Why Scotland is ‘the land of football’

The sport may have been codified by the public schoolboys of England, but the ethos and concept of the beautiful game have their roots north of the Border.

By Stephen O’Donnell

This article first appeared in Issue 6 which was published in December 2017.

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Football provided lessons in life as well as identity, belonging and a civic sense of local pride. Suddenly and unexpectedly thousands and increasingly tens of thousands of people were flocking into grounds to lend their support to their local football team.
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By 1882 spectators at football matches in Scotland were being referred to as ‘supporters’.

In 1872 Charles Alcock, honorary secretary and founder member of the Football Association, wrote a letter to The Herald newspaper in Glasgow soliciting for an international football match between Scotland and England: “In Scotland, once essentially the land of football”, Alcock wrote, “there should be still a spark left of the old fire.” The Scots took their time but eventually responded favourably and, after much toing and froing over the inevitable logistical difficulties involved in arranging such an event in mid-Victorian Britain, the first ever match of international association football took place on November 30, 1872, (St Andrew’s Day) at the West of Scotland cricket ground at Hamilton Crescent in Partick.

The result was a goalless draw, but the game attracted an impressive crowd of more than 4,000 paying customers and the match organisers, Queen’s Park F.C., made a healthy profit of £33, ensuring that, despite the lack of goals, there was certain to be a rematch. In fact, the fixture was played annually for the next 117 years, with interruptions only for war. Over the following few decades the newly codified sport would capture the imaginations of huge sections of the population with new clubs and leagues springing up in abundance, but the St Andrew’s Day fixture still represents something of a landmark in the history of football’s development. Alcock’s use of language is revealing however; what was the “old fire” he was referring to? And how, in reference to an age before football was properly regulated and codified in a form that would allow teams and players from different parts of the country to accept the game’s common set of rules, and pre-dating even the first ever international match, could Scotland be described as “once essentially the land of football”?

It’s clear that a form of football was played in Scotland at least as far back as the Middle Ages. Evidence suggests that this would have been a rough form of the game, testing one village’s reputation and honour against its neighbours. Contemporary written accounts in England describe a boisterous, marauding game where the object, the ‘goal’, was to work the ball (usually an inflated pig or sheep’s bladder), by whatever means necessary, into the opponent’s territory. It was frequently associated with disorder. In 1424 James I banned the game in Scotland, decreeing: ‘It is statut and the king forbiddis that na man play at the fute ball’, and repeated legislation in the same century testifies to the game’s capacity to worry the establishment. The attitude of the monarchy seems to have been ambivalent however, and succeeding kings appeared more tolerant. James IV is known to have attended a match arranged by noblemen for his benefit and in 1497 his accounts show two shillings being spent on rudimentary footballs in what is assumed to be a part of the traditional Shrove Tuesday festivities.

Somehow the game tenaciously managed to cling on to its popularity. English commanders guarding their northern borders in the 16th century were always on high alert whenever they knew a football match was taking place nearby. In an early precursor to the Tartan Army descending on Wembley, these matches were often the prelude to a southerly raid. Several centuries later Sir Walter Scott remarked that ‘it was not always safe to have football matches between villages – the old clannish spirit was too apt to break out.’ Clearly, though, the game still held some fascination for him. Another contemporary remark, attributed to Scott, claims that: ‘he would rather have seen his heir play gallantly at a football match on Carterhaugh, than heard that the boy had attained the highest honours of the first university in Europe’.

It’s clear that in those early days football was more popular in the east of the country than in the west. In Edinburgh a football club was formed in 1824, the earliest known club in the world. The club’s accounts can be viewed at The National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh and they show membership fees being used to buy goalposts (known as hail sticks), animal bladders and leather casings to make balls, as well as fields being hired to play games on. Later in his life, in the 1850s the chap who founded the club bought land in Stockbridge and allowed use of his field for youngsters to play football and other sports, the idea behind which was chiefly to keep young men away from the demon drink.

At Aberdeen Grammar School a game known by its Latin name, pila pedalis, was encouraged by the headmaster as far back as the 17th century, but for football to be properly codified and regulated it would take the English public school system to adopt and appreciate the game. It’s clear that by the middle of the 19th century there were two principal variants of the goal-orientated ball game in these schools, one in which participants picked up the ball and ran with it and another in which handling was not allowed. Rugby school came to favour the handling game that was eventually named after it, and some credence can be given to the story of a boy named Webb-Ellis picking up the ball and running with it when he wasn’t supposed to. Some of the later mythologising of the oval ball game though is perhaps less credible: “Is it a goal, sir?” “No son, but it was damn good try”, is a conversation which is unlikely to have ever taken place.

‘Games’ had become part of an English gentleman’s education by this stage. A series of evangelising headmasters saw physical activity as healthy, and in particular it would be considered a vital tool in protecting boys from themselves, from the perceived spiritual and moral dangers of lustful thoughts and the wandering hand of self-abuse – without question the deadliest sin of the Victorian era. The problem was, however, that these boys were all playing a different form of the game. When they moved on to their universities there was no mutually accepted, common set of rules which they could take with them and use to organise games by. At Cambridge committees were formed to try and resolve these dilemmas, but still, schools and their old boys often struggled to find opposition to play against.

The problem was finally resolved in 1863 at the Freemason’s tavern in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. This was the inauguration of the Football Association and over the course of six lively and often heated meetings (the Blackheath delegation famously stormed out after failing to persuade the other ten members to allow tripping, pushing and ‘hacking’) the rules of ‘association’ football were thrashed out and formally codified. It wasn’t quite the game we know today, but what these civilised young aristocrats had produced was a clean break with the code of rugby, and by 1866, with the abolition of the ‘fair catch’ or ‘mark’ rule and the legalisation of the forward pass, a rudimentary but recognisable version of association football had clearly emerged.

And it was rudimentary. The modern game, with its tactics and strategies, and its Opta-generated statistics, was utterly inconceivable in those early years. Formations, such as they were, initially consisted of one full back, two half-backs, and seven or eight dribblers. The man with the ball would try and make his way towards goal and, if he was stopped or lost the ball, the next man following up behind would take over and have a go himself. Thus the manly code of the English gentleman was preserved in the game through the contribution of the individual. The ‘team ethic’ existed only insofar as what the individual could contribute. These were the days of empire after all and a young man had to have a sense of duty. The idea of ‘passing’ on those duties and responsibilities to a teammate was not considered the proper form. After the 1872 encounter however, this approach was shown to be inadequate, because it wasn’t long before the Scots had developed the first major tactical innovation in the short history of the game – they started passing the ball to one another.

It’s easy to imagine the confusion of the English players in those early internationals of the 1870s; they would rush forward in order to stop and dispossess their opposite number, only for him to move the ball on to a team-mate before he could be tackled. It has been claimed that the development of the passing game was essentially a defensive tactic, to keep the ball off the stronger, quicker English team, but that’s only half the story. The Scots were canny, they believed the game should be played with their brains as well as their feet, and they moved the ball around accordingly. There was also a healthy dose of defiance in their strategy; for the most part the Scots were up against physically stronger opponents, but also a larger country with many times the population and many more clubs and players to choose from. Taunting the opposition by keeping the ball off them in this way will only get you so far however, eventually you have to make progress towards the opponent’s goal, and this led to the development of skill, that beautiful combination of guile and technique, to outwit the opposition and open up his defence; tricks, feints, dummies, combination plays, all these techniques were employed by the best of the early Scots players. Truly, Scotland was the first great team in the history of the still young game and these characteristics – defiance, canniness and a love of skill have persisted in the Scottish game right down to the present day.

A quick glance at the record books will reveal how successful the Scottish style became. The 0-0 scoreline of 1872 was seen as a moral victory for the Scots; their opponents were bigger and stronger and this physical prowess was considered an essential quality of a good player. England won the rematch in London the following March, but thereafter the Scots dominated the now annual encounters. Between 1874 and 1887 Scotland won 10 and drew three of the 14 fixtures, their only loss a preposterous 5 – 4 reverse in 1879 when they threw away a 4 – 1 lead, scoring the first ever international own goal in the process. There were some hefty thrashings inflicted on their rivals as well during this period: a 5 – 1 in 1882, a 6 – 1 in 1881, and a 7 – 2 in 1878 which remained England’s worst ever defeat until the magical Magyars of Puskas, Hideguti, Kocsis and co. handed them out a harsh 7 – 1 lesson in Budapest in 1954.

The Scots inflicted even heftier drubbings on Wales and Ireland during the same period, although to be sure the run was ended in spectacular fashion with a 5 – 0 English win in Glasgow in 1888. Their first away win in the fixture, England’s victory was orchestrated by John Goodall, who would go on to inspire Preston North End to an unbeaten title in the inaugural season of the Football League in the same year, and who was in fact Scottish. It was to be a sign of things to come however, as England in the 1890s fought back, winning six of the 10 encounters and drawing two.

The formation of the Football League, the onset of professionalism, and the embracing of the game by the urban working class all helped to take English football to a new level, but still, the Scots had established a lead in the head-to-head which would not be overtaken until England won 2 – 0 at Wembley in 1983. Not bad for a small country with a tenth of the population. What the Scots had apparently discovered, even at a time when the Labour movement was still in its infancy, was that football, through teamwork and hard graft, contained within it what Bill Shankly later called “a form of socialism, without the politics”, and that this philosophy and style of play could be successfully put to use against the game’s aristocratic pioneers. The earliest Scottish footballers seem to have developed, almost from the very outset, an instinctive understanding of the game; not just of its geometry and its dimensions but also of its innate capacity to rise above itself, transcend mere sport and become something altogether more profound and significant. In the words of journalist Patrick Barclay, the Scots’ ‘combination game’ was “the original pattern from which everything worthwhile in football – from the mid-European flair that culminated in England’s humbling by Hungary at the old Wembley in 1953, to the 1970 Brazilians, to the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola – has been designed.”

By 1872 organised football was still largely restricted to the public schools, both in Scotland and in England. Alcock had devised the FA Cup, based on an ‘inter-mural’ knock-out competition from his days at Harrow which was won, in its earliest years, by alumni teams from the schools and the universities. Similarly in Scotland, the Cup was dominated by the great Glasgow amateur team, Queen’s Park. Queen’s were founded in 1867 and, until the SFA was established in 1873, they effectively ran the game in Scotland, fulfilling the role of the governing body by organising fixtures and providing players. It was Queen’s, much more than Celtic or Rangers, who ensured that the hub of Scottish football shifted from the east of the country, where the game had originally been more popular, to the west where it resides today.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s however new clubs were springing up all across Britain, most of whom will be familiar to us today: Rangers first appeared in 1872, Hearts in 1874 and Hibernian in 1875. Hibs were, as the name suggests, an Irish club and their application to join the SFA was initially rejected on the grounds that the Association was for “Scotchmen, not Irishmen”. However the SFA eventually relented and Hibs’ victory in the 1887 Scottish Cup Final in Glasgow was so heartily celebrated that the Irish in that city were moved to form their own club. Thus Celtic arrived on the scene in 1888, relatively late in the day, a full quarter of a century in fact after the inaugural meeting of the FA.

As much as anything else, the founding of a club in a poor area of Glasgow’s east end, to provide support for, and largely supported by, scorned and impoverished aliens reveals the extent to which the game had shifted away from its patrician origins over the course of the previous 25 years. During this period the game was being gradually and inexorably embraced by the urban working class, who, hassled and exhausted by the relentless progress of the Industrial Revolution, were captured by the game’s rugged beauty, its simplicity and its essential fairness. In a football match the toffs could be challenged and beaten at their own game in a way that wasn’t always possible in the real world of the rigid, late Victorian class system.

It gave ordinary, working people, and the Scots in particular, a rare opportunity to show that they were in fact every bit as clever and just as talented as their supposed betters. It’s hard to think of another sphere or walk of life where such an occasion would be allowed to present itself. Football provided lessons in life as well as identity, belonging and a civic sense of local pride. Suddenly and unexpectedly thousands and increasingly tens of thousands of people were flocking into grounds to lend their support to their local football team. This was an altogether new phenomenon. To be sure the ruffian “folk games” (mob games) that pitched villages against their neighbours would have been “supported” in a partisan fashion by local townsfolk. But in the 19th century these country traditions were being swept aside by the relentless march towards urban industrialisation. Some of the earliest organised clubs had so many members (and so few prospective opponents) that matches were arranged between the club’s own players (married v single, tall v short, handsome v ugly… anything to get a game of football). This is how Queen’s Park initially operated. But gradually, as more and more clubs appeared on the scene, local rivalries began to develop, which only added to the fervour and enthusiasm of spectators.

An early example is provided by Sheffield FC, the oldest club in the world still in existence, who came to be challenged for local supremacy by a club called Hallam, from a suburb of the city and an altogether more inclusive institution than the ‘gentlemen only’ Sheffield. Thus, class was established as a significant early factor in determining the demographic make-up of a club’s support. On occasion this led to tension and in 1862 a match between the two clubs was interrupted when the crowd spilled onto the pitch and confronted the players, who, according to the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, “were surrounded by partisans, and for a few minutes there was every appearance of a general fight among players and spectators.” Despite these occasional, spontaneous outbreaks there is no evidence of organised hooliganism in early British football.

The codification of the laws of the game in 1863 made things easier for clubs and spectators alike. A common set of rules could now be adopted, so fixtures were easier to arrange with clubs from different parts of the country and there was more opportunity for people to watch football and for allegiances to develop. The arrival of the football fan was expedited by a number of factors; by law, all factory activity now had to end by 2pm on a Saturday, allowing for the first time the skilled working classes to enjoy a period of leisure time, which could be spent on football.

Under the Education Act all children were taught how to read and write and this led to a great uptake in the readership of newspapers, which of course were full of football. The game was covered in dedicated sports columns and increasingly in Saturday night football specials. By the 1890s the London Standard was able to report: “In many of the great industrial centres football is the staple subject of daily conversation – in fact little else is spoken of.” Journalist and author David Conn provides a memorable explanation of the rising popularity of football in his book The Football Business: “Only a game, simple to play, football was unleashed among a new, harassed working class, bringing within it the very soul of freedom, the breath of a less restricted life. It had skill and cunning and strength, a flow which was exciting and easy on the eye, like a chase; it was intensely competitive, it required sustained effort, stamina, determination, and then there was the intense, uproarious release of the ‘goals’. The game was magic. In the 1880s and 1890s it spread among the working classes like a life-enhancing drug.”

In Scotland in particular a growing appreciation of the game was being fostered by spectators. The 1872 meeting between Scotland and England was such a success that the fixture, the jewel in the crown of the ‘Home Internationals’ championship, became part of the fabric of British society for the next century and more. Graphic magazine provided contemporary illustrations of the game and besuited gentlemen in top hats can be seen in the 4,000 strong crowd, which was augmented by Queen’s Park’s astute organisational skills, running buses from the city centre out to Partick. Spectators “applauded enthusiastically, but, owing to their strong national feeling, not altogether impartially”, reported Graphic.

Previously between 1870 and 1872 Alcock had organised international matches, now seen as unofficial, which were played at the Oval between England and a team of London-based Scots. In the first game the ‘London Scottish’ team scored a goal and Bells Life noted it was received “amid vociferous applause from the canny Scots, who represented no small portion of the spectators”. By 1882 spectators at football matches in Scotland were being referred to as ‘supporters’. At a game between Arbroath and Dundee East End, the hosts overturned a 3 – 0 deficit to triumph 4 -3. The Dundee Courier & Argus reported: “The unexpected turn made the hearts of the Arbroath supporters (and they were not few) jubilant. An extraordinary amount of party spirit was displayed, every little bit of real play by the Arbroath being cheered to the echo.” Truly the age of the football fan had arrived.

In the latter half of the 19th century the game finally slipped through the fingers of the ruling elite gentlemen who had codified the game and was embraced across the country by the urban proletariat. Attendance figures at FA Cup finals during this period chart the transformation and growth of the game: 2,000 (1872); 6,500 (1882); 15,000 (1886); 33,000 (1892); 66,000 (1897); 111,000 (1901). As a contemporary Daily News report stated: “Nobody who witnesses a match between first class teams can wonder at the hold which football has obtained upon the affections of the people, and few would go away without having suddenly acquired an interest in the game.”

By the time the Football League was inaugurated, devised by Aston Villa’s forward thinking Scot William MacGregor in 1889 the representative clubs were all from Northern and Midland industrial towns. There wasn’t an Old Etonian or an Oxbridge alumnus in sight. By now professionalism was well and truly established, if not entirely unopposed. The belated attempt to hang on to the old amateur ethos was seen as a last stand by the public school lobby, however teams like Wanderers, Rifle Volunteers, Swifts etc. were simply overwhelmed by the popularity of the game they had unleashed. Queen’s Park at least survive to this day, unlike Alcock’s Old Harrovians, still playing out of Hampden Park and retaining their amateur status.

Professionalism led to a steady stream of Scots heading South, a trend which has continued to the present day. Any self-respecting English club had to have at least one Scot on their books and indeed many had several (the all conquering Liverpool team of the 1980s for example had Nicol, Gillespie, Hansen, Dalglish and Souness), because quite simply, the Scots were the best players, and increasingly the best coaches too. Over a sustained period of time it is possible to see and appreciate the Scottish influence on England’s most successful clubs, in the north west for example, where the contributions of Scottish players and managers has had an incalculable effect on the success of clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United. This stands in marked contrast of course, as any Newcastle or Sunderland fan will admit with regret, to clubs from the North East, who have enjoyed only meagre success down the years and where the wholehearted influence of Scots has, despite the geography, been minimal.

It was this combination of the game’s essential magic, its fairness and its team ethos, blended with the wider, social context that it was played out in – the provision of identity and a sense of belonging – that the Scots instinctively seem to have grasped from the very start. The public schoolboys of England may have codified the game (they certainly didn’t invent it), and they may have had some noted players, but the concept of the beautiful game which captured the world was embraced and understood in particular by the Scots and, having established their hegemony, they were ready to disseminate their understanding and love of the new game to the regions of England, over into Europe and out into an unsuspecting world. Thanks largely to the Scots the great game of football was about to go global.

This article first appeared in Issue 6 which was published in December 2017.

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