While there have been games involving balls being kicked around a field reported all over the world, the current rules of Association Football, also known as soccer, can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century England. The great public schools of England could finally compete on an equal and level playing field by standardising the many different rules that existed at the time.

Football is a sport that has been played in England for decades. Medieval or mob football was often played between towns and villages, with rival teams colliding to deliver an inflated pigs bladder from one end of town to the other. Kicking or hitting the bladder, or ball, as well as the opponents, was allowed… There were few rules in these mediaeval matches, and they were chaotic.

Football in a gang

Scoring the Hales, a Shrove Tuesday football game held in Alnwick, Northumberland, as well as Royal Shrovetide Football in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, and other Shrove Tuesday football games held in Atherstone, Warwickshire, and Corfe Castle in Dorset, to name a few, are still played today.

Henry VIII is a British monarch who reigned

King Edward II, concerned about football’s negative impact on London’s good people, banned the sport from the area. Later, in 1349, his son Edward III outright outlawed football, fearing that it was diverting men’s attention away from archery practise. Following the huge death toll caused by the Black Death, England needed as many archers as possible to carry out Edward’s military ambitions in both France and Scotland.

Henry VIII, who was known for his sporting prowess in his youth, is thought to have owned the first pair of soccer boots when his royal footwear collection was registered in 1526 as having “…45 velvet pairs and 1 leather pair for football.” Henry subsequently outlawed the game in 1548, arguing that it incited riots, possibly due to his increased waistline and thus failure to perform at the highest level.

Football’s reputation as a violent sport emerges in written records in the 16th and 17th centuries, not just from England, but also from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

The standing in the community

Representatives from England’s main public schools gathered in the somewhat more civilised surroundings of Cambridge University in 1848 to agree on the rules that would standardise the games played between them. The Cambridge Rules were duly noted, and the football teams of Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, and Winchester public schools followed the code. This ensured that when the students arrived in Cambridge, they were all playing the same game!

These were not the only rules in effect for the game at the time, as many teams not affiliated with the university or schools continued to play their own form of football in the 1850s. A number of clubs in the north of England used a different set of rules known as the Sheffield Rules.

H Storer Derby County CCIt took a tenacious Yorkshireman to eventually bring the game’s first detailed set of rules to fruition. Ebenezer Cobb Morley was born in Hull and moved to London at the age of 22 to pursue a career as a solicitor. Ebenezer, a keen sportsman and captain of the Barnes Club, convened a meeting at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street, London, on the morning of October 26, 1863, that would eventually lead to the founding of The Football Association, or The FA, as it is more commonly known today.

Between October and November of that year, the FA held five more meetings at the Freemasons, resulting in the first comprehensive football rules. Even at the last meeting, the FA treasurer from Blackheath removed his club, enraged by the withdrawal of two draught rules: one would have required players to pick up and run with the ball in hand, while the other would have prevented a player from tripping up and hanging onto an opponent. Other clubs withheld their sponsorship from the FA and formed the Rugby Football Union with Blackheath; the word soccer was now widely used to differentiate between the two football codes.

Meanwhile, Ebenezer, along with the eleven remaining players, went on to ratify the initial thirteen laws of the game, demonstrating real Yorkshire grit. Despite the fact that some northern clubs clung to the Sheffield Rules until the mid-1870s, the FA continued to tweak its laws until there was no distinction between the two sports.