Published in ISFA History



The origins of the Laws of Association Football lie in the nineteenth century public schools. Old boys of these schools played a prominent part in agreeing a common set of Laws of the Game in the mid-nineteenth century.

While football was played in many forms, both inside and outside the public schools, one of the features of all the game up to the mid-nineteenth century was the absence of any common set of rules for football which, if they existed at all, were generally agreed between those playing on the day. It was in the public schools that the first attempts were made to codify the Laws of the Game. 

Generally speaking it was accepted that goals were scored when the ball passed between two posts at either end of the playing area and that players could catch the ball but not run with it; players wishing to make progress with the ball were required to kick or dribble it, though in 1823 William Webb Ellis is alleged to have caught and run with the ball at Rugby, so spawning that particular school’s own version of the game. 

Other schools also had their own versions of football and their own particular rules, these being agreed and determined mainly by the boys themselves rather than by their masters. At Harrow, Winchester and Eton, boys continue to play their school’s own traditional form of the game even today, Eton enjoying two different codes of play, the Wall Game and the Field Game. The Wall Game is a good example of how the games were developed to cater for the surrounding environment, the wall concerned having been built in 1717 is still in existence today. Elsewhere, in London Schools such as Charterhouse and Westminster, early games were played in the narrow cloisters before the Westminster Headmaster paid for a playing field in 1810. Harrow football, where the game was played mainly on a field at the bottom of the hill where the drainage was poor, was and still is invariably played in mud. 

When the schoolboys moved to university, however, there were inevitably disagreements. Equally there was clearly no possibility of inter-school matches unless a common set of rules could be agreed. As things stood, there was only one game – football – but everybody played to slightly different rules. In the early 1840s an attempt to form a football club at Cambridge University by a group of old boys from Eton and Shrewsbury, playing games on Parker’s Piece, achieved only partial success for this reason. In 1848, therefore, an attempt was made to agree the “Laws of the University Foot Ball Club” at a meeting attended by representatives of Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Shrewsbury and Rugby along with representatives of the University. It is from these Laws that the game of Association Football subsequently developed. Sadly, no copy of the original 1848 agreement remains but an 1856 copy still resides in the library of Shrewsbury School and is widely regarded as the oldest surviving copy of the Laws of the Game. It is likely that it differs little from the 1848 version 

Laws of the University Foot Ball Club 

1. The Club shall be called the University Foot Ball Club. 
2. At the commencement of play, the ball shall be kicked off from the middle of the ground; after every goal there shall be a kick-off in the same way or manner. 
3. After a goal, the losing side shall kick off; the sides changing goals unless a previous arrangement be made to the contrary. 
4. The ball is out when it has passed the line of the flag-posts on either side of the ground in which case it shall be thrown in straight. 
5. The ball is “behind” when it has passed the goal on either side of it. 
6. When the ball is behind, it shall be brought forward at the place where it left the ground no more than ten paces and kicked off. 
7. Goal is when the ball is kicked through the flag posts and under the string. 
8. When a player catches the ball directly from the foot, he may kick it as he can without running with it. In no other case may the ball be touched with the hands except to stop it. 
9. If the ball has passed a player and has come from the direction of his own goal, he may not touch it till the other side has kicked it, unless there are more than three of the other side before him. No player is allowed to loiter between the ball and the adversaries’ goal. 
10. In no case is holding a player, pushing with the hands or tripping up allowed. Any player may prevent another from getting to the ball by any means consistent with this rule. 
11. Every match shall be decided by a majority of goals. 

At this time a number of football clubs were being formed around the country and many of them published their own rules, most notably Sheffield, often basing them largely on the Cambridge Rules. Subsequently others made attempts to modify or be more specific about particular rules, most notably J.C. Thring, a master at Uppingham and old boy of Shrewsbury, who had been one of those who had attempted to set up a football club at Cambridge in the early 1840s. He now published his “Rules of the Simplest Game” in 1862. In 1863, the Cambridge Rules were further adapted and amended. 

However, 1863 also saw the formation of the Football Association in a meeting at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. This meeting consisted of representatives of London football clubs who, just like the public school old boys at Cambridge before them, found that, in order to play against each other, it was necessary to agree a common set of rules. 

The greatest and most heated debate was over the question of carrying the ball (as at Rugby) and, in particular, over whether hacking and tripping should be permitted and a series of meetings took place between October and December 1863 in an attempt to reach a compromise. A draft set of rules, which permitted running with the ball, was produced on 24th November but the meeting concluded that the Cambridge Rules “embraced the true principles of the game with the greatest simplicity” and appeared “to be the most desirable for the Association” However, these rules did not permit either running with the ball or “hacking” and were opposed by Blackheath. 

Crucially, in December, an application for membership was received from Sheffield FC, along with a copy of their rules which also strongly opposed both running with the ball and hacking. The advantages of being able to include a provincial club in the new Association, until now entirely a London organisation, was crucial. The first Laws of Association Football were agreed, based on the Cambridge Rules. Blackheath, who had been in favour of hacking, resigned and subsequently became founder members of the Rugby Football Union. The were now two different and distinct sports. 

The First Laws of Association Football (1863) 

1. The maximum length of the ground shall be 200 yards, the maximum breadth shall be 100 yards, the length and breadth shall be marked off with flags; and the goal shall be defined by two upright posts, eight yards apart, without any tape or bar across them. 
2. A toss for goals shall take place, and the game shall be commenced by a place kick from the centre of the ground by the side losing the toss for goals; the other side shall not approach within 10 yards of the ball until it is kicked off. 
3. After a goal is won, the losing side shall be entitled to kick off, and the two sides shall change goals after each goal is won. 
4. A goal shall be won when the ball passes between the goal-posts or over the space between goal-posts (at whatever height), not being thrown, knocked on or carried. 
5. When the ball is in touch, the first player who touches it shall throw it from the point on the boundary line where it left the ground in a direction at right angles with the boundary line, and the ball shall not be in play until it has touched the ground. 
6. When a player has kicked the ball, any one of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal line is out of play, and may not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until he is in play; but no player is out of play when the ball is kicked off from behind the goal line. 
7. In case the ball goes behind the goal line, if a player on the side to whom the goal belongs first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free kick from the goal line at the point opposite the place where the ball shall be touched. If a player of the opposite side first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free-kick at the goal where the ball is touched, the opposing side standing within their goal line until he has had his kick. 
8. If a player makes a fair catch, he shall be entitled to a free kick, providing he claims it by making a mark with his heel at once; and in order to take such a kick he may go back as far as he pleases, and no player on the opposite side shall advance beyond his mark until he has kicked. 
9. No player shall run with the ball. 
10. Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed, and no player shall use his hands to hold or push his adversary. 
11. A player shall not be allowed to throw the ball or pass it with his hands. 
12. No player shall be allowed to take the ball from the ground with his hands under any pretext whatever while it is in play. 
13. No player shall be allowed to wear projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta percha on the soles or heels of his boots. 

The first 7 laws are as similar to modern rugby as to football but Laws 9-12 are those that were unacceptable to the Blackheath representative and led to the split between the two sports. Law 6 (offside) was adapted in 1867 to fall more in line with the rules employed by Charterhouse and Westminster. 

Within the schools themselves, most for a while continued to play to their own rules but the advantages of playing to the new “association” rules soon became apparent, not least the ability to play against other schools. Charterhouse v. Westminster remains the oldest fixture in the world, having been played annually since 1863. The Charterhouse Captain’s Book recorded that, for that 1863 match, “the day had rained as much as it possibly could have and the ground was wet and sloppy making dribbling no easy task”. In addition Harrow School played a number of matches against notable club sides such as the Civil Service and The Wanderers. 

In those early years, most teams played with at least 7 forwards and there was a greater emphasis on dribbling than passing. W.S. Kenyon-Slaney of Eton, the Household Brigade and England was regarded as a particularly fine proponent of this art, as was R.W.S. Vidal of Westminster and Oxford. 

Whilst the public schoolboys in their universities had contributed a great deal to the process of establishing the Laws of the Game, football was now the property of the community at large. Nevertheless, in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, as “association football” enjoyed a phenomenal rise in popularity, the public schools were still to produce many of the outstanding players in the country. 

Subsequent changes to the Laws of the Game 

1866 A tape was tied between the goal posts, 8 feet high, below which the ball must pass for a goal to be scored. 
1866 Players no longer permitted to “make a fair catch”. 
1868 All handling of the ball now illegal. The idea of a goalkeeper who alone can handle the ball is introduced. 
1870 A players could only be offside if fewer than three opponents were between him and the opposing goal. 
1882 The use of a crossbar (optional since 1877) became compulsory 
1891 Introduction of goal nets

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