Sport - Kicks from the past

26th April 2013 at 01:00
Donning Victorian attire for a lesson in the origins of football

In mid June, a curious series of football games is due to be played between four schools in Sheffield. For the first half of the game, those taking part will look as if they have stepped out of the 1850s in their baggy shirts, caps and shorts that look more like jodhpurs. The students are likely to be kicking old-style leather footballs, too - a far cry from today's lightweight, precision-engineered versions. Only at half-time will they enjoy the respite of changing into modern gear.

History teacher Steve Faulkner, at All Saints Catholic High School, explains: "The swap is symbolic of the kind of switch that used to happen in the early 19th century, when football teams had to play each half according to each team's rules.

"Then, in 1857, Sheffield managed to insist its rules became the standard: handling the ball, in particular, was outlawed. And so the modern game was born."

Now, the central role that Sheffield played in football's evolution has been turned into a unique local project involving four schools (All Saints, Forge Valley Community School, Handsworth Grange Community Sports College and Westfield Sports College). Each is supported by local historians, and each has nominated teams of student researchers who have access to the rich archives held by the town's main football clubs. The project is being sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

"Sometimes history as a subject suffers because young people can't grasp its relevance," says Dr John Wilson, a specialist in learning and development based at the universities of Sheffield and Oxford. "So when I came across the HLF's recent call for community projects to involve local people in sharing local knowledge, it seemed too good an opportunity to waste. And I felt sure a football focus would interest teenagers."

His hunch is vindicated by the enthusiasm of the participants. "It's important. I grew up here and football is a part of my history as well as the town's," says Grace Boyden, aged 12, a Year 8 student at All Saints.

"Finding out about its origins is interesting," says her classmate, Kudzaishe Mutamba, aged 13. "But I don't know what the players of 1857 would make of all the hugging that goes on after a player scores today - they'd probably think it was rather sissy."

Students will design the shirts their teams wear and produce banners proclaiming key moments of Sheffield's football heritage, such as details of the first floodlit game, an international between England and Scotland held at Bramall Lane in 1878.

Jerome Monahan is a freelance journalist, writer and teacher. He delivers "active approaches" workshops nationally and internationally. Email jerome.monahan@dsl.pipex.com.

WHAT ELSE?

The Heritage Lottery Fund's All Our Stories scheme has evolved into the Sharing Heritage programme. Grants are available for projects related to national, regional or local heritage in the UK. For more information go to bit.lySharingHeritage.

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