Happy birthday, English Football Association. The governing body for football in England celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2013. As part of the celebrations, Wembley and Stamford Bridge will host the UEFA Champions League and Women’s Euro Finals and England will play friendly matches against Brazil, the Republic of Ireland and, for the first time in fourteen years, Scotland.
Central to the celebrations surrounding the anniversary is the position that the organisation played in the creation of modern football. The FA was formed and football was codified by Ebenezer Morley and his associates in 1863. Up until that point, football was the sporting equivalent of the Wild West, with clubs across the country playing under regional rules. Under the new guidelines, hacking went out and free kicks came in. A set size of pitch was introduced. After a goal, the game restarted with a kick off.
Understandably, the English are quite chuffed about their ownership of the world’s most popular game. It manifests in songs like ‘Three Lions’, the official anthem for the 1996 European Championships held in England, and its famous ‘Football’s coming home’ line. It’s there in a recent ESPN advert where Steven McManaman is asked for his favourite league and says, “The English. After all, we invented the game.” It’s there in the angry words of representatives after Russia beat England in the bid to host the 2018 World Cup. And it’s there in the garish show of smug backslapping that accompanied the event launch for the 150th celebrations.
Pomp and circumstance aside, England’s alleged possession of football is nothing more than a relic of colonial possession. No one invented football; it developed over time. There are ancient Chinese etchings depicting something resembling football. When you watch footage of men trying to get a ball from one side of the village to another, they’re playing a folk game that would eventually develop into football. The world’s oldest football dates back to the 16th century, and it’s said that Mary Queen of Scots fell in love with the sport after watching a match at a court in Carlisle.
But what’s almost always missing in official biographies of football is the role that Scotland played in its evolution, and specifically, a team of Glaswegians from the southeast of the city called Queen’s Park.
Formed in 1867, Queen’s Park are Scotland’s oldest club. As there was no other teams to play during the early days, games would be contested between smokers and non-smokers or single and married men. Later, the club would travel to England to play clubs formed after the codification of English rules, and they finished runners up in the FA cup in 1884 and 1885. One of Queen’s Parks players at this time was Andrew Watson, Britain’s first black footballer and internationalist. When the English national team was formed, Queen’s Park made up the numbers of the Scottish team. The 1872 encounter at the West of Scotland Cricket Club in Partick was the world’s first international football match.
During Queen’s Park jaunts across Britain, they amazed their English counterparts with their passing ability. The English championed a kick and rush style of play. A player would run with the ball as far as he could, with members of his team flanking to help retain if he lost it: no different to ones taking place in school playgrounds across the country. As football burgeoned and other teams were founded, Scottish players gained the reputation for being thinkers and intellectuals and the nickname ‘The Scotch Professors’ was created.
Inevitably, the English started to lure these players south. A scout at a Renton – Cowlairs match was driven out of a town by an angry mob. In 1889, Dumbarton set up a committee to deal with bothersome English scouts, and though these players were criticised for accepting English gold, the impact they had on football soon offset any notions of greed. William McGregor went on to form the English football league, and when Liverpool was created in 1892, their entire starting eleven was made up of Scottish players.
Sandy McBain works at the Scottish Football Museum in Hampden and he told me that “while the English deserve credit for giving the game rules and codes, Scotland had a big part to play in the development of football. The streets we walk are rich in football history.”
So take that walk. Get a subway to Partick and take the short trip to the cricket club where international football and World Cups and European Championships followed on from. Walk up Dumbarton Road, catch a 44 bus and get off at Battlefield. Walk through the smaller park next to Queen’s Park and remind yourself that when Barcelona win La Ligas and Champions League with possession percentage rates nearing 80%, they’re following in the footsteps of a group of young men who used to play here. Walk through Mount Florida to Hampden, stop outside and think of Pele and Thierry Henry, black players who’ve graced the famous pitch on international duty, and how they’re part of a lineage that begins with Andrew Watson.
“Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind”, Winston Churchill once said. But when we talk about Scotland’s unparalleled contribution to the world via science, literature, transport and economics, the development of football is rarely held up as another example of an outstanding national export. We may not be any good at it, but football is as Scottish as Irn Bru, haggis and premature heart attacks. So the next time you’re in a pub watching Arsenal threading the ball through a needle, remind people that it’s because of some Scottish pioneers. Because you know what the English are like. Next they’ll be claiming they invented golf.