Sheffield FC are the world’s oldest football club, who played an important part in the development of the game in the rest of the UK and the world. These pioneers from South Yorkshire may not be a prominent force in the current game, but their legacy paved the way for the rise of the most popular sport on the planet.
Football before the 19th Century
Although there are records of a football type game being played in Ancient China, Greece and Rome, the formation of regular rules of play, plus the beginnings of regular competitive matches started in both the public schools of the South and in Sheffield. Before the formation of the world’s first football club, there was a code known as “mob football,” which had existed since Medieval Times” This was a dis-organised and often violent game where whole villages would take part. The aim was to get the ball to a certain landmark in each village and it was played on all land between the two places; in the middle of fields, over hedgerows and even across streams. The teams were made up of an infinite number of people and known for their unregulated violence. The “balls” were often heavy and had an unregulated weight. Various forms of mob football were played in patches of the country, but there was nothing regular or particularly organised about it. In Sheffield, the first recorded match was played in 1792 between Sheffield and the village of Norton.
Football in the public schools
The public schools of the South may seem a long way away from Industrial Sheffield, but these institutions brought the development of the game a stage further. Places such as Eton, Harrow, Cambridge and Rugby would play under varying rules. Rugby school in particular preferred a form of the game where the ball could be handled, carried and passed, while others such as Eton and Harrow preferred to kick the ball instead. These had largely to do with the type of pitches that the sport was played on. The wide open fields of Rugby and Cheltenham lent itself better for a running and tackling game, while others such as Eton and Harrow were played on harder pitches where tackling could have resulted in injury. Therefore a kicking game was more established in order to score a “try” which resulted in a conversion and a score. By 1863 a divide emerged between the public schools, which resulted in the formation of two separate sports, rugby and football, because nobody could not agree on how the sport should be played.
The formation of the club and The Sheffield Rules
Miles away from the lush, green lawns of Eton and Harrow, a cricket club in Sheffield were looking for something to do during the long, dark winter months to keep themselves fit. Informal kick-abouts were organised by the players to keep themselves fit. Eventually these had been developed into something more serious. Two of their players, Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest decided to take things further and draw up their own set of rules, adapted from both mob football and the public school codes.
The original 1857 Sheffield rules set out by these two entrepreneurs were as followed:
1. The kick from the middle must be a place kick.
2. Kick Out must not be more than 25 yards out of goal.
3. Fair Catch is a catch from any player provided the ball has not touched the ground or has not been thrown from touch and is entitled to a free-kick.
4. Charging is fair in case of a place kick (with the exception of a kick off as soon as a player offers to kick) but he may always draw back unless he has actually touched the ball with his foot.
5. Pushing with the hands is allowed but no hacking or tripping up is fair under any circumstances whatever.
6. No player may be held or pulled over.
7. It is not lawful to take the ball off the ground (except in touch) for any purpose whatever.
8. The ball may be pushed or hit with the hand, but holding the ball except in the case of a free kick is altogether disallowed.
9. A goal must be kicked but not from touch nor by a free kick from a catch.
10. A ball in touch is dead, consequently the side that touches it down must bring it to the edge of the touch and throw it straight out from touch.
11. Each player must provide himself with a red and dark blue flannel cap, one colour to be worn by each side.
While there were elements of rugby in there, such as being able to handle the ball and a place kick to start the game, the laws which forbid players to be held or pulled over, or not being allowed to run with the ball points towards a different sport; football. Throw-ins when the ball went out of play were adopted too.
The problem with being the world’s first football club, run from a potting shed and greenhouse in the middle of Sheffield, is that there is no opposition to play against.
To get round this, the club organised ad-hoc games against the most random of opponents. For example the club would play a team with surnames beginning with A-M and then another against those starting with N-Z. Another was married people against unmarried. For two years these fixtures continued, in the process, spreading the new game around the city of Sheffield. By 1862, fifteen clubs had formed in the area. The second of which was Hallam, formed in 1860 and owners of the oldest football ground, Sandygate Lane, where they still play to this day. The first fixture and local derby was formed when Sheffield FC took on Hallam. This became known as “The Rules Derby,” which is the oldest footballing rivalry in the world. Other clubs joined in, including another cricket team who were looking for something to do in winter, known as “The Wednesday.”
Around the same time of this football revolution was taking place in South Yorkshire, so the first clubs were being formed in London. This eventually led to the Football Association (the FA) being created along with an official set of football rules being written down in 1863.
The Football Association Rules, 1863
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 goal shall be defined by two upright posts, eight yards apart, without any tape or bar across them.
2. A toss for goals shall take place, and the game shall be commenced by a place kick from the centre of the ground by the side losing the toss for goals; 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 be entitled to kick off, and the two sides shall change goals after each goal is won.
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 the ball 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 he is in play; but no player is out of play when the ball is kicked off 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 he 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 at the goal only from a point 15 yards outside the goal line, opposite the place where the ball is touched, the opposing side standing within 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, providing he claims it by making a mark with his heel at once; and in order to take such a kick he may go back as far 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 be allowed to throw the ball or pass it to another with his hands.
12. No player shall be allowed to take the ball from the ground with his hands under any pretext whatever while it is in play.
13. No player shall be allowed to wear projecting nails, iron plates, or on the soles or heels of his boots.
“Goals” were scored when the ball passed between two upright posts (with no crossbar, while throw in’s must be taken at a right angle from where the ball left the field of play. This resembled the “line-out,” which is used in rugby union. A player could not pick up and run with the ball, or pass it to another with their hands.
Further innovations and their influence on modern football
The Sheffield clubs made further innovations later in the 1860s, such as the introduction of a crossbar on top of the goalposts (rule 4), free-kicks if there is a foul, half time and even the introduction of floodlights for some matches. An early incarnation of the “offside rule” was also included, but not always adhered to! This was from the outset a law of the game which would cause a lot of debate among football fans, even in the 1860s! The “one man” offside rule allowed only one player to be between the last defender and the goalkeeper, instead of anybody. A version which resembles the modern day rule was deeply unpopular as it limited the amount of goals scored by each team. “Rouge goals,” which were scored when the ball was kicked 12 yards either side of the regular goal, were used to decide the match if the final result was a draw.
Although the FA in London had been created in 1863 and their version of football rules laid out, the organisation lay dormant for a few years and one by one some of the founding London clubs started to play by the Sheffield rules, which was enjoying a growing popularity in South Yorkshire. By 1867 the first competitive football cup competition had been created, known as “The Youdan Cup was played and won by Hallam FC. This pre-dated the FA Cup by five years. Over the next decade the two associations met, but often fell out over which set of rules should be played. The “horse trading” of rules between the two sets were common and sometimes led to confusion on the field of play. In 1866 a match played between London and Sheffield had the opposition and their fans at Battersea Park rolling around on the floor laughing when the Sheffield players were seen “butting” or heading the football. The header was born and the very next day the London players were seen practicing this new technique and incorporating it into their rules.
Further integration between the two associations occurred when Sheffield FC’s Charles Clegg was chosen to represent England in the first ever international fixture against Scotland in 1872.
In the same year, the FA Cup was introduced, which was played under the FA rules. At first the Sheffield clubs refused to enter, but by 1873-74, Sheffield FC were eventually allowed to participate if they played by the London rules. Considering this hurdle, they did rather well, reaching the quarter finals before losing out 2-1 to Clapham Rovers. This FA cup run showed that teams could play successfully under one dedicated set of rules.
The impracticality of having a tournament where some teams played by one set of rules and another by different laws became untenable. The only solution was compromise. The Sheffield rules continued to be played in South Yorkshire right up until 1877, until finally a dedicated set of laws were codified into a settled form by the FA. By this time the Sheffield FA had began to run low on finances and a new, rival Hallamshire association had developed, weakening the founding father’s influence on the game even in their own region.
The 1877 FA rules incorporated many aspects of Sheffield laws, including throw-ins, solid crossbars, heading and the awarding of a free-kick for handling the ball in play, making football finally an all-kicking game. The key factor in having a dedicated set of rules was that the game could now be expanded. On the strength of this, many football clubs in many different towns and cities across the UK started to form and adopt these codified rules; the compromise between Sheffield and London.
The following year, Bramall Lane hosted the world’s first ever floodlit match, an exhibition match consisting of the best local players. It was watched by 20,000 people and proved to be a success.
Around this time, prophets of the game from Sheffield travelled to other places which were slow to convert to the round ball game, such as Leeds and hold exhibition matches to spread the gospel of football.
Sheffield FC and the rise of the professional game
The main reason why Sheffield FC, the world’s first football club are not riding high in the Premier League, or do not have a trophy cabinet laden with silverware lies at the very heart of its existence. Like rugby, football was played by amateurs in 1880. Both games, except for the original Sheffield football clubs had derived and split from the Southern public schools of Eton, Harrow and Gloucester, etc where sport was seen as a jolly good wheeze on a sunny afternoon. No money was ever asked for or needed for these upper class players and supporters.
Sport was given a major boost by the 1878 Factory Act, which gave all factory workers Saturday afternoons off, along with traditional Sundays. This paved the way for more football clubs to be formed and for sport to truly ingrain itself into working class culture.
The rapid development and spread of football among the working classes enabled football clubs to sprout up in nearly all towns and cities across Britain. These new football teams were funded by a growing number of working class fans, who could now turn out and support their local club on a Saturday afternoon. This rise of football among the working classes and the new clubs whose players were drawn from the local area led to two inevitabilities during the 1880s; the formation of regular football league fixtures and the road to professionalism.
The split in the other code, rugby is well documented- the meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield and the formation of the Northern Union in 1893 and so on. What is not so well known is that football almost went through exactly the same thing during the 1880s. Blackburn Olympic were to break the mould in the 1883 FA Cup, when they reached the final against those quintessential amateur toffs, The Old Etonions. Olympic were a team comprised of factory workers and became the first working class team to ever reach the final of the FA Cup. The following year a cup tie between Preston North End and Upton Park (nothing to do with the present day West Ham) resulted in the London club protesting because some of their opponent’s players had been paid for their appearence in the match. This lead to a 30-club strong protest from these newly formed northern clubs, who threatened to break away, Rugby League style to form their own association. The FA, unlike their rugby counterparts would eight years later, relented and allowed the payment of players in 1885 with a salary cap, something which was not lifted until 1959.
So what has all this to do with Sheffield FC? When professionalism became legal, football clubs had two choices; to either go professional or stay as amateurs and not pay their players. Simply, Sheffield FC and their great rivals, Hallam FC chose to stick stoically to their amateur origins, while others such as “The Wednesday” and the soon to be formed Sheffield United chose to go down the professional route.
Sheffield FC tried, in vain, to keep up with the professional clubs in the years leading up to the formation of the football league in 1888. They suffered badly against the professional outfits of Notts County, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest and were eventually left well behind their rivals. Some of this was down to fitness levels, but partly it was also down to new tactics which were starting to be employed by the professionals, who could train more regularly. The act of passing the ball to team-mates, instead of one player trying to dribble directly towards the goal had filtered down from the Scottish equivalents of Sheffield FC, Queen’s Park of Glasgow. Sheffield FC’s protests against professionalism and their now antiquated style of play were gradually sending them into oblivion.
Sheffield FC – For the Love of the game
While both Wednesday and United were admitted readily into the football league in 1892, Sheffield FC retained their amateur status. They spent one miserable season in the Midland League, where they finished bottom of the table in 1889. Their last innovation in the development of football came in 1893 when they helped form and compete in the Amateur Cup, which was a tournament designed for clubs who had retained their non-professional status. They even managed to lift this trophy ten years later in 1904. Apart from the tournament they’d helped to invent, the club struggled to find decent opposition of which to play against initially. In 1898 the club was a co-founder of “The Yorkshire League,” an amateur division which only lasted for three seasons. The football league as we know went from strength to strength, with more teams being accepted into its system and eventually expanding into three divisions by the 1920s. The amateur game, for clubs who chose not to pay their players, was trying to establish itself too.
The thing that Sheffield FC had going for them was their history and role as “pioneers of the beautiful game.” In 1905 they were chosen personally by president, Theodore Rooseveldt to tour the United States to try and help reduce violence in college football, by introducing the sport of “soccer.” This is the first known attempt to introduce the game across the Atlantic. Back at home in the first part of the 1900s they competed against local opposition in the Sheffield Association League,. After World War II the club joined the Yorkshire League, a structured county league system for local amateur clubs in 1949. They began life in Division Two and played against other amateur clubs, such as Selby Town, Farsley Celtic, plus the reserve teams of bigger clubs, such as Hull City A” and Leeds United’s second XI.
The year 1957 marked the centenary of Sheffield FC and the formation of the world’s oldest football club. This was marked with a friendly against an England XI and fellow amateurs, “Queen’s Park at Bramall Lane. In the bread and butter of the league, Sheffield FC continued to yo-yo between Divisons One and two of the Yorkshire League throughout the 1960s. In 1970, the amateurs found themselves in the third division for a few seasons, before recovering to win back to back promotions between 1975-77.
They were making strides in the cup competitions too and reached the final of the 1976-7 FA Vase, a modern version of the old amateur cup, before losing out to Billericay Town, 2-1 after a replay at Wembley.
The old amateur spirit- fair play, respect for opponents, a gentle handshake at the end of the game- for the love of the game- would come to embody the spirit of clubs like Sheffield FC as it moved through the 20th Century and into the modern day.
In 1982 a restructuring of the English non-league pyramid saw the Yorkshire League abolished and merged with Midland clubs to form the North East Counties Premier League (NCEL). Sheffield were assigned to the second tier, Division One South Division of this new league. This change brought together Sheffield FC and their old rivals, Hallam in the same division. The Rules derby was once again a permanent fixture on the calendar. Ironically in 1989, they won the Division One South title, but were not allowed to be promoted because of lack of floodlights. Indeed, the club which brought this innovation to football back in 1878 were being penalised for the lack of them!
Finally, Sheffield achieved promotion in 1991 and remained in the NCEL for thirteen years, before finishing second in their 150th year of 2007 to win a berth in the Northern League Division One South where they remain to this day.
The celebrations to mark 150 years of the world’s oldest football club involved a friendly against Inter Milan at Bramall Lane. It was attended by the now disgraced FIFA president, Sepp Blatter and guest of honour, Pele’. The match finished 5-2 to Inter, whose team included a young Mario Balotelli. Quite what he made of it all I’m not sure! An Ajax XI also played the amateurs as part of the celebrations and lost 2-0!
One of the biggest problems for amateur clubs was to find their own ground to call their own. Sheffield FC have led a nomadic existence in their long history. When the club was formed in 1857 they played on a field called, “Olive Grove,” which is near Bramall Lane. This ground was taken over by Sheffield Wednesday in the late 19th century. After 1862 Sheffield FC played a bit at Bramall Lane, before they fell out with the owners of what was then a cricket pitch. So they moved to Abbeydale Road in the city by the 1920s and then in more modern times to Hillsborough Park (not to be confused with Sheffield Wednesday’s home ground) in the late 80s. This was followed by stints at the Owlerton Stadium and the now deceased Don Valley Stadium. In 2001, after never owning their own ground, they took the tough decision to step over the border into Derbyshire, to the town of Dronfield at the Coach and Horses Ground.
The club are now undergoing a campaign to build a 10,000 capacity stadium at their original Olive Grove home, back in the city of Sheffield. The original field still exists but the modern facilities required and expected, even in the non-leagues are not in place. The club is raising money to help them go back to where it all began back in 1857.
Sheffield FC are no ordinary amateur club and their history is perhaps more interesting than their onfield achievements. However, it was their formation on 24th October 1857, which helped pave the way for the spread of the beautiful game across Yorkshire, England and the world.