Victorian Football

Scottish Goalkeeper 1872
Many of the most important Victorian footballers were goalkeepers, including innovative Scottish international Robert Gardner (pictured right), Ghanaian pioneer Arthur Wharton, and great exhibitionist William ‘Fatty’ Foulke. But in the earliest days of football, the goalkeeping position didn’t really exist.

The original FA Laws of the Game, from 1863, allowed any player to take a ‘fair catch’ and set the ball down for a free-kick. The first mention of a goal-keeper came in the separate Sheffield rules, which stated: ‘The goalkeeper is that player in the defending side who is for the time being nearest his own goal.’ It was a ‘last man back’ rule, meaning teams could effectively play ‘rush goalie’.

In 1871 the FA updated its rules to outlaw handling of the ball except by a designated goalkeeper. ‘A player shall not throw the ball nor pass it to another except in the case of the goalkeeper, who shall be allowed to use his hands for the protection of his goal,’ the rules stated.

But the Victorian goalkeeper was still very different to today’s goalie. He was allowed to handle the ball anywhere within his own half of the field (that rule wasn’t changed until 1912), and it was perfectly legal for burly forwards to knock the keeper over the goal-line with the ball. Victorian keepers wore the same kit and colours as their teammates, and only started wearing gloves towards the end of the 19th century.

Darlington keeper and secretary Charles Samuel Craven wrote in 1886 about the attributes and techniques required: ‘A good goalkeeper should not be less than 5ft 6in in height (the same in girth if he likes), active, cool, and have a good and quick eye. He should be a safe kick. In clearing the ball he should strike up in the air, so that the ball does not meet an opponent and rebound, He sometimes has eight yards to cover in next to no time, and as it is quicker to fall than to run, he should practice throwing himself down. When this art is acquired (and it cannot be done without practice) he will find it fairly useful.’

One critic remarked, ‘The only particular in which Craven coincides with what a good goalkeeper should be is in height.’


Originally an outfield player, Scotland captain Robert Gardner started in goal for the first international match in 1872. He swapped positions with forward Robert Smith halfway through the game, but must have enjoyed his experience. Returning to his club Queen’s Park – of which he was co-founder and captain – he kept goal on a regular basis, and soon became football’s first great goalkeeper. Scottish football writer David Drummond Bone called him ‘the most extraordinary player of his day’. ‘When I remember the brilliant men who have since stood between the posts,’ wrote Bone, ‘I must confess that none ever used their hands and weight to greater advantage than Gardner.’ His great innovation was narrowing the angle. Previously, goalkeepers would stick rigidly to the goal-line, but Gardner realised that advancing towards the ball made things more difficult for attacking players. Gardner died of tuberculosis in 1887, aged 39.

This is an edited extract from The Victorian Football Miscellany, available now from all good book shops.

The Victorian Football Miscellany

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