Laws of the Game: Before There Were Rules

This is the first post on a new series examining the history of the Laws of the Game. When, where and why have they come to be as they are?

The origins of Association Football have been typically traced to a lower class mob game turned modern by the upper classes in their schools and universities. In this view, football was a wild, outlawed and unregulated activity given order and structure from its codification by the social elite in England in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

But as Adrian Harvey shows in his 2005 revisionist history of the sport Football: The First Hundred Years, a much more constrained and regulated version of the sport was played outside the elite public schools by ordinary people, consisting of equal number teams often numbering less than 11-a-side with agreed rules, a far cry from the anarchy of mob football — and also a key step towards the laws-based game we play today.

Out of mob football, out of ordinary football, and out of elite football, the rules of the modern game emerged in England and were disseminated to the world.


Mob Football

Mob football had no written rules, and this was partly why it was a game outlawed so often by the monarchs of England: these football scrums at festive times were undisciplined, wild and rough. The typical representation of the sport before it began to be codified in the mid-nineteenth century is of the infamous Shrove Tuesday scrums, dating back centuries. This annual event saw hundreds of villagers brawling their way across a village to deposit the ball at the other end.

That’s not to say Shrove Tuesday football was all mere violent, unorganised chaos. A December 1835 match saw two teams of fifty train for the game, played on a marked pitch with an umpire — though unfortunately, it was abandoned when a dispute led to a fracas in which Lord Stormont was hit by a stone. The games were rough, but could often be good-natured: at an 1826 New Year’s Day match, “the parties marched two and two with drums beating and colours flying, to the Town-house where copious libations of the mountain dew made them all ‘unco happy’.”

Still, it was undoubtedly an unregulated and dangerous game all the same. A description of an1829 game cited in Montague Sherman’s 1899 Football History should suffice to illustrate:

The struggle to obtain the ball, which is carried in the arms of those who have possessed themselves of it, is then violent, and the motion of the human tide heaving to and fro without the least regard to consequences is tremendous. Broken shins, broken heads, torn coats, and lost hats are among the minor accidents of this fearful contest.

The minor accidents!

Festival mob football was never codified in writing, and it fought a battle to survive against the increased regulatory presence of the authorities in popular recreation activities. It was a battle it had largely lost by the early nineteenth century, with mob football surviving only in rare remnants still extant today.


Elite Football

Following the decline of mob football, in public schools across England the elite of the country was taking on a refined version of the game as a way to discipline and teach students through ordered games — and it’s here that the codification and dissemination of the Laws of the Game is traditionally credited.

It was in 1851 that the first recorded incident of “cheating” took place at the University of Edinburgh Foot Ball Club. A player (and lets remember this is in the days when handling was still allowed for all players) dove on the ball, incorrectly claiming a “fair catch”, whence the umpire “immediately disallowed the claim.”

But these laws were still not written and varied from school to school, particularly dependent on the various constraints of respective playgrounds, and even within individual schools for each game. One Eton pupil complained about the “interminable multiplicity of rules” in the various games. It was only finally in 1847 that the rules of the “field game” version, an 11-a-side game on a field 120 x 80 yards, were written down at Eton.

Meanwhile, at Rugby school, the rules — which appeared in a printed code in 1845 — leaned towards a version of football that emphasised handling over kicking. Running holding the ball was made lawful in 1841, providing the ball had not bounced more than once. Once tackled, a scrimmage unfolded, as one contemporary report illustrates graphically: “Then comes the tug of war. The hapless and too adventurous hero who first grasped the ball, and he who first dared to stay his advance by his rough embrace, locked in each other’s arms, the foundation of a pyramid of human flesh, giving vent to screams, yells and groans unutterable.”  This doesn’t sound too much less violent than mob football.

Rugby explained their decision to print their rules to preserve them for Rugbeians: “The following set of rules is to be regarded as a set of decisions on certain disputed points, than as containing all the Laws of the Game, which are too well known to render any explanation necessary to Rugbeians.”

At public schools across England, no one unified set of rules reigned, each school having laws unto itself.


The Cambridge Rules

It was the establishment of organised football at Cambridge University which led to the codification of a set of rules which would ultimately form the basis for the rules we have today, via the Football Association and the International Football Association Board. Since the students at Cambridge all came from different schools with different rules, when a football club was founded there in November 1863, they agreed on a set of shared rules from a committee that came from six public schools.

Notably, though, the rules restricted carrying of the ball by hand, leading to Cambridge’s Rugby faction continuing to play separately at their own club — with critical future consequences when these rules were adopted by the Football Association in 1863.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Though the social elite had developed their own football codes, a rules-based game was also developing in parallel at the lower-class level, and the adaptation of football from a mob game to an ordered game much depended on this oft-ignored development as well.

Organised Grassroots Football Outside the Elite

Though festive football regressed in the nineteenth century, ordinary football matches amongst the lower classes went on and had an important role to play in the dissemination of a rules-bound game — for these were far from the mass folk games of old, with their hundreds of participants and an anarchic lack of boundaries to participation and behaviour. Instead, these were structured games by organised teams with pre-arranged rules: very much modern.

The traditional view is that popular football petered out with the crackdown on Mob Football, leading to the game’s development switching solely to public schools in the mid-nineteenth century– where the game was codified, refined, sanitised and disseminated back to the population at-large, leading to the explosion of football as a working class sport in the late nineteenth century. But this view is, as David Goldblatt puts it in The Ball Is Round, “history told by the victors” — the later dominant London elite.


This meant many historians attributed the spread of the new, codified form of the game to public school alumnus — missionaries of football. But the printed rules from public schools were intended for students there, and far from covered comprehensively the laws of the game; while Harvey has shown few such “missionaries” spread the game to the lower classes.

Indeed, outside of the Shrove Tuesday festival and the elite public schools and universities, 93 organised teams played through the 1830-1859 period, from Body-guards Club to Cronkeysham Champions Society. Without a common national set of rules to play under, these teams negotiated the laws of the game ahead of each encounter, such as determining the number of players to take part, the time limit, and even the maximum weight of players. It was a game as well codified as that within the public schools.

Eventually, printed rules were created here too — interestingly, around the same time as in public schools. Surrey FC’s rules were disseminated in 1849. As Harvey notes, these were far from “wild and undisciplined encounters” that needed taming from the codification by the public school elite — the “civilised” version of the sport was not a top-down creation, but one with its roots in an ongoing popular and organised form of the game.


Sheffield FC

The first prominent footballing code was written at Sheffield, a provincial city with an existing football culture that proved fertile ground for the formation of the world’s first recognised football club, Sheffield FC. Their rules were based largely on local origin, a consultation of public school rules having proved fruitless (probably because they were not meant to be understood by outsiders). They began play under their code in 1857 and published a rule-book in 1858.

The laws for the first time introduced the free-kick for foul play, throw-ins and corners. The 11 laws they published were as follows:

  1. The kick off from the middle must be a place kick.
  2. Kick out must not be more than 25 yards [23 m] out of goal.
  3. A fair catch is a catch from any player provided the ball has not touched the ground or has not been thrown from touch and is entitled to a free-kick.
  4. Charging is fair in case of a place kick (with the exception of a kick off as soon as a player offers to kick) but he may always draw back unless he has actually touched the ball with his foot.
  5. Pushing with the hands is allowed but no hacking or tripping up is fair under any circumstances whatever.
  6. No player may be held or pulled over.
  7. It is not lawful to take the ball off the ground (except in touch) for any purpose whatever.
  8. The ball may be pushed or hit with the hand, but holding the ball except in the case of a free kick is altogether disallowed.
  9. A goal must be kicked but not from touch nor by a free kick from a catch.
  10. A ball in touch is dead, consequently the side that touches it down must bring it to the edge of the touch and throw it straight out from touch.
  11. Each player must provide himself with a red and dark blue flannel cap, one colour to be worn by each side.

In the 1860s the Sheffield Football Association, formed thanks to the rapid success of Sheffield FC and formation of competing local clubs, was as renowned as the Football Association in London (who based their rules off the public schools’ Cambridge Rules) — and it was the Sheffield Rules, not London’s, that came to be predominant in this decade.

But as we shall see in the next part of this series, in the next decade, crucial developments would delineate Association Football even further from the competing Rugby code, and the reins of power holding the laws of their game in their hands would shift definitively to London’s elite.

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