Leather boots and brutal deaths – how football used to be

Today top footballers are highly paid athletes, but this is a recent phenomena.

In the past the ‘beautiful game’ consisted of leather boots, leather ball and brutal deaths. So let’s take a look at the development of our national game.

Origins of football

chinese leather boots

The origins of football?


No one is entirely sure, when or where football was first played. Although credited as an English invention of the upper classes, the Chinese may have been playing a ‘football like’ game some 5,000 years ago.

Here in England, during the middle ages, young men from one village would take on those from another in a rudimentary game of football. The winning team was the one that managed to wrestle a ball through a goal, usually in the vicinity of a pub in opposition territory. Such games could be played out through several miles of countryside.

Rough, drunken and taking all day to play, the early game sounds highly entertaining but dangerous. In 1280 the first written account of the kicking ball game tells us that a player was killed when he apparently ran into an opponent’s dagger.

The leather boots

leather boots

Old leather boots for football


The world’s first football league was formed here in 1888. The teams that played, sported football kits that resembled pyjamas. A long sleeved jumper and knee breeches were the order of the day, and were worn with long socks and a cap or wooly hat. Boots were made of thick leather.

A single shoe could weigh as much as a kilogram when sodden. The former Manchester United manager, Tommy Docherty, is reported to have said that during the 1950s, six weeks was the period of time required to break in a pair of boots – players used to put them in a bucket of water to soften them.

The leather ball

leather ball

Traditional leather football


As the football itself took shape, it became standardised. Originally made from eighteen strips of leather, stitched together and with an inflatable latex bladder inside, footballs were fine to kick and to throw, but heading was a different matter. The ball was waterproofed by applying dubbin but quickly became saturated with water when it rained.

Head and neck injuries were a risk factor for anyone prepared to stick their neck out to head the ball home. When Jeff Astler, the West Bromwich Albion legend died in 2002 at the age of 59, the coroner’s verdict was ‘death by industrial injury’. Astler was a renowned header of the ball. The exercise of his skill during his peak playing years of the late 1960s and 70s caused brain injury similar to that suffered by ‘punch drunk’ boxers.

The beautiful game

goalkeeper

A not so beautiful game for goalkeepers


Simply put, the game was rough and injuries common but perhaps the worst position on the pitch was that of the goalkeeper. A keeper in possession of the ball could be charged by a player or players from the opposing team, and barged over the line for a goal. This rule was changed in 1894 so that rushing the keeper was only allowed if he was playing the ball or obstructing a player from the opposing team.

In the 1957 FA Cup final, Manchester United’s Ray Wood was left lying on the turf, out cold and with a broken cheekbone after he was shoulder-charged – legally – by Aston Villa’s Peter McParland.