Frontier Football

15 October 2018

Cultural Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

Everyone knows that modern football [soccer] players are soft yet crafty. The evidence is endless: Rivaldo in the 2002 World Cup, Neymar in 2018, Klinsmann at Italia 90, Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets … and who can forget Sheffield Wednesday’s pitiful antics vs Cambridge Utd in in the 1998/9 edition of the Worthington Cup? But if you like a time when men were men in your football I refer you to this match up on Christmas Day, 1882. Mounties vs Civilians in the frontier town of Battleford in modern-day Saskatchewan, Canada.

What’s more, football matches around Christmas time have a special place in football history. Of course, one of the most famous matches ever was England vs Germany, Christmas Day, 1914, played for some respite in the middle of a war. Bet that was a tough game: heavy and uneven pitch, hard to get your passing game together and tough tackles given extra feistiness by recent bad blood between the two sides. England’s defeat on penalties must have hurt. I now propose we add Mounties vs the People of Battleford to the pantheon of Christmas clashes. Other famous yuletide matches: you’ll probably recall Cambridge vs Brentford on Boxing Day 2001 and Daniel Chillingworth’s scintillating run from the halfway line to bag the winner.

But back to 1882. We get to know of this brutal match through the memoirs of William Parker, held at the Glenbow Archives and included in the Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement & Colonial Encounters collection. Parker was a member of the North-West Mounted Police, precursors to the fabled Mounties, and aside from the fatuous matter of one football match, his memoirs are an extraordinary witness to life on a frontier – those areas where people of different cultural, economic and social backgrounds meet and often collide – as he carried out his role attempting to impose a particular type of order on both settlers and First Nations peoples. The way he writes it, this frontier existence certainly feels very wild as he battles through snow and freezing temperatures to arrest people hundreds of miles away, takes on whiskey traders and horse thieves, hunts fearsome buffalo, falls through ice, has fist fights in teepees, locks up a man who reneges on his promise of marrying a girl then becomes his best man. The adventures flow abundantly but I was particularly taken by his recollection of frontier football.

William Parker, PA-1216, © Glenbow Museum

                                                                       William Parker, PA-1216, © Glenbow Museum

How fierce was this match? Parker had just returned to Battleford for a Christmas break after a 400 mile round trip arresting a couple of villains when he got co-opted by his colonel to play for the Mounties against the townsfolk. One can only imagine that the civilians held a serious grudge against the police given the amount of thwarting of whiskey trading going on and Parker’s account of the match, played in deep snow and freezing temperatures testifies to this.

“It was a tough game alright, played in snow a foot and a half deep, and ten below zero, with a mixed crowd of about two hundred Whites, Indians and Half-breeds looking on. As I expected, the Civilians made a dead set against me, tore my shirt clean Off, I was kicked in the nose, the blood flowing freely …”

Did Parker complain about his treatment like our modern players? Not a bit of it, he fought on, playing skins in -10, freezing slush and covered in blood. Go on tough guy! He concludes “… and just at the end of the game sprained my ankle, but we had the satisfaction of winning the game”. Reminiscent of Ian Miller during Cambridge vs Gateshead at their Wembley promotion playoff in 2014 you’re all thinking I’m sure – the injury, determination and hanging on for victory that is, it was actually warm and sunny that day but I'm sure they had shoe horns on the frontier as well.

A sneering aspersion is often cast at Leo Messi, one of the all time footballing greats, that yes, he is a phenomenon and wonderfully skilful playing his club football in temperate Spain but 'could he do it on a cold and wet Tuesday night in Stoke?'. The answer to this is almost certainly yes. However, a Christmas day in 1880s frontier Saskatchewan is another matter altogether.

                  "History of Captain William Parker, Life in the North-West Mounted Police, 1874-1912." M-934-22, © Glenbow Museum

A final aside; in 2014, Chelsea’s manager Jose Mourinho accused Sam Allardyce’s West Ham of playing nineteenth-century football following a 0-0 where his team dominated without finding the win against a resolute yet ultra-defensive and unadventurous opposition. Mourinho may have had immense success in the game but he needs to buff up on his William Parker before giving forth on the nature of nineteenth-century football.

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About the Author

Felix Barnes

Felix Barnes

I have been an editor at Adam Matthew since September 2013. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with some fascinating collections including Global Commodities, the Foreign Office Files for China, American History, 1493-1945, Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters, Socialism on Film and J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America.