Football has always been popular in Cambridge and in 1579 one match played at Chesterton between townspeople and Cambridge University students ended in a violent brawl that led the Vice-Chancellor to issue a decree that forbid the playing of "footeball” outside of college grounds. A former Rugby School pupil, Albert Pell, was organising football matches at the university in 1839 but, because of the different school variations, a compromise set of rules had to be found and these are known as the origin of the Cambridge Rules. As a result of its role in the formation of the first football rules, Parker's Piece, Cambridge, remains hallowed turf for football fans and historians.
In 1846, H. de Winton and J.C. Thring, both alumni of Shrewsbury School, joined forces with some old Etonians to form a football club at Cambridge University. Only a few matches were ever played, but in 1848 interest in the sport was renewed. The story of how the 1848 rules were formulated was related by Mr H.C. Malden in a letter dated 8 October 1897:
“I went up to Trinity College Cambridge. In the following year an attempt was made to get up some football in preference to the hockey that was then in vogue. But the result was dire confusion, as every man played the rules he had been accustomed to at his public school. I remember how the Eton men howled at the Rugby men for handling the ball. So it was agreed that two men should be chosen to represent each of the public schools, and two who were not public school men, for the 'Varsity. G. Salt and myself were chosen for the 'Varsity. I wish I could remember the others. Burn of Rugby, was one; Whymper of Eton, I think, also. We were 14 in all I believe. Harrow and Eton Rugby, Winchester, Shrewsbury were represented. We met in my rooms after Hall, which in those days was at 4.pm.; anticipating a long meeting, I cleared the tables and provided pens, ink and paper. Several asked me on coming in whether an exam was on! Every man brought a copy of his school rules, or knew them by heart, and our progress in framing new rules was slow. On several occasions Salt and I, being unprejudiced, carried or struck out a rule when the voting was equal. We broke up five minutes before midnight. The new rules were printed as the "Cambridge Rules", copies were distributed and pasted up on Parker's Piece, and very satisfactorily they worked, for it is right to add that they were loyally kept, and I never heard of any public school man who gave up playing from not liking the rules. [...] Well Sir, years afterwards someone took these rules, still in force at Cambridge, and with a very few alterations they became the Association Rules. A fair catch, free kick (as still played at Harrow) was struck out. The offside rule was made less stringent. "Hands" was made more so; this has just been wisely altered.”
No copy of the 1848 rules survives but the following set of University Rules, circa 1856, still exists in the Library of Shrewsbury School:
The Laws of the University Foot Ball Club
- This club shall be called the University Foot Ball Club.
- At the commencement of the play, the ball shall be kicked off from the middle of the ground: after every goal there shall be a kick-off in the same way.
- After a goal, the losing side shall kick off; the sides changing goals, unless a previous arrangement be made to the contrary.
- The ball is out when it has passed the line of the flag-posts on either side of the ground, in which case it shall be thrown in straight.
- The ball is behind when it has passed the goal on either side of it.
- When the ball is behind it shall be brought forward at the place where it left the ground, not more than ten paces, and kicked off.
- Goal is when the ball is kicked through the flag-posts and under the string.
- When a player catches the ball directly from the foot, he may kick it as he can without running with it. In no other case may the ball be touched with the hands, except to stop it.
- If the ball has passed a player, and has come from the direction of his own goal, he may not touch it till the other side have kicked it, unless there are more than three of the other side before him. No player is allowed to loiter between the ball and the adversaries' goal.
- In no case is holding a player, pushing with the hands, or tripping up allowed. Any player may prevent another from getting to the ball by any means consistent with the above rules.
- Every match shall be decided by a majority of goals.
H. Snow, J. C. Harkness; Eton.
J. Hales, E. Smith; Rugby.
G. Perry, F. G. Sykes; University.
W. H. Stone, W. J. Hope-Edwardes; Harrow.
E. L. Horner, H. M. Luckock; Shrewsbury.
These “Cambridge Rules” were the first devised football rules and were very influential in the creation of the modern rules of football drawn up in London by Ebenezer Cobb Morley for the Football Association, as shown in the following praise:
“The Cambridge Rules appear to be the most desirable for the Association to adopt”
“They embrace the true principles of the game, with the greatest simplicity”
For many years, Sheffield FC claimed to be the oldest club in the world, having formed in 1857. But with the discovery of the Cambridge Rules, it now appears that Cambridge University FC was around in 1856, making us the oldest club...
However, the Football Association says there's room for both clubs in the record books; Cambridge University for the rules and Sheffield as the world's first true football club!
A plaque has been mounted at Parker's Piece in Cambridge to commemorate its unique role in the creation of the modern game. It reads:
“Here on Parker's Piece, in the 1800s, students established a common set of simple football rules emphasising skill above force, which forbade catching the ball and 'hacking'. These 'Cambridge Rules' became the defining influence on the 1863 Football Association rules.”
The Cambridge University Association Football Club also played a key role in developing modern passing football. The side is credited with "transforming the tactics of association football and almost single-handedly inventing the modern game" in 1882. Contemporaries described Cambridge as being the first "combination" team in which each player was allotted an area of the field and played as part of a team in a game that was based upon passing". In a discussion by CW Alcock on the history of a "definite scheme of attack" and "elaborate combination" in early football playing styles (including references to "Northern" teams, including Queens Park), Alcock states (in 1891): "The perfection of the system which is in vogue at the present time however is in a very great measure the creation of the last few years. The Cambridge University eleven of 1883 were the first to illustrate the full possibilities of a systematic combination giving full scope to the defence as well as the attack"
The Varsity football match between the association football clubs of Cambridge University and Oxford University is one of the oldest regular fixtures in world football, having been played every year since 1873 (with breaks for the two World Wars).
The first Varsity match ended in a 1-0 victory for Oxford, with England international Robert Vidal scoring the only goal. The match is traditionally played at a neutral venue and was first played at Wembley in 1953.
In 2012, Cambridge won the 128th Varsity match 4-3 on penalties after a 2-2 draw over 90 minutes. The match was held at Cambridge City’s ProEdge Stadium.
Those who compete in the Varsity match receive the much sought-after Full Blue in addition to playing a part in the history of one of football's longest-running rivalries.