IT IS the mystery at the very heart of Bramall Lane’s illustrious past.
As Sheffield United celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first football match in Britain’s first purpose-built sports stadium there remains a conundrum that has baffled historians for a century.
The missing five years.
After that first charity game between Sheffield and Hallam football clubs in December 1862 no soccer match was played on the ground until March 1867 when the world’s first (it’s becoming a theme already) cup final was played between Hallam and Norfolk for the Youdan Cup.
But after studies of the period by Sheffield United historian John Garrett there has emerged a new theory to explain the 217-week gap between home games.
No-one really cared about football then.
In our age of football obsession, billion-strong TV audiences and millionaire players it’s hard to believe that back in the 1860s football was a bit of a novelty that hadn’t really caught on with the sporting public.
The game was still evolving from the traditional anything-goes street games that rumbled and rioted around the country with ‘goal posts’ at either end of the town or village and hundreds of ‘players’ taking part for hours or days on end.
Cricket was king back then and had been played at Bramall Lane since 1855, and this week Yorkshire County Cricket Club celebrates 150 years since its inception at a meeting in the legendary Adelphi Hotel that once stood where the Crucible Theatre now stands.
In those distant and very different Victorian years you were more likely to see hare coursing or lacrosse at Bramall Lane than you were a game of football.
But those five ‘empty’ years between the first football matches at The Lane are a key era in the development of the game in the city that created and codified the laws that still govern it today.
“Someone was ahead of their time I suppose,” said United historian John Garrett.
“Someone thought that football was going to be big one day and got a charity game together at the Bramall Lane stadium. We can thank the American Civil War for that.
“The game was organised to raise money for the Lancashire Mills Disaster Fund, a fund set up to help the unemployed cotton mill workers.
“Because of the American Civil War no cotton was being exported to England from the southern states and that meant no work for thousands of cotton mill workers. The game was to raise money to help them.
“Why a football match and why over here in Sheffield no-one is really sure.”
Looking at a transcript of the match report carried by the Sheffield Telegraph of the day it’s easy to see why football perhaps wasn’t the draw it is now and that some of the modern game’s ills have deep roots.
In the original Battle Of Bramall Lane there were fights between players, fights between supporters and players and a suggestion that the ‘unseemly brawls’ were due in no small part to the length of the half-time break and the ‘refreshments’ taken during it.
And it finished 0-0 after three hours’ play.
“It was the first time football had been put on the big stage and there was that initial surge for the charity match then the game went back to its roots as a more rural and parochial game,” adds John Garrett.
“At that time Hallam played at Sandygate, The Wednesday played at Cremorne Gardens in what now is roughly Sharrow and Sheffield FC are thought to have played at the beautifully named Strawberry Hall Lane which is where B&Q now stands on Queen’s Road.
“It was like Sunday football with hundreds watching rather than thousands,” said John.
“There are records from the 1860s of Wednesday officials paying young lads to look after the players’ clothes that were hidden behind hedges while they played in Norfolk Park. That gives you a good idea of where the game was then.
“The reason football didn’t take off was because people weren’t really bothered about watching it yet.
The Bramall Lane ground was purpose built on land ‘free from smoke’ and let on a 100-year lease from the Duke of Norfolk to Sheffield United Cricket Club - the world’s first ‘United’ in any sport - and the club had to find £70 a year in rent.
“Football clearly didn’t make much money at that stage.
“Football comes back to Bramall Lane with the Youdan Cup in 1867 - the world’s first cup competition that created the template for the FA Cup, World Cup and all the other cup competitions, again, right here in Sheffield and the final was at Bramall Lane.
“It wasn’t until 1889 that the FA Cup semi-final between Preston NE and West Brom at Bramall Lane made around £500 with – 22,000-plus watching – that the cricket club decided to start their own football team.
“One of the main reasons Sheffield United Football Club was started was because football was making money and the cricket club needed to pay the rent on Bramall Lane.”