Thursday, 25 February 2010

Chapter 1 – Sheffield and its Football to 1889

No one knows where football began. There is evidence of a ball game, similar to football in the basics, being played by the ancient Chinese and Egyptians, some say it started as a form of military training, others as a fertility right. Others believe that it originated as a victory celebration with the game being played with the severed heads of vanquished foes and both Romans and the Celts are said to have practiced this in Britain. Just after 1100 the English game was first written about, described as a free for all where gangs tried to move a ball through the streets. There were few rules to speak of and Edward III was forced to pass laws to curb the violence which often accompanied the games. He failed and the game continued. One such game, played in Sheffield in 1793, was described by the novelist Bernard Bird:

“There were selected six young men of Norton, dressed in green; and six young men of Sheffield, dressed in red. The play continued for three consecutive days. At the arch which was erected at each end of the place selected, there was a hole in the goal, and those on the Sheffield side would prevent the ball from passing through the hole. Then those on the Norton side (not being so numerous as those of Sheffield) sent messages to the Peak and other places in the county of Derby; in consequence thereof, a great number of men appeared on the ground from Derbyshire.

Then those of Sheffield sent fife and drum through the streets of the town, to collect recruits and sufficient force against Derbyshire men. The fashion then was for all responsible gentlemen, tradesmen and artisans of Sheffield to wear long tails. Hence, at the conclusion of the third day, a general row or struggle took place between the contending parties, insomuch that the men of Derbyshire cut and pulled nearly all the tails from the heads of the gentlemen of Sheffield.

I understand there were many slightly wounded, but none were killed; thus ended the celebrated football match which aroused the bad passions and humanity for many years afterwards, insomuch so that the inhabitants of Norton felt a dread in coming to Sheffield, even about their necessary business”.

'Mob football'

The game continued to be popular among both the rural and urban poor, but it was the public schools of Victorian Britain which created the modern game. Shunning the mass brawls in the slums the budding gentlemen of Oxford, Cambridge, Rugby, Eton and Harrow wished to bring some order to the fixtures they played against each other, and so a set of rules, or understandings, gradually grew up. It still had some way to go before it became what we would recognise as football however; handling was allowed as was kicking an opponent and scrums were an accepted part of the game.

1863 was the turning point in the history of the game. In October a group of players from the top public schools met in The Freemasons Tavern in London. Their first task was to draw up a definitive set of rules which would bring some uniformity between the schools. The size of the pitch was set out as were rules for offside, kicking off and returning the ball to play. Handling of the ball was strictly limited but the big decision was to outlaw ‘hacking’ and a band of disaffected ‘hackers’ broke away to form the Rugby Football Union. These became known as The Football Association Rules after the second task accomplished at the meeting; the founding of the Football Association. Through the 1860’s this group would go on, among other things, to introduce goal kicks and establish the size of teams at 11 a side. However, it was dominated by teams drawn from the public schools and Home Counties and footballs strength was growing elsewhere, in the northern industrial towns such as Manchester, Blackburn and Preston, where two factors were coming together to ally the rules of the public schools with the popular game. These were political radicalism and self improvement.

  Sheffield in the mid 19th century

Sheffield was another of the booming industrial centres of the Victorian era. It had long been famous for its steel manufacture, Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned a “Sheffield thwitel (knife)” in ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and, surrounded by hills full of coal and iron ore and perched next to several rivers, Sheffield was ideally positioned for the new water mills which powered the industrial revolution of the 18th century. The development in the city of the Bessemer process in the 1850s and Stainless Steel in 1903 cemented its position on the cutting edge of modern British industry. By the end of the 19th century Sheffield accounted for 97% of British steel production and demand for labour in the new industries saw Sheffield’s population explode. In 1841 it stood at 68,000 but by 1881 this had grown to 284,500 residents most of them concentrated in the city's four central parishes. By 1911 the population was 455,000.

Most people lived in slums like this one off Scotland Street

Life in industrialized Sheffield was gloomily described by George Orwell in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

“Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World: its inhabitants, who want it to be pre-eminent in everything, very likely do make that claim for it. It has a population of half a million and it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village of five hundred. And the stench! If at rare moments you stop smelling sulphur it is because you have begun smelling gas. Even the shallow river that runs through the town is usually bright yellow with some chemical or other. Once I halted in the street and counted the factory chimneys I could see; there were thirty-three of them, but there would have been far more if the air had not been obscured by smoke. One scene especially lingers in my mind. A frightful patch of waste ground (somehow, up there, a patch of waste ground attains a squalor that would be impossible even in London) trampled bare of grass and littered with newspapers and old saucepans. To the right an isolated row of gaunt four-roomed houses, dark red, blackened by smoke. To the left an interminable vista of factory chimneys, chimney beyond chimney, fading away into a dim blackish haze. Behind me a railway embankment made of the slag from furnaces. In front, across the patch of waste ground, a cubical building of red and yellow brick, with the sign ‘Thomas Grocock, Haulage Contractor’.

At night, when you cannot see the hideous shapes of the houses and the blackness of everything, a town like Sheffield assumes a kind of sinister magnificence. Sometimes the drifts of smoke are rosy with sulphur, and serrated flames, like circular saws, squeeze themselves out from beneath the cowls of the foundry chimneys. Through the open doors of foundries you see fiery serpents of iron being hauled to and fro by redlit boys, and you hear the whizz and thump of steam hammers and the scream of the iron under the blow.”

Working conditions in the factories were rotten. In 1844 a local doctor described to Freidrich Engels the Grinders Asthma which affected the steelworkers.

"They usually begin their work in the fourteenth year, and if they have good constitutions, rarely notice any symptoms before the twentieth year. Then the symptoms of their peculiar disease appear. They suffer from shortness of breath at the slightest effort in going up hill or up stairs, they habitually raise the shoulders to relieve the permanent and increasing want of breath; they bend forward, and seem, in general, to feel most comfortable in the crouching position in which they work. Their complexion becomes dirty yellow, their features express anxiety, they complain of pressure on the chest. Their voices become rough and hoarse, they cough loudly, and the sound is as if air were driven through a wooden tube".

The Cyclops Steel Works at Attercliffe

Following on from the city’s long tradition of religious non conformity, such conditions soon saw an active trade union movement appear in Sheffield. Between the 1860’s and 1880’s violence between union and non union workers, known as the ‘Sheffield Outrages’, earned the city a reputation for militancy. A meeting in the city in 1866 organised by the Sheffield Trades Council formed the United Kingdon Alliance of Organised Trades, the forerunner of the Trade Union Congress. In 1886 the Sheffield Socialist Society was founded with the specific aim of the violent overthrow of capitalism and was soon playing host to talks by figures such as the famous Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin at its premises on Scotland Street.

Government legislation, notably the Factory Acts passed at intervals throughout the nineteenth century, sought to improve these working conditions. One of the major aspects of the Acts was to limit working hours but many social activists and employers worried that the extra leisure hours would be devoted to drunken excess or political activism. Engels wrote that

"Immorality among young people seems more prevalent in Sheffield than anywhere else. ... The younger generation spend the whole of Sunday lying in the street tossing coins or fighting dogs, go regularly to the gin palace, where they sit with their sweethearts until late at night, when they take walks in solitary couples. In an ale-house which the commissioner visited, there sat forty to fifty young people of both sexes, nearly all under seventeen years of age, and each lad beside his lass. Here and there cards were played, at other places dancing was going on, and everywhere drinking. Among the company were openly avowed professional prostitutes. No wonder, then, that, as all the witnesses testify, early, unbridled sexual intercourse, youthful prostitution, beginning with persons of fourteen to fifteen years, is extraordinarily frequent in Sheffield. Crimes of a savage and desperate sort are of common occurrence; one year before the commissioner's visit, a band, consisting chiefly of young persons, was arrested when about to set fire to the town, being fully equipped with lances and inflammable substances. We shall see later that the labour movement in Sheffield has this same savage character."

Pre empting Orwell’s observation that football was “war minus the shooting”, leading figures in Sheffield quickly came to see sport as a safety valve for a restless workforce.

This outlook found an ally in the Victorian ethic of self improvement. Samuel Smiles wrote a book called ‘Self Help’ in 1859 which became a sensation, going on to sell a quarter of a million copies, in which he recommended “abundant physical exercise”. In 1901 Ernest Needham highlighted this concern

“It is a recognised fact that the majority of bread-winners follow occupations in surroundings not at all healthy; therefore it is not to be wondered at that this recreation is largely patronized by them for health seeking purposes. Take away “sport” altogether, and what would be the result? I venture to predict a bigger death roll than we have now. Again, how would the “masses” spend their spare time?..I fear, although I don’t wish to brand the working man as a drinker, that the public-house would be resorted to more if the game were abolished”

The Adelphi Hotel where the meeting was held which decided to build Bramall Lane. It was demolished to make way for the Crucible Theatre

Industrialisation and urbanisation prompted other concerns. As early as 1854 Michael J. Ellison, a cricket enthusiast, had become worried at the way the town’s rapid expansion was threatening many of the existing sporting grounds. He put together a proposal whereby his employer, the Duke of Norfolk, would offer some of his land to build a cricket pitch. The sight chosen was Bramall Lane which had “the advantage of being free from smoke” and a committee was formed to get the project off the ground. A subscription list was opened whereby shares could be bought for £5 and would guarantee free entry into the ground. The ground was leased to the Sheffield United Cricket Club for ninety nine years and the United Committee of Management was formed which was to run the ground for the benefit of all the local clubs, eventually including Broomhall, Caxton, Milton, Sheffield and The Wednesday. On April 30th 1855, the first cricket match took place at the Lane.

Bramall Lane in 1868

It was out of this ‘cricket clique’ that organised football in Sheffield began. Many of the leading lights on the cricket scene had attended public school and developed a fondness for football. In 1857 Major Nathaniel Creswick and Major William Prest wrote to the public schools in an attempt to clarify the accepted rules of the game. When they received replies they formed the Sheffield Football Club, which is still in existence making it the oldest continuously existing side in the world, and the Hallam Club was formed not long after. In the winter of 1862-63 at least twenty two clubs were playing in Sheffield. In 1862 the first football game was played at Bramall Lane between Sheffield F.C. and Hallam, grudgingly allowed as it was a charity match. In 1863 Sheffield wrote to the F.A. requesting membership but was snubbed, along with most of the other northern towns.

Despite this Sheffield proved to be as innovative in football as it was in steel making. In 1868 the corner kick was introduced in Sheffield and, following a match in which a goal was scored “…from a balloon kick which had passed quite 90 feet in the air between the posts” Sheffield introduced a crossbar eight years before the F.A. and free kicks were pioneered as a way a punishing foul play. Off the field Sheffield founded the first ‘Players Accident Scheme’, providing insurance against accident and, in the late 1860’s, held the first cup competitions, the Cromwell Cup and the Youdan Cup.

In 1866 the Hallam Football Association was founded and Sheffield F.C. travelled to London to play a representative side. The following March Hallam beat Norfolk at Bramall Lane and later in 1867 some members of the Wednesday Cricket Club played their first football match. Indeed, in their first years they played many of their most important games at Bramall Lane. In 1871 the Sheffield Association introduced a series of games against other counties and a 3-1 win over the London Association at the Lane was watched by 2,000. The Sheffield Telegraph predicted that although “the football was plainly interesting…it is doubtful if this game will ever command the kind of crowds they get at cricket matches”.

Program for the first floodlit match in 1878

The Telegraph was proved wrong and in 1878 a crowd of 12,000 packed into the Lane to watch the Reds vs. the Blues, which was also the first football match to be played under floodlights. The Sheffield Independent reported that

“the Sheffield public were last evening introduced to a decided novelty in football – a match with assistance of electric light. The contest…between two teams selected by the Sheffield Football Association was the first ever played in this country, or anywhere else, we believe – with the aid of artificial illumination, especially of that which is derived from the powerful currents of electricity.”

“The match”, he continued,

“was announced to begin at half past seven o’clock and considerably before that hour the roads to Bramall Land were besieged. The wonder was where all the people came from. There seemed no end to the ever coming stream, and the crowd of excited people outside the gates struggling to pass in at the turnstiles created a scene of great animation”.

Bramall Lane in 1882, top, looking towards the Cricket Pavilion, bottom, looking towards the city centre

In 1883 a crowd of 9,000 watched England beat Scotland 3-2 and in 1887 6,000 saw England thrash Ireland 7-0. Bramall Lane was established as one of the top sporting grounds in the country hosting international matches and F.A. Cup semi finals and even an exhibition match featuring American baseball players. It is worth noting however that the highest attendance of this era was the 20,000 who turned out in 1886 to watch a match between two teams of local pantomime artists.

These impressive attendances showed that football was changing. There was no football league as yet but in 1872 the F.A. had introduced a cup competition based on the old Harrow House Cup. In the first ten years of the F.A. Cup it was won by sides such as Oxford University (1874), Old Etonians (1879, 1882) and Old Carthusians (1881), and played in by the likes of Lord Kinnaird, Fred Chappell-Madison and Reverend R.W.S. Vidal. The public schools were still at the top of football tree and jealously guarded their position. A letter to the Sporting Gazette in 1872 said

“Sports nominally open to the gentleman amateurs must be confined to those who have a real right to that title, and men of a class considerably lower must be given to understand that the facts of their being well conducted and civil and never having run for money are NOT sufficient to make a gentleman as well as an amateur. They have a hundred and one tradesman’s meetings to fall back on, and what more can they want?”

In 1883 however, a northern side, Blackburn Olympic, caused a shock when they won the Cup beating Old Etonians and for the next three years it was won by their neighbours Blackburn Rovers. Football was being taken over by working class players backed up by growing crowds of working class supporters and new clubs were springing up in industrial areas all over the country. Some of the clubs grew out of work sides (Arsenal and West Ham United), some out of religious establishments (Everton, Wolves, Bolton, Blackpool and Southampton), and others grew out of existing sports clubs (Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, and Sheffield United).

The important issue was professionalism, paying players to play, and it came to a head when London side Upton Park lodged a complaint against Preston North End. The F.A. was solidly against the idea as were the public schools and the Sheffield Association. J. C. Clegg, a former Wednesday player and international in the first game between England and Scotland, warned that

“if professionalism is allowed it will only place greater power in the hands of betting men and, if the gamblers ever get control of the game, I wouldn’t give a tuppence for it”.

However, many players were being given jobs in factories for which their qualifications were dubious at best and then being put straight into the local team. With this subtle flouting of the rules becoming commonplace a ban was unlikely to work in the long term and F.A. Secretary and founder of the F.A. Cup C.W. Alcock admitted that

“Professionals are a necessity to the growth of the game and I object to the idea that they are the utter outcasts some people represent them to be. Furthermore, I object to the argument that it is immoral to work for a living, and I cannot see why men should not, with that object, labour at football as at cricket”.

In July 1885 a limited form of professionalism was accepted.

The stubborn opposition to professionalism in Sheffield meant that the city relinquished its former role at the forefront of football. Many of the city’s better players moved to Lancashire to play for the professional sides and those who did stay in Sheffield sought compensation from the clubs for the loss of earnings. Sheffield F.C. suffered hammerings of 14-0 to Aston Villa, 9-1 against Nottingham Forest and 8-0 against Notts County, all sides who had accepted a degree of professionalism and the other Sheffield sides suffered as well. When the Sheffield Association played their counterparts from Birmingham and Glasgow, they were beaten 7-1 and 10-3. In a grim time for Sheffield football only a local works side, Lockwood Brothers, offered any consolation by reaching the fifth round of the Cup before losing narrowly to West Brom. The Telegraph pondered that

“it only requires the leading clubs of Sheffield to be united to place a team in the field which after practice would take a lot of beating”

A group of Wednesday players grew frustrated and left to form a professional side, Sheffield Rovers. The threat of this jolted Wednesday into action and they went professional in 1887.

Wednesday, like the other professional clubs, hoped to pay their players with gate money collected at the turnstiles. However, at Bramall Lane the United Management Committee took a third of the receipts for every match and for cup games at the Lane Wednesday collected only one penny in every six. The inevitable happened and Wednesday bought some land at nearby Olive Grove and began building their own ground.

Map of Sheffield showing Wednesday's Olive Grove ground relative to Bramall Lane and other grounds in the area

In April 1888 twelve clubs, Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers, formed the Football League. Composed solely of teams from industrial urban areas it marked the end for the public schools in football. Wednesday declined an invitation to join and it quickly became apparent that they had made a huge mistake as the League took off in popularity and it was a further blow to civic sporting pride that Sheffield was not represented. The league teams extended their dominance into the Cup as well and all four semi finalists were drawn from the League.

On March 16th 1889, 22,688 fans flooded into the Lane for the semi final between West Brom and Preston who were chasing the first ‘double’ of League and Cup. According to the Telegraph,

“The great throng in the streets around the ground prompted officials to open the gates at 1.15 p.m., earlier than planned, for the 3.30 kick off. Every nook and corner, every wall and roof and rail was occupied in a bid to get the ideal vantage point. The householders directly round the ground took the occasion by the forelock and let their top rooms to those who cared to use them at a very fair rental…”

Crowd problems led to the game being stopped on a number of occasions but the gate takings were a whopping £700.

The success of the semi final convinced one man that Bramall Lane could support its own football team. Charles Stokes, a dentist by trade, was a member of the United Committee and, like Clegg, had played for Wednesday at cricket and football. He had been one of the founders of Wednesday’s football side and served on dozens of local sporting committees. Following the semi final he reflected that “inter association football has seen its best days”.

This revelation coincided with the Cricket club’s desperate need for the income generated by regular football at the Lane. A pavilion had been built on the Cherry Street side and £3,000 had been spent on the ground. But the income was too low to cover even maintenance and Michael Ellison paid the £70 annual rent out of his own pocket until his death in 1898. Joseph Wostinholm, Secretary at Bramall Lane, agreed with Stokes, despite saying that “I am not a football man myself”, or on one occasion, “I hate football”. It was obvious to him, looking at the revenue the football clubs pulled in when they played there, that having a permanent football side during the winter months would raise vital money for the cricket club.

It was easier said than done. Years later a local football reporter remembered that Stokes

“had in his mind the scheme for a football club a long time before he dare broach it to the authorities at the Lane. And when he did first mention it, he raised a tremendous storm about his ears, the old members protesting vigorously against the ‘desecration’ of the classic enclosure”.

One observer recalled that the pro cricket members of the Committee “…looked askance at football and would not have allowed the use of the ground for a match at any price could they have so ruled”. But Ellison was a persuasive advocate in favour of a football club. On March 22nd 1889 at a committee meeting at Wostinholm’s office at 10 Norfolk Row, Ellison argued that

“the ground was formed for the production of athletic sports generally. Cricket, bowls, archery are mentioned in the lease. Football is not mentioned in the lease because at the time the lease was granted it was not in vogue. Nobody played football. But any athletic sport is sanctioned…unless the agent of the Duke of Norfolk, in writing, objects to it”.

Ellison was the agent of the Duke of Norfolk and the matter was settled. The Ground Committee, with David Haigh and Joseph Tomlinson, both friends of Stokes’ from various sporting bodies, and W. F. Beardshaw (of the old Sheffield Club), would constitute the executive, while Clegg, who said he could not accept office in consequence of his position as head of the local FA, promised his valuable help. And so the decision was taken to form a football team and Sheffield United were born.

Plaque outside 10 Norfolk Row to commemorate the birth of Sheffield United

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