by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

8 December 1863: The first rules of football are drawn up

On 8 December 1863 the members of the newly formed Football Association agreed to a set of rule that standardised the way the game was to be played amongst its members.  Prior to this football had a number of rules devised mainly by the public schools where it was played.  For example, Rugby, Marlborough and Cheltenham played a type of football that allowed the use of hands and feet, while Shrewsbury and Winchester emphasised the use of feet.  Differences in the way a player could tackle were also apparent.  At Winchester the football played there was renown for involving a lot of physical contact.  One student described how “when running …the enemy tripped, shinned, charged with the shoulder, got down and sat upon you…in fact did anything short of murder you to get the ball from you.”

The variations in the rules meant that the public schools were unable to compete against each other and so an attempt to produce a standard set of rules was made in 1848.  Representatives from Shrewsbury, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Marlborough and Westminster met at Cambridge University to devise what became known as the Cambridge Rules.  These rules stipulated that goals would be scored when the ball is kicked between two posts and underneath the string (crossbars were yet to be thought of).  All players were allowed to catch the ball directly from a kick, but the catcher, unless it was the goalkeeper, had to kick it immediately, catching and running with the ball while still holding it was forbidden.  The keeper was also allowed to punch the ball away from anywhere in his own half.  Goal-kicks and throw-ins were to be used to restart the game after the ball went out of play, throw-ins to be taken with one hand.  In the absence of standard kits the players from each side were to wear the same colour cap, the colours being red and dark blue.

Not everyone was happy with these rules though, and in 1857 former pupils of the Sheffield Collegiate School established the Sheffield Football Club, which is still in existence today playing in the Evo-Stik League Division One South, and is recognised by FIFA as the world’s oldest football club.  The club published their own rules in 1858 that allowed more physical contact, with players being allowed to push opponents off the ball, and shoulder charge other players both on and off the ball.  If the keeper caught the ball by the goal it was allowable to barge him over the line.

Cambridge updated their rules in 1862, specifying that the game was to be played by 11-a-side, and was to last 1hr and 15 minutes, with a neutral referee and two umpires (one from each side).  Unlike the modern game the referee watched the game from the side of the pitch, and the umpires were not linesmen, but acted as arbiters in any dispute over a referee‘ decision.  The Goals were to be 12ft across but could be up to 20 foot high; an offside rule was added stating that three men must be between a player receiving a pass and the goal.

Although the new rules were gradually unifying the different clubs there were still sides playing by their own rules.  For example at Uppingham School football was played with a goal that was the width of the pitch, some allowed handling whilst others did not, and there were still notable differences between ideas of what constituted a fair tackle.

The Football Association was formed in October 1863 with the aim of unifying these various codes of football being played.  The clubs represented at the first meeting included Barnes, Blackheath, Perceval House, Kensington School, the War Office, Crystal Palace, Forest (later known as the Wanderers), the Crusaders and No Names of Kilburn.  Ebeneezer Cobb Morley was elected as the first secretary of the FA and at meeting on the 23 November he presented a draft set of 23 rules to govern the game based upon an amalgamation of all the rules currently in play.  These rules proposed that a player could catch and run with the ball, and it was proposed to legitimise hacking, that is kicking the shins of the opponent when they were running with the ball.  These two rules were fiercely debated between the various members of the FA with one supporter of hacking arguing that without it “you will do away with the courage and pluck of the game, and it will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice.”  The main defender of hacking was F. W. Campbell of Blackheath who considered this aspect of the game to be vital in developing “masculine toughness”, adding that, “hacking is the true football.” He resigned from the FA when the vote went against him, and was later instrumental in forming the Rugby Football Union.

Although hacking and moving while holding the ball were not allowed under the FAs new rules, there were other aspects in the rules that would appear strange to us today.  There was to be no crossbar and a goal could be scored at any height, throw-ins were awarded to the first team who touched the ball after it went out of play, if it went over the goal line and a member of the attacking side touched it first they were rewarded with a free kick 15 yards out from where the ball went out of play, otherwise it was a goal-kick; anyone in front of the player who kicked the ball was to be adjudged offside; players were allowed to catch the ball and upon making a mark with their heel were given a free kick if it had been caught cleanly without a bounce.

Over the next few years the rules were further refined, and crucially the rule that allowed any player to handle the ball was changed to only allow the keeper to handle the ball. Also the offside rule was changed so the ball could now be passed forward.  The previous rule meant that the only means of advancing the ball up the pitch was by dribbling or scrimmaging as we see in rugby; now the passing game could develop.   The FAs version of the game gradually became recognisable as the game we know today.  Although there were still a number of different codes in play by the time the first FA Cup was competed for in 1872, over the next few years the success of that tournament encouraged more teams to join the FA and adopt their rules.

It is interesting to think that of the different ways that football could have evolved from the rules available to it in the sport’s early days.  I’m sure Torres would welcome back goals the width of a pitch, and if the hacking rule had been kept then would we be talking about Vinnie Jones in the manner we talk of Pele today?