Being a football fan is both a privilege and a burden. When you’re winning, it’s the best thing on Earth and, when you’re not, it’s the end of the world. And the thing about being a football fan is, whichever way fortune swings, you’re stuck with the game and your team for life. We’ve come to accept the great hold that football has on us. But how did this happen? How did we become so entirely wrapped up in the game? How did we become football fans?

Many of us can trace the lineage of our support through our fathers, our grandfathers and so on. But association football has only been around for 150 years. At some point, perhaps six or seven generations ago, our ancestors discovered and embraced the emerging game, developed affinities for individual clubs, cheered and sang and helped to initiate the fan culture that we’re part of today. But the roots of football fandom were established long before the association game was invented. 

In 1818, the editor of the Lancaster Gazette recalled a game that occurred around the end of the 18th century. “About 20 years ago,” he wrote, “I well remember being a spectator at a foot-ball match in the neighbourhood of London between 10 young men from Cumberland and 10 from Westmoreland. The sum played for was, I think, 20 guineas. The novelty of the diversion, as it may be thought, attracted a great number of spectators. The game was played with great spirit by both parties, who discovered an agility that surprised and astonished the honest Cockneys.”

These “honest Cockneys” were among the earliest of football spectators, but they can scarcely be called fans. They were instead curious bystanders, “surprised and astonished” at the scene they were witnessing. They had no connection with the men from Cumberland and Westmoreland, and no affiliation with either team. Nor, most likely, did they have a clear understanding of whatever antiquated rules the match was played by. Yet they were curious enough to attend and interested enough to watch, and perhaps entertained enough to make a mental note further to explore the game of foot-ball.

The most prevalent form of organised football during the first half of the 19th century was the folk or mob game, a rough-and-tumble contest that brought havoc to the streets of towns and villages across the country. The game, which could involve hundreds of players and last all day, must have been a compelling spectacle, with contemporary reports evoking something like a round ball version of the Pamplona bull run. An account in the mid-19th century Peter Parley’s Annual describes how people would watch the traditional Shrove Tuesday game at Derby: “Here the shops are found to be shut, and the houses all round are filled with spectators, men, women and children, crowding the windows and perching on the house-tops.”

It seems unlikely that these crowded spectators could have been impartial. Mob games were played between neighbouring villages, or between one end of a town and the other. There were rivalries involved and the spectators must have favoured their own friends and neighbours, offering them encouragement and cheers. It was natural that these early spectators would “support” their local team because, at a time before any real transport links had been established, few of them would ever venture beyond the confines of their own communities. The rest of the world were outsiders and innate rivals. Local or tribal affiliation would remain a key theme throughout the evolution of the football fan. 

For clear evidence of partisan support in early football, we can turn to the public school game, which was prevalent by the mid-1800s. Games were played between the school houses, which could draw upon their boarders for support. In 1852, Bell’s Life in London reported that a match at Harrow between the Middlemist and Simpkinson houses was “attended by a considerable muster of spectators”. At Eton in 1853, Bell’s described “a match for cock of college” between Mrs Drury’s and Mr Balston’s houses. “After much good play on both sides, Mrs Drury’s were hailed ‘cocks’ by a hearty cheer from the spectators, by obtaining three goals to two goals and one rouge,” reported the paper. A “match for cock”, by the way, was a public school cup match, while a rouge was method of scoring that resembled a touchdown.

The cheers of these early football spectators did sometimes turn to jeers. Describing an 1854 match at Eton between Mrs Drury’s and Rev Coleridge’s houses, Bell’s reported that “a most exciting match” had been won by Mrs Drury’s, “to the great satisfaction of the majority of the spectators.” However, the paper added: “We were sorry to hear the offensive shouts of one ‘Mackintoshed stranger’, which, however, were almost entirely drowned out by the universal supporters of the Druryites.”

Outside of the public schools, football clubs began to form. Initially, these clubs arranged matches between their own members, so there could be little real rivalry involved. Clubs such as Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 and regarded as the world’s oldest football club still in existence, split their members into teams using criteria such as “Tall versus Short” and “Married versus Single” (and, on at least one occasion, “Handsome versus Ugly”). Things moved on in 1860 with the formation of Hallam FC and the creation of football’s first local rivalry.

The first derby match was played at Hallam’s Stoneygate ground on Boxing Day 1860. Despite heavy snow, “a large number of spectators” saw Sheffield win 2-0. According to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, “The spirit exhibited by those who were present prevented the game from becoming uninteresting to the observers, who were extremely liberal with their plaudits on the successful ‘charge’ or quiet ‘dodge’, and equally unsparing in their sarcasm and country ‘chaff’ on the unfortunate victims of the slippery ground.” The dictionary definition of “chaff” is “banter”, which has therefore been associated with football since the very first club versus club match.

The rivalry between Sheffield and Hallam was based on more than just locality. Although based in a mainly working class industrial town, Sheffield FC was a middle-class club that had strong links with the public schools. Membership was restricted to “gentlemen”, with the Sheffield Daily Telegraph referring to Sheffield FC’s doctors, solicitors and architects as “the elite of the town”. “Its members are exclusively of the middle class,” the paper commented, “and its patrons and supporters include most of the leading men in the neighbourhood.”

Hallam FC had been formed with the specific intention of creating a more inclusive club. For the first time, class became an issue, with spectators drawn toward clubs that best represented their social groups. As the historian EP Thompson later noted, the working class had emerged from the industrial revolution as a disenfranchised and discontented group. Class “acquired a peculiar resonance in English life,” Thompson wrote. “Everything, from their schools to their shops, their chapels to their amusements, was turned into a battleground of class.”

In 1862, “a very fair number of spectators” attended a derby at Sheffield FC’s Bramall Lane. “The Hallam men played with great determination, and successfully defended their goal,” reported the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent. “They appeared to have many partisans present and when they succeeded in ‘downing’ a man, their ardent friends were more noisily jubilant.” At one point, a bout of fisticuffs between opposition players caused supporters to spill onto the pitch. “[The players] were surrounded by partisans, and for a few minutes there was every appearance of a general fight among players and spectators,” the paper reported.

In London, where the clubs that would go on to form the Football Association were establishing themselves, football supporters remained much more restrained. The influential Forest club, later renamed Wanderers, moved to a new ground in Leytonstone in 1863. A report from Bell’s suggests an idyllic scene, describing the ground as, “a large field with a noble avenue of trees running through it, which afforded a pleasant promenade for the spectators, of whom there was a goodly muster, including many of the fair sex, who added to the attractions of the sport.” 

After the formation of the Football Association, in October 1863, the game gradually became more organised and widespread. The publication of the FA’s Laws of the Game provided clubs with a universal set of rules, making it easier to arrange and play matches. New clubs emerged, fixture lists expanded, and there were more opportunities for people to watch football. 

Where attendances were recorded for London matches in the 1860s and 1870s, they rarely exceeded a few hundred. The five unofficial England versus Scotland “Alcock Internationals”, arranged by the FA secretary CW Alcock and played at the Oval between 1870 and 1872, attracted only around 600 paying spectators, many of whom were “away” fans. In the first match, Scotland scored a goal “amid vociferous applause from the ‘canny Scots’, who represented no small portion of the spectators”. 

The first official international match was played in Glasgow in November 1872 and this provided further evidence of the Scottish appetite for watching football. Special buses ran from the city centre to the West of Scotland Cricket Ground, and up to 4,000 spectators turned up to see Scotland and England draw 0-0. “They applauded enthusiastically, but, owing to their strong national feeling, not altogether impartially,” said the Graphic magazine.

Illustrations of the international, published in the Graphic, provide a vision of what early football fans looked like. Smartly dressed in shirts, ties and overcoats, they wear top hats and billycocks, and crowd right up against the rope that cordons the pitch. There are plenty of smokers among their number and lots of fashionable facial hair. The fact that those present appear well-to-do is likely related to the fact that tickets for the international cost around four times more than for a typical club match.

The first FA Cup Final, between Wanderers and Old Etonians in 1872, was watched by a crowd of 2,000. “There were not a great number of visitors at the Oval on Saturday afternoon,” commented Bell’s, “the reason being possibly that an admission fee of a shilling was charged.” In 1873, a London representative team travelled to Bramall Lane to play a Sheffield side and found a much larger crowd. “On arrival at the ground the Londoners must have been surprised to see the number of spectators who had mustered, there being no less than 5000,” reported the Sheffield Independent

That paper also gave an indication of the facilities provided for early football fans. “Bramall Lane is favourably adapted for football matches, both as regards the playing portion and the accommodation of spectators,” said the Independent. “The former is generally in good condition, and the gallery over the refreshment booths affords a capital view. A stand has been erected between Wright’s house and the booths, and between the latter and the east side of the ground earthworks have been thrown up, all of which were crowded with eager spectators.”

One can only speculate whether the Bramall Lane refreshment booths sold Bovril, which was marketed in the 1870s, rather unappetisingly, as “Johnston’s Fluid Beef”. Certainly, however, the Bramall Lane facilities were advanced at a time when duckboards placed over muddy ground were considered a luxury. After an 1873 FA Cup tie between Old Etonians and Swifts, Bell’s reported: “The afternoon was fine, and there was a pretty good number of visitors who were accommodated with boards to stand upon, an example which might be judiciously followed at other grounds, especially where a charge is made for admission.”

During the 1880s, the game experienced what the Penny Illustrated called a “rapid rise in popular favour”. Association football was now in its third decade, and a generation of young fans had grown up watching the game. But the rise of the football fan was also aided by two major pieces of legislation. Firstly, the various Factory Acts ordered that all work should end on a Saturday by 2pm. Secondly, the Education Act required all children to be taught to read and write. Workers had Saturday afternoons free to watch football and a growing audience could read about the game.

The new-found freedom on Saturday afternoons had a profound effect on the popularity of football in industrial towns. There were few pastimes available to them — the pub, the music hall, and now football. Ernest Ensor, writing in the National Review in the 1890s, said that the “astonishing increase” in the numbers of people watching football was “largely due to the dull monotony of life in our large towns”. “It is the absolute necessity of some change, some interest outside the daily work, which has long since ceased to be interesting, that causes the large crowds at the weekly matches,” he wrote.

Responding to Ensor’s article, the London Standard added that the press was also responsible for “a great deal of the extravagant excitement now displayed over football”. Britain’s growing audience of readers had created a newspaper boom and football coverage increased along with the game’s popularity, expanding across the sports columns and into Saturday night football specials. “By minutely discussing the merits and habits of individual players and in other ways some of the newspapers have fostered the interest in football until it has become nothing less than a mania,” said the Standard. “In many of the great industrial centres football is the staple subject of daily conversation – in fact little else is spoken of.”

It was around this time that many of modern football’s biggest clubs were founded. Most of them emerged from institutions — workplaces, churches, cricket clubs, schools — that provided ready-made bubbles of support. Manchester United was established in 1878 as Newton Heath LYR by workers at a Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot. Manchester City was originally St Mark’s, formed by the rector of a church in West Gorton. Arsenal was Dial Square, a works team from the Royal Armaments Factory in Woolwich, while Everton was a church team founded as St Domingo’s FC. Gradually, these clubs expanded beyond their institutions and began to represent their respective localities.

In order to attract supporters, emergent clubs placed posters in shop windows and ads in newspapers. One ad from 1882 promotes a match between Nottingham Forest and Small Heath Alliance (now Birmingham City):  

FOOTBALL! – OPENING MATCH.

Notts [sic] Forest v. Small Heath Alliance.

On Saturday next, September 23, 1882.

Kick-off at 4pm prompt.

Admission 3d. Reserve 2d extra.

Omnibuses to the ground every ten minutes.

A tent will be provided for the ladies.

By now, football spectators were being referred to as “supporters”. In 1882, after Arbroath came back from 0-3 down to beat Dundee East End 4-3, the Dundee Courier & Argus wrote: “The unexpected turn made the hearts of the Arbroath supporters (and they were not few) jubilant. An extraordinary amount of party spirit was displayed, every little bit of real play by the Arbroath being cheered to the echo.”

They weren’t yet being referred to as “fans”, although they could sometimes be fanatical. “The excitement was intense from the beginning, but language indulged in and the uncomplimentary epithets hurled at the players by fanatic partisans were only detrimental to the game of football,” remarked the Essex Standard after one particular match. The contraction “fan” originated in the US through baseball around the 1880s. Football supporters weren’t known as “fans” until the early 20th century.

Supporters weren’t being referred to as “customers” yet, either, but the commercial relationship between fans and clubs became more pronounced in the mid-1880s, following the legalisation of professionalism. In order to pay their players, clubs need to attract a sizeable number of supporters. Large “gates” allowed clubs to pay higher wages and attract better players. And, of course, better players drew more supporters. The arrival of the professional footballer also changed the make-up of teams, which were no longer comprised entirely of local men. But this didn’t affect the tribal nature of football support. 

The great sportsman, politician and almost-king of Albania CB Fry wrote about this in 1895. “The crowds who flock to see two football teams play in the North or Midlands like a good match,” said Fry, “but their predominating desire is to see their own champions win, and this desire is made the more intense by the fact that the players are fellow-townsmen with whom they are in touch, or whom perhaps they know personally. Nowadays, it is true, most of the Northern Association teams are composed of invaders from across the Border; but these are soon identified with their new home, and become to all intents and purposes natives.” 

By the time the Football League was founded in 1888, the typical admission fee was sixpence (equivalent to around £1.50 today), which wasn’t cheap considering the average weekly wage for a general labourer was only 13 shillings (around £35). Season tickets were relatively common and most League clubs had several hundred season ticket holders. The first examples of merchandise emerged at this time, too, with clubs selling match programmes and team photographs. For kids, there were comics offering football stories and player interviews, plus a brand new craze for collectible football cards. “No words of ours can adequately describe the present popularity of football with the public,” wrote Montague Shearman, in his 1887 book Athletics and Football. “It is no rare thing in the North and Midlands for 10,000 people to pay money to witness an ordinary club match, or for half as many again to assemble for a Cup Tie. If Aston Villa meet Notts County at Trent Bridge, special trains have to be run from Birmingham to carry the spectators who go over to see the match. The enthusiasm and excitement which follow each move in the game are unbounded. The writer has heard the roar that followed the scoring of a goal from a distance of more than half a mile.”

Shearman mentions special trains, and the expansion of the railways was another key factor in the development of the football fan. New transport links – train, tram and omnibus – allowed the catchment areas of clubs to grow, and allowed fans to travel to away matches. Railway companies advertised football specials in local newspapers, and they were hugely popular. Previously, supporters would have crowded outside local newspaper offices, waiting for score updates to be delivered via telegraph or carrier pigeon. Now they could embark on “cheap excursions” to faraway towns in order to support their heroes. 

“When the town to be visited is very remote, the journey has, of course, to be begun very early,” said the Sheffield Independent. “Aston Villa versus Sunderland, at Sunderland, means real hardship for the enthusiasts who start from Birmingham before day-break. That stupendous jaunt may be made for a very few shillings, and if the window is not clouded with human breath all the way, the mere spectacle of so much of England’s surface ought to be worth twice the money.”

Although travelling football fans were regarded with wariness, particularly by the London press when they descended upon the capital for cup finals, bad behaviour was generally limited to drunken boisterousness and there is no evidence of any organised hooliganism during football’s earliest years. Certainly there were spontaneous violent incidents, inside and outside of grounds. In 1885, following a match between Aston Villa and Preston North End, Villa fans objected to their 5-0 defeat by chasing the Preston players from the field. According to one witness, the players were pursued for half a mile by “2,000 howling roughs”. “Thicker and faster came the stones, showers of spittle covered us and we were struck at with sticks and umbrellas,” reported the witness. 

However, considering that football had evolved from a brutal mob game over just a few decades, early fans were relatively well-behaved. There was an argument that football prevented violence rather than encouraged it. “Since football became popular with all classes, there have been less wrenching off of knockers and ‘boxing of the watch’, and fewer free fights in the street,” wrote Montague Shearman. “Football has its national uses quite apart from the cheap enjoyment it has given to thousands.”

Alcohol also provided cheap enjoyment and it played an important part in the early matchday experience. Fans leaving work at lunchtime would quench their thirst by downing multiple pints of beer purchased from pushcarts outside their factories and foundries. Pre-match drinking continued in pubs on the way to the ground. “Happy is the publican who is installed near the entrances to football fields,” commented the Sheffield Independent. Football betting also became prevalent as the game’s popularity increased, with bookmakers setting up at grounds, and newspapers issuing score forecast coupons — a forerunner of the football pools. 

By the 1890s, the grounds of league teams had been developed and improved. Most had at least one grandstand, plus banked standing terraces that afforded spectators better views. Entry was gained by paying a gateman through a hole in a wall. Once inside, fans packed right up against the touchlines, with those at the back needing to crane their necks above a sea of hats. There were no replica strips, or even scarves, but some fans wore cardboard badges, featuring their team’s colours, pushed into their hatbands. 

While awaiting kick-off, fans enjoyed communal singing. Before the 1888 FA Cup Final between West Brom and Preston, the fans sang “Two Lovely Black Eyes”, “Rule Britannia” and “other ditties”. Then, once the game was underway, fans reacted with “savage enthusiasm”. “Every pass, every run, every shot at goal, was the signal for a deafening roar,” explained the Pall Mall Gazette. “Play up!” was a popular yell of encouragement. But negative aspects of the game would be met with “a hurricane of criticism”, containing no little profanity.

“The multitude flock to the field in their workaday dirt and with their workaday adjectives very loose on their tongues,” wrote Charles Edwards in the Victorian magazine The Nineteenth Century. “In Lancashire and the Black Country it is really surprising what a number of emphatic and even mysterious expletives may be heard on these Saturday afternoons. Their supporters often forget themselves in the ferocity of their cries. ‘Down him!’ ‘Sit on his chest!’ ‘Knock their ribs in!’”

Chiefly, though, contemporary sources credit early fans with unrestrained enthusiasm, “How keenly the onlookers watch the game! How well they appreciate and note every little display of science!,” wrote an anonymous ex-international in Chums in 1892. “A running fire of cheers accompanies a favourite player as he sprints and dodges down the line. The cries grow deeper as he nears the goal, and culminate in a very roar as he kicks the ball through it.”

The rise of the football fan and the growing popularity of the game can be tracked via FA Cup Final attendance figures. From 2,000 in 1872, attendances increased to 6,500 in 1882, 15,000 in 1886, 33,000 in 1892, and 66,000 in 1897. At the 1901 final, the attendance was almost 111,000. League matches were less well-attended, but by the beginning of the 20th century top first division clubs were attracting average crowds of around 20,000. “There is no mistake about it,” wrote Charles Edwards, “the exercise is a passion nowadays and not merely a recreation.”

Then, as now, football was compelling and addictive and, 150 years after its invention, it’s easy to appreciate how our ancestors became hooked on the game. As a Daily News reporter wrote in 1892, “Nobody who witnesses a match between first class teams can wonder at the hold which football has obtained upon the affections of the people, and few would go away without having suddenly acquired an interest in the game.”


This article appeared on Episode Forty Five of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.