Historians are the kind of people that like to make sure everything is documented. Footballers are the kind of people that like to play football. They can’t be relied on to document things, and the stattoes of the Victorian era were far too busy spotting trains and steamships to worry about football quite yet.
Life for the urban poor was grim during the Industrial Revolution. From a shockingly young age, people spent their lives working in the factories, mills and mines, and there was no time, energy or even space to play games. This is blamed for the decline in football’s popularity observed by several early 19th century writers. However, some revisionists now question that view, suggesting that labour conditions were no worse than they had been before, and most people could still find space to play football if they really needed to.
Particularly from the late 1830s, there are copious references to it being played, often at country fairs, among different trades, by patrons of taverns, by the military and as a winter exercise for cricket teams. One of the earliest was the ‘Foot-ball Club’ formed by a lawyer called John Hope in Edinburgh in 1824, for which there are accounts and membership lists through to 1841, while Surrey FC printed a set of club rules in 1849. There were probably hundreds of other examples like these, but football was still such an inconsequential activity that hardly anything about it ever documented.
What little information there is usually comes from small announcements placed in newspapers, such as one in 1842 saying that “a meeting was held at the Clock public house, Bickenhill, Warwickshire on 15th instant to draw up articles and decide upon the day for a match at football.” Such ‘articles’ usually meant deciding how many people would be on each team and how the winner would be decided (usually the first to reach a set number of goals, or for play to end at a certain time). In a surprisingly large number of cases they also settled what the prize would be for the winners, but other than occasional references to the size of goals or allowing hacking or not, little was discussed about the rules for what was usually a kicking game, suggesting a much simpler affair than the convoluted games they were playing in public schools. The papers would sometimes report on games afterwards, such as one in February 1849 between “10 single men of Willington v 10 single men of Egginton, which was won by Willington after one of the best games ever witnessed on the lawn at Egginton. It lasted two hours and was a fair kick and trip game.” Reports of games being dangerously violent were very rare.
It wasn’t really until the 1850s that football (perhaps thanks to the public schools) gained more of an air of respectability and became popular among the more privileged classes. Their involvement led to more formally organised ‘gentlemen’ clubs, whose exploits were deemed more worthy of publication. The Forest Football Club was formed in London in 1859, public school old boys led by a man would go on to become one soccer’s greatest 19th century administrators, Charles W Alcock, and which formed the basis for The Wanderers, the winners of the first ever FA Cup in 1872. Barnes were formed around the same time, the club that provided the first three secretaries of the FA, as were Richmond, who would play a central role in the formation of the Rugby Union. Thus, inter-club football was institutionalised in the capital.
In Lancashire, Liverpool Football Club, which still plays rugby today, was formed in 1857 to play a game between Old Rugbeians and ‘The World’. One of the organisers of the match, Richard Sykes, later formed Manchester FC in 1860, who provided Liverpool’s opposition in arguably England’s first ever intercity football match.
But if there was one city above all others that played a pioneering role in football, that city was Sheffield. There are records of football in the city from 1793, when Sheffield played Norton and ended up having their pigtails cut off by their furious opponents. However, things really took off from 1857, when Sheffield Football Club was formed, the oldest surviving soccer club in the world. Although Sheffield are hailed as the northern working class’ response to southern snobbery and the public schools, they were anything but. They were all well-educated gentlemen that took a highly elitist attitude to membership, and it was noted that “rules had to be got piecemeal – bits from the rules of each public school as the boys came in.”
One of the founders of SFC, William Prest, had a brother who attended Uppingham and Cambridge just when those institutions were writing their own laws for football, which may help explain why Sheffield’s were so strikingly similar. Like at Cambridge, it was essentially a kicking game, in which the ball could be caught to claim a free kick, hacking was disallowed, there were throw-ins and goal kicks and none of the complexities of the public school games. The only major difference was the absence of any offside law, and also around 1862, to deal with the problem of so many 0-0 draws, if an attacker could touch the ball down behind the opposition’s goal line, it was called a ‘rouge’. These were counted if a game ended in a tie. Although different, the concept clearly shares a historical connection with the ‘rouge’ of Canadian football.
Sheffield’s first regular opponents were Hallam, formed in 1860, for what is considered the oldest surviving derby match, and within two or three years so many new clubs had formed that the city almost certainly had the most vibrant football community in the country, and all playing by a unified set of rules. The newcomers clearly included some ‘working men’s clubs’, and in the correspondence surrounding the formation of the FA in 1863, there were several comments such as one from a Hallam player that the new body should “remember it is the interests of all classes of the people, not just the public school boys or gentlemen only, that have to be considered.”
Possibly because they were averse to playing, and God forbid losing to, working class teams, Sheffield FC started rejecting local fixtures as “most unsatisfactory.” By the 1860s, communications in Britain had been revolutionised, and especially thanks to the rail network it was suddenly feasible for football teams to travel around the country to play games, and Sheffield were pioneers in this respect. In 1862, they travelled to Nottingham to play what is now the oldest team in the Football League, Notts County, and Lincoln FC were another early destination.
But the further Sheffield travelled, the more alien were the football traditions they came across. Some clubs insisted on an offside law, another might want to allow carrying, others took contrasting views on hacking. The trading of rules before matches in order to reach some kind of compromise became an accepted part of the pre-match discussion. But this was some of the earliest intercity footballing contact ever to be established and such hiccups were only to be expected. Agreeing to common set of rules would be the next step of the process.
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