A labour of love and above all a celebration, but underpinned by wide if eclectic research, and a pleasure to read, this account of the pre-history and story of the Sheffield contribution to Association Football complements the work of Adrian Harvey, Neil Tranter and the other revisionist historians of the origins of the world game. Once you get through the cloying plugs by Geoff Thompson and Richard Caborn and a recital of the Sheffield old boys (all boys with the exception of the basketballers) who have ‘done good’ in sport, you are taken through a very judicious account of the precursor football games in England from Roman times to the 19th century.
Next comes the origins of the Sheffield club formally established in 1857 though games had probably been played since 1855 and some highly speculative attempts to link its first rules of 1858 to those drawn up in Melbourne the following year—the intermediary being Henry Creswick, who played cricket for Victoria in 1857–58. But the connection is too tenuous. There are too many ‘maybes’. The one thing Sheffield and Melbourne rules have in common is that they were the rules of a local club and later of a city in which the game was played. Later still they were the basis of, or at least an influential part of, the rules, which became standardised as those of the code wherever it was played.
Sheffield FC was very much a middle class club in terms of its early personnel, with a strong public school component at least among its influential committee members. The first female was admitted to the club in 1859, and by 1864 women made up 11 per cent of the 252 members.
The early accounts of games between Sheffield and the other clubs which sprang up in the area in the 1850s are interspersed with some discussion of volunteer regiments including the Artists’ Rifle Corps in which Barnes Wallis served in the First World War. So this is not focussed, chronological history but a romp through an eclectic melange of loosely locally related matters.
Sheffield was represented at the last of a series of meetings in 1863, which drew up the set of rules that were adopted by the newly formed Football Association. Though Sheffield continued to use its own flexible forms for some time thereafter. There was no offside in the written versions of the Sheffield rules, (though people claimed it existed in practice), and this gives Murphy another similarity to what became Australian Rules.
The Sheffield club began brightly enough though games were intermittent, but within a few years it seemed to turn inward taking part in the FA Cup and even local tournaments infrequently. Other Sheffield clubs soon left it behind, particularly after the emergence of professionalism. But it survived and still turns out in the Unibond First Division South league in 2007–08. It is recognised by FIFA as the world’s oldest club and received the FIFA centenary order of merit, along with Real Madrid, the only other club so honoured.
Murphy’s approach to history will not always be appreciated by professional scholars, but then it is not aimed at them but at a reader who wants to be entertained as well as informed, and who does not mind digressions and a fair amount of speculation where the evidence is thin or non-existent. Australian readers will enjoy the attempts to compare and sometimes link events in Sheffield with the inchoate origins of footy in Melbourne in the mid-nineteenth century. The book will help them to understand how flexible and unstructured the two codes remained for much the 1850s and 1860s—more like the street football of our youth or backyard cricket than their current forms.