One was a popular wine merchant who was well known around the streets of 19th-century Sheffield, as a talented sportsman who excelled as an athlete and a cricketer. His best friend was a solicitor of a silver-plate company, a member of the Clarkhouse Road Fencing Club and founded the Hallamshire Rifles, which later saw him become a Knight.
The chances are, you have never heard of William Prest and Sir Nathaniel Creswick. But the two contrived to give us perhaps the most important gift this city, and maybe the world, has ever received: football.
The pair were keen cricketers and took part in informal games of ‘foot-ball’, two years before they officially formed Sheffield FC on October 24, 1857. Sheffield’s reputation as the birthplace of football was sealed forever, and many of the ‘Sheffield Rules’ - including innovations like the crossbar, throw-ins and corners - helped shape the modern game as we know and love it today.
But is Sheffield’s standing in the game given the recognition it deserves? And do the fans, the authorities and the media do enough to champion the Steel City’s cause?
I would suggest no, on both points. Sure, Sheffield FC do a superb job marketing themselves as the World’s First Club, receiving the FIFA Order of Merit (one of only two clubs in the world, alongside Real Madrid) and sealing global tie-ups with the likes of German giants, Borussia Dortmund. But when the Football Association celebrated its 151th birthday earlier this year (formed six years after Sheffield FC) there was, and still is, no mention of the Steel City’s influence. Indeed, the FA’s website, helpfully, points out that ‘The Football Association, English football’s governing body, was formed in 1863. ‘Organised football’ or ‘football as we know it’ dates from that time.’
Ignoring the fact, of course, that four Sheffield FC officials were present when the FA was formed, and that it was Club’s chairman at the time, William Chesterman, who advised them to drop rules which encouraged hacking and running with the ball in the hand.
So thanks a bunch, William and Sir Nathaniel, for giving us the first codified rules of the game, the first crossbar, throw-in, corner-kick; for setting up the first football club, utilising the world’s first football ground - Hallam’s Sandygate - and instigating the world’s oldest derby game, between Sheffield FC and Hallam. But we’ll take it from here, and claim the game as our own. Football had been codified - and, indeed FA, ‘organised’ - in Sheffield for six years before October 26, 1863, when the FA claims that the ‘Founding Fathers met to form the first set of rules’. Besides their use of ‘Founding Fathers’ making the world’s most popular sport sound like some sort of American fraternity, where were their messages of support when Sheffield FC celebrated their 157th birthday earlier this year?
Brazilian website Goal.com ran an article. Bild, Germany’s biggest newspaper, published a piece on Club. But the FA, not for the first time, were strangely conspicuous in their absence.
So, as we prepare to bid goodbye to another year of football dominating the headlines for reasons good and bad, forgive this column for shamelessly blowing the trumpet of those who gave us the game in the first place.
For the remarkable list of ‘firsts’ are not restricted to Sheffield FC. The city held the first ever cup competition, 1867’s Youdan Cup; boasted the first ever floodlit football game back in 1878, held at Bramall Lane; formed the first ever club called United in 1889, and still has the only England side called Wednesday. Since then, Bramall Lane - the oldest professional ground still in use - witnessed the first radio broadcast in 1927 and saw the first goal of the Premier League era a lot more recently.
The roll-call of honours goes on and on. But there is nothing ‘real’, beyond tales of a bygone era, to educate about Sheffield’s past. United have an excellent ‘Legends of the Lane’ facility with shirts, caps and medals at Bramall Lane. But where is the museum displaying, celebrating similar achievements of Wednesday and showing off the story of how the game grew from its humble beginnings right here in our city?
Did Sheffield offer to host the National Football Museum when it was moved from its previous base at Preston’s Deepdale ground, because of a lack of funding? It would be interesting to find out if it was ever a serious possibility. The city seems a natural choice.
Instead, it resides in Manchester, who can boast two of the most successful sides of recent memory. But football, regardless of what Sky will have you believe, began well before 1992 and the Premier League era. Sheffield FC, currently playing out of the city at Dronfield, have long harboured ambitions to return to the city - possibly to Olive Grove, their first home - but is enough being done to help them? There are, of course, ways that clubs can help themselves, too. It has always baffled me why clubs such as Club, Hallam and Stocksbridge kick off at almost identical times to our two giant professional football clubs. Why not instead, have a word with fixture planners and kick off at 12noon on Saturdays, allowing fans to come to the game, have a reasonably-priced beer and pie before heading off to Bramall Lane or Hillsborough? The same applies for midweek games. Could these not be scheduled for Wednesday instead of Tuesday?
The days of United fans heading to Hillsborough on alternate weekends, and vice-versa, are long gone. Football has simply become too tribal. But what is stopping Blades and Owls becoming fans of Club/Hallam/Stocksbridge/Handsworth Parramore, too?
Sheffield, as a city, has so many cultural highlights, so much to offer. But one of its most unique qualities is also one of its biggest weaknesses; an almost-innate modesty. Sheffielders are proud of where they come from, but don’t like to brag about it. Trouble is, this means outsiders simply may not know what we have to offer... especially where sport is concerned. Visit the ‘Welcome to Sheffield’ attraction website, for example, and none of the ‘10 things to do’ are remotely connected to sport. Instead, there is a giant greenhouse, one-third of the Peak District and Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire.
The ‘Sport’ section of that site, meanwhile, says ‘i n Sheffield, sport is more passion than play’. And then features three climbing facilities, and four golf courses. No mention of the two proud professional clubs. Not a peep about the world’s oldest club, oldest derby and oldest ground. And no word on William Prest and Sir Nathaniel Creswick, two Sheffield legends in every sense of the word.
So, as that great footballing philosopher Mike Bassett almost once said, Sheffield invented the game of football and gave it to the world.
Now we’ve gotta go out there and bring it back.