The game of football is the only truly global sport: played everywhere by everyone irrespective of social class. Before I go any further let’s be clear: we are talking here, as the name suggests, about a game played with the feet. If you run with the ball or hold it in your hands it is no longer a game played with the feet and should therefore be not be called football, if you insist on using the word then you should at least have the decency to qualify it as “rugby football” or “Aussie rules” or “American football.” This of course is blind prejudice on my part, but I come from the Home of Football – Sheffield – so you’ll have to excuse me. We have no great traditions of other versions of the game here. To a traditionalist it is quite simple: football is the winter game, cricket is the summer game.
Back in the mid 1800s there were many different games around Britain calling themselves “foot-ball,” most of which involved some sort of catching, but then some clever chaps from round these parts, William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick, saw sense and applied the logic to the words ‘foot’ and ‘ball’ and wrote the Sheffield rules to codify the game they loved and restricted handling and hacking in order to civilise the sport. These rules were the precursor to the modern game, and Sheffield worked with, and had great influence over, the nascent Football Association. (By the way “Aussie rules” was based on the Sheffield rules originally: another Creswick, a relative, having taken them with him to Aus.)
The game was further refined and the fair catch abolished: making it a game played solely with the feet: except for the goalkeeper. Another Sheffield invention – designated goalkeepers (however, in the 1970s in the local parks we still allowed the old rule of anyone who was back could be the goalie – the “goalie’s wag” rule – as it is properly called).
The following things we associate with the game were also “Made in Sheffield”:
- corner flags
- corner kicks
- goal kicks from 6 yards of the goal
- indirect free kicks
- the rule that players must not encroach within a set distance of a free-kick
- throw ins
- tape to limit the height of the goal (this refinement was first suggested by the Sheffield FA) – later replaced by the crossbar.
- change of ends at half time
- forward passes: imagine the game without the attacking play that allowed!
- headers: the first observed account of headed balls was by Sheffield player
That’s only the start of Sheffield’s claim to be the spiritual home of the game. Other firsts:
- the first football club was Sheffield F.C. formed in 1857 (they are still going in the 8th tier of English football).
- not a first but a second was Hallam F.C. formed in 1860 (now in the 10th tier)
- Hallam F.C’s ground, Sandygate, is the oldest football ground in the world in continuous use. It hosted the first inter-club game, naturally between the two first clubs on the 26th December 1860.
- the first football trophy – the Youdan Cup – won by Hallam F.C. in 1867
- cup draws from a hat with the home team drawn first
- the concept of cup-tied players
- the first away games: Sheffield F.C. making use of those new-fangled railways to travel to Lincoln and Nottingham
- the first inter-county fixtures: 1871 versus London, 1872 versus Derbyshire, 1874 versus Glasgow
- neutral officials including a referee
- the first use by a referee of a whistle
- shin pads
- regular football columns in newspapers
- turnstiles (believed to be a first at Bramall Lane in 1872)
- speaking of Beautiful Downtown Bramall Lane, as it is often known, it has the claim to be the oldest professional football ground or the world’s oldest major football stadium
- charity and benefit matches
- floodlit matches: the first was at Bramall Lane in October 1878
- the first inter-schools trophy - the Clegg Shield (the 125th Clegg Shield final took place on 6th May 2014)
- the first Saturday evening sports paper in 1907 – it soon became dubbed “The Green ’Un” – imaginatively called, the paper it was printed on being green. A sign of the times, it now exists solely as an “app,” not the Saturday tea-time staple it once was
- the first football phone-in – some say it was invented in 1986 by Robert Jackson, a former BBC Radio Sheffield presenter/producer as the “Grumble Spot” but developed into “Praise or Grumble” – though it must be conceded that the current state of football in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire means it carries more grumbles than praises. However, this might not be the first. There was an earlier football phone-in on Radio Hallam, Sheffield’s commercial station in the 1970s. “Praise or Grumble” is the reason you won’t hear many South Yorkshire fans on the upstart Radio 5 Live programme 606: we know ours is much better and covers the only really important stuff – why would we want to hear about southerners going on about their faux attraction to North Western clubs all the time?
No doubt this still comes as a shock to some people. Surely it was England’s great public schools that invented the game? The evidence does not support that. Clearly they made attempts to codify some sort of “foot-ball” in the early part of the 19th century but it was in Sheffield that the first football sub-culture grew, and it was the Sheffield rules that had the greatest influence over the modern game. James Walvin in his book The People’s Game suggests that the “Sheffield Club was established under the influence of Old Harrovians who persuaded local village footballers not to handle the ball, allegedly by providing the players with white gloves and florins to clutch during the game.” Such myths are just history being written by the victors yet again (this time the victors in the class struggle who can’t abide the thought of a grubby unfashionable place having given birth to the beautiful game). You only need to think about it to realise what utter nonsense it is: a Sheffielder wearing white gloves? – to play football?? – holding in his hands half a week’s wages??? They would have just kept running and gone down the pub laughing at the chinless wonders from Harrow.
There is plenty of evidence that football was played in and around Sheffield as a folk game with limited external influence from posh schools in the south. It is likely that these folk games were the inspiration of the Sheffield game. Of course Sheffield can’t claim the sole credit – the game developed like many great inventions through collaboration, but its claim to be the cradle of the modern game is, without question, greater than anywhere else.
Given such a strong claim to be home of football it is a source of sadness that both Sheffield league clubs currently under-perform so consistently. Sheffield United is the most under-performing club in the country if you compare support over the years with trophies. (Please don’t dismiss this as a whinge – stick with it, there is a thread – I know supporters of many clubs would love to have watched such cup runs and occasional promotions; I am merely making factual observations.) Last season, average Sheffield United attendances in league and cup were 19,800: and that in England’s third tier. When in the 2nd tier they had average attendances of25,000. The last major trophy they won was beyond living memory: the FA Cup in 1925. Sheffield Wednesday in England’s second tier maintained gates averaging 22,000 last season despite it being uninspiring. They have had had slightly more recent success: the League Cup in 1991, and the FA Cup in 1935. But they still probably rank as the second most under-performing club.
All very peculiar. Perhaps I am on a hiding to nothing if I try to makes sense of this. (And, please, don’t anyone mention that old chestnut about the Sheffield clubs needing to merge, or that Sheffield is not big enough to support two teams. People who say that just betray their lack of understanding: in this case one plus one would not equal two. And Sheffield is much bigger than Burnley, Bolton and Blackburn combined; bigger than Liverpool). It could be just a historical blip and will in time be rectified. (Maybe this season is the start of the re-birth? Recent financial backing for both the big Sheffield clubs holds out the promise of a new dawn; but then we have seen so many false dawns and it is the curse of every football fan to dare to dream at the start of each new season.) Or is Sheffield’s footballing malaise something deeper? Does it share a common root with why Sheffield gets overlooked so often by the nation and has done over many years? The same reasons that Government and other money, if it ever trickles out of London, heads to places like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. Evidence, for example, the BBC relocation, the bias of regional broadcasters against unfashionable Sheffield (Leeds based BBC Look North is very sloppy in its coverage of the region it is supposed to represent), National Museums funding – including the National Football Museum!!! (And, before I move off the subject of the National Football Museum, it has far too little recognition of the role Sheffield played in the development of the game: Sheffield FC are listed in the Hall of Fame, but not William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick. No Ernest Needham or the great JC Clegg, no Derek Dooley, no Ernie Blenkinsop, or Billy Gillespie. How so?) Perhaps in this same way football money or interest has never flowed into the city. When Sheffield United were last in the Premier League in 2006/7 their fans always seemed to have to wait until the last slot of Match of the Day to see their team, irrespective of the quality of the game: as if there were resentment that they were there at all. When United (the original one: Sheffield) play the third United (Manchester) the commentators can never get out of their habit of referring to United when they mean Manchester United. In the early 1990s when these two Uniteds played against each other in the FA Cup, the lowly Sheffield upstarts were criticised (rather than congratulated) by commentators for stopping Manchester playing their usual style of football.
Sheffield has long suffered from being an unfashionable place: most of the time its residents don’t care, they just get on with it: after all “it is them that don’t know what they’re missing.” Sheffield just gets on with things: in 2011 when the rest of England were rioting, Sheffield was the only large town that had no problems. They didn’t bother 30 odd years ago either when Toxteth was in flames. After all what is the point?
Perhaps just sometimes Sheffielders need to be a bit less chilled and shout a bit louder to be given their due. Perhaps they should stop being quietly proud in their Sheffield way and should shout about their football heritage a bit more loudly. There should have been one hell of a stink kicked up when that original rule book went up for sale and was sold to Qatar. It should have had an export bar put on it by the Government, it shouldhave been saved for the Nation, for Sheffield, like Benjamin Brittan’s draft score of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was. Every football fan in the world should speak of Sheffield in hushed tones and have Sandygate on their list of places to go before they die. If Liverpool had done for the game what Sheffield has, you would never hear the last of it: there would be monuments and museums, heritage trails, memorabilia, open topped bus tours etc. etc. As John Lennon said, The Beatles may have been more popular than Jesus Christ. But football must be a thousand times more popular than the Beatles.