Forget goal-line technology, diving in the penalty box and yellow cards for players who remove their shirts. The players in today’s football matches at the world’s oldest ground will be preoccupied with trying to trap the ball before it bounces in order to win a free kick, pushing their opponents over and making sure they have both a red and dark blue flannel cap to hand.
The match is taking place at Hallam FC’s Sandygate Road ground – reputed to be the oldest in the world – to celebrate its history in the local community, and will be refereed by the former Premier League official Uriah Rennie under the so-called “Sheffield Rules”. First codified in 1858, they were a precursor to the modern game and all that now goes with it.
Experts believe, however, that there would be little in the Sheffield game which would be recognisable to the modern spectator: matches could last anything from one to three hours, early games did not always have a set number of players on each team, and the goals did not even have crossbars.
The nature and rules of the game, though, depended largely on where it was being played and were mainly based on public schools’ rules. Some of these still exist; the Eton Wall Game and Harrow Football, for example.
“A lot of the things that we now recognise as being normal did not exist then, such as crossbars,” said Michael Wood, a historian whose work helped to inspire tomorrow’s event. He added that he was keen to use the experience to learn more about how the game evolved so quickly after the original codification.
“I would love to know how big football was then, we are always told that football is the great sport of the industrial age; I would love to learn why the game developed so rapidly into the major spectator sport we know today,” he said.
The match, held in the 150th anniversary year of the Football Association, is believed to be the first time the 11 listed rules have been used since the FA was founded. The laws do not give too much away about how the game was actually played, however. “The initial rules assume a lot of knowledge, these ones are a clarification of the way that an even earlier version of the game would have been played,” said Mr Wood.
For tomorrow’s tournament, contested by four school teams from across the Sheffield area, modern football rules are being adopted where they are not covered. They will play half-hour games at both eight and 12-a-side.
David Beckham would perhaps not have thrived with the 1858 rules: no goals were allowed to be scored direct from free-kicks. But some of the rules which give hints of the relative barbarity of the game in the mid-19th century are also being ignored for tomorrow’s game for safety reasons. Deliberately pushing your opponent, for example, is disallowed.
The standardisation the rules, at a time when they often had to be decided upon pre-match, helped make the game immensely popular in the Sheffield area. Some of the clubs set up there in the late 1850s and early 1860s were present at the meeting at which the FA was formed in London in 1863.
“They were not among the founding members but signed up to the FA soon after,” according to the Association’s historian David Barber. Most of the rules they then signed up to were based on those decided in Cambridge, but they will have recognised some aspects, such as the lack of a crossbar.
The “rouge”, a secondary set of goalposts placed outside the usual ones that were used to decide tied games, had gone. One thing they did agree on, however, was that “hacking” – or kicking an opponent in the legs – had to go.
The former Premier League referee and president of Hallam FC, Uriah Rennie, will be wearing Victorian attire, including a top hat, to referee the game. He said: “I have refereed around the world but I have always been drawn back to Sheffield where I grew up
“Football is loved right across the globe but not many people realise the game actually originates from Sheffield. The city has a genuinely unique football heritage, influencing the modern game that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
“It’s been a real eye-opener learning the original rules to referee this competition. We have come a long way, and the children involved have found it immensely fun and rewarding.”
The game is part of a Heritage Lottery Fund programme to help people explore, conserve and share the history and character of their local areas. Grants between £3,000 and £10,000 are available to groups who want to discover their local heritage, from sports and music to buildings and landscapes.
'Charging is fair': The original rules
1. The kick from the middle must be a place kick.
2. Kick out must not be more than 25 yards out of goal.
3. Fair Catch is a catch from any player provided the ball has not touched the ground or has not been thrown from touch and is entitled to a free kick.
4. Charging is fair in case of a place kick (with the exception of a kick off as soon as a player offers to kick) but he may always draw back unless he has actually touched the ball with his foot.
5. Pushing with the hands is allowed but no hacking or tripping up is fair under any circumstances whatever.
6. No player may be held or pulled over.
7. It is not lawful to take the ball off the ground (except in touch) for any purpose whatever.
8. The ball may be pushed or hit with the hand, but holding the ball except in the case of a free kick is altogether disallowed.
9. A goal must be kicked but not from touch nor by a free kick from a catch.
10. A ball in touch is dead, consequently the side that touches it down must bring it to the edge of the touch and throw it straight out from touch.
11. Each player must provide himself with a red and dark blue flannel cap, one colour to be worn by each side.