The history of football and its evolution in England is a fascinating subject. During the nineteenth century, as in many countries, football evolved from a lower level, amateur game played in public spaces in the winter, to a pre-eminent sport played on organised and professional teams, with spectators and a corporate structure. The development of professional football and the emergence of the modern game is discussed in several recent books (Baldry, 2004; Hudson, 2004; Crouch, 2004; Lucas, 2005).
But the early history of football seems to be little known, despite the volume of material (both primary and secondary) available on the subject. For example, there is nothing on the early history of football published since the first year of the British Museum’s collections in 1816 (Evans and Donat, 2004). One is tempted to ask why this is so.
In any investigation of the development of a sport, the historian is forced to make certain choices. Most importantly, in the case of football, he or she must choose whether to study the origins of football or the history of football. Clearly, the origins of football are fascinating, as they involve the earliest forms of competition, organisation and spectacle. They can be studied through current literature about football, historical newspapers, ballads and songs, Source as well as by excavating field systems and interpreting graffiti and engravings (Baldry, 2004). The history of football can also be studied from the perspective of the changing organisation of football, the expansion of media coverage and the popularity of the game.
The earliest reports of football in England date back to the nineteenth century. The earliest reference to a football match appears in a report in 1846 of a game between a Rugby School ‘crusaders’ and a team from St John’s College.
The next year, in 1847, the News of the World newspaper reported that a Manchester to London match had taken place on 24 September. The following year the Rugby School itself was reported to be playing against Manchester Rovers.
An article in the 1849 edition of Sporting Magazine described football as ‘played by the undergraduates of various colleges in and around Oxford’. The earliest known reference to the Royal Military College of Science is in a letter of a soldier ‘who has just taken his degree’ which is printed in The Guardian of 1851. In the same year The Football Association was founded in England. In 1854, the first Football Association Challenge Cup was played, with Cambridge University beating Oxford University 3-0. By the end of the century, football had become well established as an important spectator sport. In 1899 the Sunday Times reported that the Easter term was devoted to football matches, which attracted the support of the aristocracy.