Before England’s 1,000th, the story of the first full football international

By on November 13, 2019

“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 skilful 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 prepare for their 1,000th game, 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 travelling 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 over 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.

The Manchester Guardian’s 124-word report (plus teams) from the first international, from 2 December 1872. On the same page, coverage of the Birmingham Cattle Show ran to almost 700 words. Photograph: The Guardian

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 ever 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”.

Ticket to the first international – admission was one shilling for men, but was free for women and the Scotsman observed: ‘a good number of ladies’ in the crowd.

Ticket to the first international – admission was one shilling for men, but was free for women and the Scotsman observed: ‘a good number of ladies’ in the crowd. Photograph: Lordprice Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

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 travelled 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 favour 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).

Match 100: England 2-0 Wales

A game of firsts. George Holley and Bert Freeman scored their first international goals on their debut international appearances in the first (and only) England international played at the City Ground.

Match 200: England 3-0 Germany

Part of George Camsell’s very brief but very prolific spell (nine caps, 18 goals) with the national side. The Middlesbrough striker scored twice as England faced Germany on home soil – White Hart Lane to be precise – for the first time, winning comfortably.

Match 300: England 3-0 Northern Ireland

Walter Winterbottom’s side were grateful for a second-half Dennis Wilshaw double and Tom Finney’s late third at Wembley to get their 1955-56 Home Championship campaign kickstarted. It was to no avail, though – a draw against Scotland meant all four sides shared the trophy, the only time they did so in the competition’s 100-year history.

Match 400: Finland 0-3 England

England began their final preparations for the World Cup with a comfortable win in Helsinki (their final three warm-up games over the next couple of weeks would take them to Oslo, Copenhagen and Chorzow in Poland). Nine of the 11 that started at the Olympiastadion in Helsinki would start against West Germany at Wembley just over a month later.

Match 500: Scotland 2-1 England

The 1975-76 Home Championship boiled down to a winner-take-all affair at Hampden and Scotland, in their 70s heyday, proved too good for Don Revie’s side. Mick Channon opened the scoring for the visitors but Don Masson and Kenny Dalglish ensured victory for the home side in front of over 85,000.

Match 600: Scotland 1-0 England

Another landmark game for England, another victory for Scotland, this time in the inaugural Rous Cup. Richard Gough nodded home the only goal with 20 minutes to go in a game notable for early England caps for Chris Waddle and Gary Lineker.

Match 700: England 3-0 Poland

Les Ferdinand, Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce scored the goals as Graham Taylor’s England kept their World Cup 1994 qualifying hopes alive. A later in the autumn, though, it was “Do I not like that”, Gualtieri’s first-minute goal and time for Terry Venables.

Match 800: Liechtenstein 0-2 England

England’s uninspiring Euro 2004 qualifying campaign continued with a flat win over the minnows in Vaduz. A Michael Owen header and a trademark David Beckham free-kick were all Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side could muster. But qualification still proved a breeze.

Match 900: Montenegro 2-2 England

Fabio Capello’s England let a two-goal lead slip in Podgorica but still claim the point they need to qualify for the Euros. The main talking point, though, is Wayne Rooney’s red card for kicking Miodrag Dzudovic which ruled him out of the first two games of the finals.

England grew into the game and with the slope in their favour 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 the 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% 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.

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