Beastly Fury: Passing Football Back to the Working Classes

by Absolute Thai Football


Simmering class tensions paralyzed progress towards a unified set of rules. In 1868 The Field complained how the FA committee “could only boast of two public school men,” but this allowed London more scope for a common code than Cambridge. Free of public school prejudices, their problem was they lacked authority. The game’s laws hadn’t developed and FA rules were largely ignored. There was no crossbar or tape, a shot of any height between the posts was a goal, touchdowns remained followed by a form of conversion and forward passing remained outlawed.


In these muddled times, progress came from Sheffield. Instead of public schoolboys, Sheffield Football Club was formed by a provincial elite of steel men. Whilst football was struggling, most Victorians were poor, so there were plenty of people people to play. It is no coincidence that Britain’s first modern football culture outside London emerged in a city so close to the folk game’s heartlands.

Public schools, whether they acknowledged it or not, cross fertilized with the old rustic sport. Many public schoolboys had already played football in their home villages and the sport was common at middle class grammar and prep schools. It was from this mix that the game in Sheffield emerged, rather than being handed down by Old Harrovians to local peasants. The Sheffield game resembled the public school sport, but without offsides. One was later introduced requiring the attacker to have the goalkeeper between him and the goal, but this was a big moment for football.

Sheffield’s competitive advantage over London was the unquestioning acceptance of its rules by all its teams, allowing the game to evolve quickly. The use of hands died out faster here and Sheffield pioneered the use of corners, free kicks and crossbars.
By the 1860s football in Sheffield was filtering down from the social elite. Suggestions of compensation for players missing work through football injuries indicated working class involvement and hinted at professionalism.

Thomas Youdan was the marketing magician. Whilst the rich saw commoners only as pools of labour, Youdan saw a market segment. He organised Britain’s first non public school cup competition and, in 1867, 3,000 people paid to watch Hallam beat Norfolk in a rather odd final where three teams played each other in rotation to decide the winner. He understood that leisure time was something people were prepared to pay to enjoy.


When Sheffield’s delegate trekked down to London in 1867 for the FAs AGM only six people turned up. But his fierce loyalty to the FA and his passionate letter detailing the game’s advances in Sheffield boosted the beleaguered association just when they needed it.
Rather than filtering down through the classes from public school to public park, the game flowed down from the north through satellite cities and arrived on London doorsteps in rude health. The marketing and public relations skills of northern industrialists had created a streamlined, coherent sport invigorated and progressive. Football would never look back.