A Potted History of Association Football in England

There are full-blown books at one end of the reading spectrum and small articles or blogs, usually on the Internet, at the other end. This potted history sits somewhere in the middle. The sole objective is to give the reader a taste for the subject. Hopefully, there are sufficient links within the text and information in the bibliography section to allow the reader to delve further if he or she is interested.

As there is already quite a lot of literature on the history of football, both in books and on the Internet, why have I bothered to add to the list? The only weak excuse that I can offer is that the desire to pen something on this subject betrays signs of my misspent youth!

In general, feedback on this piece has indicated that there is particular interest on the period up to World War I. For that reason, I have subsequently penned a more detailed article, Potted History on the Origins and Development of Association Football in England up to the 1920s.

Comments and feedback are welcome via the contact me page.


This is a brief overview of the potted history. If you plan to read the history then perhaps you might wish to bypass the 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.


Up to 1863
.. Early ball games around the world
.. Early forms of football in England
.. More Organised Games
.. 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

.. The Football League in the inter-war years
.. Tactics from 1870 to 1930
.. Elite amateur football in the inter-war years
.. World War II years (1939-1945)

1945 to the early 21st century
.. Picking up the pieces after World War II
.. Tactics from the 1930s to the 1960s
.. Sunday league football
.. Elite amateur football in the post-war period
.. The professional game from the 1960s
…. Football League changes from the late 1950s to 1987
…. The road towards the preeminence of the big city clubs
…. On the field
.. Match officials from the 20th century
.. Women’s football (II)
.. Towards the FA pyramid
.. The FA in the early 21st century

.. The 1863 rules
.. Early winners of the FA Cup
.. England’s record in international competitions
.. Early Balls
.. Goal nets
.. Pitch markings
.. Matchday programmes, fanzines et al
.. Small sided football

Addendum – Rugby Football in the 19th century

Bibliography and further reading
Version history

Up to 1863

Ball games date back to pre-history in various parts of the world, although the first written reference in England does not occur until 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 various 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. The initial form of the game was called Zhuqui. Another version played by both men and women, Baida, became popular from the Tang dynasty onwards (618-907CE). It was an individual competition rather than a team game, where each player took turns to attempt to score a goal, points also being awarded for skill.

Kemari was first played in Japan around 644CE. The object was to keep the ball, made of deerskin, in the air without using the hands or arms. Comparisons have been made with “keepie uppie”.and head tennis. It was initially a game for noblemen and subsequently for samurai warriors. Today, it is played by Shinto priests at several events in the Japanese calendar.

Jegichagi in Korea is said to be derived from Cuju (the Baida variant?). It also sounds like a form 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, it 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”, although there were occasional reports of death. In 1846. the Riot Act had to be read and a troop of cavalry used to disperse the players in Derby. 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”.

Embed from Getty Images
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, which were played according to local rules (very local rules) may well have formed a basis for the modern game, rather than the more newsworthy mob game. Samuel Pepys’ diary from January 1665 commented that London was full of footballs. The illustration above shows a game in the Strand in London.

More Organised Games

In general, sport became much more prominent from the 18th century. Cricket, wrestling, boxing and pedestrianism (running and walking) were among the most publicised in the press, possibly because wagers and side-bets on the outcome were popular. One eye-watering example occurred in 1785 when the White Conduit Cricket Club, including at least three members of the aristocracy, played gentlemen from Kent for 1,000 guineas (worth circa. 150,000 guineas in 2018).

Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (1822-1886) included entries on occasional games of football that were being played, notably in the 1840s and 1850s, with around 65% of them referring to matches in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Scotland. Rules were agreed before the match; it could be the best of 3 goals with a maximum time limit. There was almost always a wager: dinner with wine to be paid for by the losers; or (say) a £5 or £10 wager. Public houses are often mentioned as the hosts for these matches. This is unsurprising, as there was obviously money in it for them with spectators drinking during and after the match, along with any post-match wining and dining. The social classes that were involved in these games varied, but it was most notably the middle classes with a smattering of artisans.

Examples of football games during this period which have been found in the press include:

  • In 1735, 12 men of Norfolk who wish to play 12 men of another county or country
  • In 1793, 6 men of Norton (Derbyshire) played against 6 men of Sheffield
  • In 1841, the Chartist Movement founded the Birmingham Athenic Institute, a society which aimed for physical and intellectual improvement. Football was one of the physical offerings
  • In 1843, the youths of East and West Isley, Berkshire played an 11 a-side game
  • In 1844 on Hampton Court Green a game between 12 men of the F and 12 men of the D troop of the 13th Light Dragoons for a supper
  • In 1849, 10 men of Willington versus 10 men of Eggington in South Derbyshire
  • And in the 1850s, various internal military games, seemingly played to either Rugby or Eton rules, both of which we will come to shortly.

Football appears in Public Schools and Universities

Forms of football also began to appear in public schools around the middle of the 18th century. References include Eton in 1747 and Westminster in 1749. 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.

Embed from Getty Images
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 subsequently 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, subsequently becoming 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.

Embed from Getty Images
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 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, especially as they were largely influenced by Sheffield’s own rules, 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”. It alternated, playing association one week and rugby the next week, until it grew in size and could field separate teams for both codes.

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 in the 1860s / 1870s included: Sheffield FC (1857), the oldest surviving football club; Tyne Association and Newcastle Rangers in the North East; Manchester Association and Manchester Wanderers; Bootle St. John’s on Merseyside; Notts County, Stoke Ramblers 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. However, 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 existence. 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

Peter Andrews and James J. Lang, both Scots playing for Heeley, a club in the suburbs of Sheffield, were possibly the first professional football players in 1876. It was rumoured that professionalism had become fairly widespread in the north by the early 1880s, often by importing players from Scotland.

By 1884, county and district FAs in places such as Birmingham, Sheffield, Notts and Walsall were loudly expressing their opposition to this use of professional players. In that same year, 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, although 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, in some cases, 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.

Embed from Getty Images
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 so Arsenal applied to the Football League, becoming the first southern side to join in 1893. A second attempt to create a league, this time 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 were 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 appearing 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 which 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.

Embed from Getty Images
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.

Embed from Getty Images

Dick, Kerr Ladies team

The Beginnings of Grassroots Football

The available evidence indicates that association football in the 1870s at the grassroots level was more readily to be found in the areas around Sheffield, the Potteries, Birmingham and the West Midlands, along with Central Lancashire. Future hotbeds of the game, such as Manchester and Liverpool, tended to favour rugby, with football often being limited to gentlemen’s teams.

The picture began to change with the significant growth in the number of county and district FAs in the early 1880s, each having their own Senior Cup competition, which were soon followed by a Junior Cup competition.

However, the real game-changer was the attraction of leagues. After the professional Football League had been founded, a myriad of local leagues, affiliated to county or district FAs, rapidly appeared across the country from the early 1890s onwards. In some areas, players were initially more likely to be middle class, while in others the game was to be readily found among all classes.

In its early days Liverpool was one such place where the majority of players could be described as lower middle class. 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 of SFX College’s 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. Old Boy leagues included: The London Old Boys League (1908), the London Secondary Schools Old Boys League (1919) and the Liverpool Old Boys League (1923). Catholics had their own league in Liverpool, the CYMS league, while several leagues around the country adopted a “Business Houses” title, some playing in midweek.

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 cricket ground). Meanwhile, 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 Amateur 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.


While we, perched in the early 21st century, might consider football to have been quite a rough game a hundred years ago, it was in fact significantly less physical than it had been back in the 1860s when it was arguably something of a soccer / rugby hybrid.

In general, the inter-war years can be seen as a period of consolidation at the top end of the game after the hectic changes of the previous fifty years. The FA and the Football League were both conservative organisations between the wars. The FA was against the football pools, club lotteries, dog racing on football grounds, women’s football, Sunday football and floodlit matches .. to name but a few. It also showed little desire to be at the heart of developments in world soccer. The Football League began the period by expanding, but thereafter there was little change.

Meanwhile, elite amateur football saw a more pragmatic form of amateurism replace the gentleman amateur variant, while the grassroots game continued to grow at a rapid pace. The number of FA-affiliated clubs grew from 12,000 in 1910 to 37,000 by 1937.

The Football League in the Inter-war Years

The Football League embarked on a period of expansion immediately after World War I. The two divisions were each increased to 22 teams in 1919; a third division was added in 1920 when all the clubs in the first division of the Southern League joined; and it became the Third Division South in 1921 when the Third Division North was introduced. Average attendances at First Division matches rose from 23,000 in 1913-14 to 30,000 in 1938-39.

On the financial front, the minimum admission price had been raised to 9d in 1917, in part to cover the Entertainments Tax which had been introduced by the UK Government in 1916, and it subsequently rose to 1 shilling after the war. The maximum wage for professional players was £9 per week in 1921, but it was lowered to £8 in the following year, although few players actually earned this sum.

The position of secretary manager at a Football League club had become established by 1900. It was principally an administrative role. The manager, as we might recognise him today, began to appear in the inter-war period. Herbert Chapman, the manager at Huddersfield Town and subsequently Arsenal, is probably most associated with this move to a more technical management role. However, the change was gradual: the Newcastle United board was still picking the team well into the 1950s.

Tactics – 1870 to 1930

As previously mentioned, the early English style was a highly individualistic one, with a total focus on dribbling skills, whereas the Scottish style emphasised the team aspects, allying individual skills with a passing game. In terms of formations, England was considered to be employing an ultra attacking 1-2-7 in the 1870s, while Scotland was adopting 2-2-6.

2-3-5 (called the Pyramid system) followed these all-out attacking systems. It is claimed that Wrexham first deployed it in the late 1870s, and it was in widespread use by the 1880s. Two full-backs were at the back with the three half-backs in front of them plus five forwards. The centre-half was a relatively attacking player in this system who was regarded as the fulcrum of the side. This system was used through to the 1920s.

WM formation

The offside law was changed in 1925 when the number of defenders required between the leading attacker and the goal was reduced from three players to two. In the WM system, which was devised by Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal to accommodate this change, the centre-half was pulled back alongside the full-backs. He now occupied a stopper role whose task was to contain the opposing centre-forward. With the two wing-halves just in front of them and the two inside forwards operating behind the centre-forward and wingers, the WM system provided a more balanced setup in terms of both defence and attack.

On the field, Huddersfield Town was the team of the 1920s under the management of Herbert Chapman, winning the First Division league title in three consecutive seasons (starting in 1923-24), finishing runners-up twice and triumphing once in the FA Cup.

Chapman moved to Arsenal in 1925 and laid the foundations for the club’s subsequent successes in the 1930s when it won five league titles and two FA Cups. Their cup win in 1930 was in fact the first success by a southern club since Tottenham Hotspur FC won the trophy back in 1901. Chapman died in 1934, part way through the club’s triumphant decade.

Embed from Getty Images
Charlton vs Liverpool (1938)

Media coverage of the game increased significantly between the wars. The popular press grew, and it used football coverage as part of its circulation wars. This resulted in those players who were at the top of the game becoming household names. Meanwhile, the BBC broadcast its first radio commentary in January 1927, covering the match between Arsenal and Sheffield United. Coverage increased until the Football League banned all broadcasts of its fixtures in June 1931, citing reduced attendances at matches as the reason. The FA was more sympathetic, allowing various cup matches, including the final, plus international matches to be broadcast during the 1930s.

Elite Amateur Football in the Inter-war Years

The breakaway Amateur Football Alliance (AFA) suffered from World War I. Only around one third of its clubs reappeared after the conflict. In addition, public schools were moving away from football to rugby. In part, some schools made the change because they were unhappy that fixtures had not been suspended when war was declared, as other sports such as cricket and rugby had done. The 1914-15 season had been completed and then fixtures were suspended, resuming in the 1919-20 season.

Corinthian FC’s fixture list was hard hit by the reduced number of clubs. It started to play schools, claiming that it was attempting to encourage them, but it invariably thrashed them which probably had the opposite effect. The club took the decision in 1922 to enter the FA Cup for the first time. It beat First Division Blackburn Rovers in round 1 in 1923-24 but lost 5-0 to West Bromwich Albion in the next round. It won only two further ties over the next decade, although the club continued to attract considerable media and public attention. However, in the mid-1930s the FA said that it would now have to play through the qualifying rounds of the competition like any other amateur side. The club struggled on until 1939 when it formally amalgamated with Casuals FC, becoming Corinthian-Casuals.

Elsewhere, the pragmatic amateur (the term used by Terry Morris) was replacing the gentleman amateur. Young players were recruited from local schools; grounds were developed that had an air of permanency; committees of members were established who were willing to devote time and energy to running the club; connections were established with the local community; and there were signs of succession from one generation of supporters to the next.

In London and the Home Counties there was a mixture of regeneration within existing clubs and the appearance of new clubs. Dulwich Hamlet FC was a prime example of the former. It had an outstanding club official in Lorraine Wilson who founded the club in 1890s. He had acted as the treasurer ever since, and had done much to keep the club afloat during World War I. Clapton FC in Forest Gate East London was another example. Meanwhile, new clubs arose from junior leagues, especially in West and North London, principally on the back of new industrial development in these areas. Examples include Wealdstone FC (Harrow), Finchley FC  and Hayes FC.

The Northern League had mixed fortunes during the inter-war years. Some clubs folded due to financial difficulties while others prospered, particularly those who had strong connections with local collieries and communities, notably Crook Town and Bishop Auckland.

However, many elite amateur clubs generally tended to endure a hand-to-mouth existence, the occasional season with a good run in the Amateur Cup or a good draw in the FA Cup being offset by years when the books barely balanced.

Shamateurism, a term coined by journalists, came into public focus with the Crook Town scandal in 1927-28. There were two areas of concern: jobs being found for players in local firms and the payment of expenses. Travel and meal expenses were allowed but the actual costs had to be claimed. However, flat payments were often made. In the Crook Town scandal, there were claims of excessive flat payments, and it was also claimed that one player was paid a wage. Crook Town said that lots of other clubs did the same. The result of the FA’s investigations into Crook Town and other clubs was that 341 players were suspended on grounds of their “professionalism”, while many club officials were also suspended on grounds of “malpractice”. There were a number of other investigations into shamateurism in the inter-war years but not on the same scale.

World War II Years (1939-45)

The Football League was suspended as soon as war was declared on September 3rd, 1939. However, a regional competition was soon in place, followed by a Football League Cup. War Office regulations regarding matches included: the attendance should be no greater than 8,000; entry was to be by ticket only; and teams were to travel no more than 50 miles to play. Unsurprisingly, there were occasional travel problems; games were halted when air raid sirens sounded; and occasionally key players did not appear, leading to calls for volunteers in the crowd to take their place. However, wartime games did help to convey a sense that normal life was carrying on despite the conflict.

1945 to the Early 21st Century

England’s relative isolation from world football in the 1930s saw it lagging behind in the 1950s at both club and international level, a situation which was gradually remedied from the 1960s onwards.

The major trend in the professional game from the 1960s onwards was the growing domination of the big city clubs. Meanwhile, the elite amateur game went from a peak of success and popularity in the 1950s to extinction in the 1970s; women’s football grew in popularity from the 1970s; but the adult men’s grassroots game experienced a sharp decline from around the end of the 20th century.

Picking up the Pieces after World War II

Football was extremely popular immediately after World War II. Football League attendances reached an all-time high of 41 million in the 1948-49 season, while the FA Amateur Cup Final attracted 95,000 in the same season when it was staged at Wembley for the first time. However, there was a general downward trend thereafter, with Football League attendances dropping to 28 million by 1961-62.

There were minor changes to the Football League in the 1950s. Four clubs were added at the beginning of the 1950-51 season, and the Third Division North / South structure was replaced by the Third and Fourth Divisions in 1958.

The minimum admission price was 1s 6d in 1951, rising to 2s 6d in 1960. Radio commentaries of matches had started again during the war and continued after it. However, from the 1951-52 season the BBC was not allowed to give advance notice of which match was being covered in an attempt to protect attendances. Meanwhile, TV coverage, which was in its infancy, was limited to the Cup Final. This affected league attendances, as matches were played on the same day. The Cup Final was moved to the last day of season when few games were played, and eventually, from 1954 onward, it was played in the week after the final league Saturday.

Embed from Getty Images
Chelsea vs Newcastle Utd (1955)

The post war period began to see greater management autonomy in the professional game. Matt Busby, who is often considered to be the first tracksuit manager, took over at Manchester United in 1945.

Walter Winterbottom, appointed as England’s first ever team manager in 1946, was another important figure. He sought to increase the network of the FA coaching scheme. Teachers were the principal attendees on such courses, but they were gradually joined by a smattering of professional players. Some enthused about this move while others complained about what they saw as an intellectual approach to the game. However, defeats at club level by Moscow Dynamo and at international level by Hungary helped to draw the sting from the criticism, and coaching had been adopted by most professional clubs by the end of the 1950s. Tactics varied from Tottenham Hotspur’s push and run side of 1951, the deep lying centre forward (known as the Revie Plan in 1954-55) and the first dabblings with 4-2-4.  As part of its coaching drive, the FA showed the BBC recording of the Real Madrid versus Eintracht Frankfurt European Cup Final of 1960 in schools across the country. This was one of the classic European finals, showing Di Stefano and Puskas in their pomp.

At the end of the Second World War the FA had decided to organise a Youth Championship for county FAs as a way to stimulate the game among youngsters who were not yet old enough to play senior football. In 1951 it was realised that a competition for clubs would probably have a wider appeal, and the FA Youth Challenge Cup was started in the 1952–53 season, with Manchester United winning the trophy in the first five years of its existence.

Finally, amateurs playing for professional clubs had been an everyday occurrence before World War I, and it was still relatively common during the inter-war years, but it now petered out. The last amateur to be selected to play for England was in 1947, and a final noteworthy event was that Seamus O’Connell managed to win an FA Amateur Cup winners medal with Bishop Auckland and a League Championship winners medal with Chelsea in the same season (1954-55).

Tactics from the 1930s to the 1960s

England had a rude awakening in November 1953 when Hungary beat them 6-3 at Wembley. While England was still using the WM formation that had been devised in the 1920s, other countries had moved on, some of them using intellectuals to take charge of tactics it was claimed! It is important to realise that the systems which are mentioned below were seldom the result of some abstract purist thinking, they were often based on the strengths and weaknesses of the players who were available to the coach.

The Danubian School was an adaptation of 2-3-5. It deployed a deep-lying centre-forward who operated behind the other four forwards. The Austrians deployed it effectively in the 1930s. Unfortunately, their relative lack of finishing power meant that they were unable to fully capitalise on the system.

The Metodo system (2-3-2-3) was devised by Vittorio Pozzo who coached Italy to World Cup successes in 1934 and 1938. He withdrew two forwards who operated just in front of the half backs. This helped to counteract the opponent’s midfield and aided counter-attacking.

Marton Bukovi, the Hungarian coach, devised 2-3-1-4 where the centre forward operated as a playmaker behind the forward line (similar to the Danubian School above). This formation changed to 2-3-2-3 when the team lost possession. The system was used by the successful Hungarian national team of the early 1950s. England were beaten tactically and technically in the 1953 game against Hungary. They were dumbfounded by Hideguti who played in the deep-lying centre forward role, a tactic which they had never come across before, and they were generally technically inferior to the Hungarians, personified by Ferenc Puskas’ sublime drag-back goal. England seemed to learn nothing from this defeat, possibly just putting it down to a bad day at the office. A return match was played in Budapest in 1954 which Hungary won 7-1, England’s heaviest ever defeat.

4-2-4 was devised independently in the early 1950s by Flavio Costa in Brazil and Hungarian Bela Guttmann. It was used by Brazil in their World Cup triumphs of 1958 and 1970. It was a balanced system with two players in midfield. The English national side and various English clubs dabbled with the system in the early 1960s.

4-3-3, an adaptation of 4-2-4, was used by Brazil in their World Cup triumph of 1962. In this system Mario Zagallo, a very fit winger in the 1958 tournament, dropped back into midfield. After various experiments Sir Alf Ramsey eventually decided that England would use 4-3-3 in the successful World Cup campaign of 1966 although some describe it as 4-1-3-2 where Nobby Stiles operated just in front of the back four.

Finally, the 4-4-2 formation was devised by Viktor Maslov, the Russian coach, in the mid-1960s. It is regarded as the beginning of the modern era of tactics, principally because it introduced what we call “pressing” today, that is reducing the space that is available to the opposition when they have possession. Pressing obviously necessitates high levels of fitness, particularly among the midfield players. The adoption of pressing was initially patchy, Rinus Michels’ Ajax and Graham Taylor’s Watford were deploying it in the 1970s, but it was the late 1980s before AC Milan successfully used it, followed by the Germans. 4-4-2 has since been superseded by a myriad of other systems, but pressing remains popular. Indeed, it is difficult to read or watch anything about football today without the subject being mentioned.

Sunday League Football

Image from The Guardian (2013)

Dock workers were unable to play football in the early days of the grassroots game, having to work on Saturday afternoons until 1920. It was almost certainly this situation which influenced the formation of the South West Ham Sunday League in 1901. However, the powers that be disapproved of playing on the Sabbath and the Essex FA banned it in 1908. The FA followed suit in 1910, banning any player found to have played on a Sunday.

An article in the Kentish Independent from March 1909 mentions the existence of various other Sunday leagues in the London area around this time, including Edmonton and District Sunday League (although the official founding date of this league is now given as 1925), Stratford and District Sunday League, Hackney and District Sunday League, Music Halls League and Jewish F.A. There was talk at that time of various leagues getting together to form a Sunday Football Association. However, it was to be 1932 before a National Sunday Football Association was founded. At that time there were 13 leagues in the Greater  London area, including the recently formed East London Sunday League (1930).

Tooting & Mitcham Utd were expelled from the FA Amateur Cup in 1925 for fielding players who were playing on Sundays, and Sutton United suffered a similar fate in 1929.  Anybody who played on Saturdays had to play under an assumed name on Sunday – there were a lot of John Smiths around! As an aside, referees probably had a harder time than the players in trying to hide their identities. Another occasional problem for Sunday football was that some games were prone to be disrupted by the Lord’s Day Observance Society.

Games were (and are) played in parks and other public spaces with Hackney Marshes becoming the most celebrated place. It housed 120 pitches after World War II when there was a rapid growth in Sunday League football. New leagues in the post-war period included the Hackney & Leyton Sunday League (1947), Manchester Amateur Sunday League (1947), Liverpool & District Sunday League (1951) and the Norwich & District Sunday League (1958).

The National Sunday Football Association eventually claimed to represent 73 leagues, over 2,500 clubs and 500,000 players. The FA, possibly fearful of the rival organisation, was forced to accept the inevitable, and it finally recognised Sunday League Football in 1960. It subsequently started the National FA Sunday Cup competition in 1964, which in its second season attracted a staggering 1,600 entries.

Elite Amateur Football in the Post-war Period

Bishop Auckland (1954-55) Non-League Club Directory

The game was extremely popular in the immediate post-war period, leading to a growth in the number of players and clubs, coupled with high attendances at amateur club games in the South East. The closed-shop system which was operated by the Isthmian and Athenian Leagues led to the creation of additional leagues, the Corinthian League in 1945, the Delphian League in 1951 and the Hellenic League in 1953.

Pegasus was a club which was formed in 1948 with players coming from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. It was a deliberate attempt to imitate the Corinthian tradition. It did not join a league, but it managed to win the FA Amateur Cup in 1951 at only its third attempt, and again in 1953. The presence of older students at the universities in the immediate post war period obviously helped the club to recruit a number of experienced players. However, this model was not sustainable. Ultimately, Pegasus was competing with Corinthian Casuals for players, a battle which they started to lose. Pegasus’ fixture list became shorter and shorter in the late 1950s, and the club went out of existence in 1963.

Attendances declined in the 1960s, and so the fortunes of amateur clubs suffered. As an example, Bishop Auckland had an income of £11,500 in 1956-57 but only £1,260 in 1967-68. In 1958 it had reserves of £6,300 but an overdraft of £1,449 10 years later. The installation of floodlights allowed teams to arrange mid-week games, typically friendlies. This helped financially for a short time but clubs really needed more competitive league fixtures. These financial problems led to a gradual drift towards professionalism, particularly in the south. Teams who adopted this approach included Wimbledon (1964), Barnet (1965) and Wealdstone (1971). Meanwhile, the Corinthian and Delphian Leagues turned out to be relatively short-lived, both folding in 1963 with their teams transferring to the Athenian League.

Meanwhile, shamateurism was always “the elephant in the room”. “Sport and the Community” was the report of the Wolfenden Committee in 1960. It considered the widespread practice of irregular payments to amateur players, and it included the recommendation that the time had come to “abolish the formal distinction between amateur and professional, and to allow any participant, if he needs or wishes it, to be paid as a player, without stigma, reproach or differentiation”. The recommendation was ignored. Changes were afoot in other sports. In cricket the MCC abolished Gentlemen and Players in 1962. Henceforth, all would be known as cricketers. Athletics was slower. It remained amateur for the moment, but it did start to embrace sponsorship in the 1960s.

The FA was dragging its heels, even imposing a 50 mile limit between a player’s place of residence and his football club in 1963. However, the decision to abolish the distinction between amateur and professional was finally taken in November 1972, and it was eventually implemented at the start of 1974-75 season.

The Professional Game from the 1960s

Apart from what happened on the pitch, there are several interconnected strands which go to make up the professional game from the 1960s onwards. They are: players’ wages and contracts; reduced attendances; income derived from TV highlights and live broadcasts; income from sponsorship; and various structural changes.

Football League Changes from the late 1950s to 1987

Attempts to restructure the Football League met with limited success in the period from the late 1950s through to the early 1980s.  There were various piecemeal changes, starting with the introduction of the League Cup in 1960-61, although it was arguably 1967, when the first final was held at Wembley between Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion, before it was generally accepted by the clubs. Other changes included: the introduction of 3 up and 3 down in 1973; 3 points for a win in 1981-82; matches could be played on a Sunday – league games from 1981 and cup games from 1983; and automatic promotion / relegation between the Fourth Division and the Football Conference (currently known as the Vanarama National League) in 1987.

The Road towards the Preeminence of the Big City Clubs

The importance of television coverage in the economics of the game would become paramount from the 1990s onwards. However, the first notable step on the journey to saturation coverage came when the BBC’s Match of the Day programme appeared in 1964, the first show containing highlights from the Liverpool versus Arsenal game on the opening day of the 1964-65 season. ITV’s Big Match highlights programme commenced in the following year. This was accompanied by ever greater coverage of the game in the popular press.

The declining fortunes of the small town club. Burnley FC’s golden period spanned the late 1950s and early 1960s. This included winning the First Division championship in 1959-60 and finishing runners-up to Tottenham Hotspur in the 1962 FA Cup Final. However, Burnley was one of the smaller clubs that was ultimately affected by the removal of the maximum wage in 1961. Lancashire town clubs were particularly hit. Although they managed to survive for a time by living off their past records, a decline in playing fortunes and the ease of travel to neighbouring cities such as Liverpool and Manchester took them on a downward spiral. Burnley and Preston North End, both founder members of the Football League, were close to dropping out of the Football League in the 1980s. The only club from a town or city with a population of 200,000 or less to win the First Division (or Premier League) title after Burnley’s success in 1960 has been Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95, and its success was in no small measure helped by the money that chairman Jack Walker ploughed into the club.

Changes in players’ wages and contracts were key elements in the move towards the eventual domination of the richer clubs. There were four main stages in this particular saga: the abolition of the maximum wage (1961); some initial improvements to the retain and transfer system (1964); freedom of contract (1978); and the Bosman ruling (1995).

Not without a struggle, the maximum wage was increased to £12 per week in 1947 and it had reached £20 by 1958. Some players managed to receive more than the maximum, as club directors found ways to circumvent the rules whenever they deemed it was in their interest to do so. Illegal signing-on fees, bonuses and the use of club houses and cars were among the “workarounds” that were employed. However, the retain and transfer system from 1893 remained firmly in place.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the new name for the AFPTU, formulated the following demands in 1960: abolition of the maximum wage; the right of players to a percentage of their transfer fee; a new retaining system and new contracts.

In 1961 the players got most of what they wanted, including the abolition of the maximum wage, but there was no movement on retain and transfer. On this subject, George Eastham had recently walked out of football after Newcastle Utd refused to give him a transfer. Newcastle eventually relented after enduring a bout of bad publicity, and he was transferred to Arsenal. However, the PFA persuaded Eastham to allow his claim to go forward as a test case even though he was now an Arsenal player.

In the High Court in 1963 Mr. Justice Wilberforce declared that the retain and transfer system was an unjustifiable restraint of trade. The system was changed to the players’ benefit but freedom of contract did not arrive until 1978. This allowed players to refuse a new contract. However, any new club would have to compensate the player’s current club, with an independent tribunal deciding on the transfer fee when the two clubs could not agree.

Finally, the Bosman ruling in 1995 said that the payment of transfer fees for players who were free agents (that is out of contract) conflicted with an EU citizen’s right to free movement within employment.

Sponsorship. Higher wages and transfer fees, coupled with lower attendances, contributed to the general financial problems which the game encountered, and so opened the door to sponsorship in the late 1970s. QPR was the first club to ask for permission to have a sponsor’s logo on their shirts in 1977. The request was denied, but it was rescinded six months later so long as the logo did not appear on shirts in televised games, a restriction that was eventually lifted in 1983. In 1981 Arsenal signed a 3 year deal with JVC for £0.5m, and by the early 1980s most clubs had a shirt sponsor. The next step was that leagues became sponsored. The Football League was sponsored by Canon in 1983 while Rothmans sponsored the Isthmian and Hellenic leagues.

Hooliganism. Attendances were at an all-time low of 16.5 million in the 1985-86 season. Hooliganism was blamed for the downturn. It was not a new phenomenon. There had been periodic instances of trouble, going back as far as the 1880s, while QPR (1930), Millwall (1934) and Carlisle (1935) had their grounds closed for crowd disturbance. What was new was the concerted nature of hooliganism from the 1970s. Simply the fear of violence could be enough to put people off attending matches, as well as the actual acts. Some town centres were closed on Saturday afternoons in anticipation of trouble. There were running battles, pitch invasions and verbal abuse in and around grounds. 1985 was described as annus horribilis by one author. It saw a full scale battle between Luton and Millwall supporters; a fan stabbed to death in Birmingham; the Heysel disaster; and sandwiched in between them was the fire at Bradford when 56 people died.

Hooliganism declined in the second half of the 1980s although it was far from being eradicated. There were a number of reasons for the change in behaviour, including: a greater police presence at matches; the use of CCTV; the deployment of stewards; the gradual introduction of all-seater stadia; a degree of introspection by some hooligans after the events of 1985; and the arrival of other attractions such as cannabis and carnivals. The improvements led to an upturn in attendances and saw UEFA lift its ban on English clubs in 1990, a measure that had been imposed after Heysel.

Finance. From 1985 the leading clubs were pushing for a larger percentage of gate and TV money and a greater say on the Football League management committee. An agreed settlement was short-lived, and the threat of a breakaway loomed when ITV offered to sponsor a super-league as part of a strategy to see off the fledgling satellite TV industry. A split was averted by giving First Division clubs an even greater percentage of the TV money (75%). Eventually and almost inevitably, a split did occur when the FA proposed a Premier League. First Division clubs gave notice that they would leave the Football League en bloc in the summer of 1991, and the Premier League commenced in August 1991, starting with 22 clubs although the number was cut to 20 in 1995.

In May 1992 BSkyB outbid ITV for the live coverage of Premier League matches for 5 years. Subsequent deals for broadcasting matches became ever more lucrative. The contracts with Sky Sports, BT Sport and BBC (for highlights) which cover 2016-2019 are worth £5.14bn to the Premier League. One of the effects of this largesse is that rich clubs are tempting out of contract foreign stars and their agents. Transfer fees are no longer going to the smaller English clubs.

Meanwhile, the English Football League restructured itself in the 2004-5 season when its top division became known as the Championship and Divisions Two and Three moved up one (becoming Divisions One and Two respectively).

Other financial aspects which were noteworthy in the 1980s and beyond include: ground building and merchandising. A number of clubs have either sold spare land around their grounds to developers or sold the ground, often centrally located, and built new grounds outside the town. Merchandising has been another source of income. In particular, replica strips have proved to be big business both for the clubs and the companies whose logos they have sported.

On the field

By the middle of the 1960s, it is fair to say that the first generation of tracksuit managers were in place and the importance of tactics was now fully recognised. English clubs finally began to experience some success in Europe with Tottenham Hotspur winning the European Cup-Winners Cup in 1963, following on from their domestic run of success (League and Cup double in 1960-61 and the FA Cup again in 1962), while Manchester United became the first English side to triumph in the European Cup in 1968. But of course, the World Cup victory of the national side in 1966, when the tournament was held in England, was the outstanding success of the 1960s.

Embed from Getty Images
Matt Busby with the European Cup (1968)

Liverpool was by far the most successful club during the 1970s and 1980s, winning 11 league titles, four European Cups and three FA Cups. It learned the possession game from continental sides, and ball-playing centre-backs became one of the keys to its continuing success.

Brian Clough, the only manager since Herbert Chapman to win the First Division league title with two clubs (Derby County and Nottingham Forest), guided Forest to two European Cups in 1979 and 1980. Coupled with Aston Villa’s success in 1982, there were a total of seven victories in the European Cup for English clubs in eight years (1977-1984), a truly golden period.

Arthur Wharton, Sheffield United goalkeeper

Black players had been virtually non-existent in the early days of football. Andrew Watson, born in British Guyana, was probably the first black player. He was an amateur who played for the Queens Park club in Scotland before moving to England where he played for Swifts and Corinthian in the 1880s. He was soon followed by Arthur Wharton, the first black professional player. While there was eventually a slight increase in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the 1970s before black players started to appear in any significant numbers, including Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and John Fashanu, culminating in Viv Anderson becoming the first black player to be capped for England in 1978.

The arrival of overseas players had something of a false start. The likes of Ardiles and Villa arrived at Tottenham Hotspur in the late 1970s, but the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) pressured the government to limit work permits to established players. In addition, UEFA imposed quotas on the use of non-national players in its club competitions, limiting the number to three. For English clubs this quota system also applied to Scottish, Welsh and Irish players. One of the results of the Bosman ruling was that UEFA was no longer able to impose these quotas, leading to an influx of foreign players.

The establishment of the Premier League saw the beginning of virtually complete preeminence of the bigger clubs. Manchester United has dominated the Premier League, winning the title 13 times in the period from 1992-93 to 2016-17, the UEFA Champions League twice and the FA Cup on 5 occasions. Chelsea and Arsenal are the other successful big clubs over this twenty five season period. Chelsea has 5 league titles, one UEFA Champions League and six FA Cups, while Arsenal has won three league titles and eight FA Cups.

Match officials from the 20th century

The various piecemeal changes which had been made to the laws of the game since 1863 gradually resulted in a document which was difficult to understand. In 1937, IFAB asked Stanley Rous to review the laws and redraft them to make them more comprehensible. Rous was a teacher and amateur goalkeeper who eventually became a top-class referee. At the time of IFAB’s request, he had moved into administration, becoming the Secretary of the FA. His rewritten rules were published in 1938. He eventually became President of FIFA from 1961 to 1974.

Rous is also attributed with the implementation of the Diagonal System of Control (DSC) for match officials. As the accompanying diagram indicates, in this system the referee generally covers a diagonal line from the corner of one penalty area to the opposite corner of the other penalty area. Each linesman (now called an assistant referee) patrols half the touchline, the half that is furthest away from the referee. DSC is not meant to dictate a specific route, merely to provide a general guideline. The referee’s precise movements should obviously be dictated by the nature of the play, e.g. he may find himself outside the field of play on occasions if it aids his decision-making abilities. DSC was used in international matches from the early 1960s. English referees alternated, running the left wing diagonal (as shown in the diagram) for one half of the game and a right wing diagonal for the other half. They eventually switched to a single diagonal in 1974.

The increased speed of the modern game, particularly at the top level, brought with it the need for fitter match officials and the advisability of warming up before the start of a game. It also brought the need for improved decision-making. Football had lagged behind other sports in using technology to help match officials at the top level of the game. Hawk-Eye technology in cricket and tennis and the Rugby TMO (Television Match Official) all first appeared around 2001, and they gradually became established as integral parts of those sports. After tests in 2011 and 2012, FIFA eventually permitted the use of goal line technology to establish if a goal had been scored where there was doubt. GoalRef and Hawk-Eye were the initially approved products, and the Premier League decided to implement the Hawk-Eye system in the 2013-14 season. At its meeting in June 2016, IFAB approved trials of a second technology, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), to assist with decisions on: goals – was there any problem in the build-up; penalty decisions; red card decisions; and to resolve cases of mistaken identity.

Women’s Football (II)

The success of the English men’s team in the 1966 World Cup was arguably one of the main drivers in revitalising the women’s game. There was sufficient interest to warrant the setting up of the English Women’s FA (WFA) in 1969.

In response to pressure from UEFA, the FA lifted its ban on women playing on the grounds of FA-affiliated clubs in 1971, and in the following year a joint consultative committee of the FA and the WFA was formed to oversee some aspects of the women’s game. The game then grew over the course of the decade and there were 278 affiliated clubs by 1979. The WFA eventually became affiliated to the FA in 1983 on the same basis as the county FAs.

A number of significant changes occurred in the early 1990s: a 24 club National League was set up in 1991; the WFA folded in 1993 when control of the game passed to the FA who immediately set up the first national cup competition; and Julie Hemsley became the first female member of the FA council in the mid 1990s.

Embed from Getty Images

Women’s football was gaining in popularity in other countries about the same time as it was in England, and inevitably international tournaments started to appear. The UEFA Women’s Championship was first held in 1984 and England’s record up to 2017 was: runners-up on two occasions; semi-finalists on two occasions; the group stage on three occasions; and failure to qualify for the final stages of the competition on four occasions. After a trial tournament in 1988 the FIFA Women’s World Cup was first held in 1991. In the seven tournaments up to 2015 England achieved one third place and three quarter final appearances, while failing to qualify for the final stages of the competition on the other three occasions.

Back in the club game, a restructuring of the league took place in 2011 with the formation of the Women’s Super League which initially consisted of a single division, expanding to two divisions, each with ten clubs, in 2014. Underneath them in the FA’s Pyramid for the women’s game came the Women’s FA Premier League in 2014-15, which consisted of a Northern and a Southern division, while at the next level down there were four regional divisions – Northern, Midlands, South-East and South-West. The FA continues to tinker with the structure of the women’s game.

Towards the FA pyramid in the men’s game

The Southern League had been the premier league outside the Football League since the 1890s, despite losing its first division clubs to the newly formed Football League Third Division in 1920. The formation of the Northern Premier League in 1968 was an attempt to match the Southern League. It was principally, but not entirely, an amalgamation of the Lancashire Combination (formed in 1891) and the Cheshire County League (formed in 1919).

The next logical step, particularly for those clubs who sought eventual entry to the English Football League, was to form a nationwide non-league division. This came to pass in 1979 when leading clubs from the Southern League and the Northern Premier League formed the Alliance Premier League (APL). The Southern and Northern Premier Leagues continued to exist, acting as feeder leagues to the APL. This was the first tentative step towards a hierarchical structure in the non-league game.

The Isthmian League was included in this structure, initially sitting at the same level as the Southern League and the Northern Premier League. It had operated as a closed shop with a single division from 1905 until 1973 when it finally introduced a second division. This was presumably a preemptive move before the imminent demise of amateur football in 1974 to try to ensure its survival. It added a third division in 1977 (both additional divisions had 16 teams). It was the Athenian League that suffered from these changes when their leading teams went over to the Isthmian League during its period of expansion, and it eventually folded in 1984.

The structure of the FA Pyramid, as it came to be known in the 1990s, and its constituent leagues were subject to constant change and additions as it went on to include the FA Premier League and English Football League at the top of the pyramid and further non-league and grassroots leagues at the base. In 2017 there were a total of 24 levels in the pyramid.

The FA in the early 21st century

The Premier League proved to be a financial success, attracting ever larger sums of money from media companies to show live matches, with the bigger clubs becoming international brands. These riches have helped to attract the best players from Europe, Africa and South America. The downside of this business model is that there have been reduced opportunities for young English players to establish themselves in the top tier of the game with the potential knock-on effects on the national side.

The adult men’s eleven-a-side game at the grassroots level has been in serious decline. In May 2013 Corinthian, who reports on grassroots soccer in the Liverpool Echo, wrote that twenty years previously there had been three times the number of leagues and almost 5 times the number of teams on Merseyside.  Similar articles on the decline of the local amateur game can be found elsewhere across the country. The reasons given for the decline of adult men’s grassroots soccer include: the cost, both to the clubs and to the individual; the disappearance of a team ethos (replaced by a personal ethos); the varying times of Premier League matches which can get in the way of men who want to play in local amateur games and watch their idols; not to mention the smartphone with its various attendant distractions such as Fantasy Football.

On the plus side there has been the growing popularity of women’s football and the success of the FA Charter Standard accreditation scheme for the grassroots game which was launched in 2001. Accreditation is obtained by clubs and leagues that are judged to be well-run and sustainable, and which prioritise child protection, quality coaching and implementation of the FA’s Respect programme. Clubs may run teams of both sexes, catering for children, youths, adults and vets.

There are three levels of FA Charter Standard Awards for clubs:

  • FA Charter Standard Club for youth and adult clubs: the entry-level accreditation
  • FA Charter Standard Development Club: for clubs clearly enhancing the quality and scope of their football offering
  • FA Charter Standard Community Club: acknowledging the most advanced level of club development and football provision.

Berks and Bucks FA has a solid contingent of clubs who are accredited. At the end of 2017 it listed 17 Community clubs, 25 Development clubs and 99 Charter Standard clubs.

In the south east corner of Berkshire, Ascot United and Berks County can both be found. They are examples of Community clubs.

Ascot United was founded in 1965 by a men’s team who originally played in Sunninghill. It grew to become one of the largest Community football clubs in the UK with 1,000+ registered players and over 70 teams, embracing all ages and abilities from 5 year olds through to Vets. Pictures courtesy of Ascot United.

Berks County was formed in 2014 when Sunninghill Saints and Bracknell Rovers merged, both clubs having been founded in 2009. They complemented each other, Sunninghill having a number of younger teams while Bracknell included several senior teams. Berks County FC had 35 teams in the 2018-2019 season, ranging from adult men, through girls and down to under 7 teams. In addition, there are U6 Soccer School and U5 Academy training groups.


1863 rules

  1. The maximum length of the ground shall be 200 yards, the maximum breadth shall be 100 yards, the length and breadth shall be marked off with flags; and the goals shall be defined by two upright posts, 8 yards apart, without any tape or bar across them.
  2. The winner of the toss shall have the choice of goals. The game shall be commenced by a place kick from the centre of the ground by the side losing the toss, the other side shall not approach within 10 yards of the ball until it is kicked off.
  3. After a goal is won the losing side shall kick off and goals shall be changed.
  4. A goal shall be won when the ball passes between the goal posts or over the space between the goal posts (at whatever height), not being thrown, knocked on, or carried.
  5. When the ball is in touch the first player who touches it shall throw it from the point on the boundary line where it left the ground, in a direction at right angles with the boundary line and it shall not be in play until it has touched the ground.
  6. When a player has kicked the ball any one of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal line is out of play and may not touch the ball himself nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so until the ball has been played; but no player is out of play when the ball is kicked from behind the goal line.
  7. In case the ball goes behind the goal line, if a player on the side to whom the goal belongs first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free kick from the goal line at the point opposite the place where the ball shall be touched. If a player of the opposite side first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free kick (but at the goal only) from a point 15 yards from the goal line opposite the place where the ball is touched. The opposing side shall stand behind their goal line until he has had his kick.
  8. If a player makes a fair catch he shall be entitled to a free kick, provided he claims it by making a mark with his heel at once; ad in order to take such kick he may go as far back as he pleases, and no player on the opposite side shall advance beyond his mark until he has kicked.
  9. No player shall run with the ball.
  10. Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed and no player shall use his hands to hold or push his adversary.
  11. A player shall not throw the ball or pass it to another with his hands.
  12. No player shall take the ball from the ground with his hands while it is in play under any pretext whatever while it is in play.
  13. No player shall wear projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta percha on the soles or heels of his boots.

Early winners of the FA Cup

1872 Wanderers beat Royal Engineers
1873 Wanderers beat Oxford University
1874 Oxford University beat Royal Engineers
1875 Royal Engineers beat Old Etonians
1876 Wanderers beat Old Etonians
1877 Wanderers beat Oxford University
1878 Wanderers beat Royal Engineers
1879 Old Etonians beat Clapham Rovers
1880 Clapham Rovers beat Oxford University
1881 Old Carthusians beat Old Etonians
1882 Old Etonians beat Blackburn Rovers
1883 Blackburn Olympic beat Old Etonians
1884 Blackburn Rovers beat Queens Park (Scotland)
1885 Blackburn Rovers beat Queens Park (Scotland)
1886 Blackburn Rovers beat West Bromwich Albion
1887 Aston Villa beat West Bromwich Albion
1888 West Bromwich Albion beat Preston North End
1889 Preston North End beat Wolverhampton Wanderers

A full list of FA Cup finalists can be found here.

England’s record in international tournaments

England (men’s team) has competed in the FIFA World Cup competitions since 1950. Its record in the 17 competitions that it has entered includes:

  • winners in 1966
  • semi finalists in 1990
  • quarter finalists on six occasions
  • group stage appearance on six occasions
  • failure to qualify for the final stages on three occasions.

England has competed in the UEFA European Championships since 1964. Its record in the 14 competitions that it has entered includes:

  • semi finalists in 1968 and 1996
  • quarter finalists in 2004 and 2012
  • failure to qualify for the final stages of the competition on five occasions.

The early balls

Lurid tales, not necessarily believable, talk of the heads of defeated enemy or human skulls being used as balls in the earliest times.

More reasonably, animal bladders, often pig’s bladders, came to be used. They could be filled with cork shavings or similar materials. These balls tended to be plum-shaped, not round. The bladders eventually came to be covered with leather for better shape retention.

Charles Goodyear patented vulcanised rubber in 1836. This process gave the rubber strength, elasticity plus resistance to solvents and moderate amounts of heat and cold. He designed and made the first rubber based soccer ball in 1855. In England, Richard Lindon introduced the first inflatable rubber bladder in 1862.

The 1863 association rules made no mention of the ball. It was 1872 before the rules were revised, dictating that the ball must be spherical and be 27 to 28 inches in circumference.

Rugby was played with the same ball as association until 1870 when the introduction of rubber inner-tubes and the pliability of rubber produced a ball that was more egg-shaped. The RFU officially decided that ovalness was the compulsory shape for a rugby ball in 1892.

See this history of the soccer ball for further information.

Goal nets

Illustration from the Liverpool Echo 1891

Goal nets were invented by John Brodie, a Liverpool engineer, who thought of the idea after witnessing a dispute over whether a goal had been scored at Everton’s match with Accrington Stanley in 1889.

He applied for a patent in 1890, and Liverpool Ramblers tried the nets out for him. The first version included bells which would ring when the ball hit the net. The bells did not ring and were therefore dispensed with.

The first official FA trial took place in a North versus South game at Nottingham in 1891. Nets were subsequently used in the 1892 FA Cup Final between West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa, and became widespread thereafter.

Pitch markings

Pitch markings changed, as the laws were altered. The diagram below is taken from the 1905 Book of Football. It is also reproduced in the goalpostbooks.co.uk website.

Matchday programmes, fanzines .. et al

The original matchday football programme, usually called the match card, was typically a single piece of card which was limited to the date, time and venue of the match along with details of the expected line ups of the two teams. Early references to these cards include: England versus Scotland (1873), Eton versus Yale (1873), the 1882 FA Cup Final between Old Etonians and Blackburn Rovers, and Notts County versus Bolton Wanderers (1885).

They became standard items with the advent of the Football League in 1888, usually with the addition of adverts. The first matchday programmes to resemble their modern day equivalents appeared around 1905 and 1906 with the Albion News (West Brom) and the Aston Villa News and Record.

Programmes gradually became collectable items. Sought after programmes include: the first FA Cup Final at Wembley in 1923; Manchester United versus Sheffield Wednesday in February 1958 (United’s first game after the Munich air disaster); and the 1966 World Cup Final between England and West Germany.


A fanzine is a magazine written by fans for fans. The initial fanzine was The Comet, a science fiction publication that first appeared in the USA in 1930. The genre spread to other activities, including football. Gunflash, the official publication of Arsenal Supporters Club, first appeared in 1949. However, some purists might argue that it is not a genuine fanzine, opining that it should be a fully independent mouthpiece for supporters. They would possibly regard Foul (1972-76) as the first football fanzine.

Arguably, it was the 1980s when individual club fanzines really took off. They were accompanied from 1986 by When Saturday Comes, a zine that did not have a single club focus, which subsequently became a mainstream magazine.

Technology changes

New technologies have driven further changes in this area over the last twenty years:

  • TV channels were set up by a number of the top clubs. Middlesborough was the first adoptee in 1997 with Boro TV, quickly followed by Manchester United with MUTV in 1998, and later by other clubs
  • webzine (or e-zine) was the natural successor to fanzine, making use of web technologies to produce online content
  • and YouTube first appeared in 2005, offering the ability to upload video content. This popular technology has been readily adopted by the clubs (for their official content) and by some fans (for their zines).

Small sided football

Historically, five-a-side football has been the most popular form of the small sided game in England. There are a number of press references to competitions back in the 1880s, particularly in Lancashire. It seemed to be one of the activities that was offered in summer events such as general sports days and even horticultural shows. Games were presumably played outdoors.

In the inter-war period five-a-side games became part of the overall training regime at football clubs.

It is unclear when the indoor variant of five-a-side first appeared. References in the press can be found after World War II. The rules for the indoor game included: no touchlines (the use of rebound walls or boards); the ball is not to go above head height; and only the goalkeeper is allowed in the semi-circular penalty area. Competitions appeared in the 1950s, starting with the London five-a-side Championships for professional clubs in 1954  which was sponsored by The Evening Standard. Five-a-side games were subsequently played on artificial, floodlit pitches with cage surrounds when they appeared.

Futsal is also played with five players on each team. It was invented in 1930 by Juan Carlos Ceriani, a teacher in Montevideo, Uruguay, and it was initially played on basketball courts. Hockey-sized goals are used; there are touchlines (no side walls or boards as in five-a-side); and a slightly smaller ball with less bounce is used. The game spread quickly across South America, and with FIFA’s guiding hand across the rest of the world from the 1980s. It is played in England although it is not as popular as five-a-side.

The FA also recognises four-a-side, six-a-side and 7-a-side forms of the game. At my school we used to have an annual scratch eight competition. Each team consisted of a mixture of players from the lower, middle and upper schools. The pitch was in the playground and was very roughly the size of half a football pitch. Games were played at lunchtime.

Addendum – Rugby Football in the 19th century

On reflection, notwithstanding that the subject of this article is association football, I consider that I rather abruptly terminated the story of rugby football as the two games gradually went their separate ways in the 1860s and 1870s. This is a belated attempt to redress the balance by summarising its development during the 19th century. The pattern of its evolution is, in many ways, not dissimilar to the association game:

  • An initial set of rules which ultimately formed the basis of the modern game. The association game stems from the Cambridge Rules of 1848, while rugby hails from the first written rules at Rugby School in 1845
  • disagreement over the rules during the 1860s
  • The formation of a national body (the Rugby Football Union)
  • A gradual process of changes to the laws
  • The spread of the game to other countries, notably to other parts of the British Empire in the first instance, and the formation of an international body (the IRFB) to oversee the game
  • A North versus South dispute concerning payments to players. In the case of rugby this led to the formation of the Northern Union which eventually became the Rugby Football League.

Rugby School

The various forms of football that were played at public schools in the late 18th and early 19th century typically included scrimmaging, later called scrummaging, handling and dribbling.

London Illustrated News 1871

Rugby was a school where scrimmaging was definitely the core element of the game. There was no limit on the number of players in a team, the majority of them taking part in the scrimmage. There could be 50 or 60 players in it. Players stood upright, not bent down as they are today, and they attempted to push the other side backwards and kick the ball forward in the scrimmage at the same time. When the ball eventually squirted out of the scrimmage, which could take several minutes, it was the responsibility of the backs to retrieve the ball and make as much ground as possible before setting up the next scrimmage .. and so on. Hacking, kicking an opponent below the knee, was a technique which was often employed in the scrimmage.

It can be seen from the above description that there tended to be little handling or dribbling in the Rugby School version of football. The story of William Webb Ellis picking up the ball and running with it during a match in 1823, thus creating the rugby style of football, is largely regarded as being apocryphal, although it does appear that handling became more noticeable at Rugby School from the 1820s.

The first rules of Rugby

Three pupils at Rugby School codified its rules in 1845, the first school to do so. They were subsequently reviewed in 1848 and revised on a regular basis thereafter. I suggest that the mere existence of a single written set of rules made it likely that it would ultimately form the foundation for any future rules of the game.

There were a couple of other sets of rules which appeared in the 1860s. Blackheath, famous for leaving the FA in 1863 because it disagreed with the initial set of association rules, had previously produced its own set of football rules in 1862, while Dublin University produced its own version in 1868, based heavily on that of Rugby School.

Early English clubs

Clubs which played a rugby style game started to appear around the same time as clubs who favoured a dribbling game. They included: Guy’s Hospital (1843), Liverpool (1857), Blackheath (1858), Manchester (1860), Sale (1861), Richmond (1861), Barnes (1862), Bath (1865), Harlequins (1866) and Wasps (1867).

Formation of the Rugby Football Union

On December 4th 1870, Edwin Ash of Richmond and Benjamin Burns of Blackheath published a letter in The Times suggesting that “those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice as various clubs play to rules which differ from others, which makes the game difficult to play”. This reflected the fact that there had been significant disagreement over rules during the 1860s, notably on the issue of hacking.

On January 26th 1871, a meeting attended by representatives from 21 clubs was held in London at the Pall Mall restaurant. The clubs were Addison, Belsize Park, Blackheath, Civil Service, Clapham Rovers, Flamingoes, Gipsies, Guy’s Hospital, Harlequins, King’s College, Lausanne, The Law Club, Marlborough Nomads, Mohicans, Queen’s House, Ravenscourt Park, Richmond, St. Paul’s, Wellington College, West Kent and Wimbledon Hornets. Wasps were invited but reputedly turned up at the wrong place, on the wrong day and at the wrong time, and thus they unfortunately forfeited the right to be called a founder member.

As a result of this meeting, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded. Algernon Rutter was elected as the first president and Edwin Ash as treasurer. Three lawyers, who were all Rugby School alumni (Rutter, Holmes and L.J. Maton) were asked to draw up the first laws of the game, which were approved in June 1871. Although based on the rules of Rugby School, they removed its more violent elements, including hacking and tripping.

It should be noted that Rugby School refused to join the RFU until 1891.

The first international match between England and Scotland took place in Edinburgh in March 1871 before these laws had been approved. The two sides agreed to use the rules of Rugby School with a couple of minor changes. Scotland won the game.

Although both rugby and association football took time to gain general acceptance, it was rugby that proved to be the more popular sport in the 1860s and 1870s, being readily adopted by the middle-classes. Soccer, with its eventual appeal to the working man, overtook it from the late 1880s onward.

Team Positions

In the early years of the RFU there were 20 players on each side, consisting of 17 forwards and 3 full backs. This was reduced to 15 players for the Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge in 1875, and 15-a-side was subsequently generally adopted, the first 15-a-side international match taking place in 1877.

Positions outside the scrum were the first to evolve. The three full backs were split with two of them moving closer to the scrum. They were initially called half-way backs, and subsequently half-backs. In Cardiff a tactic was developed of giving a short pass to one of the half-backs who would go charging at the opposition. He was called the flying half-back, eventually shortened to fly half.

The introduction of tactics in the early 1880s, particularly with respect to passing, led to the realisation that players were required between the half backs and the full back, subsequently known as the three-quarters (half way between a half and a full!). There was initially a single centre with a wing on either side of him. Wales then introduced a second centre in 1885, largely by serendipity, when a replacement for an injured centre played so well that they did not wish to drop him for the next game. Therefore, they decided to accommodate both players, and so the three-quarter line as we know it today came into existence.

There were no specialist forward positions in the early days of rugby. For example, the first players to arrive at a scrum would form the front row. In addition, there were various scrum formations .. 3-2-3, 3-3-2 and 3-4-1. New Zealand subsequently had a diamond 7 man formation (2-3-2) with the eighth man (a wing forward called the rover) who fed the scrum and protected the scrum half who was positioned at the base of the scrum.

It was to be the 1920s before specialist forward positions appeared. Wavell Wakefield of England, a strong athletic player and an excellent strategist is credited with allocating specific roles to forwards, including the use of strong, fast back row players. Subsequently, the role of number 8 evolved in South Africa in the 1930s.

Spread of the game and the formation of the IRFB

The first international matches played by England include: Scotland (1871), Ireland (1875) and Wales (1881). The first official Home Nations set of matches took place in the 1880-1881 season although they were just friendly matches in the beginning.

Forms of rugby spread across the British Empire from the 1860s. Dates of the eventual formation of official rugby unions include: New South Wales (1874), Queensland (1883), South Africa (1889), New Zealand (1892), Argentina (1899) and France (1919).

The International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), nowadays called World Rugby, was formed on the back of a dispute between England and Scotland over a try scored by England in the 1884 match between the two countries. It centred on the interpretation of the knock-on rule. The dispute rumbled on, and Scotland, Wales and Ireland decided to form the IRFB in 1887, saying that it would decide on the laws of the game. England insisted that it was their game and their laws, and so refused to join. The IRFB countered by saying that no games could be played against England. The stalemate continued until 1890 when England eventually agreed to arbitration. They lost their case and joined the IRFB in 1890. England initially had six votes, while the other three countries each had two.

Scoring system

Up to 1875 a game was decided by the number of goals that were scored. A goal could come from the conversion of a try, a penalty or a drop goal. Note that a try counted for nothing. It merely gave you the opportunity to (try to) score a goal with your conversion.

From 1876 to 1885, tries were taken into account but only if the two sides were level on goals scored at the end of the game.

A points system was eventually introduced in 1886 when a try was accorded a measly single point, a conversion two points and a penalty or a drop goal three points. A try was increased to two points in 1891 and subsequently to three points in 1894. The current allocation of five points for a try only appeared in 1992. It is interesting to note that the drop goal was the most valuable score from 1891 to 1947, being worth four points.

The Great Schism

Just as professionalism intruded into association football in the 1880s, so the subject of payments to players appeared in rugby football in the 1890s. Once again, it was northern clubs who were involved. Working men had started to play the game but, as with soccer, they found it difficult to participate without some financial help. Unlike soccer where gate money allowed the better players to be paid as professionals, the debate in rugby concerned broken time payments, i.e. money paid in lieu of lost wages. A second, but lesser subject of debate, this time on the game itself, was that the northern clubs wanted less scrummages and more open play.

Although the FA had eventually accommodated the northern clubs in soccer, the RFU was unwilling to do so in rugby. This led to 20 clubs from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire resigning from the RFU in August 1895 and forming the Northern Rugby Football Union, which subsequently became known as the Rugby Football League from 1922.

The Northern Union gradually made a number of changes to their game, including: the abolition of the lineout in 1897; the introduction of professionalism from 1898; the reduction to 13-a-side in 1906 when the two flankers disappeared; and the introduction of the “play the ball” in place of rucking in the same year.

Bibliography and further reading

It is normal practice to list books in alphabetic order of author’s name. However, I have listed them according to how much I have used the individual works, with my primary source at the top.

Russell, D., Football and the English, Carnegie Publishing, Preston, 1997
Morris, T., In A Class of Their Own: A History of English Amateur Football, Chequered Flag Publishing, Sheffield, 2015
GoldBlatt, D., The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, Penguin Books, Clays ltd St. Ives, 2007 (first published by Viking in 2006)
Wilson, J., Inverting the Pyramid, Orion, London, 2013
Morris, T., Vain Games of No Value: A Social History of Association Football in Britain During Its First Long Century, AuthorHouse UK, 2016 (available in e-book form)
Collins, A., A Social History of Rugby Union, Routledge, 2009
Richards, H., A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union, Mainstream Publishing, 2007
Russell, J., Liverpool Ramblers AFC: The Complete History, 2013

My Potted History of the Origins and Development of Association Football in England up to the 1920s contains its own Bibliography and Further Reading section

The text incorporates various links to articles which can be found on the Internet. A list of further links follows, grouped by topic.

General Histories

Health & Fitness History – ancient sports
FIFA’s History of Football – Britain, the home of Football
FIFA’s History of Football – Global Growth
FIFA’s History of the Laws
History of the FA
Wikipedia – Medieval Football
Wikipedia – History of football in England
Wikipedia – History of association football
Gravesham Trophy Centre – The History of Football
Footballnetwork.org – History of Football
Rugbyfootballhistory.com – Origins of Rugby

Other old games of football

The Eton Wall Game

Other football histories

Charterhouse School and Old Boys
Modern non-league history
Old Xaverians FC (Liverpool)
The Origins and Development of Association Football in the Liverpool District c. 1879 to c.1915

Match officials

Football-stadiums – Referees and match officials
Wikipedia – Referee


The History of the Soccer Ball
Wikipedia – Ball (association football)
Wikipedia – Rugby Ball
Wikipedia – History of Football Boots
Wikipedia – Shin guards
Goalpostbooks.co.uk – The Evolution of the Football Field
Football-stadiums.co.uk – How Football Pitches Have Changed Through History
Wikipedia – Lawn Mower
Fourfourtwo – The Weird and Wonderful History of Goal Posts
Pundit Arena – John Alexander Brodie & the Creation of Football Nets

Grassroots game in decline (adult men 11 a-side)

Crisis in adult grass roots football – Owen Gibson in The Guardian
Rochdale’s amateur football league faces crisis
BBC Sport – Cost of playing and poor pitches puts off amateur footballers
Is Merseyside amateur football dying a slow death?
Where did it all go wrong for grassroots football?

Rugby Football

Tony Collins – evolution of the scrum
Tony Collins – occasional blogs
Tony Collins – history of the scrum
Rugby School – a history of Rugby Football


The British Newspaper Archive (requires subscription for unlimited access)
Non-leaguematters forum

Further Information

I have come across the following items since I penned this piece.

Bryon Butlers’s Official History of the Football Association (book)


Already detailed in the bibliography section, I have made heavy use of the writings of Dave Russell and Terry Morris. I would recommend their books.

Various individuals have assisted me in one way or another, either by reading the initial drafts or answering specific questions that I have asked. They include: David Evans, David Harding, Peter Jackson, Steve Kay, Emma King, Barry Leach, Richard Lloyd, Trevor Offord and Steve Street plus a number of others who preferred to remain anonymous. I thank them all.

When considering which internet link to use, where there is a choice, I have tended to select a link which I consider will have a longer life (if there is such a thing in the world of the Internet!). This has resulted in many links to Wikipedia. If you find any broken links I would appreciate it if you could let me know.

Please contact me if you suspect that any of the images infringe copyright.

Finally, all errors are mine.

Version history

Version 0.1 – January 12th, 2018 – mega drafty!
Version 0.2 – January 16th, 2018 – slightly less drafty
Version 0.3 – January 19th, 2018 – looking a bit more reasonable
Version 1.0 – January 25th, 2018 – first official release
Version 1.1 – March 1st, 2018 – changes to the early match officials section plus the addition of the following new sections: match officials from the 20th century; matchday programmes, fanzines et al; and small sided football
Version 1.2 – April 5th, 2018 – insertion of an addendum on rugby football in the 19th century
Version 1.2.1 – November 14th, 2020 – minor additions
Version 1.3 – changes / additions taken from the more recent piece, Potted History of the Origins and Development of Association Football in England up to the 1920s