Which Was The First Football Team?

pitch history
By Internet Archive Book Images [Public domain, Public domain or No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Football is one of the most popular sports in the entire world. The notion of a game involving a ball and the kicking of it for sport is almost as old as time itself. Both the ancient Greeks and the Romans played ball games that involved the use of their feet, for example.

So the question of which was the first football team is, unsurprisingly, a complex one. Many of the earliest games resembled what we now know to be rugby rather than football, so it’s helpful to narrow down our question by discussing teams that played under the various different rules that were formed over the years.

The Cambridge Rules

In England in 1848 a committee of gentlemen gathered together at Cambridge University in order to establish a code of rules for football. The rules that they came up with would be revised in part but used as the basis for association football in 1863.

The Cambridge rules were the first to ban running with the ball as well as allowing throw-ins, forward passes and goal kicks. They were used in the first place in order to put an end to the confusion that took place when people from various different public schools got together and played the game by the rules that they had become accustomed to.

In 1846, for example, H. de Winton and J.C. Thring, who were graduates of Shrewsbury School, persuaded some Old Etonians to join them and form Cambridge University Football Club. They played a couple of matches but the result was often chaos owing to the different rules being followed. Hence the establishment, two years later, of the Cambridge Rules.

Does this mean that Cambridge University Football Club were the first football team to be formed? Or does it not count because they were essentially a school club and not one formed for the entertainment of the public? To say nothing of the old fashioned rules they payed by, of course.

The Sheffield Rules

Sheffield Rules
The Sheffield Rules - By PavloFriend (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sheffield Rules are linked inextricably to Sheffield Football Club, the side that is considered by many to be the first ever football club. The club was formed in 1855 when members of Sheffield Cricket Club used to have a kick about before two members of the cricket club, named Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest, decided to organise something more official.

The club’s first meeting took place in October of 1857 and games were played between members of the club. Teams would often been drawn up by having married players take on single ones or the professionals playing against everyone else. A year after the club’s formation Creswick and Prest came up with rules by which everyone in the club would play. These were called, as you might have guessed, the Sheffield Rules.

In 1860 Hallam Football Club was formed and the two Sheffield teams played against each on a regular basis using the rules of the city. Two years later there were fifteen clubs playing their matches in the area of Sheffield, all using the Sheffield Rules. In 1867 the rules were taken on by the Sheffield Football Association when it was formed in that year.

The Football Association Rules

Origins FA
'Laws of the game' 1863 - Adrian Roebuck [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1863 the Football Association was formed in the Freemason’s Tavern in London. Between October and December of that year representatives of eleven different London based football clubs met and worked out the first version of the rules of Association Football as we know it to be today.

Nowadays these rules are known as ‘The Laws Of The Game’, but were known at the time as the London Rules. They were readily adopted by London clubs and teams based in the South of England, whilst clubs in the North were more inclined to continue to use the Sheffield Rules.

Despite joining the Football Association in 1863, Sheffield FC continued to use their own set of rules when they played their games. In 1865 they played a team from Nottingham and used the Nottingham rules, playing eighteen-a-side. The following year a team representing Sheffield as a city played against a team representing London, but the teams from Sheffield still wanted to play by their own rules.

In 1867 the London Committee decided that they would no longer play games against Sheffield teams unless they adopted the London Rules, but Sheffield FC held out until 1878 before finally succumbing and taking on the rules of the London Football Association.

The First Team

offside
1901 Sheffield United Team - See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What has all this wrangling over rules got to do with the first ever football team? Well, which team you consider to be the first really depends on whether you think the type of rules they were playing is important when considering whether or not they were actually a football team.

When the Sheffield XI went up against the London team in 1866, for example, they won by two goals and four touchdowns to nil, so were they actually playing football? If so then The Football Club, formed in Edinburgh in 1824, might well stake a claim as the first football club in the United Kingdom, even though it played rules that are more commonly associated with rugby.

Notts County, which was formed in 1862, is considered to be the oldest Association Football club anywhere in the world. They can make this claim because Sheffield FC were an amateur club, whereas Notts County were professional. Though they played their own rules initially, they adopted the London Rules quicker than their Sheffield rivals, too.

So there you have it. Which team lays claim to being the ‘first’ is a matter of some debate. Sheffield FC are considered to be the world’s oldest as far as both FIFA and the FA are concerned, so maybe that should be good enough for the rest of us? After all, we weren’t around to see the type of rules the different teams played the game by, so who are we to argue?