Football's Pioneers: Nathaniel Creswick & William Prest
During the mid-19th century, there was no national football culture. Instead, it was a local affair with different forms of football played all over Britain under various sets of rules. But the game was undergoing a process of modernisation and one city in particular was notable for its burgeoning footballing status: Sheffield.
Rather than London it was Sheffield where Britain’s first football culture was created and helped to form the game we know today.
The city became important first of all because it could boast the oldest and one of the most influential football clubs of the time. Sheffield Football Club was formed on 24 October 1857 by a group of ‘young gentlemen’ attached to the cricket club at Bramall Lane. The co-founders of the club, Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest, both came from wealthy backgrounds and later became Conservative politicians.
The elevated social standing of the club’s membership meant that it retained an influential position in the city’s football scene. Also significant was the club’s code of play, the ‘Sheffield Rules’, which was widely adopted by emerging teams in the city and beyond. These rules, first drawn up in 1858, were a mixture of kicking and handling but importantly they produced uniformity amongst other teams in the area.
Initially, Sheffield FC organised games amongst its members. On Boxing Day 1860, it played its first match against local opposition, defeating Hallam and Stumperlow 2-0. By 1861, there were eight teams with 11 the following year. Over a dozen clubs were active by 1862 and matches between Sheffield FC and their chief rivals, Hallam FC, drew considerable local interest with attendances sometimes reaching several hundred. In December 1862, a Sheffield-Hallam contest erupted into a general free-for-all, which included players and fans.
Such was the vibrancy of Sheffield’s football culture that some clubs began to field reserve sides and train regularly to improve their skills. In 1867, a knockout competition was staged, the Youdan Cup – donated by Thomas Youdan, a local music hall entrepreneur. It was won by Hallam FC who defeated Norfolk in front of a crowd of 3,000. The same year, Sheffield formed its own association consisting of 13 clubs.
Ironically, the rules advocated by Sheffield were far more akin to what was to become known as association football than those that were set out by the newly formed Football Association in 1863. Moreover, the Sheffield code anticipated many laws that the FA would late come to adopt such as neutral referees and the use of a crossbar.
The influence of Sheffield football spread further via representative matches with teams from Nottingham, Glasgow and Lincoln as well as the FA in London. Sheffield was a staunch supporter of the FA and helped to lift that organisation out of its then moribund state. For these reasons, the ‘steel city’ could justifiably lay claim to being the first genuine powerhouse of organised football.
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