Early Football rules

early football

About the early football rules, Charles William Alcock’s wrote a short piece: The Book of Rules of the Game of Football, here online in a 1871 edition from New York. The well-known footballer of the first decades of the FA republished seven contemporary rules. For most of them it isn’t mentioned when the rules were lastly changed, but for some of them I could trace it back.

These are the rules of early football mentioned:

  • FA Rules, 1870
  • Sheffield FA Rules, 1869
  • Eton Field Game, 1862
  • Winchester College, before 1871
  • Rugby School, between 1863 and 1870
  • Harrow School, before 1871
  • Cheltenham College, before 1871.

Of course, today there are still different codes, but in the 1860s there were different variants of the football game. There was not only today’s (association) football and rugby, but various mixed variants. In this article I want to illustrate the diversity of the possible early football matches of the 1860s. There were many teams that played according to their own rules, because there were many regional FAs. If teams with different sets of rules played against each other, they had to agree before the game. Did they only play according to the rules of one team? Or did they change the rules at half-time? Or did they mix both sets of rules into a completely new one?

All these agreements were common in the 1860s and early 1870s, the so called early football. Football played in clubs and against other teams. Organised football in which not only teams from the same school compete against each other. So, before the FA Cup and the international matches between England and Scotland made the FA Rules more and more popular all over England. And it was not until the 1880s that public schools began to change their own traditional football rules and to adopt parts of the FA Rules or the later Rugby Union (but not all of them).

Let’s dive into the time of the early football.

Measures of the field and the goal

FA:
Field: 91,44×182,88 m, each corner marked with flags.
Goals: 8 yd x 8 ft, with posts a tape as height limitation.

Sheffield:
Field: max. 100×200 yd, each corner marked with flags.
Goals: 8 yd x 9 ft, with posts and a bar as height limitation.

Eton:
Field: not mentioned.
Goals: 11×7 ft, with post. Material of height limitation is not mentioned.

Winchester College:
Field: 78×25 yd, marked with ropes at 3 ft height. Also 7 ft high canvas at a distance of 1 yd from the ropes, helping to prevent the ball from flying too often far out of the field.
Goals: Without height limitation and goal width is not mentioned, nor is the material. But the goal is marked on the ground (1 in width and 1 in depth). Possibly the goal width was the entire field width of 25 yd.

Rugby School:
Field: not mentioned.
Goals: not mentioned.

Harrow School:
Field: 100×150 yd. Or 100×300 yd, if the first match of the day was finished as a draw.
Goals: width: 12 ft, no height limitation. Material of height limitation is not mentioned.

Cheltenham College:
Field: not mentioned.
Goals: not mentioned.

During the course of early football

Choose of ends

FA: Winner of the toss.

Sheffield: Winner of the toss.

Eton: not mentioned.

Winchester College: Winner of the toss.

Rugby School: not mentioned.

Harrow School: a) House Matches: Winners of the toss. b) Normal school matches: Team of the head of school or – in his absence – the school eldest.

Cheltenham College: not mentioned.

Kick-off

FA: Loser of the toss from the middle of the field. The direction of the kick can be chosen freely. Distance of all other players from the ball: 10 yd. No information about the restart after a goal or halftime.

Sheffield: Loser of the toss from the middle of the field. The direction of the kick can be chosen freely. Distance of all other players from the ball: 10 yd. The goal was obtained again by the team or after a goalless half by the same team as at the beginning of the game.

Eton: Bully at the middle of the field. The same goes for the restart after a goal or halftime.

Winchester College: Hot at the middle of the field. The same goes for the restart after halftime, not after a goal was obtained. In this case, 10 yd in front of the own goal, the ball is kicked in the direction of the opposing goal. Opponent are standing in front of their goal to deflect the kick and a goal can only be obtained if the ball has previously been touched three times by any player.

Rugby School: From the middle of the field. Direction of kick is not specified. Distance of all other players from the ball: 10 yd. No goal can be obtained from a kick-off. No information about the restart after a goal or halftime.

Harrow School: Loser of the toss from the middle of the field. The direction and distance of the other players from the ball is not mentioned. The same went for the restart after a goal or halftime.

Cheltenham College: Both teams stand parallel to their white posts, 30 yd from them. The opponent must touch the ball first. If it goes out before an opponent touches it, the kick-off must be repeated. The same went for the restart after a goal or halftime.

Change of ends

FA: After each goal or after a goalless half.

Sheffield: After every goal or after a goalless half.

Eton: At half time.

Winchester College: At half time.

Rugby School: not mentioned.

Harrow School: After each goal or if no goal has been obtained until 3 o’clock (3pm, I guess).

Cheltenham College: After every goal. In addition, a team may insist on a change of ends if the opposing team has obtained three goals or nine rouge (punts count as one rouge).

Determining the outcome of a match

FA: Ball passed the goal line between the posts and under the tape, only by kick.

Sheffield: Ball passed the goal line between the posts and under the bar, only by kick.

Eton: Ball passed between the posts and under the tape the goal line, only by kick. The number of goals outweighs the number of rouges. If no goals or the same number of goals were obtained, the game is decided by the number of rouges.

Winchester College: Ball passed the goal line between the posts, only by kick.

Rugby School: Ball passed or touched the goal line between the posts above the bar, only by kick (no punt). One of the goals is on the walk to Baby Road and grass high on the wall in front of the headmaster’s house, the other on the path behind the island.

Harrow School: not mentioned.

Cheltenham College: Ball passed or touched the goal line between the posts above the bar, only by kick. The number of goals outweighs the number of rouges. If no goals or the same number of goals were obtained, the match is decided by the number of rouges.

Winner of the game

FA: Who has obtained more goals after a fixed time.

Sheffield: Who obtained more goals after a fixed time.

Eton: Who obtained more goals and rouges after 60 minutes.

Winchester College: Who obtained more goals after 60 minutes.

Rugby School: Who obtained two goals first.

Harrow School: not mentioned.

Cheltenham College: not mentioned.

Ball out of game and the restart

FA:

  • into touch: throw-in by player who touches the ball first after it went into touch. Throw-in at right angles to the touch line. Ball is in play when it touches the ground. Another player must touch him first, before the player, who has thrown it, may touch him again.
  • behind the goal line: kick 6 yd from the goal line by the team behind whose goal the ball was kicked. Direction is optional. Opposing players must be at least 6 yd away from the ball.

Sheffield:

  • into touch: kick-in  by players of the opposing team who touched him last before. At the point where the ball went sideways. All players must be at least 6 yd away from the ball.
  • behind the goal line:
    • If over bar: goal kick by team owning the goal, max. 6 yd away from the goal line in the field. Direction is optional. Opposing players must be at least 6 yd away from the ball.
    • If sideways from the goal posts: Corner kick by players of the other team, which has kicked the ball over the goal line. All other players must be at least 6 yd away from the ball.

Eton:

  • into touch: If the ball bounces back into the field from the object or spectator (“bystander”), it is considered to be in play. Further information is not given.
  • behind the goal line: If a player of the defending team kicks the ball behind the own goal, the ball gets rougeable. If the ball bounces back into the field from an object or spectator (“bystander”), it is considered to be in play. Further information is not given.

Winchester College:

  • into touch: Hot at the point where the ball went into touch. It is also out of field when it touches the rope or is between the rope and perpendicular to it.
  • behind the goal line: Goal kick from a player who owns the goal from a optional point on the goal line. It is kicked in the direction of the opponent’s goal. Meanwhile, his opponents try to prevent a goal from being obtained and charge the other players out of the way. No goal can be obtained by this kick directly.

Rugby School:

  • into touch and behind the goal line: nothing mentioned.

Harrow School:

  • into touch: The ball must be kicked directly back in by a player of the other team who has kicked the ball into it.
  • behind the goal line: The ball must be kicked back in the field by a player of the other team who kicked the ball behind the goal line. No goal can be obtained by this kick directly. The ball is at least 3,5 ft in the field when kicked, except when a behind perform the goal kick.

Cheltenham College:

  • into touch: The ball must be thrown in the field in a straight line and is in play when it has touched the ground; subsequently it must be kicked.
  • behind the goal line: not mentioned.

An English Game: Drawing of an association football match between two unspecified clubs, probably around 1890.

Duration of the game

FA: not mentioned.

Sheffield: not mentioned.

Eton: 60 minutes.

Winchester College: 60 minutes.

Rugby School: not mentioned.

Harrow School: not mentioned.

Cheltenham College: not mentioned.

Free kick

FA: not mentioned.

Sheffield: Opposing team must be at least 6 yd away from the ball, but not behind the goal line.

Eton: At the point where the rule was violated.

Winchester College: not mentioned.

Rugby School: not mentioned.

Harrow School: not mentioned.

Cheltenham College: not mentioned.

Offside Law

FA: Any player between ball and opposing goal if less than three opponents are in front of attacking player.

Sheffield: Any player between the ball and opposing goal if less than two opponents (= the goalkeeper = the player closest to the goal) are in front of the attacking player.

Eton:

  • “Sneaking” during the match: Any player between the ball and the opposing goal if less than three opponents are in front of the attacking player.
  • “Cornering” during a bully: A player who stands apart from the bully and less than four opponents are in front of him. If an offence is committed, the opponent gets a bully at the place where the ball was touched.

Winchester College: “Behind your side”: Any player between the ball and the opposing goal. Exception: At goal kick.

Rugby School: Kick by any player in front of the ball or a player standing on the wrong side in scrummage.

Harrow School: “behind”: Any player between the ball and the opposing goal if less than two opponents are in front of attacking player.

Cheltenham College: Offside is not allowed, but it is not described when a player is offside. However, if he is, he must immediately lay or drop the ball on the ground, otherwise he will be booked. If the booking is disregarded, the player will be sent off.

Handball

FA: No allowed handball except fair catch.

Sheffield: No allowed handball except fair catch.

Eton: Only allowed handball: Stopping the ball.

Winchester College: Only allowed handball: a) Stopping the ball before it is kicked, b) securing the goal, c) after a fair catch to kick the ball from behind to a promising position before kicking it out (?).

Rugby School: No allowed handball except fair catch and running.

Harrow School: No allowed handball except fair catch.

Cheltenham College: No permitted handball except fair catch and running.

Foul play

FA:

  • Allowed: Fairly charging.
  • Not allowed: Tripping, kicking, holding, pushing, attacking from behind.

Sheffield:

  • Allowed: Fairly charging.
  • Not allowed: Kicking, holding, pushing. In the event of a rule violation, free kick for opponents.

Eton:

  • Allowed: Charging, hacking.
  • Not allowed: Hacking, pushing, holding, falling on the ball.

Winchester College:

  • Allowed: Charging, hacking, tripping, holding a running player.
  • Not allowed: foot up (“kick up”, from 5 ft), drop kicks, dribbling, holding (except a running player), injure, hold on ropes, touch ball after ball touches ground after fair catch (made-flyer).

Rugby School:

  • Allowed: Charging as soon as a) the ball touches the ground, b) at a drop kick or c) at running.
  • Not allowed: hacking on a knee or above, kicking with heel, holding and kicking at the same time.

Harrow School:

  • Allowed: Attacking.
  • Not allowed: Anything else.

Cheltenham College:

  • Allowed: Holding or hacking some one who is running (but not both at the same time), charging in case of a place kick as soon as the ball touches the ground. If it grabs a player, this player must immediately discard the ball and shout “My ball” at the same time.
  • Not allowed: Holding and hacking during running, drop kicks.

Early Football and the People

Players’ equipment

FA: Boots: No projecting nails, iron plates, gutta-percha on soles and heels. Nothing about other equipment, but jerseys, over-knee-pants were common. If the jersey’s of one team aren’t in the same color, they wear caps in the same colour.

Sheffield: Boots: No projecting nails, iron plates, gutta-percha on soles and heels. Nothing about other equipment, but jerseys, over-knee-pants were common. If the jersey’s of one team aren’t in the same color, they wear caps in the same colour.

Eton: not mentioned.

Winchester College: not mentioned.

Rugby School: Shoes: No protruding nails, iron plates, gutta-percha at soles and heels.

Harrow School: Boots: No nails up to one inch in front of the toes, 0.5 inch from the side and none in the heel. Nothing about other equipment, but jerseys, over-knee-pants were common. If the jersey’s of one team aren’t in the same color, they wear caps in the same colour.

Cheltenham College: Boots: No projecting nails, iron plates, gutta-percha on soles and heels. Nothing about other equipment, but jerseys, over-knee-pants were common. If the jersey’s of one team aren’t in the same color, they wear caps in the same colour.

Umpires and Referee

FA: not mentioned.

Sheffield: Each team chooses its umpire to enforce rules. Their decisions are final decisions. Each umpire is refereeing of his own half of the team that elected him.

Eton: Each team chooses its umpire to enforce rules. If the umpires cannot make a joint decision, there is a bully 1 yd in front of the line where the offence took place.

Winchester College: Each team chooses its umpire to enforce rules. Their decisions are final decisions. Each umpires is refereeing  of the half closer to them. Only the captains of the teams are the mediators in discussions. Task of the Umpires: Count goals, measure time, start, change sides, end of game and show rule violations.

Rugby School: At each Big Side and House matches, each team captain (“head”) chooses the team’s umpire who enforces the rules. The captains have a veto right against the elected umpire of the other team.

Harrow School: not mentioned.

Cheltenham College: Each team chooses its umpire to enforce rules. The umpires choose a referee. If the umpires disagree, the referee decides.

Playing positions in early football matches

FA: not mentioned.

Sheffield: not mentioned.

Eton: not mentioned.

Winchester College: Each team has up and behind players, usually 2-3 behinds and 8-9 ups. The ups closely follow the ball wherever it is kicked, the behind wait for the open kicks. One of the behinds is called second behind and stands a few yards behind his own ups, the other behinds are called last behinds and stand some distance behind the second behind.

Rugby School: not mentioned.

Harrow School: not mentioned.

Cheltenham College: not mentioned.

Laws of the Game 2018/19: not mentioned.

Who is allowed to play?

FA: not mentioned.

Sheffield: not mentioned.

Eton: not mentioned.

Winchester College: not mentioned.

Rugby School: Three praepostors (class leaders = disciplinary authority at public school) start a Big Side and the players who are the oldest students should toss up. In early football, old Rugbeians may play in any Big Side game, others (strangers) in any game (except the Sixth Game, the Old Rugbeians’ game and the Two Houses), with the consent of the heads. But only current students may kick at the goal (= have a place-kick at goal).

Harrow School: not mentioned.

Cheltenham College: not mentioned.

Special play variants of early football

In early football there were a number of game variations that were typical for rugby due to the mixed variants.

Fair Catch

FA: Yes: If the ball is catched directly, the team reward a (indirect) free kick at this point. [Fair Catch was forbidden in 1871.]

Sheffield: Yes: If the ball is catchen directly, the team reward a (indirect) free kick at this point. [Fair Catch was forbidden in 1871.]

Eton: No.

Winchester College: Yes: If the ball is catched directly, the player can run 3 yd and then kick the ball. He may be attacked by opponents, but teammates may protect him. If the ball touches the ground, it may not pick it up again.

Rugby School: Yes: If the ball is catched directly, the player may a) mark the spot with his heel of his boots and take an indirect free kick at this spot, or b) run with the ball in his hands.

Harrow School: Yes: If the ball is catched directly, the player must shout “three yards”, then may run with the ball 3 yd and kick the ball in any direction (as an unhindered free kick). If he does not shout it, the ball may be knocked out of his hand. Unique in early football: If the fair catch happened up to 3 yd in front of a goal, an attempt may also be made to jump 3 yd into the goal with the ball in his hands and obtain a goal.

Cheltenham College: Yes: Anyone who catches the ball directly may a) mark the spot with the heel of his shoe and take a free kick with a drop kick at this point (whether indirect or direct is not mentioned), b) run with the ball in his hands.

Other variants

FA:

  • nothing more.

Sheffield:

  • nothing more.

Eton:

  • bullies and kick offs are still played when time is elapsed, until the ball is in goal, out of side or out of goal.

Winchester College:

  • Two big side balls must always be at the end during one Big Side.
  • No football is played between the goals until the Sixth Game.

Rugby School:

  • Kick may not pass more than 25 yd outside the goal. (Not stated when there is a kick.)

Harrow School:

  • nothing more.

Cheltenham College:

  • A ball touching the goalposts is placed to one of the posts, but not in the middle.
  • It is fair to run in off any bound of a kick, hit, or throw.

Terms in the early football rules

Rouge: More about the Rouge, see here.

  • Eton Field Game: If an attacking player is pushed on goal and the ball goes behind the goal line, the ball becomes rougeable. If a player of the attacking team touches it first, a rouge is obtained. A rouge is finished even after the time has elapsed.
  • Cheltenham College: How rouge is obtained is not mentioned, but it did exist. A punt counts two rouges, a try counts three rouges and if the opponent makes a touchdown, it counts one more rouge. Nine Rouges count as one goal.

Hot:

  • Winchester College: The ball is in the middle of the field, the ups drop their heads, try not to touch the ground with their hands and knees and push the ball through the opposite side.

Bully or Scrummage:

  • Eton Field Game: bully. “6. As the act of ‘bullying’ cannot be defined by any fixed rule, the umpires must exercise their judgement on this point.”. A handball is prohibited.
  • Rugby School: scrummage. One player holds the ball down on the ground and everyone else stands close around the ball or the ball is kicked. In a scrummage after a maul the ball must not be touched with hands, except for a fair catch.

Try (at goal):

  • Rugby School: Player places the ball in opponent’s touchdown area or touches goalposts and ground at the same time. The kicker must hold the ball in his hands when he places it on the ground.
  • Cheltenham College: Player places the ball in the opponent’s touchdown area, then the ball enters the area in a straight line at the point of the touchdown. However, if the touchdown was so far away that there is no chance of scoring, the ball can also be “punted out”. If a fair catch follows, the catcher can place the marker on the ground and drop kick the goal.

Maul:

  • Rugby School: If a player holding the ball is held, cannot slip or pass the ball to another player (“running in”), he calls “Have it down”. Then an attempt is made to push the player, who is holding the ball, into the goal for a touchdown by teammates or out of that area by opponent players. If he cannot hold the ball, he is isolated from the maul of the scrummage. Any player who obtains a touchdown after a maul must have the ball on the ground as soon as possible if it is outside the 25 yd post near his own goal, and any player who does not may be kicked.

Punt:

  • Rugby School: A dropkick. The ball must be inside the playing field. No goal can be obtained by a punt.

In early football, there was a wide range of different rule parts. Some were the same, most were different. You can well imagine how difficult it was to find a common set of rules for the match before the game.

This long overview also clearly illustrates the reason for the attempts to find a club-wide set of rules. The fact that these rules were initially only created regionally in early football was not a failure. It only illustrates the gradual process, because modern football was not suddenly present.