Football offside – the history started in the public schools of England in the 19th century, when football was a mix of rugby and soccer.
The public schools attended by the sons of the gentlemen took advantage of the football game, among other things, to stay fit in the cooler months. But each of them had its own set of rules. Not everyone mentioned an offside and sometimes the rules were the same.
The featured image shows the development of the wording of the offside rules from the FA Rules 1863 to the Laws of the Game of 2020.
The strict football offside
This offside is still common in rugby today: every player between the ball and the opponent’s goal is offside. The player is therefore unable to take part in the game and may not receive the ball. It is therefore not surprising that the rugby school had this rule in its guidelines and other schools that preferred football with running and hacking. But also other schools whose game was more reminiscent of association football knew this variant. Often their rules do not mention offside at all until the 1860s. But then afterwards: Uppingham School from 1862 onwards, Shrewsbury School and Cambridge University from 1863 onwards, plus Blackheath FC (from 1862 onwards), which oscillated between rugby and association school.
The rules of the Harrow School, published in 1858, also knew this strict offside, but called it “behind” in their rules. And both the Harrow Schools and the Cambridge University Rules were strongly oriented towards the FA, which was newly founded in 1863.
Yes, even the Football Association, whose members initially came almost exclusively from London and the surrounding area, initially played according to the rugby offside rules.
The offside rule is slightly opened
At Eton College, the rules of the Eton Field Game knew “sneaking”. This football offside rule states that an attacking player may not play the ball if there are only three or fewer opponents in front of him or her. The Westminster and Charterhouse schools were also familiar with this rule and therefore did not want to become members of the FA.
In 1865, the FA sought contact with the latter schools, as they were keen to become members of the association. At the FA’s Annual Meeting in 1866 there was even longer discussion about a complete abolition of offside. Not only Sheffield FC, which did not yet have an offside regulation, pleaded for it, but also others like Barnes FC.
However, since this proposal was made during the meeting and was therefore not submitted in time, the proposal was not accepted. From Sheffield, however, there were always proposals to change to a less strict offside rule – like entering from the sidelines.
Finally the FA 1866 took over the offside from Westminster and Charterhouse (“unless three players…”).
The rules of Cheltenham College did not allow for offside play. However, it did not describe when a player is offside. A player must immediately drop or lay down the ball to avoid being cautioned. In case of disregard, he was threatened with a dismissal.
In Winchester the offside was called “behind your side”. It also knew the strict offside, which did not apply to the goal kick. Also the ball could never be offside (i.e. out of the field), only afterwards no goal could be scored or a fair catch could be achieved.
Sheffield: From no offside to “unless two players…”
Yes, there were also rules without offside, including the Sheffield FC rules published in 1858. These rules do mention the offside. But a player is only offside if she or he is outside the field of play.
In 1867 the Sheffield FA was founded, the second influential football association in England in the 1870s alongside the (London) FA. Which of the two was more influential at that time is now the subject of heated debate. From today’s point of view, the Sheffield FA Rules were in some respects the most modern and progressive.
The Sheffield FA was founded one year after the opening of offside in the FA Rules. And its rules included an “unless two players…” offside. When you consider the progress towards the combination game that the offside of the FA (2unless three players…”) alone has brought about, you can imagine the agility and flexibility of the Sheffield FA game.
Before the Sheffield FA adopted the FA Rules in 1877, there were discussions about the football offside. But the proposal of the Sheffield FA did not find the necessary majority in 1877 and the 3 player offside remained.
By 1877 the FA had added that the offside was decisive for the decision. So in 1873, at the suggestion of Uxbridge FC, “[…] at the moment of passing the ball” was added to the rules. In the same year, another proposal from the same club was also adopted: In case of a goal kick no offside rule applies. And since 1874, an offside rule violation has been punished with a free kick (at that time, there were only indirect free kicks).
By the way, there has been a differentiation between active and passive offside since 1866!
The following 50 years
In the following half century there were only minor changes and clarifications. Especially the football offside rule for game restarts was defined for the first time:
Throw-in: An offside position is possible (1879, suggested by Wanderers FC and Old Harrovians FC).
Corner Kick: No offside position is possible (1883).
Goal kick: No offside position is possible (1883-1920).
That a player never is offside when the ball comes from an opponent was added in 1882 at the suggestion of the Old Etonians as well as Finchley. (If you read 1878 as the year: This date is wrong.)
Football Offside since 1925: The offside “unless two players…”
Besides, the Scottish FA was very persistent with their proposal to introduce their offside. This proposal came in 1894, 1902, 1913, 1914, 1922, 1923 and 1924, but in the years up to and including 1922 the proposal never received the necessary majority and was therefore not accepted. In 1923, however, it was postponed. One year later it was decided to conduct an experiment during the 1924/25 season. In addition, there was another proposal, which was repeatedly made by the (English) FA and the Scottish in the 1920s: Offside is only possible 40 yards from the opposing goal.
So there was a friendly game where one half was played with the “two-player offside” and the other with an offside only 40 yards from the goal. Afterwards they decided to play with the “two-player-offside”.
In 1929, in the run-up to the Annual General Meeting of The IFAB, the FA discussed a complete abolition of offside. But it was above all the Scottish FA who fought against this. They feared that it would lead to hard play and fights in front of the goal because the attacking forwards would then line up very close to the enemy goal.
Since then we have had this “two-player offside”, which is always adjusted according to game development and resourceful tactical developments – should the proposal receive the necessary majority.
The Offside Rule: More on Football History