We've a lot to thank the Victorians for. They gave us the light-bulb, the telephone, the flushing toilet, and — perhaps most importantly — association football. Folk had been kicking balls around for hundreds of years, but the Victorians shaped the game, setting the rules, forming clubs and creating competitions. They established the Football Association, the FA Cup and the Football League. They built grounds, drew up fixture lists and introduced the offside rule. And, as the Victorians watched, played and embraced football, they wrote about it. 

The world of Victorian football writers is a fascinating one, as you'll be aware if you've ever had cause to search through 19th-century newspaper archives for news of matches from the game's formative years. These often anonymous individuals were occasionally afforded pen names, such as Goal-Post, Full-Back or Spectator. In their columns, they added colour to the sports coverage in Britain's many regional newspapers and cast a proto-pundit's eye over the emerging game. These writers also played an important — and arguably vital — part in the development of football. 

One particular writer has stood out as I've scrolled through the microfilm. Off-Side began writing for the Northern Echo newspaper in February 1885, immediately setting out his intention to be a fair-minded advocate for football. "The object of the writer will be raising the status of the game," he wrote in an introduction to his Football Notes columns. "A main feature of the notes will be their thorough independence. There will be no trucking to this club or to that; everyone will be treated alike. This is a most important point and the general public can depend on it being observed. The writer is not officially connected with any club, and will not sing the praises of one club at the expense of all the rest."

There's no record of Off-Side's real name and the Northern Echo's historian hasn't been able to identify him, but his pseudonym appeared in the paper every week for three seasons between 1885 and 1888. This short period was a particularly significant one in football history. The game was rapidly increasingly in popularity and was expanding across the country. New clubs were being formed, often by and for the working classes. Football was becoming the people's game. The FA Cup had been wrested out of the hands of the old guard of public school sides like Wanderers, Old Carthusians and Old Etonians, and new footballing powerbases had emerged in the West Midlands and in Lancashire, with the likes of Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End establishing themselves among a new generation of outstanding sides. This power shift led the Football Association to legalise professionalism in 1885 and would also lead to the formation of the Football League.

Despite this rapid growth, the coverage afforded to football by national newspapers in the mid-1880s was sparse. Horse-racing filled much of the sports columns while football vied for attention in the remaining space with the likes of rowing, pedestrianism and pigeon shooting. But appetite for football coverage was growing. Spectators were becoming supporters and developing strong affinities for their local teams. The Times and the Daily News covered selected FA Cup ties and international matches, and weeklies such as Bell's Life in London and the Athletic News provided more comprehensive coverage of other high-profile matches, but, in general, supporters had to rely on their regional papers for regular up-to-date coverage of their teams' fortunes.

The Darlington-based Northern Echo, which is still in circulation today, was at the time a halfpenny broadsheet with the sporting columns tucked away on the back page just above the shipping forecast. It was a local paper that was well-respected nationally and was rated by the Victorian historian EA Freeman as "the best paper in Europe". Certainly it had broad popular appeal. By placing commentary alongside reporting, the Echo's influential young editor WT Stead (who would later go down with the Titanic) had created a distinctive and lively paper that, it was said, could appeal to pitmen and dukes alike.

Prior to 1885, the Echo's football coverage had been fairly rudimentary, typically consisting of nothing more than a brief summary of the region's results every Monday. Unlike papers in Blackburn, Birmingham or Glasgow, the Echo didn't publish a Saturday evening Football Special. However, results were received via telegraph after the final whistle and posted at the newspaper's offices so interested parties could go in person to find out how their team had fared. 

Monday's match summaries were typically submitted by club secretaries and were brief and perfunctory — and quite often biased and unreliable. When more detailed reports appeared they were generally formal affairs lacking in colour. Teams played "plucky" games and players scored "clinking" goals, but there was little analysis or comment. 

Off-Side changed that, introducing insight and opinion to the back page. In his new column he criticised poor tactics and training regimes, waded into rows between clubs and spectators and traded blows with correspondents who challenged his views. He campaigned against disorganisation in the game, including the lax rules of local associations and the tendency of clubs to pull out of matches at late notice. However, he turned his nose up at the creeping nuisance of professionalism, and shook his head when clubs and players pursued "the shekels". 

"With to-day, the football season opens," he wrote on the opening morning of the 1885-86 season. "Saturday last practically heard the death knell of the cricketing season, and now the votaries of the popular winter game take the field and claim the attention of the public. All arrangements are completed, and to all lovers of the leather a more than ordinary programme is promised."

Off-Side's enthusiasm for the game was clear as he wrote about the "dash and power" of local sides including Darlington FC, Bishop Auckland Church Institute (winners of the 1886 Durham Association Challenge Cup), plus Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle East End (the club that later became Newcastle United). 

He also looked further afield, covering FA Cup ties and other notable matches. In one early column he wrote about Blackburn's 2-0 FA Cup Final win over Queen's Park and noted how the English team had appropriated the Scots' pass-and-move approach. "The Blackburn Rovers beat them at their own game," he wrote. "The Scotch style of play, consisting chiefly of sharp, close passing and clever individual dodging is practised by the Rovers with a success which on Saturday humbled even Scotland itself."

Off-Side recognised that North East football was not yet at a standard comparable to that of other regions. While the big Midlands and Lancashire teams could attract gates of 5,000-plus, the North East sides could rarely attract more than a few hundred. He knew that there was potential, though, and that his local clubs could benefit from FA Cup ties and friendly matches against top sides. "The visits of a few more teams of the calibre of Aston Villa would have a stimulating effect upon football in the North," he wrote.

Off-Side clearly felt a duty to promote football and wrote positively of the games he witnessed. ("Where the play is so excellent all round, and where there are such faint signs of inferiority, any discriminating comment is difficult.") However, he was quite happy to hand out criticism whenever he felt it was deserved. "Darlington played quite up to their usual form," he wrote on one occasion, "which is to say, they played in no form at all."

Much of Off-Side's criticism was reserved for those clubs and administrators whose incompetence he felt inhibited the growth of the game. Clubs would be chastised for poor organisation and the problem of teams failing to turn up for fixtures became a regular theme. "This conduct cannot be too strongly condemned," he wrote, "and, as a punishment, means should be adopted for making the club in default pay the expenses which have been incurred."

Administrators, particularly the local Durham Football Association, received regular censure. "Football legislators are a queer set, and a capital type of the standstill, querulous old Tory," he wrote. "The Durham Association have sunk so low lately; it is questionable whether they could sink lower... The decisions given are unworthy of any body of representative gentlemen."

As his column became established, Off-Side began to occupy a position of some influence and was able to compel clubs and associations to account for their actions. He would criticise them in print, and demand answers — which he would publish in the following week. Correspondence was a major feature of the column, which became a valuable forum for football discussion. Rules were debated, best practice was deliberated and arguments were settled, with Off-Side becoming an unofficial arbitrator of football-related disputes. 

On one occasion he reported "strong feeling against the recorded result" of a match between Bishop Auckland Church Institute and Darlington, the latter having won 1-0, and published a letter submitted by a spectator detailing the grievance. "Dear Sir, I beg you will insert these remarks from an old football player," wrote the correspondent. "Firstly, the goal given Darlington by the referee was no goal, because Buckton was off-side when he kicked it... Secondly, Pallister headed a ball which was stopped by [Darlington goalkeeper] Wharton standing on the goal line, and he took the ball behind the line. I am sorry the Darlington umpire was so clannish. It was at least a drawn game, if not a win for the Institute."

"As a rule I look with little favour on the objections of a spectator," Off-Side responded. "They, of course, speak with no authority. But in this case the writer has much in his favour. He does not speak as the piqued supporter of a defeated team." Nevertheless, Off-Side went on to report that the Durham Association had thrown out an appeal from Bishop Auckland. 

On another occasion, he dismissed Sunderland's claims of refereeing partiality following their defeat to Darlington in the Durham Association Cup. "They were outmatched in every way, and should have taken defeat in better grace," he wrote. "It was felt by everyone on the field that the greatest partiality the umpire might have shown the Sunderland club could not have saved them from defeat. Above all, a club should keep clear of any objection that can savour of pettiness, or of a simple dislike of not receiving the lion's share of the cheering."

Such strong opinions didn't go unchallenged. After Off-Side accused the Church Institute team of cowardice, a correspondent calling himself Fairplay wrote, "As an old football player, I feel I cannot allow the remarks of your correspondent, 'Off-Side', whoever he may be, to be swallowed by the public without a protest."

The words "whoever he may be" could equally be applied to many of Off-Side's contemporaries, such as White Rose in the Leeds Mercury, the Liverpool Mercury's Spectator and Full Back in the Hull Packet, all of whom remain frustratingly unidentified. A rare exception is James Catton, who wrote about football using the pen name Tityrus. Catton worked for the Nottingham Daily Guardian during the 1880s and later edited the Manchester-based national paper Athletic News.

The influence wielded by local football writers was noted by their national contemporaries, with some disdain. Bell's Life launched an attack on "writers like 'White Rose' who do injury to the sport by casting imputations on those who have worked hard and unselfishly and fearlessly... safe under the shadow of a convenient nom de plume." Ironically, the Bell's Life correspondent remained anonymous.

The practice of writing under a pen name came from the letters columns, where readers would often engage in back and forth debate under 'newspaper signatures'. Most Victorian newspaper content was published without bylines and only a handful of writers were afforded credit by pseudonym. Football writers were most likely given pen names so that readers had a name to address their missives to. 

Off-Side clearly received his fair share of missives. "I cannot adequately peruse the voluminous number of letters received," he wrote. "The postmen have had a heavy time, and the Postmaster-General has had to issue orders for the distribution of tonics to the unfortunate men." He refused to publish correspondence from supporters, players or officials who refused to be identified: "It would be foolish to attempt to deal with anonymous communications, and therefore they are weekly swept into the w.p.b."

As far as clues to Off-Side's identity go, we know that the Echo had a football team that in 1885 comprised Hodgson (goal), Brown and Hutchinson (backs), Martin, O'Hara and Appleby (half-backs), and Beswick, Johnson, Hazeldine, Stanley and Watson (forwards). It seems reasonable to suppose that the paper's football writers might have played for that team and that Off-Side could be one of those named in the line-up. In one column, he previewed an Echo team fixture in tongue-in-cheek style: "There is to be a great slaughter of the innocents. Full details on Monday. Newsagents will please send their orders early."

A recurring theme in the Football Notes column was "rough play", and Off-Side related tales of hacking, broken legs and the occasional "interchange of civilities" between players. "It cannot be too widely known that a referee, upon observing any foul play, may at once order off the field the player the player who indulges in such reprehensible practices," he wrote. "A large number of players are noted for their rough play, and it would be a decided gain to the popularity of football if they were suspended, not only for the season but for ever."

However, he defended the game from the criticism of a local magistrate, who claimed football was "becoming one of the greatest abominations of the nation." "There is no doubt that in football, as well as in every other sport worthy of the name, there is a certain amount of danger," Off-Side responded, "but whether football is becoming 'one of the greatest abominations of the nation' is open to much objection. If an 'abomination' stimulates the higher physical qualities of the youths of the nation, and provides pleasurable recreation every Saturday for countless thousands throughout the land, then I am willing to stick my flag in such an 'abomination'."

Then as now, match officials were placed under scrutiny and in general Off-Side was strongly supportive. On one occasion he reported that, following a contentious decision by one referee, "partisans attacked him with mud and stones". "This hostile demonstration cannot be too strongly condemned," wrote Off-Side. 

He dismissed a protest against another referee, J Bastard of Middlesbrough (not to be confused with former referee and England international Segar Bastard of London), writing, "Anyone who knows Mr Bastard — and I have met him many times upon the football field — knows that he is most painstaking and thoroughly impartial in giving his decisions."

Although there was relatively little tabloid-style tittle-tattle in Off-Side's columns, he did report rumours concerning club matters and player movements. The start of the 1886-87 season brought major transfer news, with the great Arthur Wharton moving from Darlington to Preston North End. "This is a great loss to Darlington," Off-Side commented, "There is not another man at the club who can keep goal with half his ability."

Conversely, Off-Side displayed a clear personal dislike for Darlington's other goalkeeper (and club secretary) Charles Samuel Craven. After Craven penned an article listing the attributes required by good goalkeepers, Off-Side commented, "The only particular in which he coincides with what a good goalkeeper should be is in height." 

Other players also faced criticism. "It is a matter of grave remark that Smeddle [of North Skelton] bungles too often," Off-Side wrote. Some players had distinctive reasons for performing poorly: "[Darlington forward] Hope played badly towards the end of the game, owing, he diligently informed the spectators, to being at 'a jig all night'."

Humour played a key part in Off-Side's columns, and he was no stranger to sarcasm. "Sunderland!" he remarked of the region's most affluent side. "The great all-powerful Sunderland!! With their Scotchmen and special retainers!" 

On another occasion, he reported rumours of a friendly match between the tiny St Paul's FC and the great Preston North End. "What is this I hear from Spennymoor, and of Spennymoor St Paul's FC of all the clubs in the world?" he wrote. "Preston North End! Spennymoor!! St Paul's!!! This is too awfully awful. How the mighty have fallen!"

When bad weather disrupted the fixture list he began his column with, "Football! The word sounds delightful with snow lying nearly a foot deep." Correspondents, too, brought humour to the column. An anonymous Port Clarence player wrote to Off-Side ahead of a big match: "Already the gloomy tidings of certain defeat have reached our ears, and we look forward to coming home with lengthy visages."

"What are footballers to make of the following?" Off-Side wrote in another column. "On Saturday Preston North End defeated the Bolton Wanderers by twelve goals to one. On Monday West Bromwich Albion defeated Preston North End by five goals to two. On Tuesday the Bolton Wanderers defeated West Bromwich Albion by two goals to one. Query — which is the best team?"

The increasing interest in football was reflected in the popularity of Off-Side's column. The Echo promoted Football Notes throughout the week and it was expanded in length and in frequency, being switched from weekly to twice-weekly. Football was important to a paper seeking to meet the needs of its many working-class readers. Off-Side celebrated "the increased interest which has been evoked by the game among the masses — it is always the masses. This has never been so marked in this district, and bids fair to increase rather than abate in future seasons."

"It is the same all over the country," he wrote. "The contagion — if one may be allowed to use the word – is growing... There are on every hand signs of the increased popularity of football... The cause for this is not far to seek, and that is the great encouragement given to the game by the local press."

Certainly, football's rapid growth had been fostered in the regions, and local newspapers and their football writers had played an important role. When, in April 1887, the Times published a leader reflecting upon "how immensely the game has grown in public favour in late years", it felt overdue and ill-informed. "Five-and-twenty years ago football was the game of schoolboys and of some clubs of hardy northerners," wrote the paper. "Now it is played with passionate zeal at the Universities." (Off-side wrote in his own column that he had gained "much amusement" from the Times article.) The national paper did get one thing right, though: "At every great centre of population football matches are among the most frequented of public entertainments." Every great centre of population had a local newspaper, and that was where the real story of football was being told.

A leader published in the Northern Echo painted a more accurate picture of the state of association game: "A few years since, football was almost confined to a particular class, and the games only proved of interest to the players and their own friends. Now, however, all classes are represented by the players, and the games afford amusement to countless thousands of spectators throughout the country... There can be no doubt that football is becoming very much of a business. Gate money is now a necessity to the game, but as it is now played, the charge for admission to the ground is more than justified, and the benefit clubs and players receive is far outweighed by the existence among us of a great and popular game."

Football's development in the regions continued in the months that followed. Later in 1887, the Aston Villa director William McGregor set out his plans to form the Football League, which, when it began in 1888, was made up exclusively of sides from the Midlands and the North West. But football in Off-Side's North East was developing rapidly, too. The very competitive Northern League was formed in Darlington in 1889, and in the following year Sunderland became the first North East side to join the Football League. They won it three times in their first five seasons, with their Scotchmen and special retainers.

Off-Side didn't get to report on Sunderland's triumphs, having left the Echo at the end of the 1887-88 season. "In concluding these notes it may be stated that in all that has appeared the true interests of football have been in view," he wrote. "There has been no trucking to this side or to that for the mere sake of popularity. That kind of thing has been left to others. There are some who condemn the action taken in these notes: time alone will prove who was right or wrong."

His successor, Observer, paid fond tribute to Off-Side's "conscientiousness and ability", adding: "I heartily trust that he may find in his new sphere across the 'herring pond' due scope for his talents, and that he may haul in the dainty shekels to his heart's (and his pocket's) content." 

The "herring pond" reference suggested that Off-Side had emigrated over the Atlantic to North America. However, in July 1888, a new column entitled Football Notes by Off-Side appeared in the Wanganui Herald in New Zealand. Archives suggest Off-Side continued to write about football for various Kiwi newspapers for the next 20 years.