Ebenezer Cobb Morley: Who was the tackle-happy Victorian lawyer who first wrote the rules of football?

Yorkshire solicitor, a keen advocate of violent hacking, helped shape the beautiful game by bringing order to chaos

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 16 August 2018 08:05
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The FA unveils the original football rule book written by Ebenezer Cobb Morley in 1863

Ebenezer Cobb Morley (1831-1924), the first man to write down the rules of football, was born 187 years ago today.

Celebrated in a new Google Doodle, Morley was a Hull-born solicitor who relocated to Barnes in London in 1858 at the age of 27. The son of a minister and a keen sportsman, the young lawyer enjoyed rowing and took to the Thames like a duck to water, founding the Barnes and Mortlake Regatta in 1862 and competing in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley in 1864.

But his real legacy lies in being the first to set the rules of the beautiful game down on paper.

Prior to Morley, football was a chaotic business, with no organised competitions and multiple regional variations making matches confusing affairs to take part in.

As captain of Barnes Football Club, the lawyer saw the potential of the game and recognised the need for proper rules and a governing body akin to that operating out of Marylebone Cricket Club, outlining his plans in a letter to the sporting paper Bell’s Life of London. He also contacted the nation’s most prestigious public schools for support, but was rebuffed.

Undeterred, Morley convened a meeting at the Freemason’s Tavern in Holborn on 26 October 1863 - a historic gathering attended by representatives from such future giants of the sport as Blackheath, Perceval House, Kensington School, the War Office, Crystal Palace, the Crusaders, Charterhouse and No Names of Kilburn.

The Football Association (FA) was born, with Morley serving as its first secretary and later president.

His original draft of 23 rules included a provision allowing players to “hack the front of the leg”, a controversial line that one FW Campbell of Blackheath felt was essential to promote “masculine toughness”. Another adherent suggested that without hacking tackles, “you will do away with the courage and pluck of the game, and it will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice”.

The divisive law was eventually cut (Roy Keane must never have got the memo) and the finalised version was published in the FA's December 1863 pamphlet, Laws of the Game.

These rules were adopted across London and, subsequently, the rest of the country, followed by the wider world.

Here they are in full:

  1. The maximum length of the ground shall be 200 yards, the maximum breadth shall be 100 yards, the length and breadth shall be marked off with flags; and the goals shall be defined by two upright posts, 8 yards apart, without any tape or bar across them.
  2. The winner of the toss shall have the choice of goals. The game shall be commenced by a place kick from the centre of the ground by the side losing the toss, the other side shall not approach within 10 yards of the ball until it is kicked off.
  3. After a goal is won the losing side shall kick off and the goals shall be changed.
  4. A goal shall be won when the ball passes between the goal posts or over the space between the goal posts (at whatever height), not being thrown, knocked on, or carried.
  5. When the ball is in touch the first player who touches it shall throw it from the point on the boundary line where it left the ground, in a direction at right angles with the boundary line.
  6. When a player has kicked the ball any one of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal line is out of play and may not touch the ball himself nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so until the ball has been played; but no player is out of play when the ball is kicked from behind the goal line.
  7. In case the ball goes behind the goal line, if a player on the side to whom the goal belongs first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free kick from the goal line at the point opposite the place where the ball shall be touched. If a player of the opposite side first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free kick (but at the goal only) from a point 15 yards from the goal line opposite the place where the ball is touched. The opposing side shall stand behind their goal line until he has had his kick.
  8. If a player makes a fair catch he shall be entitled to a free kick, provided he claims it by making a mark with his heel at once; and in order to take such a kick he may go back as far as he pleases, and no player on the opposite side shall advance beyond his mark until he has kicked.
  9. No player shall carry the ball.
  10. Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed and no player shall use his hands to hold or push an adversary.
  11. A player shall not throw the ball or pass it to another.
  12. No player shall take the ball from the ground with his hands while it is in play under any pretence whatever.
  13. No player shall wear projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta percha on the soles or heels of his boots.

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