Saturday, 23 February 2008

Edinburgh's claim on football

The Times, February 23, 2008

The passions aroused by the oldest sporting rivalry in the world are strong enough to ensure that in the 21st century “friendly” matches are still no longer scheduled between Scotland and England – so now enthusiasts for the game north and south of the border are going to war over the question of who gave football to the world.

These are matters of fierce sporting pride and in Yorkshire, they have no doubt about the truth. This year Sheffield FC has been celebrating its 150th season, its status as the oldest club in the world recognised by the Football Association and by FIFA, the game’s international governing body.

So strong is Sheffield’s claim that Pele, the world’s most famous footballer, was persuaded to kick off a celebration match between the English non-league side and Inter-Milan (the home team lost 2-5). Later, Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, attended the club’s anniversary dinner at Cutler’s Hall and there was a service of thanksgiving in the city’s cathedral.

But a challenge is coming from the north, where supporters of Edinburgh Foot-Ball Club, founded by John Hope in 1824, believe that they have the documents which will rewrite history and prove that their team is the oldest in the world.

Scottish researchers insist that Hope’s lifelong commitment to the game ensured that a set of rules was established and a wide cross section of Edinburgh society was playing the game long before Sheffield FC was even a glint in its founders’ eyes.

Just to rub in that Scottish sense of superiority, the Edinburgh club was re-established last week, and the lure of its unique heritage has already won it a sponsorship deal from Umbro, the international kit manufacturers.

“This club offered the first organised provision of football in the world,” said Kenny Cameron, the 27-year-old youth worker who has revived the club. “Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, wherever – they all took the lead from Edinburgh. Fair play to Sheffield, they’ve made a good commercial go of it over the years. But the documents are there which say the Edinburgh Club was there 33 years before they were formed.”

The Scottish case is built on Hope, a 17-year-old trainee lawyer when he staked his claim to sporting history.

Four pocket books and three bundles of papers in the National Archives of Scotland record his club’s activities. Subscriptions were set at 1s 6d (7½p) and there were 85 members in 1826-27 season, most of them wealthy young professionals.

Like a golf club, games were organised among members, rather than against other opponents. There were rudimentary rules, though the sport probably resembled the rough and tumble of earlier forms of football far more than “the beautiful game” that conquered the world in the 20th century.

Though his club folded in 1841, when Hope and his contemporaries succumbed to bad knees and pot bellies, he emerged again in the late 1840s as a promoter of a Society for Juvenile Abstainers, and was soon popularising the game among young working men as an alternative to drink.

By then Hope was a wealthy lawyer and a philanthropist. He established Stockbridge Park, near Raeburn Place, and set aside an area for football. He encouraged the young members of his temperance group to divide according to occupation and form teams, establishing a new kind of footballing network, in an era when organised sports were largely confined to the public schools.

By 1854 there was even a new set of rules, the first of which stated: “There must be no kicking of shins nor tripping for these are apt to produce quarrels or hurts and do not form part of the game.”

Richard McBrearty, a curator at the Scottish Football Museum said that Hope was innovating as he spread the game. “He was not seeking to promote the rules within his own club, but to get them out among the working men. We realise that this is a sensitive subject [in Sheffield]. But this is a story we have to talk about – it is important for our museum and for Scottish football,” said Mr McBrearty.

The sensitive side of Rich Tims, the chairman of Sheffield FC, remained well hidden however, when he brushed off Edinburgh’s claims, ahead of his team’s difficult Unibond league fixture today at home to Retford United.

“Various organisations, clubs, countries and towns have come out of the woodwork and said ‘We are older than you, blah, blah blah” said Mr Tims. “I think the guys in Edinburgh will have to go and prove that their rules are any relation at all to the rules now, if FIFA and the FA are going to change their minds.”

Mr Cameron remained bullish. “Sheffield can be the oldest continuously-playing club in the world all they want, but Edinburgh is the oldest club. They had Pele kick of a football match – we have contacted Alex Salmond.”

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