The love of your life has a past you don’t know about

Scene from the first international football match of 1872 (association rules) within the Scottish Football Museum

This phrase was adopted by the Scottish Football Museum back in 2001 to advertise the opening of our new premises at Hampden Park. As a headline it was intended to firmly grab the attention of the reader. Its deliberate use, within the context of opening the new exhibition space, reflected on the fact that to many fans the general history of the game in Scotland was relatively unknown.

The football museum acted as a platform to promote the general history of association football in Scotland although some subjects like the history of women’s football were relatively undiscovered at the time. In the case of women’s football, past decades of discrimination had resulted in a complete dearth of publications, making the initial research task an exceedingly difficult one. The team assigned with taking on this subject worked very hard to ensure that it was represented within the history galleries by the time of opening.

Back in 1999, when I joined the research team, another area of mystery was the subject of the origins of the game in Scotland. There was an aspiration for this subject to be covered within the museum but the relative scarcity of published material on the subject at the time and the lack of physical objects within the collection ultimately meant that this could not happen. The first history gallery of the museum therefore starts at the year 1867, when Queen’s Park Football Club was formed. This organisation, more than any other, nurtured and developed the code of association football within Scotland during the formative years.

I was handed the ‘origins’ subject as one of several research tasks, and it is an area of research that I have enjoyed studying ever since. There were only a few brief research notes on the subject when I started out and the sources that did exist within the museum archive and library suggested that ‘organised’ football was a relatively new development in Scotland. Indeed, this view is put forward in the first ever edition of the Scottish Football Annual in 1875. Compiled by William Dick, the Secretary of the Scottish Football Association, the opening article of the book acknowledges that ‘Foot Ball is one of the very oldest, if not the oldest of our athletic games,’ but goes on to state that…

This sport was gradually brought into the general form it possessed in the middle of the present [nineteenth] century. At that time there were many modes prevalent in England, while in Scotland it seems to have almost died out.

William Dick was an important figure within the Scottish FA at a time when Scottish clubs and the national team were beginning to experience remarkable levels of success on the playing field. Indeed, in the same year that the above words were penned for the Scottish Football Annual, Queen’s Park defeated Wanderers of London, one of the outstanding association clubs of England during the 1870s, by the emphatic score line of 5-0. Dick was the referee at first Hampden Park three years later when Scotland recorded a 7-2 victory against England. Tragically, by 1880 he was dead, succumbing to consumption aged just 29.

When initially taking on the origins research task, I was struck by a simple question scribbled within the early research notes which was posed by one of my colleagues. It centred on the incredible success of the fledgling association game in Scotland…

How could they have gone from no clubs to brilliant clubs in the space of 10 years if they didn’t have a culture of ‘football’ to build upon?

Whilst of course acknowledging the views held in early publications like the Scottish Football Annual, this is a question which I feel can now be satisfactorily answered not only from the research that I have been amassing but from the excellent work of many others. The simple answer is that there was indeed a culture of football to build upon.

My original endeavours to better understand the origins of football in Scotland were admittedly undertaken from the perspective of better understanding the subsequent development of the association game in Scotland. However, I quickly realised that the rugby football game had the same origins story to tell, certainly up to the point where the rugby code started to get a foothold in Scotland (around the early 1850s). Beyond F.P. Magoun’s article on Popular Football in Scotland, some important articles from Stirling University’s Dr Neil Tranter, John Robertson’s book on the Uppies and Doonies and Peter Baxter’s Football in Perthshire, I was very much indebted during the early stage of my research to Sandy Thorburn and his History of Scottish Rugby which provided a valuable timeline on the origins subject.

Today we use the term ‘football’ when talking about the association or ‘kicking’ game and ‘rugby’ when talking about the ‘handling’ game. However, back in the 1870s both codes were simply referred to as football in newspapers with a caption often being added when required to distinguish ‘association rules’ from ‘rugby rules.’ Add to this the fact that the oldest clubs in Scotland who play to the rugby code, like the Edinburgh Academical Football Club, have never used ‘rugby’ in their title and the fact that the national governing body for rugby, which was founded in 1873, was originally known as the Scottish Football Union and did not feel the need to change its name to the Scottish Rugby Union until 1924, just one year before the opening of Murrayfield Stadium.

A quick glance at the emerging rugby and association codes in Scotland in the late 1860s and early 1870s, certainly throws up clear distinctions, particularly over offside, but also reveals a closer parity between the rules when compared with those of today. There is evidence, for example, that a ‘fair catch’ rule was used in both games, allowing a player to catch the ball out of the air and kick it on without being impeded. When the ball went into ‘touch’ the first player on either side to touch the ball was permitted to return it back into play with one of the provisions from both rules being that the ball re-enter the field at a ‘right angle’ to the touch line. The original shape of the rugby ball was much rounder when compared with the ball of today, making it easier to kick when on the ground. The Queen’s Park ‘associationists’ of 1867 could score ‘touch downs’ if the ball went wide of the goal posts. A poem from 1869 describes a Queen’s Park match where players use their fists to strike the ball. As mentioned earlier, the ball could also be caught out of the air and kicked on, thanks to the fair catch rule, although carrying and throwing the ball was completely forbidden. The rugby football adherents of the ‘Green Book’ in Scotland were prevented in 1868 from lifting the ball up off the ground in order to carry it in their arms. They could use hands to stop the ball when it was on the ground, ‘but not in any way to move it’ and could only run with the ball in their arms if they caught it when it was ‘bounding.’

The Queen’s Park touch down was used as a scoring method which determined the winner only ‘in the event of no goals being got on either side’, while the touch down in the rugby game was used to enable a ‘try at goal’. The rugby try therefore was not in itself regarded as a scoring method at this time; it was the resulting kick over the cross bar which led to a goal being awarded and that is what officially counted. However, if games were drawn in terms of the number of goals kicked, then tries were often unofficially taken into consideration; in such circumstances the games were referred to as being ‘drawn in favour of’ a team if they shared the same number of goals but had achieved more tries.

The database records all of this information and I hope that when it is finally completed it will be of great interest to the followers of both codes. It would be impossible to try to fully understand the early history of football in Scotland without acknowledging all forms of the game. These intertwined connections can be demonstrated by highlighting the reaction in Scotland when Charles W. Alcock, Secretary of the Football Association, arranged the first of his series of London based football internationals in 1870. The match involved teams representing England and Scotland and took place under association rules, with the Scotland team being made up primarily of players of Scottish extraction (to varying degrees) who were resident in London. Andy Mitchell’s insightful book, First Elevens, covers this in great detail.

Scotland side at Raeburn Place for the first international football match in 1871 (rugby rules)

This prompted a response from the captains of the leading rugby football clubs north of the border who, in their own words, were ‘representing the football interests of Scotland.’ They published a joint letter laying down a challenge for a return match to be played under the rugby code. Simply put, their view was that ‘the football power of the old country was not properly represented in the late so called international football match.’ This challenge was not accepted by the Football Association but it did ultimately result in the first rugby football international match being organised in Edinburgh when teams representing Scotland and England met at Raeburn Place in 1871. This fixture celebrates its 150th anniversary today (27 March). It was therefore down to Queen’s Park (who else) to pick up the gauntlet on behalf of the early association clubs in Scotland and organise the first official international match under association rules the following year.

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