FOOTBALL HISTORY (2): Sheffield, the FA CUP and the beginning of refereeing

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In this post we continue with our series about football history seen from the perspective of the Laws of the Game evolution. In the first part, which you can read again by clicking here, we revised the main football precursors and how their ideas were developing until 1863, date of the birth of the considered as the first football rules.

There is still a long way to go in the exciting history of this sport in which technical and, in the recent years, technological innovations have come one after another until configuring football just as we know it today. How could someone imagine that Medieval Football would progress so fast in one and a half century, an evidently short amount of time if we consider the whole humankind history? If we could travel in time to talk with the first referees about tools that they will use in the future such as CloudLab in order to improve their on-field performance from every place, they would charge us of witchcraft at least.

Talking about referees, this new post will answer some questions that surely lots will have thought: When did they appear for the first time? What functions did they have at their beginning? Were they the principal authority over the field of play?

Rules of Sheffield

We finished the first post about football history talking about the 13 original football rules, which they did not achieve the full unit that they creators expected to have in order to help the emerging sport take off. At the same time that the Rules of Cambridge were written, Sheffield clubs created their own code to dispute football matches.

The Steel City, another character of the cult movie The Full Monty and cradle of artists like Joe Cocker or Arctic Monkeys, saw the birth of the Rules of Sheffield together with the considered by FIFA as the oldest football club in the whole world: Sheffield FC. Nowadays, this team is forgotten in the eight division of English football in the shadow of the fierce rivalry that confronts Sheffield United (which was promoted in 2019 to the Premier League) and Sheffield Wednesday (which remains in the second category of English football). But there is something that both teams cannot show off and that equalises Sheffield FC with Real Madrid: both are the only teams awarded with the FIFA Order of Merit.

The fact that a football team was called Wednesday could fulfil an entire post, but let´s come back to the Rules of Sheffield, which is what we are interested of and which continued their development until the definitive affiliation of Sheffield Association into The FA in 1878.

Despite the ideas of Sheffield were practically ignored when the first Laws of the Game were created by The Football association, the truth is that in subsequent modifications lots of the Sheffield’s postulates were adopted: the elimination of the rugby-like offside, the prohibition of scoring a goal from a throw-in, the introduction of the crossbar and corner kicks, the change of the side of play at the break and not after each goal or the fair catch abolition show that Sheffield was a step forward in the necessary innovation to settle a football code and distinguish it from rugby, which also started to take off back then

Deciding innovations

In our post about strategy and tactic we mentioned that at the dawn of football formations that included eight strikers were used, and it was just because of the initial offside rule that did not allow that the player was in front of the ball at the moment it was kicked. In rugby, it is usual that the majority of the players queue up in a line for this reason, both in attack and specially in defence, so it is logical that this was copied at the beginning of football.

From captains to umpires

We have talked a lot about rule changes, about the different codes that regulated football at its dawn… Without fear of being wrong, we can define the beginning of this sport as chaotic. In fact, before Sheffield joined The FA a match between Sheffield FC and a mixed team with players of The Association was disputed. The first thought that the match would be played with their rules, the second understood that would be played with their rules… Finally, the match was played with The FA rules but, when the later wanted to do a second game, Sheffield FC flatly denied.

This problematic turned into the necessity of a person judging the actions of the matches. Yes, it was nice to rely on the players recognising their offences with honesty and that they would never have absolutely crazy ideas such as simulate in order to take advantage of the rules…

Nice, but too much idealized. Actually, every rule is interpretable, so discussions between both teams could be a never-ending story if each team understood the play in a different way. In other words, what nowadays happen in a bar each weekend between rivalry fans was extrapolated to the field of play each time a debatable play happened.

The initial answer to this nonsense was a bigger one: create the figure of the umpires, a kind of refereeing delegates who were placed behind each goal. The problem is that those umpires were the captains of each team, putting into context that in that period the captains had all the functions that you can think: we could define them as the jack-of-all-trades of the team. In their position, they waited until a controversial action that players could not resolver happened to enter in the field of play and to argue between both umpires.

It was considered that these umpires had a complete knowledge of the rules and they were long-standing prestige men, so they were absolutely capable of forgetting that they belong to one of the teams involved in the match…However, it is curious to point out that one of their main tasks was to be a rudimentary Goal-Line Technology, taking into account that they were placed in the goal were their team attacked. In case of doubt, could they really be impartial and not award a goal to the team that they lead?

The first competitions and the first referees

Actually, this situation could not be maintained for a long time. In 1871 a decision about umpires was urgent because of the creation of the first football competition in history, the FA Cup. The answer was that they started to be neutrals, but not only that: the figure of the referee was also created as the final judge of a confrontation, although the idealization that we talked about above was not completely abandoned.

First, it was trusted that the players could resolve their conflicts and, if they did not achieve that goal, captains came into play. If both could not reach an agreement, the umpires made a decision…Unless they did not think the same. In this case, the referee, based on what he had observed and listened outside the field of play, had the final say about the play. VAR is criticised because sometimes it takes a long time to make a decision, but comparing VAR to this procedure…

Quickly they noticed that this system was not as effective as it was expected, ending the debate in the configuration that we know today: a main referee and two assistant referees, known as linesmen at the beginning (and nowadays, this name is still commonly used). However, we will talk in depth about this in the next post about football history.

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