Rewind to 1857

The roots of Sheffield FC

October 25, 2012
By Jon Carter
(Archive)

The oldest football club still around today, Sheffield FC, was formed on October 24, 1857, by two businessmen, Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest. Against a combative backdrop fuelled by the north-south divide and clashes over early manifestations of the rules, the club was a key force in driving through some of the innovations that make the game what it is today.

Sport in the mid-1800s became of paramount importance in both the curriculum and the ethos of British public school life. The idea that physical prowess could outweigh the intellectual mind was nothing new - indeed the Duke of Wellington claimed "there grows the stuff that won Waterloo [the Battle of Waterloo in 1815]" when passing an Eton cricket match - but it was part of a growing movement that saw the largest schools in the country place immense importance on 'games' as a foundation for the young person.

Nathanial Creswick and William Prest
Other / sheffieldfc.comNathanial Creswick and William Prest were innovators of the early game

With boxing, hockey and athletics all established sports, and cricket seen as the single summer pursuit, football was growing in popularity and, according to historian David Goldblatt in The Ball is Round, was the game that "most captivated the energies and imaginations of the staff and pupils".

The first set of written rules for football came from Rugby School in 1845 and a year later Henry de Winton and John Charles Thring went about collating a set of rules for Cambridge University which were eventually published in 1848. Mr H.C. Malden, in a letter dated October 8, 1897, wrote of their formulation: "I went up to Trinity College Cambridge. In the following year an attempt was made to get up some football in preference to the hockey that was then in vogue. But the result was dire confusion, as every man played the rules he had been accustomed to at his public school. I remember how the Eton men howled at the Rugby men for handling the ball. So it was agreed that two men should be chosen to represent each of the public schools, and two who were not public school men, for the 'Varsity'."

But the public schools and universities were not the only ones who wanted in on the game. Cricket clubs, pubs, minor schools and military units elsewhere across the country had played a form of football from the late 1830s without much cohesion and the central area for growth was the northern town of Sheffield. Indeed, there was enough support to merit the formation of a football club - Sheffield FC - in 1854. According to Goldblatt: "The club drew on former pupils of the Sheffield Collegiate schools from middle-class manufacturing and professional families. Only in London, it appears, were football clubs overwhelmingly the preserve of ex-public school men."

Two of the driving forces were keen sportsmen Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest. ESPN's own Dale Johnson, when researching the club for a 2005 article, wrote: "It was spawned from the cricket club which was eager for a sport to play outside summer when the sound of leather on willow had been silenced by the rain and the gloom of the winter months.

"From time to time they would have people whose name began with letters from the first half of the alphabet (A-M) against the rest. Married men would line-up against the bachelors and there would also be fixtures for professionals against workers. It was football in its most primitive form, but when you are the first club in the world the options are limited."

Many of the early games would commence at 2pm and last until dark, with the idea to maintain the players' fitness levels during a time when cricket was not able to be played. However, there were different rules depending on geographical location and it required Creswick and Prest to gather together all the existing sets of laws from across the country to develop one code in 1858.

The Sheffield FC website states it thus: "By the mid 19th Century the game had evolved somewhat with various Public Schools and Universities who introduced their own idiosyncratic laws that co-existed. What was needed though was a strong set of individuals to impose a standard set of laws and that is precisely what happened in Sheffield. Sheffield Football Club's influence on the modern game cannot be overstated.

"They have pioneered the writing of a commonly accepted set of rules, played a key role in the formation of the FA and were involved in a host of innovations such as the first crossbar, the first corner kick, the first free-kick, the first throw-in and the first floodlit match."

Initial teething problems with 'Sheffield Rules', according to Goldblatt, included "a proliferation of 0-0 draws caused by having the goals a mere four yards wide". The club's first game against another side was on Boxing Day 1860 and played against local rivals Hallam FC - the world's second oldest club - at Sandygate. Sheffield FC won 2-0, and "prevailed despite fielding fewer men", according to The Guardian.

As the Sheffield FC website states, the influence of the club on the domestic game was huge. The following years saw the rule defects improved upon and more clubs in South Yorkshire began to spring up, adopting a revised version as they went. (By 1862, 15 other football clubs had been registered.)

While Thring's public school pals from London had met and devised the concept of the Football Association in October 1863 at the Freemasons' Tavern in Great Queen Street, Sheffield had their own plans and formulated their own association four years later.

It had more players and more member clubs, but for both sides the task of bringing everyone into line with one standard set of rules proved too difficult to accomplish that decade. According to The Guardian: "In 1866, Sheffield FC played the first inter-city match, against London City at Battersea Park, where the Sheffield players demonstrated their new skill of heading the ball (to the amusement of the London players and fans)." However, with the rules still the subject of much debate, the game was won by London - two goals and four touchdowns to nil.

It took until the 'handling-based' clubs formed their own set of rules - created with the Rugby Football Union in 1871 - and separated themselves from what we now term 'football' for there to be movement towards a single set. Soon after a Sheffield FC player, Sir Charles Clegg, appeared in the first international match, between England and Scotland in 1872, there was a mutual agreement between Sheffield and London.

Sheffield FC
Other / sheffieldfc.comSheffield FC played their first game in 1860

Sparked by negative letters in magazine The Field talking of the confusion caused between both sets of rules, a decision was eventually reached in 1878. A certain amount of compromise ultimately saw the London FA accept Sheffield's rule of allowing throw-ins to enter the field from any direction, as opposed to right angles as prevails in rugby line-outs.

Sheffield's impact also saw the introduction of the wooden crossbar - it had merely been a length of rope before - along with corner kicks, free-kicks, throw-ins and floodlit football. In return, the FA's use of a three-man offside rule was adopted, and the seeds were sown for Sheffield FC, nicknamed "The Club" as a nod to their status as the very first team, to take their place at the forefront of the game.

What happened next? The club's decline from the top echelon of football began with the introduction of professionalism in July 1885, as to this day Sheffield FC remain an amateur club and only pay expenses to players, but the Sheffield and London FAs eventually formed the basis for the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which first met a year later and stayed in charge of law-making alongside FIFA.

Sheffield FC's first major honour came in 1904, when they won the FA Amateur Cup (a competition they played a large role in creating) and, after the two World Wars, they joined the Yorkshire League in 1949, which became the Northern Counties East League in 1982. In a glittering few years at the end of the 1970s, they became Division Two champions and Yorkshire League Cup winners. They also reached the FA Vase final in 1997, losing the replay after a draw at Wembley, and in 2000 nearly reached the first round of the FA Cup for the first time since 1887.

Sheffield FC were also honoured when they became one of only two clubs to be bestowed with the FIFA Order of Merit - the other being Real Madrid - as part of the governing body's centennial celebrations. FIFA's tribute was given to "the oldest club in the world, founded in 1857, and a symbol of the role of football as a common denominator in the community and in society".