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Modern football around 1900

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Modern football …

„[…] it is evident that football is quite an ancient game. Time alters everything, and it has undoubtedly done so in football. Where one used to play with half the village on one side and the same on the other, it is now restricted to sides composed of eleven players. As I have been requested to write on the modern game it is not worth while dwelling upon how it was played a hundred years ago. Football is really supposed to be a Scottish game, but it was in England that a proper Association with defined rules was first started.“ (John Cameron: Association Football and How to play it. London [1908]. P. 7.)

The concept of modern football is not one of recent decades, as I pointed out last year in two longreads at 120minutes about England and Germany.

1870s: combination football

Both Montague Shearman (1887), Charles William Alcock (1906) and quoted John Cameron (1908) describe in their writings on the game of football what has already changed since the first football association was founded in 1863. They refer only to association football as distinct from rugby. Here is a brief summary of their accounts. Modern football – in England around 1900, at a time when the DFB had just been founded in Germany.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the FA was clearly dominated by aristocratic and bourgeois gentlemen, who had to a large extent already come to know and love football as a disciplinary and moral exercise at school. Especially in the first years after the founding of the FA, football was a purely recreational activity and means of exercise for former pupils of public schools. People condemned the more physical game of football, which was played at the public school in rugby, among others, and later gave the game its name. Even then there was the term scientific play, which today is best described as magic football: It is about ways of playing that amaze the spectators. The scientific play of the 1860s was to be able to dribble the ball as long and virtuously as possible. Backing up only referred to the variation that all other players in the team follow the dribbler in the slipstream so that they can intercept the ball if it is snatched away by the opponent. The only ones who did not always follow were the two backs/defenders. Half backs/midfielders did not yet exist in this system of play.

Modern football

In the 1870s, the sport of football became attractive to other sports as well as athletics teams as a way of keeping fit during breaks. It was also common for a person to play cricket in the warm months and football in the cooler months to keep fit.

From about the mid-1870s onwards, the system of play was then also changed somewhat and henceforth played in 2-2-7 or 2-2-6 with a fixed allocation of positions in the forwards and depending on whether a player had already been specified as goalkeeper. It was at this stage that Wanderers FC lost its dominance in FA matches to the old boys teams, as the teams of former pupils of a school were called. The Wanderers were made up of the best former public-school pupils, but in the 1870s it became fashionable for schools to form their own Old … teams. As a result, the alumni of the public schools preferred to play for their school’s club rather than for the Wanderers. So for about a decade the Old Etonians, Old Carthusian, Old Wykehamists, etc. became the successful teams.

1880s: Professionalism

During the 1880s football changed enormously. Modern football

It began in the North with teams of entrepreneurs, who were less concerned with passing the time and more with wealth and prestige, and workers who tried to take their chance as footballers to avoid the dangerous or all too mindless work in mines and on assembly lines. The big money was tempting even then. The system of play was also changing more and more to a combination game. In the second half of the 1880s, these changes were also implemented by more and more teams in the more southern half of England.

Shearman published his paper in 1887 and for him the most important changes since 1863, apart from professionalism, were the offside rule, which had already been changed in 1866, and the changed form of the throw-in or entry from the touchline – indeed, at that time it was possible to choose whether play continued with a throw-in or an entry. In addition, the development of combination play was groundbreaking for him. They still played 2-2-6 or 2-2-7 in London and the surrounding area, but the game had evolved into an unselfish game, where the emphasis was no longer on individual player feats, but on interplay, build-up play and man-to-man defence. It was also important to him that the game of football remain a winter sport and that games not shift even more into the summer (i.e. beyond March) and that the game of passing the ball by head should develop further. Passing by head was still very uncommon at that time and only became more common at the end of the 1880s. Often it still seemed very much to be remembered as „clowning“ (according to Shearman) because the players had little skill at it.

The developments of the following twenty years are described by Charles William Alcock and especially John Cameron.

Cameron began by noting that enthusiasm for the game of football was increasing and predicted that the game „will be played for at least another generation“ [1]Cf. Cameron, John: Association Football and How to Play It. London [1908]. S. 63.. A statement that makes us smile today, and even more so when we read that for Cameron, the practice of cycling and running „was made impossible by the absence of an organisation“ [2]Cf. Cameron, John: Association Football and How to Play It. London [1908]. P. 63. were already doomed. What triggered the enthusiasm and helped to keep it going? Cameron cites here the cohesion of the players and the support of teachers who appointed football in the classroom, plus the improved training (rather: food), which I discussed in more detail last December. Alcock complements the evolution of the playing system to 2-3-5 and thus combination football.



  • Shearman, Montague: Athletics and football. London 1887.
  • Alcock, C. W.: Football. The Association Game. London 1906.
  • Cameron, John: Association Football and How to play it. London [1908].


Photocredits: Frontispiece from the book Association Football and How to Play It (1908) by John Cameron. Photograph of the author, Scottish-born footballer and Tottenham Hotspur player-manager, John Cameron. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/File:AS%26HTPI_frontis_John_Cameron.png


1 Cf. Cameron, John: Association Football and How to Play It. London [1908]. S. 63.
2 Cf. Cameron, John: Association Football and How to Play It. London [1908]. P. 63.
Kategorie: English


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