IT DOESN’T look much like the home of football. Close to junction 29 of the M1, the Bright Finance Stadium is difficult to get to by public transport, the players earn just £80 to £100 a week in expenses and supporters, usually about 300 of them, pay just £5 for the pleasure of watching their side. However, while the home of Sheffield FC may be overshadowed in size, stature and cost of match-day pies by the likes of Stamford Bridge, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and even nearby Bramall Lane, it was this unremarkable club that sowed the seeds of our national game 150 years ago today.
In the run-up to the anniversary, its name, often bottom of the pile when it comes to South Yorkshire clubs, has been uttered in some unlikely circles, film crews from across the world have descended on the ground and tonight they will welcome Sepp Blatter, the chairman of FIFA, football’s governing body worldwide, at an event which will pay tribute to founding fathers Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest.
Creswick, a solicitor whose family had been involved in the manufacture of silver plate since the 14th century and Prest, a wine merchant who had captained Yorkshire and played for an All- England XI at cricket, were members of the Clarkhouse Road Fencing and Gymnasium Club in Sheffield and the germ of their idea for a football club was sown as they deliberated how to keep fit during the long months when they could not play cricket.
Legend has it they chatted long into the night while walking in the Sheffield countryside and their discussions lasted for five months before, on October 24, 1857, at a meeting at Parkfield House, in the suburb of Highfield, Sheffield Foot Ball Club was born.
While in recent years there has been much talk of the commercialisation of the game and the influence of the prawn sandwich brigade, even in those earliest days money ruled.
By the time of Creswick and Prest, football had evolved from its beginnings as a hullabaloo annual battle between neighbours, the ball being almost incidental in their endeavours to prove their physical superiority, into a game played largely in public schools and universities. Handling the ball was still permitted, as was hacking an opponent’s shins. Wherever the game was played there were different rules and the gentlemen of Sheffield were not backward in drawing up their own statement. Sheffield Rules were laid out in the year the club was formed and among them was a definition, which confirmed that football was to be a game for the middle and upper classes. “The club was run along the lines of an old boys’ club, black balls and all,” says Brendan Murphy, whose book From Sheffield With Love, is a tribute to the part played by sons of the city in the development of the world’s most popular sport.
“While the working classes were not explicitly barred, Rule 10 declared Saturday as play day, a full working day for the poor. In truth, they were an elite lot.”
It was hardly surprising that Sheffield were known to their early opponents as “the Gentlemen”, their members largely drawn from old boys of Sheffield Collegiate School, steel and silver manufacturers, dentists, doctors, lawyers and architects.
The first steps towards regulating the rules came with the formation, in 1863, of the Football Association, a body which was London-based but Sheffield Rules continued to hold sway over much of the North of England. Differing interpretations were in operation elsewhere, with those who insisted handling the ball and hacking were retained eventually going their own way with the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871.
For the rest, who sought a game in which the foot did the connecting with the ball, there began a convoluted process of discussion, trial-and-error and political posturing until a uniform code was arrived at. The part played by Sheffield, both the club and the Sheffield Football Association, which had grown from the rise in popularity of the kicking game, cannot be understated.
The FA, for example, were totally against the Sheffield innovation of a cross-bar or tape on the goal posts, only changing tack when one of their number, Ebenezer Cobb Morley, watching a match at Reigate, saw a goal scored with a soaring up-and-under, which he estimated had crossed the goal-line at a height of 90 feet. Eight feet soon became the recognised height of the bar, just as eight yards had become the universal width of the goal.
Sheffield’s influence was also brought to bear on issues like identifying the goalkeeper as the only man free to handle the ball, off-side, the instigation of the penalty, playing formations and the abolition of tripping and hacking. Clever footballers, adept at dribbling and passing, began to make their way across the border from Scotland and, as leisure time for the working classes grew to include Saturday afternoons as well as Sundays, football grew in popularity, the ever-growing crowds and public interest – not least in response to the launching of the FA Cup along lines of similar competitions first introduced in Sheffield – eventually leading to the professional game.
Sheffield FC remained true to their amateur ideals and soon settled into a minor role within the city as United and the Wednesday rose to prominence. However, the fact they survived at all is impressive and last Saturday in the Unibond First Division North they enjoyed a 2-0 success over Bradford Park Avenue, once proud members of the Football League, in the first qualifying round of the FA Carlsberg Trophy. It was a result which would have delighted those who laid the foundations not only for football in Sheffield but also for the game across Britain and then the world.
“The book started off as a memoir about childhood and football,” says Murphy, a lifelong Sheffield United fan, who credits local historian Andrew Drake for helping source much of the detail of the early days of football in the city. “My PE teacher at Abbeydale Grange School was future Wednesday, Leeds United and England caretaker manager Howard Wilkinson. He didn’t like me; I was quite poor at school, just a skinny Irish Catholic kid in a big comprehensive. However, the book grew as I went on and I felt it was important to include people like Charles Alcock, first secretary of the FA, and William ‘Fatty’ Foulke, the Blades’ great goalkeeper.”
Today, Sheffield FC insists it is very much a part of the community and an example of the importance of grassroots in a game increasingly run by accountants.
“Sadly, most of those other pioneering amateur Sheffield sides have vanished, their place in football league forgotten, but today Sheffield FC seems to be gathering steam,” says Murphy, now associate professor in psychiatry at Monash University in Melbourne, but who retains close links with his roots and will be at tonight’s celebratory dinner.
“The club has attracted a host of celebrity and sporting figures as members of the club, including Sven Goran Eriksson, Michael Vaughan and Eric Cantona and in recognition of their unique position were awarded a FIFA Centenary Order of Merit in 2004. Only one other club, out of more than 300,000 worldwide, received the Order: Real Madrid.
Next month, Pele will be guest of honour at Sheffield FC’s 150th anniversary game against Internazionale Milan at Bramall Lane and for a club determined to celebrate its long history of footballing achievements, Sheffield FC couldn’t have asked for anyone better.