally, we were delighted that the book received its foreword from none other than James Walvin, Professor of History Emeritus at University of York, and himself an author and editor of over thirty books including some of the seminal works on association football.

We thought it would be interesting to mark the anniversary of 'Foundations of Managing Sporting Events...' 1st birthday by turning the spotlight on Professor Walvin and his work which has informed our own writing.

Professor Jim Walvin outside the King's Manor Building, University of York


Professor Walvin is a life-long supporter of Manchester United.  His dedication to the club can be traced back to the 1940s, a long time before the 'prawn sandwich brigade' took up their executive boxes at Old Trafford. In fact, Jim's match-day snack of choice is the classic "a cup of Bovril" and the first 'home' match that he attended, in 1948, wasn't even at Old Trafford, due to the stadium and pitch having been damaged by German bombs a few years earlier during World War II.  Instead, whilst Old Trafford awaited the completion of its repairs, the Red Devils ground-shared Manchester City’s Maine Road stadium, and it was here that young Jim stood behind City 'keeper Frank Swift's goal: "He was a giant of a man who picked the ball up with one hand. I remember there were huge crowds on the terraces back then, and coming from the pitch was a strong smell of liniment  - an oil that the players used to relieve muscle strains and pains."   

Frank Swift, Manchester City & England's goalkeeper

However, Jim's first footballing memory can be traced to a few months earlier, when he listened with his father to the radio broadcast of the 1948 FA cup final. United beat a strong Blackpool team featuring the two prolific ‘Stans’ (Mathews and Mortensen) 4-2.  The memory is particularly notable for James because it was the first game that he ever listened to on the radio with his dad, who by half time was noticeably agitated by the score (Blackpool were leading 2-1). The vivid memory came in useful to Prof Walvin at a conference decades later, when a delegate who happened to be a Wolverhampton Wanderers supporter decided to test the extent of his knowledge and support for Manchester Utd by asking a question that he thought he might not be able to answer: the score line of the 1948 FA Cup Final! To the delegates astonishment Jim replied correctly and also recounted the half-time score and the names of the goal scorers!

Two other games were though even more memorable for him, in his words, "for very different reasons".  The first fixture after the Munich air disaster was "an absurdly emotional occasion.   We beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 at old Trafford, in front of an enormous crowd" whilst the 1968 European Cup Final at which United beat Benfica at Wembley is another favourite moment.

Over the years, James witnessed some truly great soccer matches and some of its most esteemed players including the Manchester United greats Duncan Edwards and George Best who he names alongside Pele as all-time his favourite players.

It was during his youth then that football fever first took hold and together with his naturally studious nature the foundations were laid for a future research direction. "Needless to say, my favourite stadium is Old Trafford. It was a regular haunt for me as a schoolboy. I'd spend a morning in the library, and then take the train to Old Trafford, then go back to the library for the evening. Little swot!"

Historical photo of Manchester United's Old Trafford Stadium 

Pursuing a career as a historian, James began his first book, which was not about football, fifty years ago (1967) a task that took three years to complete and publish. His first book on football, 'The Peoples Game - The Social History of British Football' came a few years later and started out as historian of late 18th century working class life: Whilst in Jamaica in 1974 he read CER James' book on cricket and thought it would be interesting to write something similar on football for the simple reason there was "not much available academically about football and English society".


Published in 1975 'The Peoples Game…' was well received and is arguably an important starting point or catalyst for the plethora of work on football and society that began to appear soon after.  However, despite the books success and influence it was not until the mid-1980s that Prof Walvin began his next book on football. 'Football & the Decline of Britain' was a "response to the rubbish written about football disasters, particularly by the newspapers. Disgusting things were being said about football fans. Yes hooliganism and racism existed in some quarters, but it was wrong that everyone was being damned for that. So I wrote the book in one summer, 1985, whilst lecturing in Australia. Revisiting it today, it holds up better than I’d thought". Published a year later, in 1986, it is indeed a well-informed and passionately written work on a controversial era for football.


It was around a decade and a half before James once more published on football, this time a revised edition of his first tome entitled 'The People's Game: The History of Football Revisited' which saw light of day in 2000. The original had been popular "so the publisher asked if I’d revise it and bring it back in print".   It’s a great read and its publication was timely, corresponding with the growing nostalgia for (as well as academic interest in) football history during that time, and of course corresponding with that year's UEFA European Football Championship.  


He followed it up a year later with 'The Only Game', a book more obviously targeting the mainstream football fan than the sport historian, and gave greater emphasis to 'contemporary' issues such as racism and violence "to bring it up to date". Less celebrated than 'The People's Game' or its revised edition, perhaps due to "the difficulty in bridging academic and popular/mainstream audiences", it is nonetheless interesting to read Professor Walvin's take on such matters.


Despite his long-time interest in the game and his success as a football writer, Prof Walvin remains modest about his achievements - and of his ability to predict score lines "don’t listen to me! especially predictions of games", and today focusses on his other research interests, notably the topics of slavery and the sugar trade.  He still enjoys the game though and reading about soccer and sport generally, and lists his favourite sport writers as Hugh Macillvaney, " who has written a collection of essays about sport in general including a terrific essay on boxer Muhammad Ali " and Tony Mason, in Jim's opinion "the first academic to write a serious book on football" although he adds with a smile "but Tony tells me I beat him to the best title!"

At the time of writing, Professor Walvin is finishing a new book on the history of sugar, which he describes as taking his journey as a research academic "full circle".   "Sugar is a big, big issue for health and social reasons.  This new book is built on all of the work I’ve done on slavery. Next I’ll do another book on the overthrowing of the slave empire - in the space of a lifetime it vanishes but was unchallenged for 300 years. What changed? That's a really interesting complex story."



Sugar by James Walvin was published by Robinson on July 13th 2017

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