The Scotch Professors – 9 June 2020


So who knew that Scotland (and not England) had shown the rest of the world how to play football? Well Ged o’ Brien did – and possibly John Dunlop. Ged was our guest speaker at last week’s Zoom meeting and is a leading sports historian and author who (despite being an Englishman) is a passionate advocate of Scotland’s role in sport. He asserts that Scotland invented or led the development of many of our sports, including the modern brand of football. He founded the hugely successful Football Museum at Hampden Park and his current passion, and the subject of his next book, is the “Scotch Professors” who, around the end of the 19th / beginning of the 20th centuries, had taken their home-crafted brand of passing football, first to England and then on to the world !

Also in virtual attendance at the meeting was the well-respected former manager of the Scottish football team, Craig Brown. President Ieuan welcomed both men to the club.

Ged began by giving a short account of the evolution of Hampden Park stadium. The original was built between the Queen’s Park Recreation Ground (where the club had played until then) and Hampden Terrace, taking its name from the road. The first enclosed football stadium with turnstiles in the United Kingdom, it was opened on 25 October 1873. In 1878 it hosted its first international match, Scotland against England (7-2 to Scotland!). In 1883 the Queen’s Park club left Hampden Park due to plans by the Caledonian Railway to build the Cathcart Branch across the site; they moved a few hundred metres east to a new ground, which they also named Hampden park. The site of the first Hampden Park is now occupied by the railway lines and a lawn-bowling club named Burnbank Bowling Club. In 2019, a mural was painted on the rear wall of the clubhouse to celebrate “the Scotch Professors”, young footballers involved in another Scotland win over England (5-1) in March 1882.

So who exactly were those Scotch Professors? They were amateur club players who had, by invitation, moved to English “professional” clubs where they demonstrated the Scottish passing and running game (as opposed to the rudimentary English “kick and rush” game). The distinctive Scottish style of play – described at the time as being “combination football” was fundamentally a passing game with greater teamwork rather than the dribbling style common in England at the time. It was this distinctive style of football (which has been described as “changing the nature of football”) which had become the hallmark of the Scottish game of the era and led to a great number of Scots players moving south to play professionally for English clubs once this became legal in 1885. This trend was bitterly opposed by much of the Scottish footballing establishment and press. The latter claimed the Professors to be “traitorous wretches” and “base mercenaries” and the Scottish Football Association blacklisted players known to have played professionally. Meanwhile the “Scotch Professors” helped spread the game (football generally and the “combination” style for which they were known) internationally with prominent Scottish players of the time playing major roles in the success of football across the British Empire, Europe, South America (particularly Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil) and even China.

Ged ran through a number of those migrating players including Andrew Watson, who became the first black player to play Association Football at international level, and who he believed to be one of Scotland’s greatest ever players. Others mentioned were Robert McColl (aka Toffee Bob) for Newcastle United; John Cameron for Everton and Spurs (he also managed Ayr United for a spell); and Thomas Donahue, originally from Busby, who founded Brazil’s first league in Sao Paulo state in 1902 and is generally seen as the “father of football” in Brazil. There were, however, many, many more equally worthy of mention.

Clearly not one to underplay his claims, Ged summed up with three main points (in order of increasing exaggeration):

  • Scotland invented football and spread it throughout the world
  • Every football park in the world owes its existence to the Scotch Professors
  • Football is the greatest result of the Scottish Enlightenment.

During the post-talk Q&A session, Craig Brown asked a question which was something of a surprise given his own football pedigree. “Why was Scotland not still the force that it once was in football?” Ged, in common with the whole Scottish football-following population, had no convincing answer to this.

In his thanks to Ged, John Dunlop, mused how both Rotary and football were facing existential threats and how it is important to look after the things that are important to yourself, since no one else will.