What Was Really The First Ever International Football Match?

football cartoon with question markIt is really easy to take something for granted that has essentially been part of many people’s everyday lives for so long, and a considerable percentage, almost like a religion – especially in certain cultures.

However, this certainly is the case for one pastime in particular and, arguably, the most watched sport in the world; football, or ‘soccer’ in some countries. For well over a century, this sport has bred sheer fanaticism in many countries around the world, in many cases resulting in criminal behaviour between two sets of supporters.

Such is the draw to the sport, in recent decades it has even led to this being commoditised, with commercial deals and monopolies seeing billions invested into what is one of the most lucrative leisure sectors in the world.

Kielder Castle Northumberland: England vs Scotland – The First International Football Match?

kielder castle
Kielder Castle by Andrew Curtis, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one that very few people know about. Below we explore slightly what people believe to be the first international football match in 1872 between England and Scotland, however, records do show that this occurred nearly a hundred years earlier in Northumberland.

It saw the Dukes of Northumberland and Buccleugh join together to have a sporting display in the grounds of Kielder Castle in Northumberland – the northernmost county of England, essentially on the border of Scotland.

Because, the original sport back then was grouse hunting was effectively called off, because of a shortage in grouse because of a disease, it saw a football match organised between sides made up of unlimited numbers. The teams were made up of beaters and bearers from opposite sides of the border. The official names given to these were the ‘Border Reivers’ two clans from England and Scotland, with the sides split into two.

The official teams were Tynedale and Redesdale, with the former winning 3-2 (England). Interestingly, this was made up of names, two of which resemble notable footballers of the last few decades (Charlton and Robson), however, it is unclear whether both Bobby, Jack, or Bobby (Robson), were related to either.

Starting after breakfasts, which is something that is unheard of in today’s game – the earliest kick-off, usually being 11.30am for a derby match, for the purpose of crowd control, the game was action-packed to say the least and effectively was chaotic to say the least.

At half-time, both of the sides participated in long jump and high jump competitions, so there was no rest – something that history has shown is important during the modern game, which enables players to take a break from the physicality.

It was a game that England won 2-0, though this was in very scrappy circumstances and considerably more brutal than any football match that you would see today. Even though, historically, games between the two nations are often not too far from incidents.

plaque at kielder castle in northumberland showing the history of the first international football match in 1790

As a result, eight players were seen to have died at the end of the game due to injuries, while several others died within two weeks of the fixture finishing, succumbing to casualties sustained during the match.

This is one fixture that both nations (even today) would probably deny ‘officially’ happening due to the brutality that was on show, which probably would not hold the game in a good light – especially for two countries that are shown to have founded the sport of football.

Because of the nature of the game and how it unfolded, it saw the gamekeeper of Kielder Castle at the time, lose his job. Interestingly, the place where the fixture took place, holds historic significance, even today and is now the home to the Border Park Rugby Football Club.

To commemorate this fixture, an annual match is still held every year in the park of Alnwick Castle (the Duke’s ancestral home) – a notable landmark in Northumberland and often draws a decent crowd as well as raising money for charity.

It is perhaps a controversial bone of contention to suggest that this was the first ever international football match – especially with members of the Football Association, which was not even thought of that far back, let alone formed, while football ‘clubs’ didn’t even exist.

Interestingly, records also show that a ‘six-aside’ game took place in this region in 1599 which involved the Armstrongs at Bewcastle (Cumbria), however, this was interrupted due to a raid by the Scottish, in which a member player of the Ridley clan had his throat cut and was killed.

The Game Billed As The ‘Official’ International Match

ticket for first international football match england scotland 1872
The FA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now go forward nearly 100 years to 1872. It is understood actually this that was the first official international match.

The scene was set for the football match between ‘auld enemies’, England and Scotland. It was to take place at the West of Scotland Cricket Club, in the more salubrious borough of Partick.

Even the date had significant connotations; St Andrew’s Day, Scotland’s national day – 30 November, 1872, with, according to the official match report of the game, from The Scotsman, close to 4,000 people were in attendance, each paying one shilling (today’s equivalent would be five pence) to watch the game live, while numerous members of the press were also present.

It was also reported that, despite this sport generally having a heavily male dominated fanbase over the last 150 years, there was a good mix of the sexes in attendance.

For context, up until this time, there was no professional competition in either country; only the FA Cup had been played so far, this being for English amateur clubs a year earlier, with the Scottish equivalent set to be inaugurated later that year.

It would be a full 16 years until the football league was formed in England, kicking off on 8th September 1888, with five of six fixtures played, the first to finish reportedly being between West Bromwich Albion and Stoke, the former earning a 2-0 win.

However, prior to this, football was very few and far between and, perhaps surprisingly, was considered to be a game for the upper class, or, certainly, upper-middle class, played by ‘gentlemen’ and ‘honourables’ – at least in England. By stark contrast, it was considered to be a much rougher affair, north of the border. Most occupations of the Scottish team included miners and factory workers.

There was a considerable amount of anticipation leading up to this game, particularly given the obvious divide in class and how much this would not only affect the outcome, but also the nature of how the game would be approached by both sides.

Due to the fact that all of the Scotland team played for Queens Park, this was the kit that was used for the game, the dark blue jerseys being a considerable difference to the all white of England. However, these are colours which have since stuck for both sides.

What Happened During This Game?

sketch of 1872 first football match england scotland tackle
William Ralston (1848-1911), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Kicking off just after 2pm and following 90 minutes of play, this was a game that ended in a goalless draw, though it was not without incident, with many chances created for both sides. Scotland having won the toss favoured the end that had the better weather conditions for the first half, though were unable to make their advantage count.

It was England who more often than not seized the initiative, captain Cuthbert Ottaway of Oxford University and Old Etonians demonstrating some impressive dribbling skills, which time and again saw him break Scottish lines, at times gliding past multiple opponents.

Each team’s styles differed. Scotland put up some stubborn resistance, working hard to the last, their grit and determination proving to be a constant thorn in the English player’s sides.

However, it could be argued that Scotland, who played together frequently having all being from the same team (Queens Park), should have had the upper hand, due to knowing how each other played, compared to an England team who had players from multiple clubs.

Meanwhile, it was Scotland who came the closest to drawing first blood, after it appeared that a shot from Robert Lekie had crossed the ‘tape’ (line), greeted by thunderous applause from the crowd, however, Scottish referee William Keay and umpires (linesmen) Charles Alcock (England) & Henry Smith (Scotland) were quick to rule this out.

In the second half of the game, England showed a lot more promise, being able to string more moves together that saw them create more chances, while limiting the hosts. In particular, Ottaway, the England skipper, Arnold Kirke Smith, John Morice and Charles Clegg were particularly influential.

However, a breakthrough could not be made. Alas, the first ever international match drew to a close. A goalless stalemate that showed glimpses of promise, but left a lot more to be desired.

Who Were The Players?

queens park team from 1874 containing many of the players that played for scotland in 1872
Queen’s Park team from 1874 containing many of the players that played for Scotland in 1872 – unknown, dates from 1874, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Below are the players who starred in the first ever international match, with England boasting considerably more than Scotland.

Scotland: Bob Gardner, William Kerr, Joseph Taylor, James Thompson, James Smith, Robert Smith, Robert Leckie, Alexander Rhind, William Muir MacKinnon, Jamie Weir, David Wotherspoon (all Queen’s Park)

England: Robert Barker (Hertfordshire Rangers), Ernest Greenhalgh (Notts County), Reginald Welch (Wanderers), Frederick Chappell (Oxford University), William John Maynard (1st Surrey Rifles), John Brockbank (Cambridge University), Charles Clegg (Sheffield Wednesday), Arnold Kirke Smith (Oxford University), Cuthbert Ottaway (Oxford University/Old Etonians), Charles John Chenery (Crystal Palace), Charles John Morice (Barnes)

Each team had a couple of notable players, to say the least. Indeed, Alexander Rhind (Scotland), is a name that often comes up a lot, even over a century later.

Rhind, who was 23 at the time of the match, was arguably a key protagonist during the proceedings and had only recently broken into the Queen’s Park side, being billed as ‘one to watch’.

He certainly left an impression on the game, according to reports, however, this was his only international cap. Being too ill to travel for the return game in England in March 1873, his career soon faded into obscurity. Leaving Glasgow in November of that year, he returned to Aberdeen where he would work in the drapery business as a commercial traveller until 1892.

However, he was succeeded by his sons, James and Robert, who were natural talents, the latter representing Queen’s Park, like his father, while James attracted interest from Tottenham, while both would go on to become influential for Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

The Replay Of This Game

england football posterPlayed in London, in March 1873, this was essentially the reverse fixture and the inaugural international match to take place in England. It was a much more entertaining affair than the first between the two sides.

With 3,000 spectators, it took £106 and one shilling in gate receipts, generating a profit of £73 and eight shillings for the English Football Association.

While in the first fixture, England had lined up with eight forwards, a half back, a back and a goalkeeper, the second game saw a much more practical approach (though still cavalier by today’s standards) as they featured six forwards, two half backs, two backs and a goalkeeper, mirroring the Scottish formation.

It paid dividends as the hosts ran out 4-2 victors on the day, however both sides were much changed from the game the previous November. Interestingly, over the 15 years that followed, Scotland were undefeated in this fixture between the two sides.

England – Scotland Head To Head

england versus scotland flags on football pitchThis match went on to produce plenty of entertainment and, also controversy in the century and a half that followed.

Indeed, out of 115 official fixtures (more head-to-head games than any other two nations), it is England that has the better record. It has seen them win 48 games to Scotland’s 41 with 28 draws – four of them being goalless – 98 years separating the first and second of these stalemates.

Perhaps, one of the standout games between the two nations was in the Euro ‘96 European Championship, when England beat Scotland 2-0 in a group game at Wembley. It featured one of the most iconic goals from the Three Lions, courtesy of Paul Gascoigne – a superb individual effort.

What Effect Has This Fixture Had On Global Football?

globe and footbalBeing considered to be the original ‘home of football’, this very quickly spread around the world as more countries became aware of the sport, especially across the English colonies, with this then becoming popular elsewhere following trade with other nations.

Although there wasn’t coverage of football around the world of English games, the sport soon adapted with each country adopting their own styles which became obvious from World Cup tournaments – the first one taking place in 1930 in Uruguay – interestingly with the host nation winning this.

Curiously, England have only won one World Cup (famously in 1966), while Scotland never have, despite being the two oldest football nations in the world.

To this day, this fixture continues to hold a special place in the hearts of football fans in the UK and always creates a special atmosphere.

However, for those in the know, the game in Northumberland shows that this was the first international match between ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’, despite this effectively being between ‘clans’ either side of the border.