Football history : The Simplest Game and the formation of the Football Association

Henry de Winton and John Charles Thring are not names as famously associated with the birth of association football in this country as William McGregor or CW Alcock. However, were it not for the efforts of those two football pioneers in Victorian England we may not even have football as we know it today.

For centuries, football in one barbaric format or another was played in England. Entire villages would ‘compete’ and often respective goals were miles apart, literally, from each other. So rough were these so called football matches that deaths were commonplace. So much so that King Edward II banned the sport on April 13th 1314, suggesting that the activity was distracting the population from mandatory archery practise, which was crucial for the warlike monarch for whom war was a way of life.

Football resumed after more than a century of intermittent bans and right up to the 19th century the ordinary folk of rural England indulged, but there was a major problem. Because what rules there might have been were so indigenous, games were unique to a particular area and there was no such thing as an away game.

We often hear football referred to as ‘the working man’s game’ and so it was until the early 1800s, when the sport was adopted by many a public school or university, as character building. Because there were so many different sets of rules inter establishment fixtures proved almost impossible. It was at that point that Henry de Winton and JC Thring made their mark on football history.

Both men had attended Shrewsbury School where their love of football was born. When they went on to Cambridge University in 1846 they persuaded some like-minded old Etonians to join them in forming a football club. A few matches were played, but again the fact that participants were so used to the set of rules they had played under made competition extremely difficult. The main problems centred on handling and hacking.

Some footballers were used to having the option of handling the ball whilst others kicked and chased or dribbled. Some players ‘hacked’ which was as it sounds, swiping an opponent with leg or arm to bring him down.

Henry and John decided that uniformity was the only way forward if the sport they loved was to survive and prosper. So they called a meeting at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1848, which was attended by the major football-playing public schools; Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester and Shrewsbury.

The meeting lasted just shy of eight hours and eventually a code was published called the Cambridge Rules. Unfortunately no copy of those original rules has survived, although a revised edition that was published in 1856 can be found in the library at Shrewsbury School, fitting as that school is the alma mater of Henry de Winton and John C Thring.

John Thring went on to become a teacher at Uppingham School, and in 1862 he made another significant contribution to the development of association football when he tweaked the Cambridge Rules, and came up with a set of rules he termed The Simplest Game. It was this code that lead to the oft used phrase, even today, that football is a simple game.

Handling was still permitted, the rugby code was to come later, and one of the Simplest Game rules stipulated;

A goal is scored whenever the ball is forced through the goal and under the bar, except it be thrown by hand.

Another rule, and one which modern players might heed is the stipulation that ‘kicks must be aimed only at the ball‘.

The following year, JC Thring’s Simplest Game rules became the core of the newly formed Football Association which was founded on October 26th 1863 and the game really got under-way, leading to the one we have today.

By
Longest serving freelance football reporter for Sky Sports, 1,000+ games. Author of Breedon Book of Premiership Records and Three Lions.
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