early football

“Football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans. Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”

My Sports Master – Eric Shirley

On December 19th 1863 the very first game of football played under Football Association rules took place at Limes Field, Mortlake, between Barnes FC and Richmond FC.

It was a goalless draw.

Richmond FC sloped off home, decided that football wasn’t for them and went back to playing rugby instead, a much more civilised and organised game in their view.

Richmond FC was right. In 1863 football wasn’t organised at all. An indeterminate number of players would assemble on a pitch of indeterminate size and knock a ball of indeterminate shape around for an indeterminate length of time until someone scored a goal or ‘touch-down’ or whatever it happened to be called that day. Some preferred the “handling game” which was a bit like rugby but with more kicking while others favoured the “dribbling game” which was a bit like rugby but without all that handling. Between the two of them there was chaos.

EC Morley

The man who came to sort them all out was a solicitor from Barnes called Ebenezer Cobb Morley. He was born in Hull in 1831, moved to Brentford in 1853 and on to Barnes in 1858. Ebenezer was the son of a congregational minister and a firm believer in “Muscular Christianity”, the Victorian concept of “faith through fitness and fitness though faith”. He was also a keen sportsman and in 1862 helped form Barnes Football Club. Although they were newly formed and inexperienced Barnes FC was described at the time as “a live proposition boasting a big membership.”

In November 1862 they played against Richmond FC. As there were no effective rules to speak of it was decided that the winner of the game would be the first team to score two goals. Barnes did this is just 20 minutes and that was the end of that match. At least Cliff Richard wasn’t around to get up and start singing “Congratulations!” A return game was played in December 1862 on Richmond Green (even though the only games allowed on the green at the time were cricket and bowls) but the heavy rain had turned the pitch into a mud bath. It was noted that the 400-500 spectators enjoyed seeing the players falling over, in particular the many ladies present. Play was further inconvenienced by the various paths crossing the pitch. Barnes won the game again with a single goal from Mr Gregory who…

“…made a neat catch about 15 yards exactly in front of the Richmond base and after making his mark scored with a drop kick.”

Do you see a problem here? Football with drop kicks?

Ebenezer Cobb Morley was a fair player himself. After a match against Forest FC in March 1863 the newspaper “Bell’s Life” noted that “Mr Morley was a pretty and most effective dribbler…we cannot abstain from saying that the play of …Mr Morley of Barnes FC elicted great applause from the spectators of whom there were a large number present.”

Having had firsthand experience of the many disagreements that came from playing a game without an agreed set of rules Ebenezer and friends decided in October 1863 to form an ‘association of football clubs’ with a common set of laws. They first put their proposal to the great public schools that dominated the game of rugby. Charterhouse, Harrow and Westminster replied unenthusiastically. Rugby and Winchester did not reply at all. Undeterred, on October 26th1863, Ebenezer and his colleagues met at the Freemason’s Tavern, in Great Queen Street, Holborn and set up the Football Association.

Their early rules were markedly different from those of the modern game. Players were allowed to catch the ball and be granted a free kick, but they were not allowed to carry the ball or pass it by hand. The goals were two upright posts and ‘goals’ could be kicked in at any height. There was also a simple “offside rule” that balls could only be passed backwards – similar to the rule in rugby. This encouraged ‘dribbling’ and a strategy of keeping players behind the man in possession and ‘backing-up’ the ball if he lost it. The teams also changed ends every time a goal was scored.

The rules were hotly debated and eventually tidied up. The “catching rule” was abolished and in Rule IV goals could only be scored “between the posts and under the tape.” The first prototype set of goalposts with a crossbar had arrived.

The first match under “FA rules” was played on 19th December 1863 between Richmond FC and Barnes FC at Limes Field in Barnes. This game had 15 players on each side. It was reported that the game “was distinguished by no disputes about the rules.” Barnes had 6 “tries at goal” but failed to score on each occasion. After 1½ hours the game was declared a draw.

Richmond FC went home, not overly excited by their experience of the ‘dribbling game’, and went back to rugby, the preferred sport of many of their members. They continued playing on Richmond Green but, hampered by the narrowing of the pitch at one end and the paths crossing the green, they moved in 1873 to Richmond Town Cricket Club, now called Richmond Athletic Ground. Rugby is still played there today.

The influence of the Football Association spread with more clubs joining and as they did the rules continued to evolve. On 31st March 1866 a match was played at Battersea between Sheffield FC and a representative London side. Played under FA rules there were some now familiar additions:-

  • The teams had to be eleven a side.
  • The ground had to be 120 yards by 80 wide.
  • The ball to be a Lillywhite’s no. 5
  • The match had to commence at 3.00pm and end at 4.30pm

For all this the “History of the Football Association 1953” reports a distinctly ‘non-football’ score:- that London won by “two goals and four touchdowns” even though the FA rules clearly stated that goals must be ‘kicked’. Ebenezer, who had drafted the rules, scored one of the goals. The following year he was appointed President of the FA.

Ebenezer Cobb Morley died in 1924 at the age of 93 and was buried in Barnes Old Cemetery. A keen oarsman, he had founded the Barnes and Mortlake Regatta for which he was secretary. He also kept a pack of foot beagles and hunted for over 50 years with the Surrey Union Foxhounds. When he wasn’t doing all of that he found time to represent Barnes on the Surrey County Council from 1903 to 1919.

The year of Ebenezer’s death, 1924, was also the year of the Paris Olympics. Football was by then a truly international sport and provided over 1/3rd of the Games’ income. The 1924 Games also signalled the first participation in a major championship of a team from South America, a continent which would provide the main competition to Europe from that moment on. In the U.K football was entering its 50th season, with 88 teams playing across 4 divisions.
I suspect that Ebenezer Cobb Morley, solicitor, sportsman and father of Modern Football died a satisfied man to the sound of cheers.

“I don’t know much about football. I know what a goal is, which is surely the main thing about football.”

Victoria Beckham

Much of the information in this article came from “The Wow Factor — how Soccer evolved within the social web” by John Blythe Smart. If you are interested in the history of the beautiful game this is essential reading.

— from Martyn Day