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By Keith Campbell,  special to

A notable absentee from the original 10 rule MFC set of May 1859 is the English football off-side rule.  Various football historians have written historical and sociological accounts of the reasons why it was not included.

The Rugby School rule code of 1845 had on-side and off-side provisions in its rule set at that time.  Here is the off-side rule designated No 9 in the “to be important” 1848 Cambridge School rule set:

9. If the ball has passed a player and has come from the direction of his own goal, he may not touch it till the other side have kicked it, unless there are more than three of the other side before him. No player is allowed to loiter between the ball and the adversaries' goal.

Of course the last sentence in the above rule is the crux of the matter. In our game the opposite occurs with our Centre Full-Forward position because there is no off-side. The player in this position then and today in the modern game does indeed still “loiter”  in front of the Goals.  In the first seasons the players would mostly gather in scrimmages but a player or two would “sneak down” in front their goals hoping to “mark” a kick out of the pack. Position play as we know it had not evolved yet but it was coming.  This is the origin of the term Goalsneak.

The off-side topic would have come up with the talks at the time; however it was never incorporated into the rules that were finally drafted.  It is now known that that Wills and his contemporaries at the 1859 meeting had copies of the rules of the various English games in front of them.  That omnipresent figure of Tom Wills would have reached in at this point in the rule discussions and recommended the off-side not be adopted.   This was confirmed years later by Colvin Harrison who writing about Wills said “He very sensibly advised us to work out a game of our own”. 

Tom Wills writes in circa 1860 about the game he helped to create:

“I think the ground should be free to all, so that the captain of each side could dispose of his forces in any position he likes;  Tom Wills has eloquently expressed his thoughts on the off-side rule in the opening few words. We also like the USFooty Aussie Rules football players’ description of the game in 2005:  “It is a 360 degree sport, where you can be tackled from any direction.”

What the player was saying in part was that the defenders do not have to be behind the ball to be on-side as in Rugby.   Leading Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey in his excellent early history of the game "A Game of Our Own- Revised Edition 2003"- Canvases the idea of an off-side rule perhaps running unofficially at times, however the early match reports do not record any evidence of it.  To answer the original question about the off-side rule – No, it did not matter because a great football sport was created without it.

We noted in a forum post on this site a comment was made about why the AFL umpires currently are not wearing the traditional white. That topic will be looked at from a historical aspect in a future article.   Any questions about the background of the rules and later laws are invited.  The author is available as KeithC on this site. 

Ed note:  Additional installments in this series will be published periodically.

Article last changed on Monday, October 04, 2021 - 2:02 PM EDT

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