Atlanta Rovers


A DULL but dry afternoon on Saturday 30 November, 1872, saw sporting history made on the West of Scotland cricket ground – rather soft from the previous night’s rain – at Partick, but the two teams confronting each other, clad respectively in navy blue and white, were not cricketers. That day’s contest is now regarded as the first football international, when more than 2,000 people saw Scotland play England.

The game was a no-score draw, but it was significant, not just in being the first international, but in the way it pointed up the different playing styles of the auld enemies. Reporting on the match, the Graphic newspaper observed: “Individual skill was generally on England’s side. The Southrons, however, did not play to each other so well as their opponents, who seem to be adept in passing the ball.”

The Scotsman, meanwhile, reported Ottway, the English captain, “standing conspicuous, and astonishing the spectators by some very pretty ‘dribbling’”. But it added how “the Scotch team, though not comprising so many brilliant players, worked from first to last well together, through knowing each other’s play.”

At a time when brutally aggressive charges down the field by big, heavy – and public-school educated – players was the template of the English game, in Scotland a more nimble and sophisticated “passing game” was developing. It would ultimately make the individualistic English tactics as defunct as dinosaurs and shape modern football the world over.

Now a new book, Beastly Fury, is arguing against the received wisdom that football was an unruly and violent ball game civilised by public-school players during the 19th century. The author and film-maker Richard Sanders argues it was, in fact, the ordinary classes – and particularly the Scots – who civilised and sophisticated the brutal game cultivated by the English public schools, ultimately revolutionising football. The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but the triumph of the refined “passing game” in modern football certainly wasn’t. That first Scottish national side was essentially Queen’s Park, founded in 1867 and named for the Glasgow park in which its founders played casually – many of them from north-east Scotland, suggests Sanders, rather than the YMCA members who also played there and are often credited with establishing the team.

Beastly Fury (the title drawn from a condemnation of the game dating from 1531) traces the development of the sport from medieval times, with the kind of riotous street games involving hundreds that we still see in the Eton Wall Game or, in Orkney, the Ba’ Game played every Christmas and Ne’erday in Kirkwall.

Unlike some who believe this was the universal form of “folk football” – which effectively died out with the Industrial Revolution while a new “civilised” game emerged, developed by the public schools – Sanders argues that, “in short, it was not the upper class that civilised the people’s game, it was the common people that civilised the upper-class game”.

Not only that, he adds, but “it was in the mines and mill towns of Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire that football acquired refinement, rather than on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow.”

Essentially, argues Sanders, the traditional view is that folk football was barbaric and effectively died out during the Industrial Revolution, to be created in the public schools as an entirely new game, from which today’s sport is descended. “But if you think about it,” he tells me, “the idea that a sport that has been going for 700 years should stop altogether, and then 40 years later an entirely different sport that has no connection to it whatsoever but is also football should survive… doesn’t really make sense.

“It’s common sense that a thread of folk football survives and feeds into modern football. The reason why we’ve always thought that wasn’t the case is because all the early histories were written by public schoolboys and they see it from their point of view.”

Sanders is a writer and documentary film-maker, whose films have included two on football controversies – Escobar’s Own Goal, concerning the shooting of the Colombian star Andrés Escobar, after he had scored against his own side during the 1994 Fifa World Cup, and Maradona: Kicking the Habit, which peers behind the extravagant façade of arguably the world’s greatest footballer. He’s also a Tottenham Hotspur fan. “It’s a family thing, a bit of a burden for the past 20 years,” he confesses dolorously.

“But I’m always interested in tracing things right back to their origins, and it’s surprising that no-one’s written this book before, on the origins of football. Most of the book is original research, but I’m also piggy-backing on some other people, in particular John Goulstone and Adrian Harvey, who have done a lot of work resurrecting folk football.” Sanders’s book may appeal even to non-fans of “the beautiful game”, with its insights into British society and its attitudes. “It’s a great window on late-Victorian Britain,” he says.

It was only with the development of the fast-flowing, more sophisticated passing game developed by the boys from Queen’s Park and others like them that football would become the sport we recognise today. As far back as 1870, Scotland was being described – and by English enthusiasts – as “the land of football”. Until the First World War, nearly a quarter of all English First Division players were Scots and, as late as the 1950s, English professionals still referred to the short-passing game as “the Scottish style”.

Football as conducted by the products of the English public schools of the 19th century was ferociously individualistic and aggressive. These, after all, were young men being cultivated as empire-builders. “What’s so extraordinary when you look at the old public-school football games is that they’re so much closer to the old mock-battle thing, and the key thing that makes them like that is their very strict offside rules. At Eton, for instance, you effectively couldn’t pass at all. A player couldn’t go upfield and call for a pass; that was against the rules and was known as “sneaking”. Instead, you had to try and force your way through the opposition by sheer force.”

It can be suggested that, to these budding captains of empire, the very concept of passing the ball to someone else could be interpreted as almost an abnegation of responsibility. “You can come up with all sorts of sociological explanations,” says Sanders. “(That] game was certainly rabidly individualistic and extremely aggressive.” And much of it, he reckons, boils down to the old Victorian obsessions with anything smacking remotely of undesirable practices in the dorm. “It’s clear that sport and athleticism are very, very popular in the late 19th century public schools, in part because they’re so terrified of all the sexual impulses teenage boys have and – and I’m hazarding a guess, really – that the slightly manic atmosphere of public school football is in part to do with sexual sublimation.”

Many histories of the game, he argues, “ignore the blindingly obvious fact that the various public-school games were staggeringly violent”. Cold showers apart, in the inner sanctum of the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden, curator Richard McBrearty agrees on the uncompromising nature of the English game: “If we could transport ourselves back to 1872 and watch some of the charges and heavy tackles that were allowed then, you’d be surprised.

“Queen’s Park realised they couldn’t compete man for man with the England team, because the England players were heavier and faster in many respects. So you could see them in the build-up to that first international match, thinking about how they were going to play the game, and they pair up – that was a big thing.”

In his museum, McBrearty, who regards Sanders’s approach as refreshingly objective, displays the edition of the Graphic that covered that first Scotland-England game of 1872. “What’s important, he says, “is that the report mentions that the Scotland team were adept at passing the ball, and that’s the first time passing is recorded in the annals of association football.”

Tellingly, in one game against England in 1873, the Scots team recruited a few “exiles” from English public-school teams. Their different playing tactics broke the rhythm of the Scottish scoring machine and they lost 4-2. “Thereafter,” comments Sanders, “the Scottish team was dominated by Queen’s Park men. Between 1874 and 1886 they lost just once – 5-4 at the Oval – in 1879.” As late as 1882 the English player, Charlie Alcock, commented that England’s “disinclination to pass settled England’s chances as effectively as it had done from the first of these international contests”.

As English football spread beyond the public schools, the “Scottish professors”, as they were known, became much in demand. An advertisement in this newspaper in October 1882 for a good full-back for a club in north-east Lancashire promises: “To a really good man… who can teach well, liberal wages will be given.” A month before that, the Athletic News had suggested Bolton Wanderers should start wearing kilts and change their name to “Caledonians”.

By Jim Gilchrist