A Potted History of Association Football in England (up to 1918)

This section covers the period from the earliest ball games that appeared 2,500 and more years ago, through early forms of football in the Middle Ages, its adoption by public schools in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, on to the codification of soccer in 1863 when the English FA was formed, and as far as the end of World War I.

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Contents ..

Up to 1863
.. Early ball games around the world
.. Early forms of football in England
.. Football appears in public schools and universities
.. The birth of the Football Association in 1863

.. The early years of the FA
.. The gentleman amateurs across the country
.. Club origins
.. Early match officials
.. The amateur ethos
.. Corinthian FC

.. Conditions for mass participation
.. The arrival of the professionals
.. The formation of other leagues
.. Elite amateur football outside London and the Home Counties
.. The introduction of the FA Amateur Cup
.. The spread of the game, FIFA and IFAB
.. The beginnings of schoolboy football
.. Women’s football (I)
.. The beginnings of grassroots football
.. Works teams
.. Leagues for the London elite amateurs and a national side
.. The Split
.. Early attendance figures

Up to 1863

Ball games date back to pre-history in various parts of the world, although the first written reference in England occurs in the 9th century CE. While it is probable that there were several forms of football that were played in subsequent centuries it is mob football, a somewhat violent and chaotic game, which grabbed most of the headlines.

Handling and kicking variants of football appeared in public schools around the middle of the 18th century, each school having its own rules. Early attempts to produce a common set of rules came out of Cambridge University and Sheffield around the middle of the 19th century before London clubs formed the Football Association in 1863 and produced the initial laws of what is now the modern game of association football.

Early ball games around the world

It seems to be something of a popular pastime among some historians and writers, a sort of Holy Grail if you like, to try to identify the beginnings of football. Research has shown that peoples across the globe invented ball games quite independently of each other, a fact that seems perfectly credible to my untutored eye. However, making a case that present day football descends from any of these games is in the realms of speculation. Anyway, let us start by briefly mentioning some of these very early ball games with the caveat that our knowledge of their precise rules tends to be sketchy at best.

FIFA, in its Origins of Football, has determined that the first instance of a kicking game was the Chinese game of Tsu’ Chu (or Cuju) where the objective was to kick a ball between two tall bamboo canes which were only 30-40cm apart into a net, while withstanding the attacks of opponents. It formed part of military training during the Han dynasty. FIFA dates it back to the 2nd/3rd century BCE, although other sources consider that it was in existence in earlier times.

Kemari in Japan and Jegichagi in Korea were ball games that subsequently appeared in the Far East. They were non-competitive sports, both sounding like forms of “keepie uppie”.

Practicing at ball - National Archaeological Museum in Athens
Practicing at ball circa 400BCE – National Archaeological Museum in Athens

In Europe the earliest references involve the ancient Greeks around the 5th / 6th century BCE. Episkyros can be considered to be similar(ish) to rugby in the sense that it was mainly a handling game where the objective was to get the ball over the opponent’s back line.

It is thought that the Romans subsequently based their game of Harpastum on Episkyros in the 2nd century BCE. Some claim that the objective in their game was to get the ball from the opposition and bring it back into your own half, a sort of inverted form of rugby. Harpastum was used in military training and it is estimated that the Romans played it for 700 to 800 years. Both the Greek and Roman games were quite violent in nature.

Lastly, in Central America we find the Mesoamerican ball game which may date back to 1500BCE, possibly earlier. It was played with a rubber ball which might weigh anything from 500g up to as much as 3.5kg. There were two or three players on each side and you were allowed to use most parts of your anatomy, except for your hands. The “goal” was a ring which was situated up on a wall. The game is arguably similar to racquetball.

Early forms of football in England

It is important to realise that there is no clear information on the precise rules of any of the games that are mentioned in this section, nor is there any evidence that they were related to Harpastum, even though the Romans were in Britain for over 400 years and no doubt played the game during their stay.

The first reference to ball games in England dates back to the 9th century CE, some 400 years after the departure of the Romans, when Historia Brittonum mentions “some boys playing at ball”.

In the late 12th century William FitzStephen, a cleric and administrator in the service of Thomas Becket, describes London youth at play “After lunch, all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents”.

Historians tend to use the terms mob football, folk football, or occasionally the more bland sounding medieval football, to describe the game in the Middle Ages. Mob football is most frequently referred to because its chaotic nature made it “newsworthy”. The term typically refers to games that were held on festive days, most notably Shrovetide. There could be hundreds of players on each side, e.g. when one town, village or parish took on their neighbours. Games are reported in various places across the country, including Workington, Derby and Gloucester.

There was really no such thing as a pitch, the pitch was wherever the ball was. The game between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peter’s in Derby could actually include periods of play in the River Derwent. The objective varied: to get the ball to a nominated place at one end of the other team’s parish; or to kick the ball into the balcony of their church; or possibly just to be in possession of the ball at the end of the game. With so many players on each side it is doubtful that there was much kicking of the ball, a driving maul (to use rugby terminology) was more likely to be the tactic of choice, if indeed there were any tactics. It was an extremely violent game where the only rule appeared to be the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”. In Derby in 1846 the Riot Act had to be read and a troop of cavalry used to disperse the players. Games might last all day before the players retired, no doubt to local hostelries.

In the west there were other variants of football, hurling in Cornwall and cnapan in Wales were both played with a small ball and may possibly be related to La Soule, a game which hailed from nearby Brittany and Normandy. There were two forms of hurling (not be confused with the Irish game of that name): hurling to country and hurling to goals. The former was similar to mob football where a game could range across open countryside, while the latter was confined to a defined area or pitch. The Irish game of caid also had a mob form and a more structured version on a field. As I have wandered out of England I should also briefly mention calcio fiorentino, a violent game which was played by the aristocrats of Florence from the 15th century. It was a mixture of football, rugby and handball.

Unsurprisingly, given its violent nature, football was banned at various times. The Lord Mayor of the City of London banned it in 1314 on behalf of Edward II, being concerned about maintaining law and order. This decree seems to be the first occasion that the word football appeared in print. Edward III and Henry V also banned it, but they were more concerned that individuals should expend their energies in archery practice (for forthcoming battles) rather than waste their time playing football, while Oliver Cromwell, with his puritan hat on, was against various forms of sport and gambling. And more recently, the 1835 Highways Act allowed fines of 40 shillings “for playing at football or any other game on any part of the said Highway, to the annoyance of any passenger”.

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Game in The Strand, London

It seems probable that ball games which were played outside of these festive occasions, when there were modest numbers of players, would have seen greater levels of skill and a lesser degree of violence. Such informal games of street football, as they were sometimes called, which were played according to local rules (very local rules) may well have formed the original basis for the modern game, rather than the set-piece mob game. The illustration above shows a game in the Strand in London.

Football appears in Public Schools and Universities

Forms of football began to appear in public schools around the middle of the 18th century: Eton in 1747 and Westminster in 1749, as well as Harrow, Shrewsbury, Charterhouse and Winchester around the same period. Initially, games were organised by the senior boys, often in the face of opposition from the teachers.

Recognition that public schools were providing an inadequate education for the future movers and shakers of the country, and instances of disorder in various institutions due to the fact that pupils were left to their own devices for long periods of time, led to reforms from around 1830. Thomas Arnold at Rugby School is generally identifed as the major reformer although a similar process was soon being followed by other headmasters: Charles Vaughan at Harrow, George Cotton at Marlborough and Edward Thring at Uppingham. As part of these reforms, sport was gradually recognised as playing an essential part in the overall character-building process.

Each school developed its own set of football rules. Rugby, Marlborough and Cheltenham veered towards a scrummaging game with some handling while Eton, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Charterhouse favoured a kicking game, again with some degree of handling. This obviously led to a somewhat insular approach, matches typically being limited to internal games (e.g. right side of chapel versus left side) or matches against Old Boys. There were even Old Boys teams at Oxbridge, e.g. Cambridge Old Etonians and Trinity College Old Harrovians.

Students at Cambridge University, struggling to play meaningful games of football when they came from schools that each had different rules, made an initial attempt in 1848 to establish a common set of rules. The Cambridge Rules of 1848 were notable for: allowing a player to handle a ball to stop it but not to run with it in hand; forward passes were allowed; pushing with the hands, holding or tripping were not allowed; and there were throw-ins and goal kicks. An offside rule requiring more than three defenders between the attacker and the goal was subsequently added. The Cambridge Rules were adopted by a number of the early formed football clubs in the 1850s and 1860s.

Sheffield Football Club (FC) was formed in 1857 and it is recognised as the oldest club still in existence. It established its own rules, known as the Sheffield Rules in 1858.  They included: hacking and tripping were not allowed but pushing was permitted; the ball may be pushed or hit with the hand but not otherwise held; and a fair catch (a mark in rugby today), so long as the ball has not bounced, entitled a player to a free kick. Hallam FC (1858) and a number of other clubs that were established in the Sheffield area subsequently agreed to adopt these rules, which spread beyond Sheffield to other parts of the North in the 1860s and 1870s.

Needless to say, London attracted a significant number of Oxbridge graduates and ex-public schoolboys on completion of their education. There was obviously a desire among those who had enjoyed playing football at school and university to continue with this pursuit. Forest FC (1859) was initially based in Snaresbrook, changing its name to Wanderers in 1864. Its membership was limited to Oxbridge students and former pupils of public schools. Other early clubs in the capital included: Barnes (1862) who grew out of the local rowing club; Crusaders (1863); the Civil Service Club (1863); Crystal Palace (1861) which was formed from the local cricket club – this is not the current professional club; Clapham Rovers (1869); and Upton Park (1866) in East London.

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Eton Field XI (1865)

The birth of the Football Association in 1863

The London clubs encountered just the same problems as the students at Cambridge University had, the lack of agreement on the rules of the game. A meeting to discuss the situation was held on October 26th, 1863 at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street, London (Covent Garden fringing on Holborn). Eleven clubs and schools attended. They agreed to form the Football Association (FA), a somewhat presumptuous title at the time for what was effectively just a London organisation.

Minute book from 1863 with laws. On display at the National Soccer Museum in Manchester. Adrian Roebuck

A series of six meetings were held to agree on the initial laws of the game. The Cambridge Rules had just been revised and they were used as a basis for discussion. There were two main areas of disagreement among the attendees: rules regarding handling / running with the ball and hacking. It was eventually agreed that a player could catch the ball but not run with it, while hacking (kicking a player below the knee) was not allowed. The decisions were not unanimous and some of the clubs who were unable to accept them promptly resigned. Blackheath was one such club. It subsequently became a founder member of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) which was formed in 1871. It is interesting to note that hacking was quickly outlawed by the RFU. Sheffield sent observers to the FA meeting(s) but they decided to stick with their own rules. The 1863 rules of Association Football, as the game became known, contained only 13 laws. The term Association Football was eventually shortened to soccer (using the Oxford -er suffix) although it was occasionally spelt socker for a short while. Similarly, rugby football became rugger. As an aside, in parts of the North, “togger” was a frequently used abbreviation (certainly when I was a lad), and obviously footie (or is that footy?) and occasionally footer eventually passed into common parlance.

The first game to be played under the new rules was a 0-0 draw between Barnes and Richmond which took place on December 19th, 1863.


The gentleman amateur, typically an ex-public schoolboy, dominated the game in this period while the FA struggled to establish itself initially, there being a slow take-up of its laws of the game. It was the 1880s before significant progress was made.

The early years of the FA

The FA was far from being successful in the early years. In the 1860s the membership fluctuated between twenty eight and nine. At one point there were as few as three clubs who were actually playing to FA rules.

A number of initiatives were undertaken in attempts to broaden the organisation’s appeal across the country. The establishment of the FA Challenge Cup in 1871 was arguably the best idea. Only 15 clubs competed for the trophy in its first year. Who were the winners of that first FA Cup competition in 1872? This sounds very much like a Trivial Pursuits question. The answer is Wanderers who went on to win the cup five times in the first seven years of the competition. The club can arguably can be seen as representing the high point of public school influence in football. It was forced to scratch from the competition in 1880 due to a lack of players, but it managed to limp on until 1883 when it went out of existence. Elite clubs with public school pedigrees dominated the competition until 1883 when Blackburn Olympic triumphed, one of five clubs in Blackburn at the time. Blackburn Olympic (see picture below) also went out of existence in 1889.

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Blackburn Olympic 1883

A second initiative was to arrange an “international match” against Scotland in 1870. The term is in quotes because the Scottish FA was not founded until 1873 and, somewhat bizarrely, the English FA selected both sides. Therefore, it is not recognised as a true international by FIFA. There were actually a total of five such England v. Scotland games between 1870 and 1872. All the Scottish players were based in London where these games were played.

A third initiative was to encourage the creation of county and district FAs which would be affiliated to the FA and the playing of inter-county matches. Sheffield & Hallamshire FA was formed in 1867 and became affiliated in 1871, the first county FA to do so. County FAs were mostly aligned along historic county boundaries. A small number were founded later in the 1870s, but the majority were formed in the 1880s and 1890s. The number of clubs affiliated to the FA rose to 1,000 in 1888, 10,000 in 1905 and 12,000 by 1910.

Early Law Changes
A steady stream of law changes were applied over the first twenty years of the FA’s existence, including:
  • 1865 – the introduction of tape between the goalposts to indicate a height limit, at eight feet. Beforehand, goals had no height limit.
  • 1866 – Forward passes were made legal, provided there were 3 defenders between the receiver and the goal. Previously, all attacking players in front of the ball were ‘offside’.
  • 1866 – Catching the ball was no longer allowed. Beforehand, players could earn a free kick by catching a ball before it bounced. This ban opened the way for the concept known as heading.
  • 1867 – A goal kick was now given when the ball crossed the goal line. Previously, whichever side grabbed the ball first after it had passed the goal line would get a free kick.
  • 1870 – All handling of the ball was forbidden.
  • 1871 – the position of goalkeeper was officially recognized. He was allowed to handle the ball anywhere on the pitch.
  • 1872 – The corner kick was introduced.
  • 1874 – Umpires were introduced, one appointed by each side, who settled disputes. Beforehand, all issues were settled by the team captains.
  • 1874 – Teams were to change ends at half-time, instead of after each goal.
  • 1875 – a goal may have a crossbar or a tape.
  • 1877 – The duration of the game was fixed at 90 minutes.
  • 1882 – Throw-ins with one hand were no longer allowed.
  • 1887 – Goalkeepers were now restricted to handling the ball in their own half.

Despite the FA’s endeavours, there continued to be problems during the 1870s with teams playing by different rules. The Sheffield Rules were still in existence. Sheffield and the FA played each other on a number of occasions, with games alternating between the two sets of rules. However, by 1877 Sheffield was content with the changes to the FA’s laws that are outlined above, and they agreed on a single set of laws which would henceforth be administered by the FA.

Elsewhere, any two teams that wanted to play each other might agree to play the match by association rules one day and switch to rugby for the return match later in the season. A variation on this theme was to play one half of the game in each code. You will not be surprised to know that there was the odd occasion when the two teams were unable to agree, resulting in no game at all. Clapham Rovers became known as the “hybrid team”. They alternated, playing association one week and rugby the next week.

Illustration from 1872 Scotland v. England match by William Ralston

The first official international match between England and Scotland took place in Glasgow on November 30th, 1872. The entire Scottish side was made up of players from the Queens Park Football Club. The game ended in a 0-0 draw. Matches between the two nations subsequently became an annual event, usually being played in the spring.

The English style of play at this time was highly individualistic, concentrating on dribbling. To be precise, it was the London and Home Counties style. Other team members simply backed up the dribbler, their role being to retrieve the ball when he lost possession. The Scots employed a passing game, called combination football by journalists of the time. Their natural skill, allied with a passing game, tended to give Scotland the edge in the early internationals, and they inflicted heavy defeats on the English by scores of 7–2, 6–1 and 5–1 between the years 1878 and 1882. Scottish players, quickly dubbed Scotch Professors, soon attracted northern clubs who paid them.

The gentleman amateur across the country

Clubs of the gentleman amateur genre were quite patchy outside London and the Home Counties. Where they were found they tended to be quite elitist. Numbers would be supplemented by men in middle class professions who had been to grammar schools, and membership fees were likely to be set at a level that would discourage individuals from the lower classes. As an aside, gentlemen could be members of as many clubs as they could afford. Snobbery could also affect a club’s fixture list. It may prefer to play games within the club rather than against external opposition of a lower social class, e.g. the first half of the alphabet plays the second half or Law plays Medicine.

Gentlemen clubs that could be found in cities across England included: Sheffield FC (1857), the oldest surviving football club; Tyne Association and Newcastle Rangers in the North East; Manchester Association and Manchester Wanderers; Liverpool AFC followed by Liverpool Ramblers on Merseyside; and Calthorpe, a short-lived club in Birmingham.

Club origins

Apart from the public school-based gentleman amateur teams, football clubs which had their roots elsewhere began to appear from the 1870s. There were various sources:

  • cricket clubs, keen for something to do during the winter months, formed football teams, e.g. Sheffield Wednesday (the Wednesday cricket club, so called because they played on that day) and Preston North End (actually formed a rugby team initially before switching to association football)
  • churches were a frequent source, e.g. Bolton Wanderers (Christ Church), Everton (St. Domingo’s), Aston Villa (Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel) and Southampton (St. Mary’s Church)
  • the workplace, e.g. West Bromwich Albion (George Salter’s Spring Works), Manchester United (the Carriage and Wagon Department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath) and Arsenal (munitions works in Woolwich, South East London)
  • teachers, priests and other individuals who had dealings with young men also helped to spread the game. For example, John Ripsher, the warden of Tottenham YMCA, became the first President and Treasurer of Tottenham Hotspur
  • and of course, public houses were very obvious places where clubs could be founded. e.g. Chelsea were formed at The Rising Sun pub near the Stamford Bridge ground.

Early match officials

In an era when gentlemen players (supposedly) never committed a deliberate foul, the game was effectively run by the captains of the two teams. A referee (a timekeeper really) then appeared on the touchline in 1871 to whom the two captains could appeal if they could not agree. As the game became more competitive, two umpires, one appointed by each team, replaced the captains in 1874. Eventually, the referee took over complete control on the pitch in 1891 and the umpires were relegated to the sidelines, subsequently becoming linesmen. Neutral linesmen started to appear in important games in 1898-99.

The first referees’ society was set up in London in 1893, and by 1899 there were 27 societies across the country with 773 members. There became an obvious need to oversee these various bodies, and so the overall responsibility for refereeing passed to the FA.

The amateur ethos

The word “amateur” appeared in the late 18th century. It has French and Italian origins, meaning “lover of”. The amateur ethos in sport arose in public schools. Games were to be played purely for the love of it, and “fair play” was expected from participants who should not get over-excited in victory or downhearted in defeat. In addition, these amateurs tended to frown on training and even on watching games (when you should be playing).

The impression is given in books and articles that gentleman amateurs had always given strong voice to their views on sport. I am inclined to believe that there was no real reason for them to preach their message while sport was predominantly their preserve. The picture obviously changed in the 1880s with the threat of professionalism in football, and subsequently in rugby.

There can be a tendency to relate the amateur ethos with a form of the game that majors on footballing skills. That would be to superimpose our 21st century views onto a 19th century game. In fact, the gentleman amateurs from London and the Home Counties grew up with a very physical game that was effectively part soccer and part rugby. Northern sides, some of which had a strong Scottish influence, played a slightly less physical, more skilful game. One local press report of a match when Preston hosted Corinthian FC (who we are just about to meet) said that the London team was one of the roughest that Preston had faced, an indication of the differences in approach and style at this early stage of the game’s development.

Corinthian FC

Corinthian FC was founded in 1882 by N.L. (Pa) Jackson, the Assistant Secretary of the FA at the time. His main objective was to produce a team that could match the Scots. It deliberately did not play at the weekends so that players could turn out for their primary clubs on Saturdays. It was initially suggested that it should be called the Wednesday Club, but Corinthian was eventually chosen, a name that had been initially used by the Royal Corinthian Yachting Club which was founded in 1872 to promote amateur yachting.

Corinthian FC quickly became the epitome of the amateur ethos and the phrase “Corinthian Spirit” soon came into being. It had no ground, it shunned all competitions and played only friendly matches until late in its existence. It is claimed that in one game when the referee failed to appear, one of its players both played in and refereed the match, even awarding a free kick against himself. Along with other gentlemen amateur teams of the period, they disdained penalty kicks when they were introduced in 1891 – a gentleman would never deliberately foul an opponent! If a penalty was awarded against them, the goalkeeper would leave the goal unguarded while the opposition took the kick, and if they were awarded a penalty they would deliberately miss it.

It was a sort of amateur all stars team, slightly reminiscent of the Barbarians side in Rugby Union although it obviously played a lot more games than the Baa-Baas. It played and beat many professional sides in its heyday, including an 11-3 trouncing of Manchester United in 1904, their biggest ever defeat. It included many international players. Indeed, for two games against Wales in the mid-1890s the entire England side was composed of Corinthians. C.B. Fry, the celebrated sporting polymath, made 74 appearances for the club between 1891 and 1903.

The club went on many overseas tours in the early part of the 20th century. It is claimed that Real Madrid were inspired to adopt Corinthian’s strip, while Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, one of the most successful Brazilian club sides, and Zejtun Corinthians in Malta both adopted its name.

1884 to 1918

Association Football grew quickly in this period, moving from a game that was dominated by the gentleman amateur into a mass participation sport which attracted large crowds.

Conditions for mass participation

The Industrial Revolution and the success of the Victorian economy helped to provide the foundation for an ever expanding range of sports and leisure activities in England. The rules of many pastimes and games, some of which had previously been played with a variety of unofficial rules for several centuries, were officially codified in the early and middle years of the 19th century. This was generally followed by the formation of local clubs and societies towards the end of the 19th century. Examples include cricket, boxing, tennis, golf and horticultural societies.

In the 1880s football began its move from a sport that had been played by a relatively privileged few into a mass participation game which came to attract large crowds. However, certain prerequisites needed to be in place to facilitate this transformation.

Time. A working man needed a block of time free to play or attend matches. The Saturday half-holiday started to appear around the 1850s, and by the 1870s the majority of unionised trades had the afternoon off. Dock work was one area that did not benefit from this change. It took until 1920 for dockers to achieve parity in this respect.

Wages. It was all very well having time off but a worker needed money to make use of this new leisure time. The late 19th century began to see real increases in wages, particularly in the 1890s.

Transport. The advent of the steam locomotive in the early 19th century and the development of train networks around the middle of the century were key elements in improving transport. The provision of local services was especially useful for football players and supporters, e.g. a number of football and rugby teams in the capital played at grounds which were close to the North London Line which ran from Richmond (to the west of London) through the north western suburbs of the capital and on to North Woolwich. Horse-drawn omnibuses and trams became a crucial means of local transport; omnibuses were in use from 1830 and trams from 1860-1870. Electric trams appeared around the turn of the 20th century.

Availability of pitches. Although some private grounds may have been used, public parks generally started to appear around the 1860s and 1870s, providing more space for pitches. Clapham Common, which as the name implies was once common land for the parishes of Battersea and Clapham, was converted into parkland in 1878. Battersea Fields, an area once used for market gardens and duelling, became Battersea Park in 1858. Wanderers and other London sides used both places at various times. Stanley Park in Liverpool (opened in 1870) was another area that was renowned for hosting early matches in the 1870s and 1880s.

The lawn mower was invented by Edwin Budding in Gloucestershire in 1830. Before this time grassed areas might be maintained by scything or by letting sheep graze. Lord’s Cricket Ground only gave up on sheep in 1864 when a mower was acquired and a groundsman appointed.

The arrival of the professionals

In 1884 after a drawn FA Cup tie, Upton Park FC complained that Preston North End had fielded professional players. Preston confessed, saying that many northern clubs paid players, and they were dismissed from the competition. Northern clubs subsequently threatened to resign from the FA and form a British Football Association where professionalism would be allowed. To avoid a schism the FA decided in 1885 to allow professionals. It imposed a number of conditions: a player must have resided within 6 miles of the ground for 2 years; he was only permitted to play for one club in a season; an amateur was only allowed legitimate travel expenses otherwise he would be regarded as a professional; and finally, professionals and ex-professionals were not allowed to sit on FA committees.

The first acknowledged professional to play for England in 1886 was made to wear a blue shirt while the rest of the side wore white. Cricket had more stringent means of separating professionals and amateurs. Gentlemen (amateurs) and Players (professionals) had separate dressing rooms and separate gates onto the field. The England cricket team was only captained by Gentlemen between 1886 and 1951, and it was 1962 before everybody was simply called a cricketer.

It was quickly recognised by professional football teams that they needed to generate sufficient income to meet their outgoings. William McGregor, a Birmingham draper and Aston Villa committee member, called a meeting in March 1888 to discuss the formation of a league with the intention of guaranteeing games between well-matched teams which would draw large crowds. The proposal was agreed at a second meeting in Manchester a month later, and the Football League was formed.

The twelve founder members were: Aston Villa, Preston North End, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Accrington Stanley, Everton, Burnley, Derby County, Notts County and Stoke. The first games were played on September 8th, 1888. Preston North End (pictured below) were the first winners of the league, being unbeaten in their 22 games. They also won the FA Cup in the same season, earning themselves the title of “the Invincibles”.

Aston Villa subsequently dominated the league during the 1890s, winning it five times and the FA Cup twice, including the league and cup double in the 1896-97 season. Sunderland was another very successful side, winning the league title on five occasions before World War I.

As previously mentioned, Scottish players were in demand. Preston North End had seven or eight in their Invincibles team (1888-1889), while the entire Liverpool side in its first ever game in 1892 was composed of Scottish players, and it still had eight when it made its debut in the Football League in 1893.

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Preston North End – The Invincibles 1889

Here are some facts and figures from the early days of the Football League: the Retain and Transfer system was established by 1893 whereby a club decided whether a player was kept or transferred;  wage restrictions were in place by the end of the century when the maximum wage was £4 per week and bonuses were outlawed; admission prices in the 1890s were a minimum of 6d for men and 3d for women and boys (entrance to the music hall at the time was 3d or 4d); and the typical supporter was in the age range 18-40.

The popularity of the game saw increased press coverage of matches. The Saturday Evening sports edition of a newspaper first appeared in the 1880s, and by the following decade most towns and cities of reasonable size had their own Football Pink or Green as they were often called (this related to the colour of the paper that was used).

Trade unionism had grown in Britain from the 1880s, and two abortive attempts were made in the 1890s to establish a footballers’ union. The Association of Football Players and Trainers Union (AFPTU) was eventually founded in 1907, initially led by Charlie Roberts, a Manchester United defender.

The formation of other leagues

The concept of league football was immediately found to be attractive, and other leagues were quickly founded in areas away from London.

The Football Alliancethe Northern League and the Midland League all started in the following year, the 1889-90 season. The Football Alliance initially consisted of twelve professional clubs, covering the same area as the Football League, viz. the North West and the West Midlands, and it was therefore in competition with it. It was only in existence for three seasons, eventually merging with the Football League in 1892 when its teams formed the Second Division. The Northern League covered Northumberland, Durham, North Yorkshire and Cumberland. It contained a mixture of both amateur and professional sides until 1906 when it became totally amateur. The Western League was founded in 1892.

In London, Woolwich Arsenal (now simply Arsenal) became a professional club in 1891, and it was behind a move to create a southern professional league. This attempt failed due to opposition from the London FA, and therefore Arsenal applied to the Football League, becoming the first southern side to join in 1893. A second attempt by Millwall Athletic (now Millwall) was successful, and the Southern League was formed in 1894 with two divisions. Some Southern League sides attracted large crowds. Indeed, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea had larger crowds than many Football League clubs. Southern League sides also had some success in the FA Cup, Tottenham Hotspur winning the trophy in 1901, while Southampton reached the final in both 1900 and 1902. Teams gradually started to join the Football League: Chelsea (1905), Fulham (1907), Tottenham Hotspur (1908) and West Ham United (1919). Finally, all teams in the first division of the Southern League moved en masse into the new Football League Third Division in 1920.

Elite amateur football outside London and the Home Counties

The North East was to become the main centre for elite amateur football outside London and the Home Counties, particularly the Durham coalfields, south of Newcastle where Bishop Auckland went on to become the most successful amateur side. The Church Institute, a theological college which was centred on the Bishop of Durham’s residence in the town, set up a team in 1882. Its students hailed mainly from Oxbridge. A dispute within the club resulted in Auckland Town being set up in 1886, whose name was subsequently changed to Bishop Auckland in 1893. Players were eventually a mixture of town and gown (to use the historic university term).

The club considered a move to professionalism but ultimately rejected it. Other clubs in the area, e.g. Crook Town, came to the same decision. They simply took the view that they would be unable to afford professional players. Their brand of amateurism was therefore based on tough financial reasons. It bore little resemblance to the amateur ethos in the South East. Any vestiges of purist leanings were probably limited to the Oxbridge contingent at Bishop Auckland.

Some of today’s top class professional clubs in the North East started life as amateur teams: Middlesbrough (formed in 1876) was an amateur club which won the FA Amateur Cup twice in the 1890s before turning professional in 1899; Newcastle East End (1877) and Newcastle West End (1882) were both formed from cricket clubs, East End turning professional in 1889 and the two clubs officially merging in 1892 to form Newcastle United; originally founded as Sunderland & District Teachers AFC in 1879, Sunderland were found guilty of paying three players in 1888 and banned, after which the club promptly decided to turn professional.

The introduction of the FA Amateur Cup

Professional clubs had been dominating the FA Cup since 1883, and so in 1892 Sheffield FC suggested the introduction of a national competition solely for amateurs. The FA rejected the idea but promptly changed its mind one year later. The FA Amateur Cup was first won by Old Carthusians (the former pupils of Charterhouse School) in the 1893-1894 season.

The competition existed until amateurs were abolished in 1974. It was dominated principally by teams from London, the Home Counties and the Northern League. Bishop Auckland was the most successful side, winning the cup on ten occasions and finishing runners-up on a further eight. Crook Town was another successful club from the North East, winning the trophy on five occasions.

The spread of the game, FIFA and IFAB

The game in England spread to other countries from the 1860s onward. Typically, Britons who were working abroad took football with them and foreign students in England returned home with a knowledge of the game. It is important to realise that the rules of the time travelled with the individuals concerned, and as the rules were subject to considerable change from 1863 up to the end of the century, it meant that the game was probably being played to different rules in different countries. For example, the first game that was played by British workers in Argentina in 1867 was a mixture of association football and rugby football.

As the game spread informally in each country, so the requirement to oversee it grew. This led to the formation of national FAs, the first tranche occurring between 1889 and 1904.

The inevitable next step was to form a world-wide governing body. Federatione Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was formed in Paris in 1904, the founder members being France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Germany joined immediately. One of the initial rules of the organisation was that matches were to be played according to “The Laws of the Game of the Football Association ltd”.

No sign of England? The English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish FAs had started their own Home Championship in 1883, having agreed the rules to be adopted the year before. They also agreed to form a board to determine any future changes to the laws of the game, and so The International Football Association Board (IFAB) was set up in 1886.

Although everybody wanted the Brits to be founder members of FIFA they unanimously rejected these overtures. However, they changed their minds in the following year, largely due to the diplomatic work of Baron Edouard de Laveleye, and joined. Daniel Burley Woodfall, an English football administrator, was appointed president of FIFA in 1906, a position he held until his death in 1918.

FIFA had no real experience of organising tournaments, and it therefore asked the FA to organise the football competitions at the 1908 and 1912 Olympics, both of which were won by Great Britain.

FIFA was admitted to IFAB in 1913. Nowadays, FIFA has 50% of the voting rights on IFAB (four votes) while each of the British FAs has one each.

There was little football during World War I, and coupled with the death of Woodfall in 1918, there was a danger that FIFA might fold. At a meeting to kick-start the organisation again in 1919, England objected to the continued membership of Germany and the other Central Powers, and it formally withdrew from FIFA in 1920. Although it rejoined a couple of years later, it fell out with FIFA again in 1928 when it was unhappy that FIFA was going to sanction broken-time payments for amateur players. Broken-time payments were sums of money for any lost wages that a player may suffer. On this occasion England did not re-join until 1946, thus missing the first three FIFA World Cup tournaments in 1930, 1934 and 1938.

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1905 FA Cup Final – Aston Villa vs Newcastle Utd at Crystal Palace

The beginnings of schoolboy football

The 1870 Elementary Education Act set the framework for the schooling of children between the ages of 5 and 12. It was followed by a series of further education acts between 1871 and 1893.

Students who went to training colleges became teachers in the new elementary schools. St. John’s in Battersea, St. Mark’s in Chelsea and St. Peter’s in Birmingham were teacher training colleges where students could find football. These teachers were subsequently instrumental in helping to spread football locally. They played the game themselves, forming teams such as Middlesborough Pupil Teachers FC and Sunderland and District Teachers’ Association FC, the latter eventually becoming Sunderland FC.

Apart from playing, they gradually introduced football into schools, W.J. Wilson, the headmaster at Oldridge Road School in Balham, being arguably the most noteworthy. He set up the South London Schools Football Association (SFA) in 1885, the first district to organise school football. SFAs in Poplar and Tower Hamlets followed soon after, and the first inter-district game took place between South London and Tower Hamlets in 1888. Other districts followed in London, and Wilson was responsible for setting up the London SFA in 1892. District SFAs were quickly set up in other parts of the country during the early 1890s, including Manchester (1890), Liverpool (1891), Nottingham (1891), Sunderland (1893) and Newcastle (1894).

England Schoolboys Team – first international in 1907 against Wales esfa.co.uk

The English Schools FA was formed in 1904, and it introduced the English Schools Trophy competition in the following year, London beating Sheffield in the first final. Finally, the first schoolboy international took place in Walsall in 1907 when England played against Wales.

Women’s football (I)

Although there is evidence of some games being played in the 1880s, women’s football in England arguably started with the British Ladies Football Club in 1895. The first official match was held at Crouch End in London between teams from the North and the South, the North winning 7-1. The club lasted little more than a year, lack of funds being the ultimate cause of its demise.

The women’s game came into prominence during World War I and the immediate post-war period, men being away at war providing an opportunity for working women to play. The most famous side was Dick, Kerr Ladies (from a Preston munitions company) who first played in 1917. See the picture below. There were at least 150 teams by the end of 1921, playing friendly matches for charitable purposes. A crowd of 53,000 saw Dick, Kerr Ladies play St. Helens at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, 1921.

Unfortunately, the FA took against the women’s game, announcing in December 1921 that they could no longer use the grounds of affiliated clubs. Its propaganda included: a claim that gate takings from charity games were being siphoned off by organisers; a statement from Frederick Wall, Secretary of the FA, that, based on his experience, the game was not suitable for women; and a warning from some female doctors about the dangers of excessive exercise to women. Ultimately, the women’s game faded, but it did not disappear altogether. It was to appear, revitalised, in the late 1960s.

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Dick, Kerr Ladies team

The beginnings of grassroots football

There is little known about the precise beginnings of the grassroots game, principally because of the lack of press coverage. It seems certain that matches were being played in the 1870s, albeit friendly matches quite probably between unaffiliated clubs.

The attraction of leagues spread to the grassroots game, gradually resulting in a myriad of local amateur leagues (affiliated to the local county or district FAs) across the country from the 1890s onwards.

In Liverpool the I Zingari League was founded in 1895. I Zingari (from the dialectalised Italian meaning “the Gypsies”) was the name used by a cricket club that was formed by a group of Old Harrovians in 1845. It is a nomadic amateur side (having no ground) which is still in existence. It was followed by an Australian cricket club which adopted the same name in 1888, I Zingari Australia. The I Zingari League’s name was obviously chosen to invoke the same spirit of amateur competition. Old Xaverians FC, set up in 1892 by the old boys’ recently formed cricket side, is the sole founder member of the league that is still in existence. The I Zingari Combination was set up in 1904, partly providing a base for I Zingari League reserve teams and it was followed by a third tier, the I Zingari Alliance, in 1912. Meanwhile, the Liverpool County Combination was founded in 1908, competing with the I Zingari League for the title of premier grassroots football in the area.

Local amateur leagues across the country soon catered for old boy, church and business teams. The Liverpool Shipping League was founded in 1920, the same year that dock workers eventually got Saturday afternoons off (a coincidence or not?). Other leagues which appeared in the city included: the Liverpool Old Boys League (1923), the Liverpool Business Houses League (year?), the Liverpool CYMS League (year?), the Liverpool League (1922) and the LBA (Liverpool Boys Association) League.

Works teams

Works teams benefited greatly from company assistance. There are numerous examples of excellent grounds and facilities that have been provided by the company. Boots Athletic FC was formed in 1895. By 1923 it had 5 teams who were playing at the Lady Bay sports ground which was famed for its excellent playing surface (it employed the same groundsman who looked after Trent Bridge). Bourneville FC (Cadbury) provided 19 pitches, 16 cricket squares, 41 tennis courts, 4 bowling greens and 2 croquet lawns.

In Northumberland and Durham a typical pit in the 1920s might employ two to three thousand people, enough to allow more than one team. Sometimes the club might be associated solely with the colliery and sometimes with the town. In London, the Spartan League was as high as works teams could get up the amateur league ladder.

Leagues for the London elite amateurs and a national side

The gentleman amateur in the capital had mainly limited himself to playing friendlies, scorning the idea of competitions, possibly with the exception of the FA Cup and the FA Amateur Cup. However, the lure of league football eventually proved too strong for some of them to resist, and the Isthmian League was founded in 1905. It was strongly dedicated to amateurism, and the champions did not even receive a trophy or medals. It consisted of a single division up to 1973. Many winners of the FA Amateur Cup came from this league. It was followed by the Spartan League in 1907 and the Athenian League in 1912.

Around this period the England Amateur National Team was formed (1906), playing its first international match against France on November 1st of that year. The vast majority of players who represented England over the years came from London, the Home Counties and the North East. The national team was eventually disbanded in 1974 when amateurism ceased to exist.

The Split

In 1906 the FA made a decision that all clubs, amateur and professional, must be affiliated to the county FAs. Middlesex FA and Surrey FA, where the amateur ethos still dominated, objected to this ruling, seeing this as the thin end of the wedge. Talks with the FA failed and the two associations formed the breakaway Amateur Football Association (AFA) in 1907.

The FA took the line that games with non-affiliated clubs were forbidden, and that players from non-affiliated clubs were not eligible to represent the country. In addition, the AFA was not recognised by the Scottish, Welsh or Irish FAs. These factors obviously affected the fixture lists of AFA-affiliated clubs.

The split lasted from 1907 to 1914 when a reconciliation was achieved. As part of the deal, the AFA (now called the Amateur Football Alliance) continued to exist but only as a body affiliated to the FA, and it was limited in its ability to recruit new members.

Some early attendance figures

There were 2,000 at the first FA Cup Final in 1872; 8,000 at Sheffield’s Cromwell Cup Final in 1877 and 9,000 at the first Lancashire Cup Final in 1880. Attendances at the FA Cup Final rose from 17,000 in 1888 to 120,000 at Crystal Palace in 1913.

From around the early 1880s a small number of successful club sides in Lancashire and the Midlands were becoming “gate-taking” clubs. The 12-strong Football League had crowds totalling 600,000 in its inaugural season (1888-1889). Later on, the 20-strong Football League drew 5 million in 1905-1906 and 8.78 million in 1913-1914.

Further Law Changes

Occasional law changes continued to be introduced.

  • 1891 – the penalty kick was introduced
  • 1912 – the goalkeeper was limited to handling the ball in the penalty area, as opposed to anywhere in his own half
  • 1924 – a goal could be scored from a corner kick. Poor wording of the law was exploited by Everton’s Sam Chedgzoy who dribbled the ball straight from the corner flag into the goal, infuriating Spurs supporters and amusing everybody else. The law was quickly changed to state that the player taking the corner could not touch the ball twice in succession
  • 1925 – the offside law was changed, reducing the number of players between the front attacker and the goal line from three players to two.

Go to the next section which deals with the period from 1919 up to 2017.

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