IN an age when football often seems intent on taking over the planet and commercial deals are struck that run into billions, it is often hard to believe the game that Pele once dubbed ‘beautiful’ ever had a year zero.
But it did and 1863 was that time. What is more, today 150 years ago was when everything changed with the formation in London of the Football Association.
The Freemasons’ Tavern was the venue as representatives of a handful of clubs based in London and the surrounding area met to establish a formal framework for the game.
Football had been played up and down the land throughout the Victorian era, but was awash with inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies.
No two towns, factories or schools played the same game due to the absence of a coherent rulebook or even universal use of equipment. At Winchester School, for instance, junior boys would be used as human goalposts, whereas elsewhere games might be played with just two uprights.
Restrictions on player numbers or pitch dimensions were similarly fluid, making matches between teams from even neighbouring schools impossible.
Clearly, if football was ever to graduate from the mere kickaround stage, something had to be done. And it was a Yorkshireman who set the ball rolling.
Ebenezer Cobb Morley, born in Hull but by the 1860s living in London, was the captain of Barnes FC. He was also a solicitor who passionately believed that football should copy what the MCC had done for cricket by creating a set of uniform rules. A letter he wrote to the Bell’s Life newspaper led, eventually, to the meeting of interested parties on Monday, October 26, 1863, at which football’s first governing body was formed.
Rightly regarded today as the founding father of modern football, Morley became the first secretary of the FA. In that role, he also drew up the original Laws of the Game.
Those laws, though, were very different to the game we know today. Not only were there no goalkeepers, but no referees or restrictions on either time or the number of players.
Pitches, which could be up to 200 yards long, looked very different, too, thanks to having no markings, which is why the original Laws made no mention of either penalty or corner kicks.
Hacking, holding or grappling were also perfectly legal, though anyone watching a corner taken in modern day international football may feel the game has not moved on at all in that respect over the following 150 years.
As different as that first version of the game looked, however, there can be no doubting the importance of that meeting in the Freemasons’ Tavern 150 years ago today.
For that, the billions of fans across the globe who have since followed the game owe a huge debt to the forward-thinking men of 1863 who represented the following clubs: Barnes, Civil Service, Crusaders, Forest of Leytonstone, NN (No Names) Club, the Crystal Palace, Blackheath, Kensington School, Perceval House, Surbiton and Blackheath Proprietary School.
Of course, any organisation that has been going for 150 years will have had their ups and downs. The FA – the body’s role in founding the game allows it to be known as ‘The Football Association’, as opposed to the English FA – are no different.
Heading the many, many positives is how the amateur game is administered through county FAs, who organise league and cup competitions at youth and senior level.
Maintaining and developing grass-roots structures also form an important part of the body’s remit, while the FA retain a privileged and powerful position as a member of the International FA Board (IFAB), the game’s law-making body that meets once a year to decide on possible changes. The FA have one of the eight votes, with the three other home nations having one each, and FIFA the remainder. Any law change must have at least six votes in favour.
In global terms, therefore, it is the FA’s position as one of the custodians of the game which maintains their historic influence as football’s founding father.
Sadly, on a domestic front, the same cannot be said about the professional game with power having long since passed to the Premier League clubs following the FA-led split of 1992 from the Football League.
The rivalry between the FA and League had been a major feature of the English game since the latter’s formation in 1888. Which made it truly ironic that by hijacking the League’s most lucrative members, the FA managed to weaken their own position.
It was not the first time an apparently superior attitude has come back to haunt the FA, either. The isolationist policy shown to Federations and Associations from other countries – England, for instance, did not compete in a World Cup until 1950 and English sides were initially dissuaded from playing in European competition – simply allowed the rest of the world to steal a march on the game’s inventor.
More recently, political bumbling left the FA bereft of friends at the vote to host the 2018 World Cup, an expensive bid and thousands of travelling miles securing only one additional vote to their own.
In between these huge lows there has been scandal, resignations and mistakes.
Only recently Greg Dyke’s new England Commission was allowed to dribble into the public domain and create needless controversy.
Yet to focus on the negatives – and there is plenty to go at – would be to ignore all the superb work the FA have done and continue to do. There might be a legitimate discussion to be had over whether a rebuilt Wembley, at a cost of £800m plus, was really necessary. Or why it took so long to turn a 350-acre site near Burton into the £105m St George’s Park coaching hub which may finally lift development of the English game to the levels of France and Spain.
But, as the FA rightly argue, the organisation is about so much more. In mere figures, this equates to seven million registered players, 27,000 referees, 110,000 affiliated teams and 32,000 affiliated clubs. There are also 400,000 volunteers working in a game that remains under the control of the FA, while Wembley is also expected to be debt free by 2023.
Plenty, therefore, to celebrate as the FA today reach their 150th anniversary. Not least because the sentiment of the toast before the first match played under FA rules – which took place on January 9, 1864, between Hull-born Morley’s secretary’s team and a side chosen by the president of the FA – remains as pertinent today as it was then.
“Success to football, irrespective of class or creed.”