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As England Played its 1,000th, the Story of the First Full Football International

As England Played its 1,000th, the Story of the First Full Football International

Saturday, 16 November, 2019 - 08:00
A hand-colored engraving depicting scenes from the first international. (Getty Images)
London - Simon Burnton

“The laws of the Association game are exceedingly simple, numbering only 12, as against some 40 in the Rugby code,” wrote the Scotsman. “One of the principal differences consists in the entire prohibition of the use of the hands, except by the goalkeeper for the protection of his goal, thus making the skillful and always pleasing ‘dribble’ one of the best points of the game. A goal is scored when it is kicked under the tape, the ball not being allowed to be carried, thrown, or knocked in. Hacking, tripping, holding or charging an adversary from behind are among things forbidden. Such are some of the differences of the two styles of play, and it will readily be admitted that the Association game is one which will commend itself to players who dread the harder work of the Rugby mode.”


It says a lot about the status of association football in Scotland in the 1870s that the country’s biggest daily paper was among several publications which felt the need to explain the rules in their report on what is now accepted as the first full international. As England prepared for their 1,000th game against Moldova on Thursday, very little – not even the rules – remains unchanged from that day in November 1872 when their XI faced Scotland’s at the West of Scotland Cricket Ground in Glasgow.


There was not even a Scottish FA, still four months away from creation, so it is just as well that, as the Scotsman also said, “the task of selecting the Scotch team was an easy one, seeing that only about 10 clubs play the game in Scotland”. Of those there was only one of any note – Queen’s Park provided most of the squad, with two players coming from a smaller Glasgow side, Granville, and two more traveling north from South Norwood. Glasgow Rangers had been formed earlier that year but there was no Celtic, no Hearts or Hibs, and Aberdeen’s first game was more than three decades away.


The attention and excitement generated by these early internationals transformed the sport. The first of them attracted what the Scotsman proclaimed “the largest assemblage seen at any football match in Scotland”. They estimated the number of people present at 4,000 – “including a good number of ladies” (entry cost a shilling, but was free for women). There was no official figure, but the Greenock Telegraph guessed at 2,500 while the Field described a “muster of spectators vastly in excess of anything usually witnessed, the numbers gradually increasing until it was computed that upwards of five thousand were present”. Gate receipts suggest the lowest estimate was closest to the truth.


Interest in the game was not exactly universal: it says a lot about the status of association football in England in the 1870s that the Guardian’s match report ran to 124 words and after setting the scene and detailing the composition of the teams, the section that actually described the match read, in its entirety, as follows: “The game, which occupied an hour and a half, was vigorously contested, and when time was called the umpires ruled that the match was drawn.” The same page featured a significantly longer report on the Birmingham Cattle Show (“the twenty-fourth annual show of fat cattle, sheep, pigs, roots, corn and implements”). The Times dedicated most of a page to the cattle, and completely ignored the football.


One of the most curious things about the first international is that it was actually the sixth. The previous five had been played at the Kennington Oval in London, and though the Football Association tried to tempt the best players down from Scotland – Charles Alcock, their honorary secretary and captain of England in these early games, wrote a series of letters to Scottish newspapers, inviting “any Scotch player desirous of contending” – those who ended up representing Scotland were largely based in London. The Scotland side for the very first of these games, played in March 1870, included two sitting MPs, both of whom represented English constituencies. The Scotsman railed against “the assumption of a few men in London to represent Scotland”, and they were not alone.


After the second match in November 1870, a letter was published in the Scotsman calling on Scottish clubs to start providing a proper selection, as “we can scarcely close our eyes to the fact that the contest was at the best between the picked eleven of all England clubs and the best eleven Scotch players who happen to be resident in the metropolis”. Alcock responded, insisting that “the right to play was open to every Scotchman” and that if not enough were involved “the fault lies on the heads of the players of the north”.


Whoever was to blame, the lack of actual Scottish Scots tainted the early games and has led to their retrospective relegation to the status of glorified friendly; the Scotsman later described these matches as “partaking somewhat of an international character”. Then in March 1872, Queen’s Park traveled to London for a much-hyped FA Cup semi-final against Alcock’s club side, Wanderers, which proved that proper internationals would be both possible and popular (even if the Scottish side, having secured a goalless draw, could not afford to stay in London for a replay and withdrew from the competition). A couple of their players stayed behind after that match for discussions about a possible Glasgow game and in October 1872 the FA officially decided to abandon the biannual London fixtures in favor of annual games at alternating venues, with Scotland hosting the first.


The match itself finished goalless, though the quality of play was widely praised. “It was allowed to be the best game ever seen in Scotland,” gushed the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Scotland had the advantage of the slope in the first half, and with most of the team being club teammates started the game strongly. Though England threatened on several occasions, the closest either side came to a goal in the opening period was in its final moments, when a shot from Scotland’s Robert Leckie was tipped just over the tape (crossbars were not yet a thing), with much of the crowd cheering in the belief that it had gone in (nets were also not yet a thing).


England grew into the game and with the slope in their favor dominated the second half, with Charles Chenery and Arnold Kirke Smith both hitting a post. The England captain, Cuthbert Ottaway, “astonished spectators by some very pretty dribbling”, and nobody seemed to care particularly about the lack of goals. “The result was received with rapturous applause by the spectators and the cheers proposed by each XI for their antagonists were continued by the onlookers until the last member of the two sides had disappeared,” wrote the Field. “The match was in every sense a signal success, as the play was throughout as spirited and a pleasant as can possibly be imagined.”


There have now been 114 international matches between England and Scotland, and only two more goalless draws; the next came in 1970. The idea of internationals quickly caught on – within six years games were attracting 15,000 people to the original Hampden Park; by the middle of the 1890s 57,000 people were crowding into Parkhead. A total of 1,244 people – or almost exactly 50 percent of the likely attendance for that first game – have now played for England. And it’s certainly been a while since the FA had to write to newspapers begging an opposition to turn up.


The Guardian Sport


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