How Football was Born

The enduring legacy of the sport’s pioneers.

Pass masters: Queen's Park, after winning the inaugural Scottish FA Cup in 1874

On October 26th 1863, 12 eminently respectable gentlemen met in a gas-lit room at the Freemasons’ Tavern in Great Queen Street, London. They represented clubs now long forgotten: Barnes, Crusaders, Forest, No Names of Kilburn. Drawn from the upper middle classes of the capital, they had set themselves a historic task: to create England’s first national football association and to draw up a common code of rules for the game. The 150th anniversary of that meeting will be commemorated this autumn amid great fanfare as effectively marking the birth of the world’s most popular sport. But there is a puzzle.

Take a look at those original Football Association (FA) rules. Handling is permitted. Forward passes are forbidden. There are touch downs and something similar to a conversion. There are no crossbars. In short they bear no relation to modern football. In fact they are closer to rugby.

This year’s celebrations of the founding of the FA reflect a traditional historiography of the sport that follows a familiar narrative. The old folk game, wild and anarchic and played since the Middle Ages, had effectively died out during the process of urbanisation that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Football was only preserved on the playing fields of the ancient public schools, specifically Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Charterhouse, Westminster, Shrewsbury and Winchester. There it was tamed and civilised. Each school played by its own rules. Then at Oxford and Cambridge, in the 1840s and 1850s, public school men began to come together to draw up a common code, a process that was completed with the creation of the FA in the autumn of 1863. Football was then handed back to the working class – cleansed and pristine – to become the mass sport we know today.

‘The game of football, as originally played at the Wall at Eton, was the author of every sort and condition of football now played throughout the United Kingdom’, the Etonian declared confidently in 1884. To this day the FA’s website states baldly: ‘Organised football, or football as we know it’, dates from 1863.

It is a self-serving creation story that reflects the viewpoint of the Harrow and Eton men who dominated the early FA and it is flawed. The public schools certainly played an important role in the evolution of modern football, but the working classes were far more than passive bystanders. The formation of the FA in 1863 was the starting point of the process, not its culmination. 

The belief that traditional folk football was no more than a lawless village romp rests on a misconception: that the great Shrove Tuesday games, which often involved hundreds of participants and ranged freely over open countryside, were representative of all pre-19th-century football. In fact they were the exception rather than the rule. Modern research has shown that most pre-industrial football was small scale and carefully structured. In County Durham in 1683 we find ‘seven butchers’ taking on ‘seven glovers’ and there is even a reference to a six-a-side women’s game of 1747. By the time the folklorist Joseph Strutt was describing the game in 1801 he was quite clear that there were fixed numbers on each side and a clearly defined pitch, much the same size as the modern one. It is likely that traditional football contained rather more art than upper-class observers gave it credit for.  

By contrast public school football, far from being a civilising influence, was relentlessly, bewilderingly savage. Rooted in the fagging system, the sport was the creation of real-life versions of Flashman, the unforgettable villain of Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). Generally, younger boys were required to play as defenders while older boys took the more glamorous, attacking roles, although at Winchester fags were even made to act as goalposts. So bound up was football with the fagging system that at Shrewsbury the game was known as ‘douling’, the Salopians’ word for a fag, derived from doulos, the Greek word for slave.

‘I have been pitched headlong with my face in the mud, and backwards along the rouge line, with such force that I almost turned a somersault’, recalled one Etonian of the 1850s. ‘I have lain in front of goals flat as a dried sole, with a score of sprawling fellows above, all squeezing the breath out of me … I have suffered all these things in jolly games with big fellows, and have seen other small boys suffer worse.’ Expressing concern her son might one day return from a game with a broken leg, one anxious mother was reassured: ‘Do not fear, for if he does, it will not be his own.’

Initially public school headmasters discouraged football as ‘fit only for butcher boys … [not] young gentlemen’. But from the 1840s it was adopted by the ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ apostles of muscular Christianity, an ‘antidote to all wandering of the thoughts and dwelling on improper subjects’. Possessed of a morbid terror of homosexuality (‘beastliness’) and masturbation (‘boys who indulge … invariably die young or go mad’, one booklet advised parents), mid-Victorian headmasters saw the violence of football as a positive virtue. The more battered, bruised and exhausted the boys were by the time they retired to the dorms, the better.

The game played at Eton and Harrow in the 1850s was not dissimilar to modern Australian rules football and bore little relation to the game played today. Public schoolboys also proved uniquely unsuited to the task of drawing up a common code. Riven with fierce rivalries and antagonisms, each school clung tenaciously to its own idiosyncratic traditions. The various common codes drawn up at Oxford and Cambridge were largely ignored and the creation of the FA in 1863 was met with a mixture of hostility and indifference. The new rules were regarded by the public schools as a mongrel version of the game, everybody’s and nobody’s; the truth is that they were almost never used. By 1867 the FA had just 10 members and the organisation came close to folding.

So where and when was modern football invented? Recent research has shown that traditional folk football, far from dying out during the Industrial Revolution, lingered on into the 19th century in many parts of the country. One area where it showed particular vitality was in the hill country of South Yorkshire and this was a key factor behind the creation, in Sheffield in 1857, of what remains today the world’s oldest surviving football club.

Still amateur, the Sheffield club was a product of the city’s respectable classes, but almost none of its founders had been to public school. Instead they drew heavily on local folk traditions for their rules. Handling was forbidden and in the 1860s Sheffield would pioneer the use of crossbars, corners and free kicks. Most importantly, they had a far more relaxed offside rule than the public schools, most of which effectively banned forward passing. The effect of this was to limit public school football to a game where two hostile packs attempted to drive the ball forward through sheer brute strength. In Sheffield, by contrast, you were onside so long as you had just one opponent between you and the goal when you received the ball. At the end of 1863 Sheffield became the first non-metropolitan club to join the FA, although it was permitted to continue using its own rules.

Simultaneously a football scene was taking shape in London. A total of 122 games were played in and around the capital in the last three months of 1866 and by the same period in 1867 this figure had risen to 170. The majority of these clubs were not members of the FA. Although most were dominated by public school men, they were adults rather than teenagers and had left behind some of what one contemporary called the ‘cheerful ruthlessness’ of the public school game. Detached from the school environment, they were also more aware of the need to compromise over rules if they were to develop the game they loved and by the mid-1860s a common code was evolving.

Both of these developments – in Sheffield and London – took place outside the auspices of the FA. Not for the last time football’s parent body found itself having to catch up with trends in the game. In the late 1860s the FA amended its rule book to reflect the game actually being played by most clubs. The attempt to form a compromise with the rugby code – evident in the rules of 1863 – was abandoned. Crucially, the stifling offside rule, was relaxed. Players could now receive the ball so long as there were three opponents between them and the goal – more restrictive than the two man rule introduced in 1925, but a considerable improvement. The FA’s membership rose sharply from 1867 onwards. By the time of the first FA Cup Final in 1872 the modern rules were effectively in place.

But a spectator at that match at the Oval between Wanderers and the Royal Engineers would still have seen a game bearing little resemblance to modern football. Half of the players had been to Eton and Harrow and they continued to play in the style of their youth, relying heavily on charging their opponents.

The rules had changed, tactics had not. It was the formation of the Queen’s Park club in Glasgow in 1867 that truly revolutionised football. Like Sheffield, Queen’s Park was made up of men from the respectable classes who had not been to public school. They approached the game in a rational, scientific manner and were alive to the possibilities that the reform of the offside law opened up. They came up with a radical innovation, which they called ‘combination play’. We call it passing.

This was considered positively unmanly by the English public school men, for whom football remained essentially a form of mock combat. But the advantage it handed to the Scots was immediately apparent. When England played Scotland in 1872 – the world’s first football international – the Scots simply picked the Queen’s Park team and held the cream of the English public school men to a 0-0 draw. ‘Individual skill was generally on England’s side’, read one match report. ‘The Southrons, however, did not play to each other so well as their opponents, who seem to be adepts in passing the ball.’

In annual matches over the next 16 years Scotland would win ten and lose just two. As late as the 1950s English professionals referred to the short passing game as the ‘Scottish style’. Only as recently as 1980 would England reach parity with Scotland in terms of games won.

It was in Glasgow that association football first began to filter down the social scale, marking the true birth of modern football. At the time of the first FA Cup Final, association football was still confined to just a few hundred men of the middle and upper classes. But from the early 1870s – with the new Saturday half-holiday providing millions of workers with space outside the sabbath for organised recreation for the first time – it spread rapidly, first to the mill towns of Lancashire, then to the Black Country, then throughout Britain. Professionalism was legalised in 1885 and early sides like Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers were dominated by Scottish imports, who brought with them the Scottish passing style.

It was these early, working-class professionals who truly created modern football. In general, smaller physically than the public school men and dependent for their livelihoods on remaining free of injury, it was they who added new dimensions to football, developing and refining the passing game pioneered by Queen’s Park.

If we need a specific birth date for modern football 1883 serves better than 1863. In 1883 Blackburn Olympic became the first working-class team to win the FA Cup, defeating Old Etonians 2-1 in the final. Olympic ‘looked a tiny set as they entered the field and few fancied they would defeat the Etonians’, wrote one reporter. ‘The Etonians were probably two or three inches taller and from a stone to 21 lbs heavier per man.’ It was a battle of ‘the humble and the weak against the mighty and the strong’.

Olympic’s superior technique nullified the Etonians’ greater strength. Their play was a combination of ‘short passing and dribbling with long passing from wing to wing’. The public school men were left disorientated, puffing and panting after the ball as it sailed back and forth over their heads, their crude charging game neutralised by the fact that their victim had generally passed the ball on by the time he was flattened. Olympic’s tactics ‘simply wore the Etonians off their legs’. No team of gentleman amateurs would ever again appear in an FA Cup Final. Unable to compete, most public school men switched to the rugby code.

Far from the upper classes civilising the working-class game, it was the working classes who had civilised the upper-class game. On October 26th this year the great and the good of the world of football will gather for a gala dinner on the site of that first FA meeting 150 years ago. It would be good to see some of the humbler pioneers of the world’s most popular sport finally getting the recognition they deserve.

Richard Sanders is a TV producer and the author of Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football (Bantam, 2009)

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