Sheffield Football, Rugby and the Origins of Soccer

Over the past two decades a vigorous debate has been taking place about the relationship between modern soccer and earlier versions of football as played in the mid-1800s. The self-styled ‘revisionists’, inspired by the work of John Goulstone and Adrian Harvey, have argued that it was football played in Sheffield in the late 1850s and 1860s that was the true originator of modern soccer, and that the Football Association was at best marginal to the development of association football. 

My latest article ‘Early Football and the Emergence of Modern Soccer, c. 1840–1880’ has just been published by the International Journal of the History of Sport. It looks at both sides in the debate and argues that the revisionists and their opponents have failed to understand that the modern division between the different codes did not fully emerge until the 1870s. In this extract, I examine the claim that the rules of football played in Sheffield was independent of developments in the public schools and were the embryo of modern soccer.


"In his Football’s Secret History, John Goulstone has asserted that ‘there is little about the Sheffield code to suggest a significant influence from the elite schools’, because ‘none [of the first Sheffield clubs] had public school alumni as their driving force’. Adrian Harvey too has argued ‘against any decisive public school involvement’ in the development of the Sheffield code of rules. 

The fact that no-one involved in the formation of Sheffield FC appears to have attended a public school does not mean that its founders were not influenced by the public schools. As Harvey notes, the Sheffield club was ‘a socially elite institution’ with many privately-educated members. Emulation of those they perceive to be their social superiors has long been a defining characteristic of the British middle-classes and sport was no exception to this. 

Moreover, the club’s founders would have been well aware of the debates taking place among public school-educated footballers thanks to the popularity of Bell’s Life, The Field and other sporting newspapers of the time. Indeed, two leading members, Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest, wrote to the leading public schools to obtain copies of their football rules. Harvey’s claim that the absence of public school influence is demonstrated by the fact that the 1858 Sheffield rules lacked an offside rule - unlike any public school football code - is also mistaken. Tom Wills, one of the originators of the Australian Rules code of football in 1859, was an old boy of Rugby School yet the game he pioneered had no offside rule at all. 

In fact, when we examine the text of Sheffield FC’s first written rules of 1858 we find a considerable degree of public school influence. Harvey has stated that he could find ‘no evidence that the Sheffield club’s early rules were derived from examining the codes of various public schools’, but the reality is very different. We can see this by comparing the wording of Sheffield rules to those, in brackets, of a leading English public school:

1. Kick off from the middle must be a place kick. [vi. Kick off from middle must be a place.]

2. Kick out must not be from more than twenty five yards out of goal. [vii. Kick out must not be from more than ten yards our of goal if a place-kick, not more than twenty-five yards if a punt, drop or knock on.]

3. Fair catch is a catch direct from the foot of the opposite side and entitles

a free kick. [i. Fair catch is a catch direct from the foot.]

4. Charging is fair in case of a place kick, with the exception of kick off, as soon as a player offers to kick, but may always draw back unless he has actually touched the ball with his foot. [ix. Charging is fair in case of a place kick, as soon as the ball has touched the ground.]

The rules quoted in brackets are from the 1845 Laws of Football Played at Rugby School

The links between Sheffield’s written rules and those of Rugby School go much deeper. Sheffield’s rule eight, forbidding the ball from being picked up from the ground, was commonly used by rugby clubs and appears in the consolidated 1862 Rugby School rules. And, as rule three makes clear, the Sheffield was not a purely kicking game but allowed the ball to be handled if it was caught on the full in a ‘fair catch’, a term still in use in American football but which became known as a ‘mark’ in rugby and Australian rules. 

Rule nine, allowing a bouncing ball to be stopped by the hand, is a variation on the Rugby School rule of allowing a bouncing ball to be caught. Rule ten, ‘No goal may be kicked from touch, nor by free kick from a fair catch,’ is based on rule five 1845 Rugby School rules, which also allow a goal to be scored from a fair catch. 

Rule eleven of Sheffield FC defines when a ball is in touch and how it should be returned to play. This too uses the same wording as Rugby’s consolidated 1862 rules, with the exception that a rugby player was also allowed to throw the ball in to himself. Even Sheffield’s rule six, prohibiting the ball being ‘knocked on’ with the hand and penalising it with a free kick, appears with slightly different wording in rule eleven of the consolidated Rugby rules of 1862. 

Only Sheffield’s rules five and seven, forbidding pushing, hacking, tripping, holding or pulling a player over, have no link with Rugby School rules. This may possibly suggest that they objected to the roughness of the Rugby game. But this was also true of many of the adult clubs that adopted Rugby’s rules, many of whom banned hacking and tripping. To make the claim, as Harvey and Peter Swain do, that the first ‘Sheffield rules can be described as markedly anti-Rugby in form’, is therefore simply mistaken. 

However, this is not to suggest that Sheffield football was a version of the Rugby School game or that its origins were rugby-based. As Gavin Kitching has pointed out, it is extraordinarily hard to envisage how games were played by merely reading a rulebook or a newspaper report. Rather, it emphasises the complexity of the ‘primordial soup’ of early codes of football and the impossibility of drawing a direct connecting line from these early sets of rules to modern soccer and rugby codes. Historians cannot simply put a tick or a minus against individual rules and then grade each according to how neatly it fits today’s conceptions of football. Like the versions of football played in Nottingham, Lincoln and elsewhere across Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, Sheffield’s code borrowed elements from public school football rules, local games and its members’ own preferences about how to play the most entertaining game as they perceived it at the time. 

Indeed, the rules of football as played in Nottingham in the 1860s and 1870s may have been closer to modern soccer than those of the Sheffield game. As Andrew Dawes has discovered, local Nottingham rules appear to have forbidden any handling of the ball whatsoever by outfield players. This became an issue when Sheffield FC visited Nottingham because of Sheffield’s acceptance of limited handling and catching of the ball. But, reinforcing the futility of drawing direct links between early rules and modern football, rugby-style hacking seems to have been acceptable in the Nottingham game.

The belief that Sheffield carried the torch that led to modern soccer is further complicated by the fact that Sheffield FC also continued to play games under rugby rules until at least the late 1860s. In 1864 they played home and away matches against Leeds rugby club using ‘rules [that] were of a mongrel type, neither rugby nor association’, according to Leeds’ founder J.G Hudson. In 1868 they played against Manchester, losing the rugby match by one goal and eight touchdowns to nil but winning the home game by two rouges to nil. In 1870 five Sheffield FC players even appeared in the Yorkshire county rugby team that played Lancashire at Leeds in the first-ever rugby Roses Match.

Contrary to the beliefs of the revisionists, Sheffield was not a bastion of soccer purity uninfluenced by the public schools. Its use of Eton’s rouge, allowing the ball to ball to be handled, its effectively non-existent off-side law, and the similarity of a number of its rules to those of Rugby School demonstrate that its game was an intricate melange of old, new and borrowed ideas about how to play an enjoyable game of football.

This is not to say that Sheffield football had no impact on the development of the game that came to be known as soccer - but there is no evidence to support the claim that Sheffield either saved or created modern association football."