a short history of the birth of football (1936)

Copied in its entirety from the Luton Town vs Walsall programme, 7th September 1936.

By whom, and when, football, or soccer as we now call it, was first played has never been definitely decided by historians. It is one of the many games that grew out of a ball; a ball that people found enjoyment and pleasure in either kicking or passing from hand to hand. If, however, football historians are unable to inform us definitely of the birth of football, there are records, more or less authentic, which show that the Roman legions used to play a handball game, which might have been football in its primitive form.

Tradition states that football was played at Derby in AD 217 for in that year the men of Derby were supposed to have defeated a company of Roman soldiers, driving them out of town, afterwards celebrating the event by a football carnival. This developed into an annual affair, Shrove Tuesday being chosen as the day of festivity. Later on these Shrove Tuesday battles (?) ceased to be soccer carnivals, eventually becoming faction fights between the dwellers of the parishes of St. Peter’s and All Saints, at which the point of content was the bounderies of the respective parishes. The last Derby game was played in 1846.

A victory over the Danes was celebrated by a game of football, the venue being Chester, and the ball being the head of a defeated foe. In the Hareian collection of manuscripts it is recorded that: “Time out of mind it hath been the custom for the shoemakers yearly on Shrove Tuesday to deliver to the drapers, in the presence of the Mayor of Chester, at the Cross of the Rodehee, one ball of leather called a foote-ball of the value of three shillings and fourpence or above, and to play at from thence to the Common Hall of the Said City.”

In one of the early decades of the fourteenth century Edward II forbade football because of the, “evil that might arise through so many people bustling together.” However, in spite of this prohibitive measure football was still played by the common people, and sides were made up of unlimited numbers of players, whilst there were no restrictions as to tripping, hacking or charging. It was the law in those days that an opponent had to be brought down whether legitimate or otherwise, was never enquired into or remonstrations made thereon. Then, as now, there were individuals who voiced their objections to rough play. One such individual was Sir Thomas Elyot who is reported to have said, the year being 1531, “Footeball is nothing but beastlie furie and extreme violence deserving only to be put in perpetual silence.” Another critic was one named Stubbs, an outspoken historian of the Elizabethan period, who in his, ‘Anatomic of Abuses in the Realme of England,” published in 1583, said : “As concerning football playing, I proteste unto you that it may rather by called a friendlie kind of fight than a play or recreation, a blooding muthering practice than a fellowly sport or pastime.”

Another town to express its disapproval of football was Manchester, for it is recorded in the records of the Court Leet holden in the year 1608 that football be prohibited in the town under a penalty of twelve pence because of, “ye glass windows broken yearle and spoyled by a companye of lewd and disorderly persons using that unlawful exercise of playinge with ye footballe in ye streets, breakinge many windows and glasse at their pleasure and other great enormities.”

During the time of Cromwell football was severly frowned upon by the Lord Protector and his fellow Puritans, but as the Restoration, it was again indulged in, being played in all manner of places, including the streets. The game too, at this period was favoured and patronised by King Charles for it is a fact that he witnesses a match between his servants and the retinue of the Duke of Abermarle.

In the year 1793 a match was played at Sheffield which lasted over a period of three days. It commenced between six Sheffield men dressed in red and six Norton men who favoured green, but on the third day hundreds of extras joined in and gradually the match developed into a free fight.

According to Montague Sherman in his “Football History” (Badminton Library), “The game of Football is undoubtedly the oldest of all the English national sports. For at least six centuries the people have loved the rush and struggle of the rude and manly game, and kings with their edicts, devines with their sermons, scholars with their cultured scorn, and wits with their ridicule, have failed to keep the people away from the pastime they enjoyed.”

And as we trace the game of football throughout the ages we see the marvellous and extraordinary development that has occurred right up to the current period. In the infant years of 1800 football was assuming some sort of recognised form for it was played in schools, whilst clubs were formed in certain towns and cities, matches being played twice or thrice a week. It is a matter of curiosity however, that many of these matches took place in the early summer, chiefly is is safe to presume because the light allowed the game to be played when the business houses and the factories were closed. Football actually became a recognised winter sport in the early forties and progressed rapidly ending in the formation of the Football Association, which organisation gradually has placed the game on the sound footing that we know it today.