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Football, like the poor and taxation, has been around for centuries,
although many of its earliest forms were far removed from today's
version of the game. There are records of examples in China, as
long ago as 200 BC, as well as others in Ancient Greece and the
Geoffrey Green: "What has been revealed, though, by the researches
of a certain Professor at Cambridge University, H A Giles, is
that there was some form of football in China long before the
Romans of Julius Caesar brought their game of harpastum
"The Chinese, indeed, point to one of the earliest known references
to football in the period belonging to the mythical Yellow Emperor
of the third millennium BC. If there is no hard proof to support
that, at least there is evidence about the game being in existence
in the Third and Fourth Centuries BC. At that point it was part
of the military training of the period, and the evidence of it
can be seen in a military textbook of twenty-five chapters dating
some 2,000 years ago from the Han dynasty. The History of the
Han Dynasty spans the period 206 BC to AD 25, and it is there
that there is discovered a true reference to some early stirring,
by the use of the words tsu chu. Tsu meant 'to kick
with the foot'; chu was 'the ball made of leather and stuffed'.
"Japan, too, can point to a game called kemari which has
been played there for some fourteen centuries. The ground was
roughly 14 square metres in size. In the North West corner there
stood a pine tree, a willow to the South East, a cherry tree to
the North East and a maple to the South West. Eight players made
up the game, which consisted of kicking a ball from one to another.
The suggestion is that some religious ceremony was attached to
There are stories of variations being played all over Europe
in medieval times - in Italy in 1555 a form of street football
was being played in Venice and from 1595, also in Florence, where
it was known as calcio. In France, Germany, Holland and
Russia there are references to football from around the same time.
The British version of the game is thought to have been inspired
by the Romans, when they imported harpastum (a Roman word for
"handball"). It was an individual ball game with physical contact
a significant feature, and was developed from the rather more
genteel episkyros of the Ancient Greeks. The Roman legions
may well have played the game as they awaited their return to
sunnier climes. Back in Italy, the game had developed into calcio
by the Sixteenth Century.
Harpastum was a game something akin to Rugby and was used
as a form of military training to improve the physical fitness
of Roman legionnaires. It was known as the Small Ball Game to
distinguish it from other games involving much larger balls. The
Harpastum ball was made from a stitched leather skin, stuffed
with chopped sponges or animal fur, and was around 8 inches in
It involved two sides of approximately the same strength competing
in a restricted space, striving to take a hollow ball beyond a
certain mark at either end of the field of battle. The methods
they employed in doing so were no holds barred and included wrestling.
Footballnetwork.org: "The game of football generally flourished
in England from
around the 8th Century onwards. The game was incredibly popular
with the working classes and there were considerable regional
variations of the game throughout the country. Games were normally
violent and disorganised affairs with any number of players -
it was not uncommon for 1,000 people to play in a single game.
By the 11th Century, games were often played between rival villages
and the 'pitch' could be an incredibly large area. The 'pitch'
was not a defined size with a parameter, but included streets,
fields, village squares and anything else that got in the way!
"The level of violence within the game was astonishing. Players
were kicked and punched regularly by opponents. In addition to
any personal injury that occurred, countless property items were
destroyed in the course of a match. Fields were often ruined,
as were fences and hedges. Damage also occurred to people's houses
and businesses within the main streets of the village (or wherever
the game travelled in its course).
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"For people living within the cities, football was still an alien
concept and considered to be a 'rural custom'. However, in the
second half of the 12th Century football had established itself
in London. By 1175 an annual competition had been established
in the capital and every Shrove Tuesday the game created huge
interest and gained further popularity.
"The future development of the urban game is not well known but
some early records do mention the violent nature of the game within
cities - there is even a mention of a player being stabbed to
death by an opponent! Records also point to women being involved
in the game during the 12th Century."
The first description of a football match in England was written
by William FitzStephen in about 1170. He records that while visiting
London he noticed that "after dinner all the youths of the city
goes out into the fields for the very popular game of ball." He
points out that every trade had their own football team. "The
elders, the fathers, and the men of wealth come on horseback to
view the contests of their juniors, and in their fashion sport
with the young men; and there seems to be aroused in these elders
a stirring of natural heat by viewing so much activity and by
participation in the joys of unrestrained youth."
A few centuries later another monk wrote that football was a
game "in which young men... propel a huge ball not by throwing
it into the air, but by striking and rolling it along the ground,
and that not with their hands but with their feet." The writer
strongly condemned the game claiming it was "undignified and worthless"
and that it often resulted in "some loss, accident or disadvantage
to the players themselves."
One manor record, dated 1280, states: "Henry, son of William
de Ellington, while playing at ball at Ulkham on Trinity Sunday
with David le Ken and many others, ran against David and received
an accidental wound from David's knife of which he died on the
following Friday." In 1321, William de Spalding was involved in
a similar incident: "During the game at ball as he kicked the
ball, a lay friend of his, also called William, ran against him
and wounded himself on a sheath knife carried by the canon, so
severely that he died within six days." There are a number of
other recorded cases during this period
of footballers dying after falling on their daggers.
Geoffrey Green: "At that period youths of the city of London
chased footballs in Smithfield; later football players made their
mark at Covent Garden, Cheapside and the Strand, Fleet Street,
Moorfields and Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. Prints still survive
as proof of this.
"In other parts of the country, Derby, Nottingham, Dorking and
Kingston-on-Thames arose as points in the spread of the game.
At Kingston, indeed, there grew up the tradition that the right
of playing was gained for the inhabitants by the bravery of their
forebears who defeated the Danes in a marauding battle, and having
cut off the head of the Danish general, kicked it about in triumph.
"At Derby, Ashburton and elsewhere there grew up the fierce Shrove
Tuesday games. They were scarcely games, of course. They resembled
a free for all battle more than anything else, but they represented
a traditional beginning. Here was all in wrestling combined with
unarmed combat as sections of the community chased the ball through
the streets. Thus there arose the name 'mob football', out of
which finally developed the game we now know.
"The Shrove Tuesday match at Derby, in fact, survives to this
day. It is traditional. It began there when the young men of the
parish of All Saints challenged those of the parish of St Peter.
Since all men over the age of eighteen took part, trying to force
the ball from one parish into the other - each parish representing
the goal - the teams, as it were, often numbered over 500 apiece.
Two marks were made, one at Nun's Mill, the other at Gallows Balk
on the Ormaston Road, and the object was to force the ball to
one or other of these."
The Shrove Tuesday contest is one of the earliest recorded indigenous
football games, being first reported in AD 217.
Even then, the game had spread far and wide: Dorset's Corfe Castle
and Scone in Scotland were among other venues where an annual
Shrove Tuesday fixture took place. At Chester, a leather ball
was introduced, the City Hall and the hall at Rodehoe being the
goals for the game. Few, however, played on pitches such as the
one recorded in Cornwall in 1602, whose goals were three to four
miles apart and the teams were each comprised of the menfolk of
two or three neighbouring parishes. London was at the forefront
of these mob football games.
One really curious thing about the game in England is the way
that it has survived and even thrived in spite of fierce and formal
opposition from the powers that be.
By the reign of Edward II, football had become so popular, with
so many people joining in with games in the streets that the merchants
of London protested to the King that it was an obstacle to their
trade and should be banned. On April 13 1314, Edward II issued
a decree forbidding the game: "For as much as there is great noise
in the city caused by hustling over large balls ... from which
many evils might arise, which God forbid: we command and forbid
on behalf of the
King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city
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The edict had an initial impact, but football soon re-emerged
as a popular pastime. Indeed, it was so popular that it was feared
that the royal subjects were spending too much time honing their
ball skills at the expense of their dexterity with the longbow.
In 1349, Edward III issued another banning order, reasoning that
"the skill at shooting with arrows was almost totally laid aside
for the purpose of various useless and unlawful games".
The pattern continued. Forty years later, Richard II passed a
similar statute forbidding "all playing at tennise, football and
other games called corts, dice, casting of the stones, kailes
and other such importune games". Henry IV had to reissue the same
commandment in 1401.
In 1457 James III of Scotland decreed that "football and golfe
be utterly cryed down and not to be used", while in 1491 his successor
commanded that "in no place of this realme ther be used futeball,
golfe or other sik unprofitable sportes". Henry VIII also banned
the game and even rendered it a penal offence by statute for anyone
to keep a house or ground devoted to such things as cards, dice
Elizabeth I decreed that "no foteballe play to be used or suffered
within the City of London". During her reign, the grand jury of
Middlesex County found "that on the said day at Ruyslippe, County
of Middlesex, Arthur Reynolds, husbandman (with five others, all
of Ruyslippe), Thomas Darcye, of Woxbridge, yeoman (with seven
others), with unknown malefactors to the number of one hundred,
assembled themselves unlawfully and played a certain unlawful
game called foote-ball, by means of which unlawful game there
was amongst them a great affray likely to result in homicides
and serious accidents ..."
Wilfried Gierhardt: "The passion for football was particularly
exuberant in Elizabethan times. An influence that most likely
played a part in intensifying the native popularity for the game
came from Renaissance Italy, particularly from Florence, but also
from Venice and other cities that had produced their own brand
of football known as calcio. lt was certainly more organised than
the English equivalent and was played by teams dressed in coloured
livery at the important gala events held on certain holidays in
Florence. It was a truly splendid spectacle. In England the game
was still as rough and ungracious and lacking in refinement as
ever, but it did at this time find a prominent supporter who commended
it for other reasons when he saw the simple joy of the players
romping after the ball. This supporter was Richard Mulcaster,
the great pedagogue, head of the famous schools of Merchant Taylor's
and St. Paul's. He pointed out that the game had positive educational
value and it promoted health and strength. He claimed that all
that was needed was to refine it a little and give it better manners.
His notion was that the game would benefit most if the number
of participants in each team were limited and, more importantly,
there were a stricter referee."
Much of the reason for the sustained official opposition was
the general opinion that football was "a very vulgar and unfashionable
pastime", enjoyed mainly by commoners. For centuries, any such
game that was "not connected in any way with knightly skill was
considered unfit for a gentleman of equestrian rank".
In 1608 the Manchester Lete Roll of October 12 contained a resolution:
"That whereas there has been heretofore great disorder in our
towne of Manchester, and the
inhabitants thereof greatly wronged and charged with makinge and
amendinge of their glasse windows broken yearelye and spoyled
by a companye of lewd and disordered psons using that unlawfull
exercise of playinge with the ffote-ball in ye streets of ye sd
towne breakinge many men's windowes and glasse at their plesures
and other great enormyties. Therefore we of this jurye doe order
that no manner of psons hereafter shall play or use the footeball
in any street within the said towne of Manchester, subpoend to
evyeone that shall so use the same for evye time."
Unsurprisingly the Puritans were equally concerned, regarding
football as a form of unseemly revelry. In 1683, the author Stubbes
wrote thus: "Lord remove these exercises from the Sabbath. Any
exercise which withdraweth from godliness, either upon the Sabbath
or any other day, is wicked and to be forbidden. Now who is so
grossly blind that seeth not that these aforesaid exercises not
only withdraw us from godliness and virtue, but also hail and
allure us to wickedness and sin? For as concerning football playing
I protest unto you that it may rather be called a friendly kind
of fight than a play or recreation - a bloody and murdering practice
than a fellow sport or pastime. For doth not everyone lye in wait
for his adversary, seeking to overthrow him and punch him on his
nose, though it may be on hard stones, on ditch or dale, on valley
or hill, or whatever place so ever it be he care not, so he have
him down; and that he can serve the most of this fashion he is
counted the only fellow, and who but he? So that by this means
sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes
their legs, sometimes their arms, sometimes their noses gush out
with blood, sometimes their eyes start out, and sometimes hurt
in one place, sometimes in another... Football encourages envy
and hatred... sometimes fighting, murder and a great loss of blood."
A writer called Moor at the end of the Eighteenth Century described
the way the game was played at that time:
"Each party has two goals, ten or fifteen yards apart. The parties,
ten or fifteen on a side, stand in line facing each other at about
ten yards distance midway between their goals and that of their
adversaries. An indifferent spectator throws up a ball the size
of a cricket ball midway between the confronted players and makes
his escape. The rush is to catch the falling ball. He who first
can catch or seize it speeds home, making his way through his
opponents and aided by his own sidemen, If caught and held, or
rather in danger of being held, for if caught with the ball in
possession he loses a snotch, he throws the ball (he must in no
case give it) to some less beleaguered friend more free and more
in breath than himself, who, if it be not arrested in its course
or be jostled away by the eager and watchful adversaries, catches
it. Then he in like manner hastens homeward, in like manner pursued,
annoyed and aided, winning the notch or snotch if he contrive
to carry or throw it within the goals. At a loss or gain of a
snotch a recommencement takes place. When the game is decided
by snotches seven or nine are the game, and these if the parties
are well matched take two or three hours to win. Sometimes a large
football was used; the game was then called 'kicking camp'; and
if played with shoes on, 'savage camp'."
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Geoffrey Green: "There is no doubt that Puritanism put a damper
on football for a
spell. The political hold of this creed was short. But the effect
it had upon the nation put a large stop not only to Sunday football,
but to the playing of the game on other days also.
"Up to the age of the Puritans, football certainly was a national
sport. But from the Restoration onwards, for something like two
hundred years, there was a steady decline in its popularity until
an athletic revival in the early Nineteenth Century; though for
the latter part of this period, football became a school sport.
However, from the declining references made to the game by the
Eighteenth Century writers, it seems that football at that point
had lost much of its national popularity.
"In the reign of Charles II, however, it appears that football
still held sway in London, understandably enough, because Charles
himself was a great patron of most athletic sports. In 1691, indeed,
Charles II attended a match played between his own servants and
the Duke of Albemarle's - the first recorded instance of royal
patronage of football."
About this time, there was something of a change in the nature
of the English game. J R Witty: "During Cromwell's supremacy,
many Royalists left England, and in their enforced absence overseas
some of the Cavaliers saw at Florence and Sienna in Italy a game
called calcio. This was a football match between two teams,
limited in number and played in a restricted space, with the players
clothed in distinctively coloured uniforms. Play was governed
by recognised rules, with prescribed forms of etiquette and exchange
of courtesies between the contesting teams. It had some slight
resemblance to the kind of game played by Roman soldiers centuries
"The game itself was both a spectacle and an entertainment at
which ladies could be present. They wore or displayed coloured
favours as team supporters, and the houses round the field were
gaily decorated with similar colours, which added to the gaiety
of the scene. It was not unlikely that these Cavaliers with their
sense of colour were impressed, and that they brought back to
this country from their exile a liking for this more spectacular
and more disciplined form of the game.
"Certainly, when a match was staged in 1681 between the servants
of the King and those of the Duke of Albemarle, the whole lay
out was not of the mob game type. A painting on wood is extant,
which I have seen; and my opinion is that it pictures a match
of the more modern type. Teams of equal numbers dressed in highly
coloured distinctive clothing oppose one another on a field more
oval than rectangular in shape. At either end is a wooden fort
with an open doorway guarded by a custodian; near each is a uniformed
drummer and another man carrying something like an axe, evidently
to notch or score any wins. The ball is being kicked about in
attempts to drive it through one of the doorways. Around the ground,
the mock battlefield, are the spectators, some obviously of the
lower classes, others in more splendid clothing, whilst in a decorated
pavilion at one side are some evidently quite distinguished people.
"One thing is outstanding: this game was in quite a different
category from the old undisciplined kind."
At the beginning of the 1800s, however, football was in decline
as a direct result of the earlier Puritan oppression. Joseph Strutt,
a great historian of English sports, writing in 1801, said of
football: "The game was formerly much in vogue among the common
people, though of late years it seems to have fallen into disrepute
and is but little practised."
He continued, "When a match at football is made, two parties,
each containing an equal number of competitors, take the field,
and stand between two goals, placed at the distance of eighty
or an hundred yards the one from the other. The goal is usually
made with two sticks driven into the ground, about two or three
feet apart. The ball, which is commonly made of a blown bladder,
and cased with leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground,
and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of
their antagonists, which being achieved the game is won. The abilities
of the performers are best displayed in attacking and defending
the goals; and hence the pastime was more frequently called a
goal at football than a game at football. When the exercise becomes
exceeding violent, the players kick each other's shins without
the least ceremony, and some of
them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs."
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In 1815 Hone provided this description in his Everyday Book of
Football Day at Kingston-on-Thames, when travellers to Hampton
Court could see upon entering Teddington "all the inhabitants
securing the glass of their front windows from the ground to the
roof, some by placing hurdles before them, and some by nailing
laths across the frames. At Twickenham, Bushy and Hampton Wick
they were all engaged in the same way.
"At about 12 o'clock the ball is turned loose to those who can
kick it. There were several balls in the town of Kingston and
of course several parties. I observed some persons of respectability
following the ball; the game lasts about four hours, when the
parties retire to the public houses."
Geoffrey Green: "This, at least, shows that though football may
have declined it was not extinguished. It was merely in a state
of dormancy. It soon picked up again and it did so during the
1850s at a time when the period of 'muscular Christianity' came
into vogue under the lead given by the great public schools of
the land. Thus it is true to say that while the 'manly game of
football' has flourished for centuries in these islands, it was
the public schools who took it from the streets and the fields,
civilised it, brought law and order and system to it (though most
of the schools had their own rules differing from each other),
until finally it was shaped and polished and unified under one
set of rules drawn up for national acceptance by the Football
Association in 1863. Nor can we forget the Universities of Cambridge,
and later Oxford, who were to take their place in this developing
process of creating one set of laws so that all could play and
enjoy the same game."
When Cambridge University introduced football into their curriculum
at the turn of the Seventeenth Century, even its detractors had
to reconsider. But with a welter of different rules proliferating,
games were strictly intramural affairs. With the advent of the
Industrial Revolution, few of the downtrodden working classes
had the time or energy to pursue such a physically demanding sport
- and football passed into the hands of the leisured upper classes.
Each public school, it seemed, had its own special set of rules,
often influenced by the physical characteristics of the location
in which the game was played. At Charterhouse, where the stony
cloisters provided the pitch for 20 players a side, the ball was
played by feet alone; at Rugby, handling (but not running in possession)
was positively encouraged. Harrow played a recognisable form of
today's game on grass, 11 players making up a team, while Winchester's
goals extended the entire length of the goal line, rather like
Rugby's try line today.
Thomas Arnold was appointed headmaster of Rugby in 1828. He had
a profound and lasting effect on the development of public school
education in England. Arnold introduced mathematics, modern history
and modern languages and introduced the prefect system to keep
discipline. He modernised the teaching of Classics by directing
attention to literary, moral or historical questions. Although
Arnold held strong views, he made it clear to his students they
were not expected to accept those views, but to examine the evidence
and to think for themselves.
Arnold also had a good method for "encouraging senior boys to
exercise responsible authority on behalf of the staff". He argued
that games like football provided a "formidable vehicle for character
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Each school had its own set of rules and style of game. In some
schools the ball could be caught, if kicked below the hand or
knee. If the ball was caught near the opposing goal, the catcher
had the opportunity of scoring, by carrying it through the goal
in three standing jumps.
Rugby, Marlborough and Cheltenham developed games that used both
hands and feet. The football played at Shrewsbury and Winchester
placed an emphasis on kicking and running with the ball (dribbling).
School facilities also influenced the rules of these games. Students
at Charterhouse played football within the cloisters of the old
Carthusian monastery. As space was limited the players depended
on dribbling skills. Whereas schools like Eton and Harrow had
such large playing fields available that they developed a game
that involved kicking the ball long distances.
According to one student at Westminster, the football played
at his school was very rough and involved a great deal of physical
violence: "When running... the enemy tripped, shinned, charged
with the shoulder, got down and sat upon you... in fact did anything
short of murder to get the ball from you."
Football games often led to social disorder. As Dave Russell
pointed out in Football and the English (1997), football's
"habit of bringing the younger element of the lower orders into
public spaces in large numbers (was) increasingly seen as inappropriate
and, indeed, positively dangerous in an age of mass political
radicalism and subsequent fear for public order."
Action was taken to stop men playing football in the street.
The 1835 Highways Act provided for a fine of 40s for playing "football
or any other game on any part of the said highways, to the annoyance
of any passenger."
In 1840 soldiers had to be used to stop men playing football
in Richmond. Six years later the Riot Act had to be read in Derby
and a troop of cavalry was used to disperse the players. There
were also serious football disturbances in East Molesey, Hampton
Although the government disapproved of the working classes playing
continued to be a popular sport in public schools. In 1848 a meeting
took place at Cambridge University to lay down the rules of football.
As Philip Gibbons points out in Association Football in Victorian
England (2001), "The varying rules of the game meant that
the public schools were unable to compete against each other."
Teachers representing Shrewsbury, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Marlborough
and Westminster, produced what became known as the Cambridge Rules.
One participant explained what happened: "I cleared the tables
and provided pens and paper... Every man brought a copy of his
school rules, or knew them by heart, and our progress in framing
new rules was slow."
It was eventually decided that goals would be awarded for balls
kicked between the flag posts (uprights) and under the string
(crossbar). All players were allowed to catch the ball direct
from the foot, provided the catcher kicked it immediately. However,
they were forbidden to catch the ball and run with it. Only the
goalkeeper was allowed to hold the ball. He could also punch it
from anywhere in his own half. Goal kicks and throw ins took place
when the ball went out of play. It was specified that throw ins
were taken with one hand only. It was also decided that players
in the same team should wear the same colour cap (red and dark
It was inevitable that this situation would not last. The catalyst
for change and standardisation was William Webb Ellis' legendary
dash with the ball in 1823 that eventually gave rise to the game
of Rugby. This form of football broke ranks with soccer in 1848,
when a 14 man committee at Cambridge University defined the game
as permitting handling only to control the ball.
Further rules then decided upon stated that the goals should
consist of two posts. Fouls were defined as tripping, kicking
or holding, and an offside rule insisting on three men between
the passer and the opposing goal was instituted.
When the Sheffield Cricket Club permitted matches to be played
on their Bramall Lane pitch in the late 1850s, it seemed symbolically
as if football had finally attained respectability. In the process,
Sheffield could legitimately lay claim to the status of Britain's
oldest football club. Their players emanated from the city's Old
Collegiate School. Games against local rivals such as Hallam (formed
1857) attracted 600 spectators.
Such an organisation was
by no means confined to the North. The Blackheath Club formed
in Kent in 1857, while others formed in the 1850s included Hampstead
Heathens. The Old Harrovians were ex-pupils of Harrow School,
while other Harrow old boys founded Wanderers, originally named
Forest Football Club after their ground in Epping Forest near
Snaresbrook. Notts County, established in 1862, were the first
of the future Football league clubs to be founded. With such grassroots
activity flourishing, the time was ripe for the organising zeal
of the Victorians to bring order and systems into play and provide
the necessary framework for the game of football to move forward
as an organised competitive sport.
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