A Potted History of Association Football in England (Abstract)


Ball games sprang up independently in various parts of the world from the earliest times. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Mesoamericans all played some sort of ball game. In medieval Britain, a chaotic game with sometimes hundreds of players involved, now termed “mob football”, was played on festive days. More skilful, informal games with modest numbers of players were also played but references to them seldom appear in historical records.

Public schools began to play football around the middle of the 18th century. Each school had its own rules. While handling the ball and kicking it appeared in the rules of all schools, some favoured handling while others preferred kicking. The first attempts at producing a common set of rules for a (mainly) kicking game took place at Cambridge University and in Sheffield around the middle of the 19th century.

Young men from public schools and universities who ultimately found themselves working in London, and who wanted to play football, similarly sought to agree on a common set of rules. At a meeting in London the Football Association (FA) was founded in 1863, and within a couple of months a basic set of rules were agreed for Association Football, as it was subsequently to be known. This turned out to be the birth of the modern game of soccer. A kicking game with a very limited amount of handling was agreed upon. Those who could not accept the decision resigned from the newly born Football Association, and the Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871 for those who wanted a handling game. A steady stream of changes to the laws were implemented over the first twenty years of the FA, including the abolition of handling, except for the goalkeeper.

Gentleman amateurs, as these young men were known, dominated the game of Association Football until the late 1880s. However, the game was becoming popular with the working man, and by 1885 professional players who could not afford to play simply for the love of the game had appeared in the North and the West Midlands. The setting up of a professional Football League in 1888 was quickly followed by other adult leagues, schoolboy football, the first very tentative steps in the women’s game and the beginnings of grassroots football.

Around the same time football was in the process of being adopted in other countries, and FIFA was formed in 1904 to oversee the growing global game. It mandated that matches should be played according to the FA’s laws of the game. The FA had a decidely on-off relationship with FIFA. In particular, it was not a member between 1928 and 1946, and so it missed the first three World Cup competitions in the 1930s.

The tactical side of the game advanced in other countries during this period, a fact which the English seemed to be largely unaware of. The effects were felt when the national side was heavily beaten by Hungary in 1953 and 1954. Coaching subsequently assumed a greater degree of importance, helping England to win the World Cup in 1966 and English clubs to win their first European trophies in the same decade.

Meanwhile, the gentleman amateur had largely disappeared by the 1920s, and a more pragmatic form of amateurism surfaced. The elite amateur game grew in popularity, peaking in the 1950s, but it subsequently declined and went on to total extinction in 1974 when everybody became just players.

The maximum wage in the professional game, which had been in operation since the 1890s, was abolished in 1961. This saw a marked downturn in the fortunes of small town clubs and the inexorable move towards the preeminence of the big city clubs. Finance was the key factor in the success of any club and sponsorship and TV deals for live matches became of paramount importance. It ultimately led to the First Division clubs resigning from the Football League and joining the new FA Premier League in 1991. Big city clubs have totally dominated the scene since then, most notably Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.

In the early twenty first century the FA has seen financial success with the Premier League, overseen a growth in the popularity of women’s football and introduced its Charter Standard at the grassroots level. On the downside, the men’s eleven-a-side game at the grassroots level is much diminished.

Go the first section which deals with the earliest ball games through to soccer at the end of World War I.

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