Part 1: The origins of football

Towards 1863

The game of football began modestly enough, yet it had certain durable qualities, and it inspired a particular kind of determined devotion in its followers. The games that are now known as Rugby and Association Football began in England about halfway through the present century. There are records of earlier forms in China, at least two thousand years ago, in ancient Greece and Rome. But it was in England that football began to take the shape we now recognise, and it is here where we begin our history of soccer.

The crude raw material of the game was found in the fields and streets, among farm boys and apprentices – a folk game and a spontaneous growth. It belonged to the people; in the eyes of authority and the well-bred, it was a vulgar, rowdy pastime, and from the fourteenth century onwards, the respectable and the Godly observed it with distaste, and made constant efforts to suppress it. It kept men from the exercise of their Christian duties, and from the proper occupation with the interests of their employers; it wasted time that might profitably and decently be used in the practice of archery and other military skills. But although the law-abiding mayors, sheriffs, and clerics tried to stamp it out, it was to little or no effect. What the people said is not known, but they went on playing.

Yet this, the raw material, was not yet football, properly speaking and indeed it was true that it was rowdy and dangerous. From the apprentices’ game in Smithfields grew the street games in Cheapside, Covent Garden and the Strand, the Shrove Tuesday games at Derby, Nottingham, Kingston on Thames, and elsewhere, that came to be known as “mob football,” and these were little more than violent street battles. The football field was the length of the town, the players might be as many as five hundred, the conflict continued all day long; vast numbers of windows and legs were broken, and there were even some deaths. Yet even this period of little or no discipline is worth remembering briefly because it was upon this turmoil that order and method were finally imposed, and from it that the game emerged.

Eventually the wild and disorderly street game began to subject itself to rules and to find its way into the middle-class world of the son of the business and professional man, through its introduction into the Public Schools; from these schools it went into the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; from the schools and universities the young men took it to the world of London, and to Sheffield, and in and around these cities the first football clubs were formed.

The process began about the 1820’s; by 1863 there were these main influences – the public schools, the universities and the clubs. All were infected with the same enthusiasm, all were aware that this was the beginning of a period of growth and change, and yet there was no generally accepted set of laws as to how the game should be played.

Part 2 of the Early History of Football