In the first of a series of blogposts telling the story of the origins of football, we start with how Sheffield Football Club, the first and oldest association football club in the world, which today celebrates its 162nd birthday, played a key role in the codification of a game that is now the world’s favourite.

A series by football historian Guy Oliver.

Historian Tony Collins has referred to football before its codification in mid 19th century England as resembling a “primordial soup”, an apt description of the numerous customs to which ball games using the hands and the feet were played around the world. There were no universal rules as had developed in other sports, most notably in cricket. In most cases there simply were no rules at all.

Creating a “universal” football game
In the desire to create a ‘universal’ football game, with one set of rules applying to all, a group of gentlemen met at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street in London on 26 October 1863, during which they created The Football Association, and over the following six weeks they drew up the first Laws of what became known as association football, the code of football over which FIFA is the world governing body.

But, what were the forces that led to the creation of The Football Association and the game of association football – or soccer as it was often referred to in Victorian times and which is now commonly known as just football? This is where Sheffield Football Club comes into the story. The meeting at the Freemasons Tavern wasn’t just a chance act. There were a number of critical factors which drew these men to attend that historic meeting and right at the top of the list was the fact that they all these gentlemen belonged to football clubs.

 

Clubs were a very new phenomenon in football and it was imperative that these clubs draw up a code of Laws, as was the case with cricket, so that they could play each other. The prototype for these clubs was the Sheffield Foot Ball Club, the first club created that would go on to play association football. Formed in 1857, they are still around today to be celebrated as the first and oldest association football club in existence.

Inspired by cricket
The idea of sportsmen gathering together into a club was not a new one. Cricket, that most quintessentially English sport of all, acted as the trailblazer with Hambledon Cricket Club one of the first, dating back to 1750. The Turnverein of Germany's 19th century gymnastics movement showed this was a process that wasn't just restricted to Britain, but what makes cricket central to the story of association football was that cricket clubs not only set the template for football clubs, but almost all of the early footballers were actually cricketers looking for some exercise during the winter months. And this was exactly what happened with Sheffield Foot Ball Club, as it was referred to at the time of its creation.

Sheffield FC was not the first organisation to have the words foot, ball and club in their title. The Edinburgh Foot-Ball Club created by John Hope in 1824 can claim to be the oldest one. And there were others created in the 33 years that followed the creation of Hope’s club before the formation of Sheffield FC, but few survived and none have any relation to the current game of association football. They were merely a part of Collins’ primordial soup.

Nathaniel Creswick & William Prest | ©Sheffield FC
A walk in the park
The story of the creation of Sheffield FC can be viewed as the start of a six-year process which led to the creation of the Football Association. For many years there was some confusion about the year in which the club was formed, but the diary of one of the founders, Nathaniel Creswick, which has survived to this day, states clearly in his entry of 31 December 1857 that “I have established a foot ball club to which most of young Sheffield can come and kick.” The story is that he was on an autumn walk a few months earlier with his friend William Prest, a fellow member of Sheffield Cricket Club, when they decided to create a football club for winter exercise.

John Shaw | ©Sheffield FC
Football was not new to the Sheffield Cricket Club. The Athletic News of 9 December 1876 sheds some light on the process. “When the President of the Sheffield Association, J.C. Shaw, first originated football in the town, some twenty years ago, he must have had very little idea of the almost formidable hold it would ultimately obtain, not only in his locality, but over the whole of the Northern district. With very great difficulty he got made something like a football, which he took up to the cricket practice of Sheffield CC. Towards the latter end of the season the members soon began to drop the bat and the ball to kick the leather.”

No-one to play against!
Sheffield Foot Ball Club was officially founded on 24 October 1857 in Parkfield House, the home of Harry Chambers and had its first headquarters in a greenhouse at Park House, the home of the father of its first president Frederick Ward. Although Sheffield Cricket Club had played at the new Bramall Lane ground since 1855, Sheffield opted for a different location, choosing a site at East Bank.

1858 minute book | ©Sheffield FC
For three years after its formation, the club played games amongst itself – divided alphabetically according to surnames, or by profession - playing to a list of Laws drawn up in March 1858. The next major step came in 1860 when two members of the club, the aforementioned John Shaw, along with Tom Vickers, decided to form a second club in the city – Hallam and Stumperlow Football Club, at Sandygate, the ground of the Hallam and Stumperlow Cricket Club. The ground remains the oldest football ground still in use at any football club around the world.

Sheffield – football’s first city
At this time Sheffield had established itself as the leading centre of steel manufacture in the world, producing half of Europe’s output alone. Grinding poverty and pollution were the harsh realities of life in the city and there was a feeling that exercise and sport would help alleviate some of the worst effects. Other clubs soon followed in Hallam’s wake. The Norfolk, Norton, and Pitsmoor clubs were founded in 1861, followed in 1862 by Firvale, Heeley, Milton, Mackenzie, and Howard Hill Steel Bank. By the end of that year there was a thriving club scene with regular fixtures every weekend over a clearly defined season.

By now the news of the exploits of the clubs in Sheffield was spreading to London. In 1859, Charles and John Alcock had created Forest Football Club, the first club in the metropolis, as London was usually referred to in Victorian times, but others were slow to follow. Crystal Palace emerged as the first proper opponents for Forest in a series of games in March and April 1862. By December that year, reports of matches involving Barnes, Richmond and Blackheath were appearing in Bell’s Life in the capital. It’s impossible to know how much the events in London were in response to what was happening in Sheffield, but by October 1863 there was sufficient interest in London to try and create a universal code of rules to govern matches, not just in London but for everyone interested in playing football.

Harry Chambers | ©Sheffield FC
The first ever match of association football
Harry Chambers, in whose house Sheffield FC had been formed in 1857 was present as an observer at the creation of the Football Association on 26 October 1863 and he took part in the first ever game of association football. On 9 January 1864, the new Laws of the Game were tested at a trial match between teams playing under the title of the President’s side and the Secretary’s side at Battersea Park in London. Chambers took to the field alongside Charles Alcock in the President’s side under Arthur Pember. In the Bell’s Life report he was listed third in the line-up, perhaps due to the esteemed status that football in Sheffield was held. It was a match the President’s side won 2-0 with the first ever goals in the history of association football both scored by Charles Alcock.

Sheffield Laws | ©Sheffield FC
William Chesterman, the secretary of Sheffield FC, also played his part in the first weeks of the new Football Association. He wrote letters enclosing the fee to affiliate and sent a copy of the Laws as they were played in Sheffield. When the new Laws of the Game were agreed they were similar in many instances, but not all, to those in Sheffield, the main differences being the offside rule and the use of rouges in Sheffield.

London versus Sheffield – a who’s who of early association football
In 1866 there was an historic match between London and Sheffield at Battersea Park which was won by London. Playing for Sheffield that day were both William Chesterman and Harry Chambers, along with John Shaw. Opposing them were Arthur Pember, President of the Football Association, Ebenezer Morley, the author of the original FA Laws, Arthur Kinnaird, the future President of The FA and a player who would go on to appear in nine FA Cup Finals, winning five of them, and Charles Alcock, the future secretary of the FA and the man behind the launch of international matches as well as the FA Cup. It was a veritable who’s who of the early days of association football.

Sheffield’s role in the Football Association would continue to grow. At the FA’s annual general meeting in February 1867, William Chesterman was voted on to the FA Committee, the first representative from outside London. It was a key meeting for the future of the game. Ebenezer Morley felt that with so few clubs affiliated to the association and with just six people present, including Chesterman, the FA had done its job in framing a set of Laws and should perhaps disband. But Charles Alcock, buoyed by the presence of Sheffield through Chesterman, fought against such a negative attitude and The FA survived to fight another day.

Youdan Cup | ©Sheffield FC
Sheffield - a city of footballing firsts
Today Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday may be the face of football in the city, but the continued presence of Sheffield FC and Hallam FC in the lower leagues of English football keeps the story of the pioneering role of Sheffield alive. The world owes much to the steel city with a series of firsts above and beyond the first club. In 1867 Hallam won the first organised cup competition – the Youdan Cup – four years prior to the launch of the FA Cup. In 1878 Bramall Lane was the location for the first-ever game played under floodlights while in 1882 The FA finally adopted the use of a crossbar instead of tape, something that had long been the case in Sheffield. The goal kick and corner kick originated in the Sheffield Laws, as did free kicks, while the first instances of players being paid to play emerged from the city in the 1870s.

So Happy Birthday Sheffield Football Club. Here’s to a unique footballing city.