40 Years in Football – Ivan Sharpe


Keeping his chapters brief, Ivan Sharpe relates his memoirs of “40 Years in Football”, first as a player and later as a journalist. His anecdotes and stories harken back to the early days of football. Logic dictates that his reminiscences relate mostly to British football, but he also takes his 1954 readers across many borders, culminating in a report of his meetings with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

As well as endearing and teeming with nostalgia, Sharpe’s account of the early days of English professional football is also alienating, for how many modern-day readers will be familiar with the household names of players from the early twentieth century, no matter how illustrious they may have been? Still, his chronicling does have an interest, as Sharpe experienced everything first-hand: amateur play, professional play, international matches, Wembley Stadium opening (he witnessed the chaotic first FA Cup Final in person), the rise of football as a spectator sport, World Cup finals, you name it. His playing career was not trivial: Sharpe was part of the English football team that won a gold medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Although the book focuses on the UK, Sharpe is not afraid to direct stinging criticism at British football, which he believes had gotten stuck in old patterns, whereas foreign football (especially on the continent and South America) had taken great strides forward. This book was published a little too early to incorporate the first defeat of the English national team on home soil (when famed Hungary took Wembley by storm), but Sharpe did predict England’s international decline.


The English Football Team at the 1912 Olympics; Ivan Sharpe standing, rightmost

Value for active referees

This title carries little value for active referees in itself, as it does not teach anything of practical worth. Still, it contains a few gems for anyone interested in the history of refereeing and the laws of the game. Sharpe, for instance, dedicates a whole chapter to the introduction, in 1924-5, of the new off-side rule. Previously, a player could be ruled off-side if he had three defenders facing him. In 1925, this was reduced to two defenders (basically the same rule as it is today). It caused mayhem in the English leagues, with weird and wonderful match results, as many players (and referees!) did not know how to deal with the new rule. Indirectly, it led to the adoption of the Swiss Bolt system and the catenaccio (or “sweeper”) system, both of which Sharpe believed to mark the decline of football. In this chapter, Sharpe gives an account of several experiments conducted with different off-side rules. For example, in one experiment an area of the pitch had been marked off where players could be ruled off-side if there were three defenders between him and the goal-line, much like in pre-1925 days. This idea of marking an area of the field of play for off-side offences has been advocated to this day.

Sharpe was also rather amused by the antics of foreign referees, whom he held in low esteem: “Continental refereeing was, is, and apparently will always be, a menace.” He also felt little for the temperament of Latin-American football, recounting a story of an Argentinean referee who had barely managed to escape a lynching mob.

Sharpe also pointed out a few niggles in the laws of the game. He found the corner arc to be too small to take an effective corner kick (apparently, touch areas around playing fields were smaller back in the day). A thorn in his side was the backward pass to the goalkeeper, which he wanted eradicated. It was not until about 40 years after publication of this book that his wish came true. He also championed a system involving two referees and goal-line arbiters, the latter judging whether or not the ball had crossed the goal-line. Again, Sharpe was way ahead of his time. Realising that these arbiters would remain idle for most of the match, he preferred a system in which two referees officiate the match, with each referee taking charge of one half of the field. The referees having to do less running and therefore being able to guard the goal-line, controversy as to whether or not the ball had crossed the line would be eliminated. This system had been briefly tested in the 1930s, in England and other countries, and the benefits were obvious. In addition to the benefit mentioned above, Sharpe believed the fact that referees would tire less quickly and therefore remain alert and take unchallengeable decisions was a huge advantage. It would have the further benefit of referees extending their careers, for why are referees forced to retire at the very pinnacle of their experience?

Another nugget of information to emerge from this book is that the original point-scoring system (two points for winning, one for a draw) was suggested by the English press way back in 1888…

One of the closing chapters of the book is fully dedicated to refereeing, more in particular to unusual occurrences. One of these included an incident on the Dutch Antilles, where a team, displeased when the referee awarded a penalty kick against them, occupied the full length of the goal-line, making it impossible for their opponents to take the kick. The referee had no alternative but to abandon the match…

Final say

An amusing book, stuffed to the brim with anecdotes, many of which will be meaningless to modern-day readers, unlikely as they are to be familiar with the names of footballers who had their golden days about a century ago. The book includes a number of fine facts on refereeing issues, including a number of predictions that have since become reality, but these are not so much of practical use to present-day referees as they are gems to be dug up by refereeing historians (like me).


Title 40 Years in Football
Author Ivan Sharpe
Year 1954
Pages 224
Publisher The Sportsman Book Club
3 / 5     

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