On October 24, 1857 the world’s first football club was born, transforming a fledgling game into the national sport that we all now know and love, which is today played and watched by millions around the globe, in the process.
It’s a pub quiz question which anoraks, sports buffs and pundits still debate to this day; just who is the oldest football club in the world and who can take the credit for revolutionising the game that over a century-and-a-half later still enthrals so many of us?
Well the answer is William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick, two men who were responsible for the birth of Sheffield FC, a side which to this day still proudly boasts to be the oldest football club in existence.
Of course it’s difficult to prove just when football originated as a number of similar games have been traced back thousands of years, but it was actually in Dronfield, around 5 miles outside the city of Sheffield, where the laws of football as we know them today were first established by two cricket lovers who were looking for a winter alternative.
In the mid-1800s football had evolved from a mutant sport that was played by a number of public schools and universities, to a growing game which was yet to be codified with rules, either made-up on the spot or taken from other playground activities or pastimes – ultimately leading to chaos and confusion.
What this new found sport desperately needed was regulation and a set of laws in order for it to be played and enjoyed by the many thousands of willing participants around the country who were beginning to see its potential, and that’s where Messrs Prest and Creswick came in.
They oversaw a host of new innovations that we all now take for granted such as; two teams of 11-a-side, different coloured kits, the first use of crossbars, the introduction of corner kicks, the awarding of free kicks, throw-ins, kick-off and even floodlights to illuminate night games in what became known as the “Sheffield Rules.”
The implementations didn’t change the game overnight as things like shoulder charges and greater physical contact were very much part of the game, with players allowed to shove opponents off the ball with their hands; though the later introduction of two umpires - one from each side - would soon drastically limit the amount of foul play which went on.
Further amendments were later introduced, such as the height and width of goals, the introduction of the offside rule and every game being contested over the same amount of time (1 hour and 15 minutes) in time for the Old Etonians versus Old Harrovians game in 1862, which was the very first to be contested under the new rules.
Thanks to what had been agreed at Dronefield and the hard work carried out by William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick it wasn’t long before the Football Association was founded in 1863 with the sole intention to allow clubs from across the country to compete with each other while establishing a unifying code for this new look game.
As a result a new tournament was established to allow these new clubs to compete against each other, in the very spirit that football’s founding fathers had envisaged years previously, with the newly appointed Secretary of Football Association, Charles W. Alcock, announcing the introduction of the Football Association Challenge Cup in 1871, a competition which to this day remains the world’s oldest cup competition.
Some wonderful old names of the game, including; Civil Service, Clapham Rovers, Wanderers and Hampstead Heathens put their names forward, though many, including Sheffield, didn’t participate for financial reasons as all sides that entered were expected to contribute to the cost of the now famous, solid silver trophy.
Sheffield FC finally entered the tournament in the 1873-74 season and progressed as far as the Third Round; but the lasting impact they had made for the good of the game was immeasurable. Just their presence in the competition alone, along with the changes they had implemented, meant that the country now had sport it could be proud of.
As the popularity of Association Football grew the Football League was formed in 1888 and brought with it an era of professionalism, greater competition, better playing conditions and the prospect of thousands of people turning out regularly to watch players who would eventually become heroes; but not for Sheffield FC who stuck to their guns as an amateur outfit as they remain to this day.
Today Sheffield FC reside in the Evo Stick League but true to their progressive beliefs the club boasts a number of community teams; including three disability sides, six girls’ teams and a women’s team, who compete in the WSL while remaining one of the highest-ranked men’s sides in the country not to have a professional team.
So in an era when football has moved about as far away from its original working-class roots as is possible with disgruntled fans expressing their disillusionment with the sport, Sheffield FC’s determination to stick to its core values of sportsmanship and honest competition against a backdrop of multi-million pound contracts, massive sponsorship deals and huge TV rights packages is something of a breath of fresh air to say the least.