Far from being invented and refined by toffs, Richard Sanders says that the world’s most popular sport was
civilised and modernised by ordinary people
As a new football season begins, and a sporting legend (Sir Bobby Robson) passes away, it seems the right time finally to expose the big lie at the heart of football. Though it’s universally assumed that the modern game was created by the upper classes, who took the rough-and-tumble kickabout beloved of common people and refined it into the world’s best-loved sport, in fact the opposite is true.
The myth runs something like this. The game played by the common people from the Middle Ages onwards was wild and savage, little more than a village romp. It was only with the adoption of football by the great public schools in the early 19th century that football acquired a clear set of rules. These men then handed football back to the masses — civilised — to become the sport we know today. It’s a lie first propagated by the earliest historians of football (all of them public schoolboys) and one that has been repeated largely uncritically ever since. But it’s high time a whiff of democracy entered the historiography of the people’s game.
The old, original public school games are still played at a number of institutions today and you just have to stroll along to Eton, Harrow or Winchester to observe the fundamental problem with the idea that public schoolboys civilised football. Their games are horribly brutal. Health and Safety has put paid to some of the nastier practices in recent years but public school football remains incomparably more violent than conventional football. Scrums play a central role, charging is permitted and players spend much of their time writhing together in the mud. ‘I think there was a broken leg or collar-bone in the school at least once a year,’ wrote one Etonian, describing the school’s famous ‘Field Game’ in the 1850s. ‘Sprained ankles and partial concussions of the brain, causing sick, nervous headaches, were of daily occurrence.’
The games were the product of the bizarre social systems that had evolved at the great public schools by the start of the 19th century. Outside of lessons the schools were effectively run by the older boys, the younger boys, or ‘fags’, expected to act as their servants. Football served to reinforce this hierarchy. Generally the fags were obliged to play in defence, standing shivering on the goal line, waiting to be flattened by the hordes of fifth and sixth formers who took the more glamorous, attacking roles. At Winchester fags were required to form a human wall along the touchline, their only function being to knock the ball back in when it went out of play. Two of them were also required to stand with their legs apart, acting as goals. At Shrewsbury, football was so bound up with the fagging system that it was actually known as ‘douling’, ‘doul’ being the Shrewsbury word for fag, derived from the Greek word for slave.
Public school football was the perverse creation of real-life Flashmans and in the 1840s and 1850s contemporaries had little doubt that it was, if anything, more violent than the traditional folk game. Only later was the ‘civilising’ myth created. The belief that public schoolboys created a common code is also a fallacy. Inter-school rivalries were so fierce that all attempts to produce a uniform set of rules failed. When finally the FA was established in 1863 its first rule-book proved a disaster. Although revered today as football’s founding document, the original rules were in fact almost never used, proving to be a totally unworkable amalgam of the various public school games.
It was only with the creation of clubs by adult men — many of whom had not been to public school — during the 1860s that common rules finally evolved. By the time of the first FA Cup in 1872 the modern laws of the game were more or less in place. But even then, tactically the game remained primitive. The modern game really dates from the creation of the Queen’s Park club in Glasgow in 1867. Although, like the early clubs south of the border, the Queen’s Park men were drawn firmly from the respectable classes, none of them had been to public school and they approached the game in an entirely fresh way, introducing an innovation that would revolutionise football. Contemporaries referred to it as ‘combination play’. The Queen’s Park men passed the ball to each other.
Queen’s Park ‘dribble little, and usually convey the ball by a series of long kicks, combined with a judicious plan of passing on’, wrote The Field following Queen’s Park’s FA Cup semi-final against Wanderers in 1872. In the public school games this was almost unheard of. Passing was considered positively unmanly, an abdication of responsibility. Most had rigid offside rules which effectively outlawed forward passing and in the Field Game at Eton it was against the rules to pass at all. You were expected to charge through your opponents and if a man loitered upfield waiting for a pass over the defence, it was known as ‘sneaking’.
Suddenly the public school men found themselves chasing shadows, their opponents having passed the ball on by the time they were sent sprawling into the mud. The new tactic also meant players had to be spread around the pitch more (public school teams like Wanderers generally employed a 1-1-8 formation) and Queen’s Park were the pioneers in the introduction of modern positions.
Incredibly Queen’s Park did not lose a game for the first nine years of their existence, and did not even concede a goal until 1875. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s the club formed the backbone of the Scottish national team and between 1872 and 1886 the Scots won nine of the first 15 internationals against England, drawing four and losing just two.
The passing game was soon being adopted by new working-class clubs as football filtered down the social scale in Glasgow in the mid-1870s. These clubs provided the first generation of professional footballers and when Scots began to be imported by English clubs like Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Aston Villa in the early 1880s the passing game spread throughout Britain. Smaller physically than the public school men, and also dependent for their livelihoods on remaining free of injury, working-class professionals had no option but to rely on skill rather than brawn. It was these working-class pros who were responsible for taking football to a level of sophistication that would have been unthinkable just a decade earlier.
The public school men were deeply resentful that their sport was being taken over by what one called ‘the scum of the Scottish villages’ and in 1885 attempts were made to stamp out professionalism. It was a clash the gentleman amateurs lost and over the next 15 years football would become Britain’s first truly mass sport. By the start of the 20th century it was spreading around the world and the game that was adopted, and refined still further in Latin America and continental Europe, owed far more to men from the mines and mill towns of Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire than it did to public schoolboys from Eton and Harrow. Public school boys do however deserve some credit — not for inventing the world’s most popular game, but for spreading the lie that they did so with such success.
Richard Sanders’s Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football is published by Bantam Press, £16.99.