KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Football fans able to travel back through time would hardly recognise the first match played under the ‘modern’ laws as first drawn up by the newly-founded Football Association in 1863.
Football had been growing in popularity among private schools and colleges but matches were chaotic. The number of players was not determined and enthusiasts disagreed about preferring the “handling game” to the “dribbling game”.
A leading light in moves to bring order to chaos was a lawyer from Barnes, in south-east London, named Ebenezer Cobb Morley. He had moved to London from his native Hull in 1831 and was a firm believer in the concept of ‘muscular Christianity’.
In 1862 Morley was one of the founders of his local Barnes Football Club. Regular squabbles over match rules led him to write to Bell’s Life, a popular newspaper, suggesting that football should have a set of laws, following an example already set by cricket.
His letter led to the first historic meeting at the Freemasons’ Tavern in Great Queen Street on the evening of Monday, October 26, 1863.
The captains, secretaries and other members of a dozen London region clubs met “for the purpose of forming an Association with the object of establishing a definite code of rules for the regulation of the game.” Morley was elected secretary.
Six meetings were needed before agreement was reached on the original Laws of the Game. The most divisive issue was ‘hacking’ [deliberate kicking of an opponent].
Morley said: “If we have hacking, no one who has arrived at the age of discretion will play at football, and it will be left entirely to the school boys.” A decisive meeting was held on December 8 at which ‘hacking’ was banned.
Other rules would surprise a 21st century player:
There was no crossbar and a goal could be scored at any height;
throw-ins were awarded to the first team who touched the ball after it went out of play;
if the ball went over the goal-line and a member of the attacking side touched it first they were rewarded with a free kick up to 15 yards away otherwise it was a goal-kick;
anyone in front of the player who kicked the ball was to be adjudged offside; and
players were allowed to catch the ball and upon making a mark with their heel were given a free kick if it had been caught cleanly without a bounce.
An inaugural game using the new FA Rules was initially scheduled for Battersea Park on January 2, 1864, but impatient members of the FA could not wait so an experimental game was played at Limes Field, Mortlake, on December 19, 1863, between Morley’s Barnes and neighbours and regular opponents Richmond.
Concessions were made to Richmond who were not members of the FA. So the match had 15 players on each side (including Morley himself). A report in the Sporting Gazette newspaper said the match had been conducted “in good temper” by both sides.
The report added: “Very little difficulty was experienced by either side in playing to the new rules. Their simplicity prevailed with no disputes arising.”
Barnes had six ‘tries at goal’ but failed to score on each occasion. After 90 minutes the game was declared a goalless draw.
Richmond, unimpressed, decided to stick to rugby football; Barnes stuck with association football and would become founding competitors of the FA Cup.
The first three secretaries of the FA were members of Barnes and forward Charles Morice represented England in the first official international between Scotland and England in Glasgow in 1872.
Limes Field no longer exists, having been built over in the 1920s. Morley, the “father of The Football Association”, died in 1924, aged 93, and is buried in Barnes Old Cemetery. The Barnes and Richmond clubs still exist today . . . but as rugby teams.
Association football, of course, has gone from strength to strength.