It is easy to imagine Heeley Parish Church in any archetypal English rural setting; the neat stone structure of the small church and its boundary wall, the uneven ground of its surrounding graveyard packed with a jumble of well-preserved grey headstones guarded over by diminutive oaks, hollies and hawthorns all whispering ‘quaint’. The roads immediately surrounding the church are often very quiet and just a Sunday peal of the church bells completes the impression of a countryside idyll.
Heeley Parish was once a collection of small villages, one of the many outlying communities enveloped within Sheffield’s boundaries as the city rapidly began to expand in the latter years of the 19th century. Now Heeley is very much of Sheffield, the busy Chesterfield Road a short downhill stride away, takes you to the city centre in a matter of minutes. Sheffield has many vantage points and Heeley’s environs provides one such; the expansive view from the road below the church takes in much of the south of the city, the distant moors, the turquoise of the nearby mosque and lots and lots of urban greenspace - another one of Sheffield’s hallmarks. But today I am looking down, not up, here at the name of someone who has some small connection, via a long convoluted path, to a scar on my wrist, but this I do not mind him for.
This man, his companions and these parts, played a key role in the cultural history of the world. It still comes as a surprise to some, how influential Sheffield was in the development of the game of association football in this country and by definition the game the world recognises today. Sheffield is my adopted home so I was not raised or schooled here; I wonder if it is something local children are told of in school? Sheffield doesn’t seem to shout about it. Manchester is the city where you will find the National Football Museum celebrating the history of football in England; visiting there one of the first exhibits likely to catch your eye is an 8 foot x 10 foot Michael Browne canvas featuring Manchester United icons Eric Cantona and several of the ‘class of ’92’ youngsters painted adoringly in renaissance style. It kind of gives you the impression that if Manchester were the pioneers then Manchester would shout about it. Despite its utterly unique place in the history of football, Sheffield for good or bad behaves differently. Being the birthplace of club football kind of slips under the radar here.
On 24 October 1857 the world’s first football club was founded. It was called Sheffield Foot Ball Club, the middle two words staying separate for the first few years, and was defined by a set of governance rules which refer to ‘the Club’, a nickname which is still in use by Sheffield FC, as the Sheffield Foot Ball Club is calledtoday. The Club’s first home ground was a playing field at Olive Grove, a short walk from Heeley Parish Church. In 1858 a set of standardised rules for how the game was to be played (the ‘Sheffield Rules’) was agreed and committed to paper. The rules were designed to define a game distinct from the carrying ball games common to English public schools, although some handling of the ball was still permitted. Being the world's first club, club members played games amongst themselves in formats such as "married men vs. unmarried men", or "surnames at the beginning of the alphabet vs. surnames at the end of the alphabet". The world’s second football club, Hallam FC, was founded in 1860 and in December of that year Hallam FC’s Sandygate ground (the world’s oldest football ground in continuous use) saw the world’s first inter-club football match. The Sheffield Football Association (SFA) was formed in 1867 playing by and promoting the Sheffield Rules, which also spread beyond Sheffield’s city boundaries to be eagerly taken up by more emerging new clubs playing the game in and around Sheffield. In the same year the Youdan Cup, football’s first ever cup competition was played in Sheffield under the Sheffield Rules and won by Hallam FC.
In 1863 the Sheffield Club made contact with the Football Association in London, a loose federation founded that year of clubs in the London area playing a form of football, but not unified by an agreed code. A copy of the Sheffield Rules was sent for consideration in relation to the different draft code recently published by the FA. The FA did not immediately respond, with the result that the game was played with one set of laws in South Yorkshire and another in London, a situation which continued for several years, the London Association even refusing offers to play inter-Association games on the basis that the Sheffieldwas continuing to play to its own code. The SFA proved to be an influential body but as the London-based FA grew and innovations such as the FA Challenge Cup and international fixtures with teams from Scotland developed, the south’s claim to primacy grew. The SFA eventually affiliated but was still strong in pushing forward consideration of the Sheffield Rules. A less closed attitude was now afforded by the London Association to the positive changes the Sheffield Rules could bring. In 1872, a proposal by the Sheffield Association which describes a free kick to be taken from the corner flag in the event of the defending team kicking the ball over the bar of their own goal (a corner kick) was adopted into the general rules agreed by the London Association. In 1877 a final set of rules promulgated by the London Association was accepted country-wide after several innovations within the Sheffield Rules had been incorporated and other features of the way the game was played in Sheffield were also taken up. Thus Sheffield ensured football had the use of referees, the cross bar, penalty kicks, the indirect free kick, throw-ins taken by the side which did not put the ball out of play, free kicks for a handball. This latter rule from the Sheffield game was a likely contributory factor in the development of the skill of heading as a way of avoiding handling and thus being penalised. It is also believed by some, although no definitive evidence is available, that Sheffield introduced the concept of the goalkeeper as a speciality position.
Sheffield, the world’s first, a football city, a pioneering city. If you are interested and know where to look or happen to catch Football Focus or Flog It when they are featuring this aspect of football’s history you can be let into this glorious story but it can otherwise pass you by. Association Football is here and now and in your face. Football in one form or another has been played for centuries and across the continents, so an organised, codified sport was always going to develop and as such was always going to start somewhere. Each strand of footballing time and place would inevitably run like a tributary, forging its own path and creating its own legend, but it will always owe something to its source; whatever has happened in the world of organised club football is in the context of Sheffield’s legacy. We may well have experienced the very same A – Z from Aberdeen FC’s glory under the Ferguson era to the 2006 film Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle, via all manner of football events and concepts such as the Bert Trautmann’s neck, the Copa Libertadores, the W-M formation, Xazar Lankaran FC and yellow cards, had it begun in another time and place. But maybe not.
And what of football in Sheffield these days?
What you find in Sheffield FC, 158 years after its formation, is a club that is not just a survivor. Even a cursory glance at the club’s website will show how it supports a large number of teams and social projects. The First Team is in the Northern Premier League First Division South and the current home ground is in Dronfield on the outskirts of Sheffield. The Ladies First Team has won six league titles in the last eight seasons, gaining promotion to the FA Women's Super League for the 2016 season. The Sheffield FC website (www.sheffieldfc.com) is also an ideal place to visit for an online football history and heritage journey.
Sheffield FC is one of only two clubs to have received a FIFA Order of Merit (the other being Real Madrid). Its 150th birthday saw an exhibition match at Bramall Lane (home of Sheffield United FC) against Inter Milan played in front of a crowd of over 18,000 with special guests including Pele. But you get the impression that support and an easy ride do not fall into Sheffield FC’s lap; the club cannot rely solely on its USP to thrive. Hard work, even sacrifice, must be applied. In 2011 the original association football rulebook handwritten in 1857 was sold at auction for over £800,000 to provide much needed financial security for Sheffield FC. The recent crowdfunding campaign by Sheffield FC to help fund a move back to its original home at Olive Grove, tagged #theworldfirst campaign, attracted support from 1,441 people and raised pledges of over £35,000. The hope is to build a stadium and museum there to cement the heritage back home.
Hallam FC continues to play at Sandygate and the team are currently in the Northern Counties East League Division One, two tiers below Sheffield FC, who they often meet in pre-season friendlies.
The general populous are likely to be more aware of Sheffield’s two professional teams even considering that their recent respective years have been unspectacular in terms of league football. Despite Sheffield United (the ‘Blades’) scoring the first goal in English football’s most recent ‘innovation’ the Premier League, courtesy of Blades legend Brian Deane, they, ‘we’ (they are my team), may appear to the pessimistic fan to be doing their best to stay in League One forever. That’s the third tier. Sheffield’s other league club, Sheffield Wednesday, are faring better having settled back into the Championship (second tier) following their own visits further down the league pyramid. There have been exciting cup semi-finals appearances in the very recent past but between them the clubs have won just 9 cup competitionssince their respective 19th century inceptions, and only one of these is post-war (Sheffield Wednesday won the League Cup in 1991). The modern football era here among fans of the two teams is not often about celebration, it is often more ‘grumble’ than ‘praise’. But regardless of form or fortune, football is a Sheffield fixture and those vantage points mentioned before will afford you birds eye views of the two city stadia; try the footbridge over Park Grange Road (grid reference SK363857) to see Bramall Lane or the top of Parkwood Springs for Hillsborough (park at car park grid reference SK353895 and walk through the woods).
Sheffield is also the home of a pioneering campaign organisation, Football Unites Racism Divides (FURD – see www.furd.org), which was formed in 1995. It operates as an educational charity and a social inclusion project and is a founding member of the FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) network of anti-racist organisations. FURD has been instrumental in raising the profile of Arthur Wharton, the first black professional footballer who had a brief spell at Sheffield United and supporting the headstone campaign to recognise Rabbi Howell, the first Romani professional player, also of Sheffield United (see www.theevergreen.co.uk).
Small signs of Sheffield’s legacy are here and there; the graphic T-Shirt company Goal Soul was created in Sheffield and some designs celebrate Sheffield’s place in football’s history, (see www.goalsoul.net). Bramall Lane boasts a plaque proclaiming in 1878 it staged the first ever floodlit game. But Sheffield continues to hold its unique place in football history perhaps not loudly enough to gain the plaudits it deserves, maybe that’s not Sheffield’s way.
And as brief aside, despite much of men’s football history elbowing women’s football into the background at best and into illegality and oblivion at worst (that’s a whole other essay) it too is a product of all that has gone before and those who play or watch women’s football may well have had initiation through the Sheffield-born men’s game.
My own personal football tributary has seen me have my heart lifted and broken many times by my nation (men’s and women’s game) and my team (men’s game) and my wrist broken while keeping goal (women’s game), now marked by a football-borne scar.
Nathaniel Creswick, a Sheffield-born solicitor from a family of silver-plate manufacturers, and his friend William Prest, versatile and competent sportspeople both, were the two who hit on the idea of forming a football club and codifying its rules, allegedly while ruminating on how to keep fit during the cricket close season and how to further develop the local sports facilities such as at Bramall Lane’s cricket club. At Parkfield House, just off Bramall Lane, their October 1857 innovations were born. William Prest is buried in Sheffield’s General Cemetery and you can look upon Nathaniel Creswick’s name, inscribed on his family tombstone sitting both grand yet unobtrusive near the entrance to Heeley Parish Church in its quiet and homely graveyard looked upon by the small trees and the distant moors.