Joe Hart and James Milner hold aloft portraits of the F.A’s founding fathers Charles Alcock and Ebenezer Cobb Morley.

by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

26 October 1863: Ebenezer Cobb Morley convenes the first meeting of the Football Association

Prior to 1863 football was played by a whole variety of rules.  For example, in the public schools of Rugby, Marlborough and Cheltenham they played a type of football that allowed the use of hands and feet, while at Shrewsbury and Winchester the emphasis was on just 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 by kicking the ball between two posts and underneath a string tied between the two posts (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, either red or 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, 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 each other 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 be played by 11-a-side, and was to last 1hour 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 were there to merely act as arbiters in any dispute over a referee’s 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 totally 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.  It was all enough for an editorial in 1861 in a Victorian sporting journal, The Field, to state, “What happens when a game of football is proposed at Christmas among a party of young men assembled from different schools? Alas! The Eton man is enamoured of his own rules, and turns up his nose at Rugby as not sufficiently aristocratic; while the Rugbeian retorts that ‘bullying’ and ‘sneaking’ are not to his taste, and he is not afraid of his shins, or of a ‘maul’ or ‘scrimmage.’ On hearing this the Harrovian pricks up his ears, and though he might previously have sided with Rugby, the insinuation against the courage of those who do not allow ‘shinning’ arouses his ire, and causes him to refuse to lay with one who has offered it. Thus it is found impossible to get up a game.”

The Football Association was formed with the aim of unifying these various codes of football being played.   A meeting was convened at Freemason’s Tavern on 26 October 1863 to discuss the idea.  The clubs represented at this first meeting included Barnes, Blackheath, Perceval House, Kensington School, the War Office, Surbiton, the original Crystal Palace, Forest (later known as the Wanderers), the Crusaders and No Names of Kilburn.  The driving force behind this was a solicitor called Ebenezer Cobb Morley.

Morley, who was born in Hull in 1831, moved to Barnes in 1858 where he founded the Barnes Football Club, which some claim still exists today albeit as Barnes Rugby Football Club, making it the oldest football club of any code of the game still in existence.  A report of a game between Barnes and Richmond demonstrates how different the rules were from what we recognise as football today.  Barnes won the game with a goal from a Mr. Gregory who “…made a neat catch about 15 yards exactly in front of the Richmond base and after making his mark scored with a drop kick.”

Morley was captain of the Barnes club and not a bad player himself.  In one match against Forest in March 1863, Bell’s Life noted that, “Mr Morley was a pretty and most effective dribbler…we cannot abstain from saying that the play of…Mr. Morley of Barnes FC elicited great applause from the spectators…” It was while playing another game against Richmond that led Morley to the conclusion that the rules needed unifying.  With the lack of any standard rules, the two teams simply agreed to play until one team scored two goals.  Barnes took less than twenty minutes to do this and the afternoon was bought to a prompt and early end.

There had been much debate over the rules of the game in the correspondence section of the paper Bell’s Life, and in 1863 Morley joined the debate and wrote suggesting football could learn a lesson from cricket which had a clear set of rules governed by the MCC and he proposed a similar governing body for football and “…bringing about a definite code of laws for the regulation and adoption of the various clubs which indulge in this exciting and health promising winter pastime.”

Following that first meeting Morley was elected as the first secretary of the FA, a position he held for the next three years, and at a further 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 being used.  There was some fierce debate about whether to legitimise hacking, that is kicking the shins of the opponent when they were running with the ball.  The main defender of hacking being Francis Campbell of Blackheath who considered this aspect of the game to be vital in developing “masculine toughness.”  He argued that, “hacking is the true football,” and that doing away with it, “savours far more of the feelings of those who liked their pipes and schnapps more than the manly game of football…you will do away with the pluck and courage of the game, and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who will beat you with a week’s practice.”

Morley was far from convinced though about the need to allow hacking, and suspected that people who need to stay fit for their work would shy away from a game where injury was a real threat.  He countered that, “If we have hacking, no one who has arrived at the age of discretion will play at football, and it will be left entirely to the school boys.”  This was the view that ultimately won the day. Campbell, complaining about dodgy democracy, resigned from the FA when the vote went against him, and was later instrumental in forming the Rugby Football Union.

Although hacking was not to be allowed under the FAs new rules, there were other aspects in the rules that would still 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.

The newly formed FA acted quickly in producing the first book of the laws of the game which were published in December 1863, and Morley was to play in the very first game played under the new rules on 19 December 1863 when his Barnes team met Richmond at Limes Field, Mortlake.  The game had 15 players on each side and disappointingly it was to end in a 0-0 draw, and the best a newspaper report in the Field could say about it was that there had been no disputes about the new rules.   Richmond, unimpressed, decided that they would stick to the Rugby code.

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, with the rules changed, the passing game could develop, and slowly the game became recognisable as the game we know today.

Morley was appointed President of the FA in 1867, being replaced as secretary by Charles Alcock who unfairly receives more credit than Morley for being the instigator of the modern game as it was his decision to introduce the FA Cup.  Morley was to remain president until 1874, and as president it was him who presented the trophy to the victorious Wanderers side after the first FA Cup final in 1872.  After his retirement he fades out of view in the pages of football history and died at the age of 93 in 20 November 1924, but his legacy remains.

The original document detailing the laws in Morley’s handwriting is still in existence and is currently on display at the British Library as part of the celebrations of 150 years of the FA.  It has been valued at £2.5 million.  Its historical significance however is priceless, and it was listed by Melvyn Bragg, along with the Magna Carta, On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and The First Folio by Shakespeare, as one of 12 books that changed the world.

More importantly, his vision of a unified game had spread across the globe, and in the year that he died this was reflected by the first appearance of a South American team, Uruguay, in a major international tournament in that year’s Olympics in Paris.  The fact that they won the tournament was perhaps in some way a fitting tribute at the end of his life to the ambitions of Ebenezer Cobb Morley.