Over its long history, football has always evolved. Just in the 2023/24 season, there have been changes concerning the amount of stoppage time being played, a new ball, and even changes to the fonts on Premier League shirts.
This year marks 160 years since 11 London football club and school representatives met to agree on common rules for football – the first meeting of what became the Football Association (FA).
Back then, football was a largely tactics and formation-free system, played by amateurs. So, what have been the key stages in football’s evolution over the last 160 years?
The move from 1-2-7 to 4-4-2
In the early days, football was based around dribbling – and that meant an abundance of forwards.
For example, in the first ever international match – a 0-0 draw between Scotland and England whose 150th anniversary was recently commemorated in Glasgow – England used a 1-2-7 formation, with Scotland adopting a more defensive 2-2-6 line-up.
As the decades passed, teams began to move more and more players into midfield and defence, culminating in the more traditional 4-4-2 formation that prevailed in England in the 1970s and 1980s.
The growth of professional leagues, and a rise in wages
The English Football League was founded in 1888 with just 12 member clubs – Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion, and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
A second division was added in 1892 – containing the likes of Nottingham Forest and Newton Heath (later to become Manchester United). A third division – mainly consisting of southern-based teams – joined in 1920 and, by 1950, four divisions featuring 92 clubs kicked off the season.
In 1907, the Association of Football Players’ and Trainer’s Union (also known as the “Player’s Union”) was formed. This would ultimately become the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) in 1956, a change instated by former Match of the Day presenter Jimmy Hill when he became secretary of the union.
Footballers’ wages were subject to a “wage cap” until 1961, when the threat of a player’s strike led by Hill, then the chairman of the PFA, resulted in the abolition of the limit.
Since then, wage increases have far exceeded rises in the cost of living.
By 1961, the average player in England’s top division was earning £20 a week – using the Bank of England inflation calculator this equates to around £369 a week now.
Compare this to the actual average salary of a top-flight player now and you can see how wages have spiralled over recent decades.
The first £1,000 transfer was in 1905 when Alf Common moved from Sunderland to Middlesbrough. Arsenal was the first club to pay £10,000 for a player (in 1928) while Manchester United was the first to spend more than £100,000 – on Denis Law – in 1962.
The late Trevor Francis’s move to Nottingham Forest in 1979 broke the £1 million record, while Alan Shearer’s move to Newcastle was the first eight-figure transfer fee in British football.
As of October 2023, the current British transfer record is the £115 million Chelsea paid Brighton for Moises Caicedo.
The advent of the Premier League
Towards the end of the 1980s, television revenue was split between all 92 clubs in England’s league pyramid.
The bigger clubs in the old First Division believed that they could retain more broadcasting revenue by negotiating their own deal – particularly with new satellite TV service BSkyB keen to bid for rights to the biggest games.
The competition was founded as the FA Premier League in the spring of 1992. Since then, it has grown to become one of the most popular and richest sports tournaments in the world, and 50 teams have played at least one season in the top division in the three decades since its formation.
Much like that in 1961, there was also a threat of a players’ strike in December 2001 in response to increasing TV revenues.
Led by former chief executive, Gordon Taylor OBE, the PFA successfully negotiated an improved deal for the union by November, ensuring that top-flight games at the start of the busy Christmas period went ahead.
A timeline of some of English football’s key innovations
- 1863 – The Football Association is formed in London
- 1872 – Wanderers win the first FA Cup final
- 1881 – Referees are formally introduced, as are cautions and sendings-off
- 1891 – Penalty kicks and pitch markings are introduced
- 1907 – Formation of the Association of Football Players’ and Trainer’s Union (or the “Player’s Union”)
- 1937 – The first live televised match shown by the BBC
- 1965 – Keith Peacock becomes the first-ever substitute in a Football League match
- 1970 – Yellow and red cards are introduced for players being booked and sent off
- 1970 – The first penalty shootout in a professional English match (Manchester United beat Hull City)
- 1992 – The “backpass” rule is introduced, meaning goalkeepers cannot pick up a ball passed to them by a teammate
- 2011 – The Women’s Super League (WSL) began
- 2012 – Goal-line technology is introduced to determine whether a ball crosses the line
- 2018 – The first video assistant referees are used.
As the popularity of the sport continues to increase, how might football look in another 160 years’ time – and who will be the first £1 billion transfer?
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