Beastly Fury: Did the Public Schools Save the People’s Game?

by Absolute Thai Football

The annual St Andrew’s Day “Field Game” was unique to Eton, made up entirely of their old boys. This was the unlikely arena for football to get a mid nineteenth century makeover after almost dying out among the “commoners”. The pitch was roughly the size of its modern equivalent, but with no markings other than flags. The goals were less than half the size of today, had no crossbar and used a smaller and lighter ball. Half a dozen players confronted each other in the centre of the field, arms locked and bent down in a scrum, or “bully.” It was brutal combat topped with an astonishingly complex offside law, which effectively outlawed passing. Instead, players had to break through their opponents’ lines into open space.

Stoke City’s away formation raised a few eyebrows…

The basic problem with the Eton field game was the lack of goals; three were scored in a century (making even Derby County 2007 wince) although players were allowed to “shy” at goal under complex circumstances. It got more bizarre with a penalty. The ball was placed a yard from the line with the opposition packing their goal. The attackers lined up single file behind the ball and then, after a bizarre chant, gripped each other’s waists, did a war dance and then charged like battering rams towards the ball.

At the start of the nineteenth century reforming public school headmasters considered football as unfit for young gentlemen and bans were attempted. But depriving farm hands and factory workers was one thing; the aristocracy was another matter entirely. Football became accepted by the mid nineteenth century; Eton actively encouraged it from 1841 and the sport became part of an evangelical “muscular Christianity” crusade, but only as something of an outsider. The game may have only achieved a thin veneer of respectability, but at least it became a sport acceptable to the respectable classes. Football had a foothold.
In 1848 students from the top public schools met to unify football’s rules. Rose tinted glasses view the game’s evolution from this point as straightforward, but the path from the Cambridge Rules to the formation of the FA in 1863 was long and tortuous. None of the public schools showed any interest in adopting the Cambridge Code. The rules weren’t even widely used in Cambridge.
There is an assumption that public school playing fields refined this coarse game and handed it back to the working class clean and pristine to become the mass sport we know today. This is a crudely simplistic and self serving vision far from the truth.The public schools had perhaps saved football from oblivion, and provided a refuge when poor people were corralled from chapel to pub to factory, but the 1860s offered no evidence that football would take over the world. In fact the public schools were a prison that football had to escape from before it could be reborn.