150 years ago today: The birth of international football

Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant landmarks in the history of football. On 5 March 1870, 22 men walked onto the pitch at the Kennington Oval in London for what was the first ever international football match.

In the 150 years since, 39,710 internationals have been played by men’s and 10,492 by women’s teams. In total, 152,937 goals have been scored. That’s a lot of celebrations. Eleven nations have been crowned world champions and a further 46 have won a continental title. International football is well and truly a part of the fabric of everyday life and it all started on a cricket ground in south London.

“A match between Scotch and English sections will be played”
The idea of staging the first international match has often been credited to Charles Alcock, a member of the Football Association committee from 1866 who was then appointed secretary of the FA in February 1870. But Andy Mitchell points out in his book First Elevens; The birth of international football, that “while many historians point to the pervasive influence of Charles Alcock on the early organisation of football, nobody – not even Alcock himself – has claimed personal credit for the idea of an international match.” Mitchell adds that with “five of the 12 members of the Football Association committee claiming Scottish heritage, it’s not hard to imagine where the suggestion came from.”

On 22 January 1870, The Field newspaper published the following notice in its columns. “A match between the leading representatives of the Scotch and English sections will be played at the Oval on Saturday, the 19th of February next, under the auspices of the association.” Charles Alcock and Robert Graham were given the task of organising the England team, while James Kirkpatrick and Arthur Kinnaird were given the task of putting a Scottish side together. All of the England players were members of the famous Wanderers club, winners of the first FA Cup two years later. But it was an era were club affiliation was fluid and so the line up as registered in the newspapers lists other clubs the players were affiliated to.

As for ‘the Scotch’ as they were commonly referred to, Mitchell points out that “a myth grew that the players’ Scottish links were tenuous in the extreme, such as having gone shooting in the Highlands, or a fondness for Whisky.” Mitchell, however, has dug deeply into the backgrounds of all 11 players representing Scotland and states that all “would have qualified for Scotland under modern regulations.”

Postponed due to the weather
The 22 players selected were largely the product of the British public school system and were used to the punishing regimes these institutions were noted for. But they were no match for the weather that London experienced in early 1870. Blocks of ice were seen floating down the Thames and the match was put back two weeks. There was still a bitterly cold wind when the game finally went ahead on 5 March, but five to six hundred people still turned up at the Oval to witness this novel spectacle, a gathering which The Field described as having “never been seen on a football ground.”

Most notable among the Scots were the defensive duo of Wingfield Malcolm and Willy Gladstone, both Members of Parliament, the latter being the son of the Prime Minister William Gladstone. The captain, James Kirkpatrick, worked in the Admiralty and was one of five Scots in the team employed in the Civil Service. Aside from the two MPs, the most notable Scottish player was Arthur Kinnaird. From a banking family with estates in Scotland, Kinnaird, like Alcock, was a trailblazer, both on and off the pitch. He would go on to appear in nine FA Cup Finals, winning five of them, as well as serving as President of the Football Association from 1890 to 1923.

Alcock captained the English as was befitting someone who was regarded not just as an outstanding officer of the Football Association, but also as the outstanding player of his era. These were the days when the players themselves ran football. The England team was a mixture of experienced players like Alcock, Alfred Baker and Edward Bowen, and schoolboys like the 16-year old Walpole Vidal, Alfred Thornton and Parry Crake. Alcock and Baker had played on opposite teams in the first ever trial match under the Football Association Laws in January 1864, a game in which Alcock had scored the very first goal in the history of association football.

The Scots score first
Alcock may have scored the first ever goal in the history of the game, but the first ever goal in international football was scored by a 17-year old Scotsman called Robert Crawford. But it wasn’t scored until the game was drawing to a close. James Kirkpatrick had won the toss and had chosen to play with the fierce wind at their backs for the first half, but had been unable to take advantage of the conditions. Just two weeks before, the Football Association had passed a new Law that stated “in the event of no goal having fallen to either party at the lapse of half the allotted time, ends shall then be changed.” As neither team had been able to score, the match was notable for being one of the first were half-time occurred.

The Oval, Kennington, London, 5-03-1870, 15:15


Crawford 75; Baker 89

Edgar Lubbock 23 (Old Etonians); Evelyn Freeth 23 (Civil Service); Charles Alcock (capt) 27 (Old Harrovians), Alfred Baker 24 (No Names Kilburn), Edward Bowen 33 (Wanderers), William Butler 26 (Barnes), Parry Crake 18 (Harrow School), Alexander Nash 20 (Clapham Rovers), Giulio Smith 20 (Crusaders), Alfred Thornton 17 (Old Harrovians), Walpole Vidal 16 (Westminster School)

Alexander Morten 38/39 (Crystal Palace); William Gladstone 29 (Old Etonians), Wingfield Malcolm 36 (London Scottish Rifles), Robert Crawford 17 (Harrow School), George Gordon 19 (No Names Kilburn), Charles Baillie-Hamilton 21 (Civil Service), William Baillie-Hamilton 25 (Old Harrovians), Arthur Kinnaird 23 (Crusaders), James Kirkpatrick (capt) 28 (Civil Service), William Lindsay 22 (Old Wykehamists), Kenneth Muir Mackenzie 24 (Old Carthusians) |

With the wind at their backs in the second half, England controlled the game but according to The Field were kept at bay by “the brilliant back play of W. H. Gladstone, and the excellent goal-keeping of A. Morton”. Then against the run of play, Scotland took the lead a quarter of an hour before the end, a goal described by The Field as a “rather fluky long kick by R. E. Crawford.”

As the first ever scorer of an international goal, Crawford’s should be a name that echoes down through the ages, but according to Andy Mitchell, his story didn’t have a happy ending. “History could have been kinder to Robert Crawford. His achievements as a decorated war hero were brushed under the carpet as he ended his life in disgrace, convicted of a brutal murder. His place in Scottish sporting legend, as scorer of football’s first international goal, has been forgotten.”

Crawford’s goal wasn’t even the winner in this match. With just seconds remaining Alfred Baker equalised, “the result of a truly brilliant run,” according to The Field. So, the first ever international ended as a 1-1 draw. BUT… and it’s a big ‘but’, can we regard this game as the first ever international?

Officially, no.

Crossing the border to play the first official international
The Scotland v England match two and a half years later, on 30 November 1872, has always been considered as the first official international. On that occasion England travelled up from London to Glasgow, crossing the border before playing a team of players based in Scotland. Crossing the border seems to have been the critical factor in this official status. Interestingly, the minute book of the Football Association does not give any coverage to the 1870 match at the Oval or to four games which followed between November 1870 and February 1872 – all of which were played in London. The minute book is, however, fulsome in its coverage of the 1872 game in Glasgow. Right from the start it seems it was the intention to regard the Glasgow match as the first official game and to downplay the significance of the five matches in London which preceded it.

It is not our intention to rewrite history, so we must regard those first five games as unofficial. But that does not lessen their historical significance, especially of the first game on 5 March 1870 at the Oval. The detailed match report which appeared in the Glasgow Herald two days after the game provoked a huge backlash amongst football clubs in Scotland. They claimed that the Scottish team was not representative of footballers in the country. They had a point, but only in so far as every club in Scotland bar one, preferred the handling game and were not even affiliated to the Football Association!

And the grumblings from north of the border grew even louder after the second match, in November 1870, a 1-0 victory for England which was again played at the Oval. One angry correspondent wrote that “it must not be supposed that the eleven who represented us have in their defeat involved our national reputation as athletes.” Alcock was quick to reply that “the right to play was open to every Scotchman” and that with adverts placed in all the Scottish newspapers “the match was, as announced, to all intents and purposes between England and Scotland.”

The split between rugby football and association football
It was an exchange of letters that had far reaching effects and which set in motion a process which cast in stone the split between rugby football and association football. In January 1871, handling enthusiasts created the Rugby Football Union and two months later organised the first rugby international in Edinburgh.

The one club in Scotland that did play the association game was Queen’s Park of Glasgow. So it was no surprise that when Scotland and England met in the first official game in 1872, all eleven of the Scots were Queen’s Park players. It was a match that kick-started a revolution in Scottish football. Other clubs quickly appeared and on 13 March 1873 the Scottish Football Association was founded to take over the responsibility from Queen’s Park of running the Scotland team, but also to oversee the running of the newly created Scottish FA Cup. Any pretensions that the Football Association in London may have had of running the game throughout the whole of the United Kingdom were quick to recede as Scottish football forged its own independent path.

So, let’s raise a glass (of warm beer and a whisky chaser perhaps!) and toast those pioneers who 150 years ago today changed football forever.