On 24 October 1857 Sheffield FC – the world’s oldest football club – was founded when members of the Sheffield cricket club who enjoyed a kickaround decided to make a society of their own. Sheffield FC provided the world with the first standardised rules of football and started one of the most powerful and universal global movements in history.
An improper sport
The idea of kicking a football around for fun was first thought of in 1857 – but before then the rules were flexible to say the least. The first time we hear of football explicitly in a source is in 1280, in a report on a player in a match between villages in Nottinghamshire being killed after running into an opponent’s dagger. Arguably much like today, in medieval England the upper classes were very suspicious of this game and its possible moral effects (though perhaps this is justified given what happened in 1280 which was presumably reasonably common.)
King Edward III, worried that the game was distracting Englishmen from practising archery, banned it completely in the 14th century. In a similar vein, the first time we know of the word “foteball” being used is in a 1409 decree from Henry IV outlawing the levying of money to pay for the game.
It must have caught on, however, for one brilliant case of early football’s prevalence is that we have evidence that King Henry VIII ordered a pair of football boots to be made for him in 1526 – though sadly they do not survive. A 1584 account describes the goals as being a pair of planted bushes eight to ten feet apart.
In one early match, you were lucky to leave the pitch alive
Despite these small touches which sound similar to today’s game pre-1857 football would still have been almost unrecognisable, and varied from region to region in an age before fast travel. The most notorious regional take on the game was the east-Anglian variant “camp-ball,” which contained boxing as a legitimate play well into the 19th century. A match on Diss common in the early 1800s was so brutal that nine players were killed.
When the standardised game was introduced everywhere in 1863 camp-ball enthusiasts were as disgusted by these new rules as hardcore fans are by players theatrically diving today.
By 1855 Britain had a popular game with fixed rules – cricket. There was nothing unremarkable about the Sheffield Cricket Club, which was one of a great number scattered across the country, and presumably members getting together for an informal kickabout in between matches was also fairly common. What was unique was that two of the Cricket Club’s members, Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest, decided to splinter off and create a club solely dedicated to the less gentlemanly but more dynamic game of football.
The first meeting of Sheffield FC took place on the 24th October 1857 in the Sheffield suburb of Highfield. Their first headquarters was, bizarrely, a greenhouse, and an adjacent field was used as the first club-specific football pitch. The most obvious problem facing the world’s first football club was that it had no-one else to play, so the first matches were between club members who were often divided between married and unmarried men.
In 1858 Creswick and Prest decided to write up a standardised set of rules which became known as the Sheffield rules, and the most important innovation of this document was the new offside rule, which allowed players to pass the ball forwards – thus creating the end-to-end game which we have today. Later, some would disagree vehemently with this change and splinter off to form the game of “rugby football.”
In 1860 Sheffield finally had someone to play as their near-neighbours Hallam formed a team of their own, and this was the first competitive club match in history – which is still played today in the Northern Premier League Division One.
The next most important day in football history was the 1863 – when the Football Association was formed and the rules of football, largely based on the Sheffield rules, were standardised across the country. The first FA cup final was contested in 1872 – and the rest is history. Now one thing which unites Macau, Micronesia and Mongolia is that they all have national football teams drawn from players who play for clubs.
The simple format of Sheffield FC has taken over the world more effectively than any empire or culture in history. When Lioli FC won the Lesotho Premier in 2016, they had Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest to thank.