The Origins of Football: History, Ideology and the Making of ‘The People's Game’

22 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2017

Date Written: February 1, 2015


Recent scholarship on the origins of association football has been marked by a highly ideological debate on its ‘class’ nature. The traditional story – of a game created by ‘gentlemen’ but taken up, and ultimately dominated, by ‘ruffians’ – has been challenged by a revisionist account which presents football as an ancient ‘people’s’ or ‘plebeian’ game, briefly hijacked by upper-middle class men in the mid-Victorian period, before returning to its ‘popular’ roots from the 1880s onwards. This article suggests that, as currently conducted, the debate is both conceptually confused and bedevilled by paucity of sources. The conceptual problems derive partly from an endemic vagueness in the historical use of the term ‘football’, and partly from a persistent tendency to conflate football play with rules of play. The paucity of sources is well-known in the study of football as a medieval and early modern folk pastime. But it is also an issue in studying early forms of club football. This article uses a hitherto underused source – the match reports of the earliest amateur football clubs in Britain – as part of an attempt to address the conceptual confusion and also to present a genuinely new account of the impact of traditional ‘folk’ football on the modern game. It is suggested that the impact was both real and very short-lived.

Keywords: Football, History, Victorian, Class

JEL Classification: N34, N94

Suggested Citation

Kitching, Gavin, The Origins of Football: History, Ideology and the Making of ‘The People's Game’ (February 1, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Gavin Kitching (Contact Author)

University of New South Wales ( email )


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