Who was the first man to score a goal in the history of international football? The answer to every quizmaster’s favourite fantasy – a question shrouded in the mists of obscurity – is far more than a gold plated nugget of football trivia. Identifying who this long-forgotten individual is reveals much about the social context of organised football in its earliest years. He was a sportsman, soldier and politician.
At a push, most football fans know that the first official international match took place between Scotland and England in 1872. However, that game finished scoreless, so we must look to the second international ever played to discover our mystery scorer.
The return match kicked-off at the Kennington Oval, London, on Saturday March 8th 1873 at 3 p.m. The boisterous crowd of approximately 3,000 did not have to wait long for the first goal to be scored, for it happened in the first minute. Picture the scene: England are awarded a throw-in, not too far from the Scotland goal, and up steps one of the six forwards to take it. The ball travels directly to a dashing 25 year old army captain making his England debut, and he converts the chance. The spectators, unmistakably from the upper strata of London society, enthusiastically applaud England taking the lead.
In your mind you’ve just recreated a little piece of history, the first of a myriad of goals that would be deposited in the lucrative account of international challenge matches. Many of these goals would be controversial, still argued and debated about to this very day; and some would inflame human passion and political fervour to such an extent that figurative and – in at least one case – literal war would eventually erupt.
So who was this youth, the first human link in the chain of events which ultimately led to the 77 goals scored in Euro 2008? His name was, in all its double-barrelled finery, William Kenyon-Slaney.
He was born in India in the year 1847 to an army captain of the 2nd Bombay cavalry. This accident of geography ensured that William would be endowed with another football first. He and his team mate Alfred George Goodwyn later became the first players born overseas to represent England, a tradition which continues in the current England set-up with Owen Hargreaves.
William would have been exposed to rudimentary versions of football when he received his education at Eton college. The English public school and university system was obsessed with sport during the mid-Victorian era. These institutions taught that team games were crucial to the development of an elite who would be physically, mentally and morally equipped for the twin tasks of imperial expansion and administration of the British Empire. The doctrine of ‘Muscular Christianity’ was born. However, a fundamental flaw in this system of education was highlighted by the writer Lawrence James, in his enthralling “Rise and Fall of the British Empire”:
“Intelligence mattered less than the acquisition of character… the end product was a Christian gentleman with a stunted imagination, who played by the rules and whose highest aim was to serve others.”
The skills and qualities that team sports require were thus seen as a pivotal way of inculcating this dogma into the young men of the period, William included. He had learned to ‘play by the rules.’
After a brief time studying at Oxford University he left to take up an officer’s commission in the Grenadier Guards. In those days of imperialism, joining the Britsh Army was one of the wisest career moves that a young gentleman of sound character could make, for it offered adventure, glory and the chance to make a lasting name for oneself, all ‘in the service of others’. It was during this period that Kenyon-Slaney became noted for his sporting prowess, playing first-class cricket for Shropshire in addition to playing for Wanderers FC, one of the leading clubs of the day.
One Cap Wonder
William’s educational background and sporting dexterity made him an ideal choice for his England debut on that spring day back in 1873. Not being content with scoring once on his first appearance, he notched another goal, England’s third, in the sixtieth minute, as they defeated Scotland 4-2.
Given the fact that he had scored twice on his debut, Kenyon-Slaney seemed ordained to make many more appearances for the national side. However, astonishingly as it may seem, this was his only cap. We don’t know why he never played for England again, since all that we have are the bare statistics. This was not unusual during this period of international infancy though. Of the eleven who lined up against Scotland in 1873, five won what turned out to be their one and only cap. In the era of hallowed amateurism the best players were not always readily available.
England’s first goalscorer was not quite finished with the football limelight. He appeared in three FA Cup finals during the 1870s, one for Wanderers and two for the Old Etonians. In fact he played in the 1876 Final for his old school against Wanderers, having switched allegiances. Perfidious Albion indeed.
Having fulfilled his duty on the pitch, it was now time to pursue his promising military vocation.
Post Playing Career
In 1882, he served under the command of Sir Garnet Wolsely at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, Egypt , as the British Army crushed the revolt of the Egyptian armed forces led by Ahmed Urabi.. The aftermath of this conflict led to the British military occupation of Egypt, and Kenyon-Slaney was later decorated for his conduct in the battle itself. No doubt this was a major factor in him being promoted to colonel in 1887, before retiring from the military in 1892.
Remaining true to his upbringing, William was not finished with public service just yet. As he had inherited a landed estate he became wealthy enough to serve as a Conservative MP for 22 years before his death in 1908 (MPs were not paid an annual salary until 1911).
International footballers turned politicians may be few and far between today, but they still exist. Pele is perhaps the most famous example, having served as an ineffective Minister for Sport in the Brazilian government during the late 1990s. Gianni Rivera, the elegant midfielder of AC Milan and Italy during the 1960s and 70s, currently serves as an MEP for the Italian Uniti Nell’ Ulivo party.
However, the prospect of a current England forward such as Wayne Rooney earning military honours whilst fighting battles against the Taleban in Afghanistan, after his playing career is over, seems rather remote. Though, he was present in the ‘Battle of the Buffet’ in October 2004, when Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson came under enemy soup and pizza fire in the Old Trafford tunnel, after his side had ended Arsenal’s 49 game unbeaten run. Does that count?
Unlike countless other ex-footballers, it’s difficult to warm to individuals like Mr. William Kenyon-Slaney. The public persona of many of those who chose to carry the ‘White Man’s Burden’ comes across a century and a half later as oppressively self-righteous, emotionally barren and sexually repressed. They were missionaries with a puritanical zeal for teaching other nations of the world how to live.
Yet their weakness became their strength. That same drive and fanaticism was what enabled the gospel of football to spread to the farthest ends of the earth. Men of a similar character to Kenyon-Slaney packed a leather football and a set of rules into their suitcases and sailed away to make new lives for themselves, and new disciples of the game that they loved so much. For that at least, we should be grateful.