‘178 clubs and counting and I challenge anybody to say any other place comes close in terms of a claim to be football’s true home”. – Steve Wood SHOF Historian
Researchers from the new charity ‘Sheffield Home of Football’ have discovered 178 early football clubs, which is more than treble the number previously recorded. From 1857, when the world’s first football club Sheffield FC was formed, to 1875, only 49 clubs were ever recorded. Now, thanks to the work of historians Steve Wood and John Stocks, the charity has published a new chart of 178 clubs, which means that association football, played under the Sheffield rules was more popular than ever previously documented. “By analysing newspaper archival material, club records and early match reports, this new chart shows that 1875 was the peak of Sheffield’s influence during the first 20 years of the development of the modern game”, says Steve, who was in the England Band for over 21 years up to 2019.
“I started this research during October 2023, but it grew like an itch and once I discovered new world firsts like Cemetery Road Church FC, the ball was already rolling down hill and every time I looked, something new came up which made it really difficult to stop”, adds Steve. “Most of the new 130 clubs, I knew about by late November or early December, confirming that Sheffield had a thriving footballing sub-culture, but I don’t think anybody realised just how big it was, especially compared to other towns and cities pre-1875”, he says smiling.
“Sheffield’s population in the 1871 Census was 277,000. Just over 1% of the country’s population had by 1875 created almost half the clubs that had ever existed anywhere in the world up to that point”. “If there were any doubters before this research that Sheffield was the world’s first cultural hot bed of football development, then I hope this new research puts those doubts to bed”, he says.
Steve says he now want the world to ‘stop viewing Sheffield as a ‘side show’, a ‘corner story’ to what was happening at a national level as the game developed in its first crucial 20 years. “I want them to instead start putting Sheffield at the centre of this narrative. Sheffield’s contribution to the game has and is being ignored”. “This map should be on display in the National Football Museum alongside other information describing Sheffield’s early contributions to the game’s historical development”.
“It is hard to ignore the scale of footballing activity occurring in Sheffield up to 1875. 178 clubs and counting. Add all our world firsts on top of this image of Sheffield football and I challenge anybody to say anywhere else comes close in terms of a claim to be football’s true home”.
“They have always been there as part of the city’s history and this new research work builds on that done by the late Sheffield historian Martin Westby, author of ‘A History of Sheffield Football 1857-1889 -Speed, Science and Bottom’ in which he uncovered the original 49 clubs. “Martin was a pioneer of Sheffield football history, and he died in 2018, so this really is a tribute to him in many ways”, says Steve.
I look forward to spreading the word to the many old churches, factories and similar premises that still exist, to let them know that they had an early football club that was part of this amazing world’s first footballing sub-culture”. “I am really proud and a little surprised nobody else found these clubs”, he adds. Trustees at Sheffield Home of Football now plan to produce educational materials for teachers and schools based on this research, “This is so that every child in the city can learn not just about steel, cutlery and Mary Queen of Scots, but also that this is where modern football was born,” concludes Steve.